Monday, June 27, 2016

Nominal Protestants

i) The present controversy over the Nicene creed, eternal generation, and eternal submission of the Son, reminds me of how the Anglican Communion began to break up after the ECUSA ordained a sodomite priest to the episcopate. The Anglican Communion has roughly three factions: liberals, evangelicals, and Anglo-Catholics. When the ECUSA made Vicky Gene Robinson a bishop, that exposed the fault lines. The direction in which members of the ECUSA broke over this issue depended on which side of the fault lines they occupied. Liberals stayed in the ECUSA because they felt right at home with the ordination of homosexuals. 

But the evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics had to make a choice. Some of them realigned with "flying" bishops or primates outside their normal geographical jurisdiction. Some Anglo-Catholics became Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. 

ii) The current Trinitarian controversy has exposed similar fault lines. You have nominal Protestants who were never at ease with Protestant identity. Their gravitational center is catholic Christianity. That's the direction they break in. 

iii) One symptom of this outlook is the charge of "biblicism". Although they often act as though that has an assumed meaning which everyone grants, they seem to use it in the sense of Protestants who interpret the Bible without recourse to the hermeneutical filter of the catholic tradition, or traditional creeds and confessions. 

They accuse "biblicists" of succumbing to the illusion that you can interpret the Bible without presuppositions. They compare "biblicists" to Arians and Socinians. Heretics take refuge in sola Scriptura. 

They say the Bible is the church's book. It must be interpreted within the community of faith, and not individualistically. 

In response, several things need to be said:

iv) This is exactly the argument that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists use in objection to the Protestant faith. We have Protestants who try to ride two different horses. Pick one or the other. When you try to straddle two horses, you fall in between. 

v) The critics are committed to the primacy of historical theology. But that's ironic because there's an obvious sense in which you must study Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, the Westminster Confession, &c. in the same way you study St. Paul or the Gospels. Take Richard Muller's The Unaccommodated Calvin, or God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius.

Church historians employ the same basic methodology as Bible scholars. Men like Richard Muller, Mark Jones, Scott Clark, and Carl Trueman strive to interpret Luther, Calvin et al. in relation to their intellectual background and sociopolitical context. Parallel questions that Bible scholars consider regarding the provenance of a Biblical book. What occasioned the book. Its purpose. Genre. Target audience. Original intent. Literary conventions. The locus of meaning.  

These men are "biblicists" when it comes to their own field of study. The only difference is the period. 

vi) The main difference is that when Bible scholars exegete an author of Scripture, for them the relevant frame of reference concerns hermeneutical factors that are past and present in relation to the author, whereas the critics of "biblicism" wish to make the reception history of the Bible their interpretive frame of reference. Rather than endeavoring to recover the original meaning of biblical texts, reception history is about the history of interpretation. How readers responded to the Bible. The subsequent influence of the Bible on theology. New meanings that readers confer on the ancient text, as the text interacts with their own situation, their own priorities. 

By contrast, a Bible scholar typically tries to bracket his personal beliefs and consider the text of Scripture on its own terms.  

vii) Moreover, appeal to tradition repeats the same ambiguities and competing interpretations with regard to the meaning of tradition, whether that's patristic theology, the canons of Dort, the Westminster Confession, &c. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I'd agree with the nominal charge but some important points here.

    I like your "These men are "biblicists" when it comes to their own field of study. The only difference is the period. "

    I was going to express it elsewhere as "Church historians like their philosophers to be dead and their exegesis to be static."