The church of today must listen to the fathers, even though it may disagree with the way the fathers stated things. The church today does the fathers a disservice if it merely quotes them, trying to preserve unchanged their all-too-human reactions to the gospel…This is why Barth can say, and apparently honestly mean it, that when he has finally finished the Church Dogmatics, it will be time for someone to begin the task all over again for the next generation. This does not mean that his work will go on the discard heap, or that dogmatics is really an expendable luxury in the life of the church, but that theology is an ongoing process, never completed, never perfect, always in need of restating in a new situation, and that he who tries to freeze the process, or halt it, is guilty of the worst sin possible, that of transforming a man-made product into something divine and unchangeable, and of reducing the life of the church to ‘an institute of antiquities.’ A Reformed theologian writes only for today.Against those would would pit a more rigid confessionalism against such an outlook, I give you corroborating evidence. Calvin, for instance, gives the church councils only a provisional authority for theology, subordinated to continual searching of Scripture:
Wherever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with – and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment. (ICR, 4.9.8)If even the ecumenical councils must be granted only provisional status and subjected to scrutiny on the basis of Scripture, how much more Reformed confessions? Now, it might be countered that Calvin is no authority for the Reformed church, as he is simply a theologian, not an officially accepted confession. Well then, I give you the Scots Confession:
As we do not rashly condemn what good men, assembled together in general councils lawfully gathered, have set before us; so we do not receive uncritically whatever has been declared to men under the name of the general councils, for it is plain that, being human, some of them have manifestly erred, and that in matters of great weight and importance. So far then as the council confirms its decrees by the plain Word of God, so far do we reverence and embrace them. (SC, chapter 20)Here, again, even lawful councils must be subjected to examination in conversation with Scripture. That the framers of the Scot's Confession applied this to their own confessing work is attested by the confession's preamble:
We protest that if any man will note in this confession of ours any article or sentence repugnant to God's holy word, that it would please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity's sake to admonish us of the same in writing; and we upon our honor and fidelity, by God's grace do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from his holy scriptures, or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss.Thus the Scots Confession amply testifies that Reformed theology is not concerned with reifying particular statements or confessions of faith, but with articulating as best as possible at present what a particular church believes on the basis of Scripture. Scripture is the critical norm that calls into question every human, spatially and temporally contextualized confession. And it is fresh engagement with Scripture that demands fresh confession in every time and place. But, perhaps our interlocutor would contest that the Scot's Confession is but a minor confession, and therefore not indicative of the Reformed tradition's main line. In that case, I give you the Westminster Confession:
The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WC, conclusion to chapter 1)
Note here that while Scripture retains its place as the norm of norms, or supreme standard, the agent of that norming is said to be the Holy Spirit. This introduces a distinction, although by no means a separation, between the Spirit and Scripture. Of course, contradiction is out of the question, but here we find the theological presupposition to the notion that the church must be ever reforming and confessing anew. Why? Because we must constantly listen to the Spirit in Scripture - we may have listened and confessed at one point, but the Spirit continues "speaking in the Scriptures" and we must therefore listen and confess anew. Finally, note that WC says that "in whose sentence we are to rest," which indicates a submission of the WC by its authors to the Spirit speaking in Scripture.
There you have it - "A Reformed theologian writes only for today." Why? Because tomorrow we must listen to the Spirit speaking in Scripture once more.
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
*Note: The image is a gif of the Irish Presbyterian Church's adaptation of the Burnung Bush, a traditional Reformed symbol that bespeaks encounter with the living God.