(With proper acknowledgments to Lewis Ayres for the title).
Consistency in life and doctrine is a mark of the gospel. The godly man does not flit from doctrine to doctrine. That represents an unstable mind. However, consistency of doctrine is not the same thing as sameness of thought. God expects us to grow in knowledge. And there is the danger. Growing in knowledge means opening ourselves to new situations. The future is no longer controlled by us.
Have I been consistent in doctrine over the last decade? Yes and no. The best way to explain it is by way of an “autobiographical bibliography.” Books and lectures have more of an impact on me than anything else. To answer my question I have changed in some ways. I want to say I stand within the Reformational tradition. Some might question how Reformed I really am. Fair enough.
Focal Point #1: N. T. Wright
When I was an undergrad I majored in history and minored in New Testament and Languages. My school, Louisiana College, was still in captivity to Theological Liberalism. This is what led me to read N.T. Wright. In many ways N.T. Wright remained the anchor for the next ten years. I will go ahead and advance my conclusion: N.T. Wright and Karl Barth (by means of Bruce McCormack) kept me from fully converting to Eastern Orthodoxy and ultimately brought me back to the Reformational tradition.
Several points should now be obvious: I was a student of N.T. Wright before I was Reformed. Therefore, I didn’t leave the Reformed faith for N.T. Wright. But please do not label me as “New Perspective on Paul.” It’s a lot more complex than that and there are areas where I think Wright is open to serious critique.
I graduated from LC in 2005 and went to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. It was underwhelming. I’ve criticized it fairly severely in the past and see no reason to do so again, except to say I learned very little and didn’t begin to read seriously until after I left. However, I did come across Oliver O’Donovan.
Focal Point #2: Oliver O’Donovan
O’Donovan was by far the most challenging author I have read. He wrote in dense but glorious prose. But he was a rigorous thinker, bringing the whole of Western ethical reflection to bear upon any single project. He was also an Anglican steeped into the High Tradition of the church.
Exile to the Orthodox Lands
I left seminary disillusioned. While I had made a lot of intellectual mistakes there, academically it was not the best (in terms of actually doing scholarship). I didn’t want to say that the Reformed faith was wrong, despite RTS’s best efforts to make it so, but I knew there was something more.
For reasons I don’t entirely remember, I was reading Thomas Aquinas as I left seminary. I had one foot in the door for medieval and patristic theology. I am not sure how I first heard of John Milbank. I do remember reading about him in James K. A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy. This was late 2006, early 2007.
There is a lot wrong with Radical Orthodoxy, but there is a lot right–and a lot that is just plain fun. So what that they over-interpreted Aquinas as a Neo-Platonist? They got all the right people in academia angry, and that is good. For me they introduced me not only to a wider world of theology but also to ask different–deeper–questions of church history.
I dove right in. And made mistakes. But I also latched on to key points: how Christology shapes everything. (Some Eastern Orthodox guys played that card as a front to justify going to Eastern Orthodoxy when in reality they wanted smells and bells, but that is another story). Anyway, I realized that Systematic Theology didn’t have to follow the outline of Berkhof (Berkhof is useful but limited to a certain context, namely a seminary classroom).
Before continuing on the RO line, I should probably address a common criticism: Did RO read Reformation metaphysics correctly, namely that Western theology took a nominalist turn with Scotus and the Reformation crystallized it? Obviously, anyone who advances that reading today will be laughed at. So we can say RO was definitely wrong on that point. Further, not all of Milbank’s criticisms in “Alternative Protestantism” hold water (or at least they might attack Reformation ontology but not where Milbank thinks they do).
This was around 2008-2009. I was able to read the Fathers without pretending that the Fathers were a complete deposit who taught a unified, identifiable theology across time and space. Moreover, I was able to honestly say, “St ______ is wrong here. That’s okay. I can still benefit from what he says elsewhere.” Side note: Remember that stupid facebook meme that has the Nicene Fathers pictured and the caption reads, “So these guys are right about the canon but wrong about everything else?” The epistemological howlers in that statement are too painful to mention.
Back to the Fathers. Since I didn’t (at the time) believe the Fathers taught a unified, ahistorical body of truth, that meant I didn’t have to play East and West against each other. I could say guys like Anselm, Aquinas, and Wycliff were good guys. And I could benefit from the modern John Wycliff, Oliver O’Donovan. While some Ecumenist Orthodox guys will speak kindly of the aforementioned gentlemen, technically speaking they are heterodox (or heretics!), so good luck with that one. The harder-line folks will say that they (and by extension, you and me) are deprived of grace.
Towards the end of 2010 I moved into a harder, Eastward direction. I never officially became Orthodox. It wasn’t viable for a number of reasons. While this meant I accepted Orthodox doctrines like anti-Filoque and icons, the main problem is I had to cut off my theological past. Another problem is I had to place the Fathers within the received tradition of the church. This implied a number of cognitively dissonant positions:
- The Fathers are part of Holy Tradition but I must interpret which Fathers are speaking Orthodoxically by Holy Tradition. I couldn’t square the circle. All of the Orthodox problems with Sola Scriptura would come crashing down on Tradition.
- This meant that the Fathers probably didn’t disagree about “big stuff.”
- So what was I supposed to do when I came to issues where the Fathers sounded “Western” or were plain wrong?
The dissonance was building up. Move on to the end of 2011. I was beginning to be more “Western” in terms of cultural outlook. I just didn’t feel right “negating” my Western heritage. I know that no one was “making” me to do that, but the cultural enclave mentality among a certain denomination is just too overwhelming. I was by no means Protestant, of course, but possibly Western.
My daughter was born in 2012. My life was turned upside down and I really had to put theology on the side. And life was hard–all of which made me reevaluate everything.
By May of 2012 I was firmly in the Protestant, even Reformed camp (again). From 2012-2015 (now) I have been in the Protestant camp and plan to stay there. There are problems with Reformed theology–some big ones actually. But there are also key gains that outweigh the problems and the Reformed tradition can be the Reformational Tradition.
The Federal Vision Problem
One of the difficulties that many of us in seminary faced–difficulties that are concurrent with many of these changes–is the inevitable glut of ideas. Compounded with that is that seminaries which are denominationally- or quasi-denominationally affiliated are inadequately prepared to deal with these various theological currents. If your goal is to churn out “preacher boys,” then many cross-currents of scholarship will drown you.
The Federal Vision controversy was raging when I was in seminary, and I confess I did not always make wise choices. Federal Visionism itself didn’t really make too much of a connection with me, at least not confessionally and ecclesiologically. What some FV writers did, however, was weaken the confessional moorings, from which I drifted and began reading outside my tradition.
On one hand that’s healthy. We shouldn’t seek theological inbreeding. The problem I faced was that no one was capable of guiding me through these issues. Once I was jaded enough, combined with a lot of real grievances from said seminary (which I won’t go in here, but they do deal with objective, financial realities), it wasn’t hard to seek out so-called “Christological alternatives to Calvinism.”
Many Eastern Orthodox apologists were saying that we should do all our theology around “Christology.” Translation: the ancient Christological creeds, if interpreted consistently, will lead one away from Calvinism. I’ll deal with that claim later.
And so for the next few years I read through–cover to cover–about ten volumes of the Schaff Church Fathers series, as well as most of their leading interpreters. One of the problems, though, was I was unaware of the high, magisterial Protestant tradition. Of course I had read Calvin. Three times, actually. All the way through, even. Unfortunately, I was not familiar with the second- and third generation Protestant Scholastics.
I suspect most of us aren’t familiar with them, and how could we be? The average Evangelical publisher won’t touch these writers. Banner of Truth, specifically, won’t deal with the uncomfortable aspects of Rutherford, Gillespie, and the Scottish Covenanters.
Taking the Scholastics Seriously
When I was reading through a lot of Orthodox sources, an argument I kept seeing was that all Western traditions hold to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, which reduces to absurdity; therefore, Protestantism is philosophically absurd. The problem, though, is that I started to see several things: a) some fathers held to a similar thesis (Nazianzus, Athanasius), b) some Reformed writers might have held to that thesis, but there wasn’t enough evidence either way to convict them, and c) the Reformed writers who did hold to that thesis had very good reasons for doing so (archetypal/ectypal).
The doctrine of authority was always looming in the background. Anchorites have several sharp arguments against sola scriptura. I bought in to some of those arguments, but I had done so without reading the Protestant Scholastic responses to them. Once I began to see that a) many Protestant Scholastics could not be seen as breaking with the medieval tradition on the canon, and b) the archetypal/ectypal distinction when applied to epistemology, leading to Scripture as the principum cognoscendi, I was then able to embrace sola scriptura with integrity.
Corollary of the above point: how many convertskii have read Richard Muller? Once I read Richard Muller I realized that much of what I had been parroting was wrong. Corollary #2: How many “Calvinists” in the Gospel Coalition or TG4 have read Muller? Probably the same number.
The Institutional Problem Reasserted
It is my personal belief that Richard Muller’s four-volume Reformed and Post Reformation Dogmatics will go down as one of the game changers in Reformed historiography. Unfortunately, most remain unaware. Bakerbooks should issue this set in singular volumes, better allowing seminaries to use volume one as an introduction to Reformed theology course. First year seminarians, even the better-read ones, are woefully unprepared.
Barth and Speech-Act
I need to bring this to a close. So here is where I am now. I hold to Barth’s view of election. I hold to it for ontological reasons, though I can point out some exegetical problems with the traditional Reformed and Arminian readings. But I don’t want to say I am a Barthian. Why should I?
Something else happened around 2014: I discovered Kevin Vanhoozer’s speech-act ontology. This allowed me to combine the best of traditional metaphysics with Barth’s exalted view of preaching.
I have wandered a bit in my “journey.” But I never let the anchors. N.T. Wright was too superior a theologian and exegete for me to dismiss him in my hyper-Eastern days. EO simply had no exegete who could compare with him. That meant whenever I compared Wright’s analysis with some EO scholars, I usually defaulted to Wright. That was true in 2008, 2010, and 2015.
So where was Hegel in all of this? I’ve been reading Hegel for about six years now. He is so very wrong on so many points, but more people are influenced by him than they realize. I think Hegel’s discussion of self-positing and self-posited can serve Trinitarian terminology at least on a definitional level.