More in Play Than Meets the Eye

The recent debate that has flamed up (it actually has never left the church; it just flames up higher in particular sectors of the church from time to time) regarding the biblical doctrine of the Trinity should be welcomed by all who love God, his written word, and his church. Doctrine pulsates through all of the latter, and the doctrine of the Trinity, we might say, is the lifeblood of all the church’s doctrines. To profit from the debate we are in need of understanding that there is more involved in it than appears on the surface of the exchanges. And of the many fruits that we might hope to see generated from the debate, one is surely that a better understanding of the very nature of Christian doctrine will emerge.

Most recently Dr. Christopher Cleveland at the Mere Orthodoxy blog wrote on why in particular this debate is taking place now. He offers some excellent insights regarding the way (methodology) in which theological work has been done in major seminaries and universities around the world, at least since the second half of the twentieth century. As he stated, it amounted to a “lack of confidence in traditional doctrine and classical categories of dogmatics.” This traditional doctrine, and the classical categories of thought to which it is organically joined, marks the entire history of Christian theology. What in particular might shock a few people is that he claims that “an entire group of evangelical scholars” “were trained in seminaries or in other related fields but were not trained in a way that cultivated in them an appreciation for the task of traditional dogmatics.” The majority of people to whom this applies would self-identify as “conservative” theologically. The shock hits when we recognize that Cleveland’s point is that their alleged conservatism actually is corrupted by a festering virus hostile to the Christian faith.

Now, let me be clear: I am not accusing the people to whom this applies as having abandoned their devotion to Christ. Their fault, and here I am speaking only for myself while using Dr. Cleveland’s point, is not that they have self-consciously rejected Jesus as Lord; rather, it is that they have unknowingly been corrupted by a malignant pattern of thinking that has acted undetected upon them and others, and is now surfacing. What I want to do here is address more of what marks this “beneath the surface cancer.” Among other things, it has to do with what we think Christian doctrine, in general, is.

How we think about doctrine in general is not only vitally important but also very revealing, yet often unaddressed. It’s sort of like the foundation of a building. When we are in the building we are normally not thinking about its foundation. After all, it is not immediately perceived by our senses. Yet the foundation of every building is necessary to the entire building. Perhaps we should change the illustration to fit more appropriately with the topic of biblical doctrine. Our conception of doctrine is like the root of a plant. Ah, now we are dealing with a living organism.

The root of a plant, of course, is vital to its growth. The entire plant ultimately depends on its root system. Our conception of doctrine is one of the aspects of the root system of the doctrine we hold. What we think doctrine is, will greatly determine the role we think it has in our lives individually and in the church corporately. I would submit to you that many, likely even the vast majority of Christians, even perhaps many pastors and seminary professors, think of Christian doctrine in an overly rationalistic way. For those of you who cannot seem to read that last sentence without immediately thinking that I am a closet liberal who disdains propositional truth, keep in mind that all three of my kids have already memorized, or are in the process of memorizing, the entire Shorter Catechism, have memorized countless bible verses, and my oldest recently completed saying all of Romans 8 from memory. I do believe that God’s word in both its written and made flesh forms is living and holy and profitable for every good work.

To regard Christian doctrine in an overly rationalistic way is not to automatically fall prey to rationalism; they are two different, albeit related ways of thinking. Their difference is in degrees. Of course, how we define rationalism depends in part on the specific subject matter with which it is identified. With respects to Christian doctrine, to fall prey to rationalism is to regard human reason as the chief authority for determining what one will believe is a Christian doctrine. For instance, the Socinians of the 16th century and the Unitarians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries can be seen to fall prey to rationalism because they denied the doctrine of the Trinity on the grounds that it did not conform to human reason. This is to elevate human reason above divine revelation. In other words, it is one thing to say that the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of the church is beyond the ability of human reason to fully comprehend, and another thing altogether to say that it is completely false precisely because human reason cannot fully comprehend it. The latter expresses rationalism. We can be guilty of thinking too rationalistically about Christian doctrine without falling victim to a full-blown rationalism. I should also add that, as far as I can tell, no one in these debates is self-consciously denying the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, some are calling into question how that doctrine has been understood as formulated by and expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.

The very fact that I wrote “too rationalistically” indicates where the problem lies and where it does not. The issue is one of emphasis, degree or extent. When we take note of this we can perhaps begin to see that the issue has to do with the relationship our reasoning has to something else. In this case it has to do with the relationship that our reasoning has to this thing we call “Christian doctrine.” Now, I am well aware that many men and women more holy and learned than I have wrestled with this matter. And on this matter I am not trying to say anything that has not already been said in the history of the church. In fact, my point is to try and alert our attention to something that has been mentioned in the history of the church, that is present in God’s word, and yet seems to me to be often overlooked among many in allegedly conservative evangelical and Reformed circles in North America. It is something that I learned from B. B. Warfield. It is this: Christian doctrine is an organism.

Throughout his writings on the nature and function of the biblical concept of revelation and doctrine, Warfield repeatedly identified and analyzed them as organisms. Ironically, while the majority opinion from historians of American Christianity criticizes the Old Princetonians in general and Warfield in particular for their and his alleged rationalistic dependency on Scottish Common Sense Realism, it is more accurate to say that one of the chief ways in which one can see how they were related to their 19th century context is in their emphasis on the organic nature of human thought and the Christian faith. Warfield in particular never seemed to tire of referring to Christian doctrine and Christian revelation as organisms, or of expressing the nature of systematic theology along organic lines. His thought on these matters is nothing short of revolutionary. His thought calls into question whose thinking is plagued with rationalistic tendencies and a full blown rationalism.

This emphasis on Christian doctrine as an organism meshes quite well with Dr. Cleveland’s observation and indictment of the ahistorical theological method of some of those in the current debates on the Trinity. After all, to identify something as an organism is to say that it is living, which is to say it has a history. To fail to recognize a living organism for the precise organism that it is will always lead us to mistreat that organism in some way. That is, we don’t treat it in a way that is consistent with what it actually is.

What is!? Oh, but since at least the philosophical machinations of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s infecting Christian theology with the virus of Kant’s dogmatic faith commitment to his own metaphysical claims that we cannot get to what is, Protestant Liberal theology has made generations of pastors, church members and the seminaries that they support sick. Sadly, some don’t think they are sick. Gary Dorrien in his magisterial treatment of Protestant Liberal Theology (The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900) readily acknowledges its dependency on Kant and Schleiermacher, and thinks it was a necessary and good thing. The written word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament and the history of the church tell a different story, especially since the early 19th century.

Perhaps just as sad is that generations of allegedly conservative evangelicals who thought they were presenting a contrasting alternative to Protestant Liberalism were actually infected with its virus. The difference was in how that virus manifested itself among them as opposed to how it manifested itself in those self-consciously embracing Protestant Liberalism. In part this is why Warfield showed (Collected Works, vol. 7 & 8 ) that the rationalism of Protestant Liberal theology resulted in its own doctrine of perfectionism and that same strain of corrupt thought was present in things like the Higher Life Movement of the early 20th century. This was also why J. Gresham Machen resisted in meaningful ways the Fundamentalist label. Warfield and Machen recognized that Christian doctrine is an organism that expresses itself in a particular kind of life with a whole array of doctrinal beliefs. And this Christian doctrine has a history. It is why if you read Warfield’s rather lengthy, dense and devastating criticism of Protestant Liberal theology in his essay “The Right of Systematic Theology” and then read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism you will detect that the latter is the fuller fruit of the former. Both men were saturated in the Scriptures and the creeds and confessions of the church. Warfield had the Shorter Catechism memorized by the age of 6 and the Larger Catechism and Scripture proofs memorized by 16.

All this makes Dr. Cleveland’s criticism of an ahistorical methodology among some who are self-identified conservative evangelical and Reformed scholars all the more perceptive. It also may help explain what has been and continues to go on with respects to an ahistorical treatment of the Old Princetonians by both those in Protestant Liberal and conservative evangelical and Reformed circles.

Carl Trueman was correct to call into question Wayne Grudem’s imposing on various men from various eras of church history a definition of a term that those men did not hold. Words can change meaning over time. Language, like Christian doctrine, has a history. People use terms in particular ways for particular reasons in their particular historical contexts. Is it a mere coincidence that for years now some have attributed to the Old Princetonians a view of the terms “right reason” and “science” that they did not hold, or a view of doctrine they did not hold?

One of the consequences of living in a culture that has overwhelmingly caved to, and expresses the fundamental commitments of, Kant and Schleiermacher is that it causes us to retreat within the recesses of our own minds, severs us from history, because after all, there really is nothing outside of us that has ontological status. Reality is what we say it is. Reality is determined by the categories of thought we choose to use in interpreting the data before us. This way of thinking has had a virtual death grip on Western academia for well over a century. Ironically, when I state it severs us from history we must understand that I am using the term “history” in a particular way that historians in Western academies reject. As George Marsden has admitted, one cannot get a seat at the academic table unless one plays by the rules of the academy. And yet in principle, Western academia rules out of court Christian presuppositions about the very nature of reality. To say that this raises a whole host of questions is an understatement.

And, yes, I realize that many of these questions have been asked and have had answers given to them by several generations of scholars. But perhaps it is time for many of these questions to be raised again, and for at least some of the current answers that the last few generations of allegedly Christian scholars have given be re-examined. After all, Western academia defines “ahistorical” in a very different way than how it was used by Dr. Cleveland in his criticism of some of the current evangelical and Reformed scholars. In short, what we may have are hundreds of allegedly Christian scholars who have been inoculated with the virus of anti-Christian thought. Among other things, this mean that in various ways and to varying degrees they are a carrier of the very virus that they think they are protecting others from. It calls into question how they are going to detect it in themselves. Perhaps this might explain why many confessed evangelical and Reformed scholars still do not understand what Warfield meant by “right reason” or how he viewed doctrine. All of the allegedly Reformed seminaries are in the cross-hairs on this.

In the end, to be ahistorical in one’s method of study is fundamentally to have failed to understand the object of your study on its terms, for what it actually is, for what he or she actually meant by the words he or she used. It is simply a manifestation of human sin. We are all plagued with it. Kant and Schleiermacher did not invent it, and we are foolish to think that we in conservative Christian circles along with our institutions, and our favorite scholars are not in some way powerfully infected with it. For we are not only a people of an unclean view of knowledge and history, but we dwell among a people of an unclean view of these matters.


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