Monday, November 01, 2010

“A Reformed theologian writes only for today.”

This is from Robert McAfee Brown’s introduction to George Casalis, Portrait of Karl Barth (Anchor Books; New York, 1963): xiv-xv, where Brown undertakes a description of Barth’s relation to the preceding theological tradition, and how he viewed his own monumental theological production.
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.

5 comments:

Bobby Grow said...

Nice, sola scriptura! Who's 'Reformed' and who isn't? That's the question . . . or at least, who is living out the principles that brought about the Reformation in the first place?

JKnott said...

Thanks for reminding us of this Reformed distinctive! I like what you say about the "distinction" b/t Scripture and the HS. Barth's emphasis on die sache of the Scriptural text is key, in my mind, to rightly understanding this distinction. When we see that, we can understand a limitation on both sides: the objective side of revelation, Jesus Christ speaking for himself, about himself, is really what Scripture, understood theologically, is; and on the subjective side, the HOly Spirit's illumination in the believer is not an excuse for believing anything you want but merely giving you spiritual eyes and ears to receive God's self-disclosure through Scripture.

Andrew Esqueda said...

Travis,
This is a great and timely post! I think it brings forth a formidable concern for those who consider themselves to be "confessionally Reformed." That is, what it means to be Reformed is to lay dormant in the historical confessions. I really liked your finally remark and it responds to this concern very well: "A Reformed theologian writes only for today." Why? Because tomorrow we must listen to the Spirit speaking in Scripture once more." This is the true Spirit of Reformed theology--to continually reform. Contemporary reformed theology cannot and should not simply be a repristination.

Michael Gormley said...

Some Protestants have the notion that Catholics do not “believe” in the Bible, so they bring up Second Timothy 3:15-16 to support their belief of Sola Scriptura:"... from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."

Certainly Catholics believe in the Bible (Catholics put together the Bible!) but this verse does not really support the belief of Sola Scriptura; it does not say that scripture alone is an adequate guide to the faith For that matter, the whole Bible does not say that we should believe in the Bible alone, nor does it say which books are inspired by God. This is only one hole in the belief of Sola Scriptura; there are many more.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Thanks for dropping by, Michael, with your reflections on sola Scriptura and catholicism in a thread which had nothing to do with the latter and only a little to do with the former.

In any case, I think it safe to assume that the Reformed theology under discussion here is familiar with your criticisms, and does not feel itself threatened significantly thereby.

Perhaps one day in the near future I'll post on these matters, and we can have a thorough discussion of them in the comments.

Until then, via con Dios.