The Intellectual History of Protestant Theology

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One of the things that I think many Protestant and Reformed Christians do not realize about their theological commitments is the extent to which they have been influenced by a long intellectual history stretching back into the Middle Ages. Many assume that their theology is simply the result of reading the ‘plain meaning’ of Scripture. The problem with this lack of historical awareness is that it makes beneficial dialogue and critical debate difficult if not impossible. If one simply assumes that one’s own theological view is simply what Scripture says with no remainder, then clearly every other view will be dismissed out of hand as unbiblical or even heretical. It has the effect of producing a rigid dogmatism that blinds us to the potential merits of other views or, at minimum, the opportunity to sharpen and refine our own views through confrontation with others. All of this often stems from an ignorance of the extent to which our history and denominational tradition actually condition us to read Scripture in certain ways. On the other hand, an awareness of the intellectual history to which we belong can produce great humility as well as alerting us to possible aspects of our theology that may not actually derive from Scripture itself.

To help us better understand this, Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller explains:

When this orthodox or scholastic Protestantism is examined in some depth and viewed as a form of Protestant theology in its own right rather than as merely a duplication or reflection of the theology of the Reformation, it is clearly a theology both like and unlike that of the Reformation, standing in continuity with the great theological insights of the Reformers but developing in a systematic and scholastic fashion different from the patterns of the Reformation and frequently reliant on the forms and methods of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. This double continuity ought not to be either surprising or disconcerting. Instead, it ought to be understood as one example among many of the way in which the church both moves forward in history, adapting to new situations and insights, and at the same time retains its original identity as the community of faith. It ought to be understood as one example of the way in which the Christian intellectual tradition maintains useful forms, methods, and doctrinal ideas while at the same time incorporating the advances of exegetical and theological investigation.

The contemporary relevance of Protestant orthodox theology arises from the fact that it remains the basis for normative Protestant theology in the present. With little formal and virtually no substantial dogmatic alteration, orthodox or scholastic Reformed theology appears in the works of Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Even when major changes in perspective are evident—as in the theology of Emil Brunner, Karl Barth and Otto Weber—the impact of Protestant orthodoxy remains clear both in terms of the overarching structure of theological system and in terms of its basic definitions. Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology draws heavily on Francis Turretin’s Institutio theologiae elencticae and represents, particularly in its prolegomena, an attempt to recast the systematic insights of orthodoxy in a nineteenth-century mold. Of the other writers, Karl Barth most clearly shows his indebtedness to the orthodox prolegomena—not always in terms of direct appropriation of doctrine, but rather in terms of sensitivity both to the importance of prolegomena and to the issues traditionally raised at this preliminary point in dogmatics.

Similar statements can be made with reference to the two principia or foundations of theology, the doctrines of God and Scripture, and indeed, with reference to the whole of the Protestant orthodox system. Just as the orthodox prolegomena represent the Protestant appropriation of basic theological presuppositions and, as such, still affect our view of theology today, so also the orthodox doctrine of God and Scripture represents the fundamental statement of these underlying principia for Protestantism. We continue to be influenced by the orthodox language of an immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, but nonetheless historically active, God—and we continue to wrestle, particularly in conservative or evangelical circles, with the implications of the traditional doctrine of Scripture, given its place of final doctrinal authority by the Reformers, but codified and stated for us by the Protestant orthodox. The impact of scholastic Protestantism remains. This theology and its relationship to earlier ages—specifically, the Middle Ages and the Reformation—must be understood if contemporary Protestantism is to come to terms with its own relationship both to the Reformation and to the Christian tradition as a whole.[1]

These are wise words from Muller, and we would do well to pay careful attention to them. As Protestant and/or Reformed Christians, we have been indelibly influenced by Protestant scholasticism which, in turn, was profoundly shaped not only by the Reformation but, perhaps even more so, by medieval theology, philosophy, and methodology. It is this confluence of forces that continues to decisively affect our reading of Scripture and theological commitments.

This, therefore, is a call for humility: the humility to listen, the humility to repent, the humility to change. When we acknowledge the numerous extra-biblical influences that impinge on our faith and practice, we are confronted by the disconcerting proposition that some of our ideas, maybe even those that we consider to be among our most cherished, may need to be reformed or rejected in submission to the Word of God insofar as they contain human elements that are fallible and susceptible to error. Yet this is what we must do if we desire to truly be ‘reformed and always reforming’ and, above all, faithful to Scripture. May we never think that our concepts of God have reached perfection, no matter how cogent they seem, for even as the Protestant scholastics admitted, our theology this side of the resurrection will always be a theology viatorum, a theology of pilgrims on the way. Of all the adjectives, then, that could characterize our theology, it should be that our theology is ‘repentant’.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.28-29.

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