Confessions of a theological hitman

A certain CREC minister one time documented some of his theological changes, most of them for the better.  I’ve done so about myself a few times on here, but I decided to tie some strings together.  I encourage you to read his piece, since that will save me some writing.  His early development mirrors mine in many ways.  S.W’s piece is thoughtful.  I have a few questions on some of his specifics, but that’s neither here nor there.

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.  I was not familiar with the second- and third generation Protestant Scholastics, however.

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).  Further, the Essence/energies distinction entailed its own set of problems, and it is not always clear that many early Eastern fathers even held to that distinction.

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.

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.  Baker books 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.

Publishers need to seek out translators and get Muller’s sources into English post-haste.   There is no excuse for Rutherford and Gillespie not being mainstreamed in the Reformed world.  I can read and translate Latin, for what it’s worth.  I just don’t have the time and others are better capable.

One of the reasons these works remain untranslated I suspect, is that they also entail certain conclusions about God, salvation, God’s law, and ecclesiology, conclusions which would likely cast judgment on some publishing houses.  I say no more.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Autobiography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Confessions of a theological hitman

  1. Evan says:

    EO’s love attacking divine simplicity. There are various interpretations, as I am sure you know. Scotus held to a formal distinction (but not a real) between the attributes, whilst maintain God is one res, absolutely simple, metaphysically speaking. I am not so sure for my own part that Thomas’ conception of DS is absurd. If you assume a certain metaphysical framework, it makes good sense. For example, Plantinga’s critiques really only hold if you assume Plantinga’s metaphysics and epistemology, which is a relational ontology, whereas Thomas and the medieval worked more under a constituent ontology (so termed by Wolterstorff).

    The essence/energy distinction is even more bizarre to me. The EO’s haven’t even cashed out, as far as I know, what is the exact relation between the two: a real, formal, nominal distinction?

    Your absolutely right about Muller. Would that many convertskii’s to RC and EO would read him. Though I know bright, intelligent converts to both of these churches, many are just disgruntled Protestants/Westerners who think because they read Calvin, they understand the Reformed tradition. Give me a break.


  2. Evan says:

    One thing that does grieve me, however, about the Reformed tradition has been its lack of catholicity. Reformed theology and theologians of late seem to be totally ignorant of anything which has happened before the Reformation.

    They are afraid or just refuse to study the fathers or the medievals. How many modern Reformed theologians serious interact with and build constructively upon the fathers? Not many that I have seen.


  3. Jacob BA says:

    I wrote this three years ago. I remember reading of Scotus’s distinction in Muller volume 3 and it made sense for me.

    The catholicity thing is ironic, since that was what separated the Reformed from Lutherans. Though, today, sadly, it is quite different.


  4. cal says:

    I like a lot of Eastern theology and I tentatively endorse the essence-energies distinction, but I am incredibly frustrated with the convert anxiety of throwing everything “Western” under the bus. I get it, if you weren’t dissatisfied, you wouldn’t have left. But the kind of apologetic triumphalism of certain converts, and perhaps this is a symptom of a particular kind of conversion mindset (wherever you go), is disturbing. I’d much rather read a Florovsky or Bulgakov who were confident, but humble, Orthodox interacting with a larger Christian world.

    I think the crisis of authority can be a kind of swamp that breeds the neurotic and anxious tics of rabid conversion attack dogs. Like it would kill them to admit that many Protestants have good ideas and good qualities that the Orthodox could learn from!


  5. Ben Nelson says:

    Do you have a link to the blog post you mention at the start of your piece?


  6. Pingback: Review: Beeke and Jones, Puritan theology | Kingdom Authority

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