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September 23, 2008


Hi Nathan--Thanks for your engagement with me. I'm sorry for the delay in responding. The wheels turn slowly here, but they do turn...

At any rate, I'd like to speak to this question you asked: "Greg, Can you site any of the reformers who support your concept of "creative theology" as an accurate expression of Semper Reformanda?"

I take your question to mean, "Is there a place where the Reformers argued for the kind of theological method you and Jeremy are articulating?"

It's a fair question and one that I think actually pushes the conversation forward, so thanks for asking it.

I have to run to an appointment, so I can't be as careful as I'd like, but in order to respond I'd like to make two points by way of answer:

First, to summarize the method we're describing (so as to be clear what we're asking of the Reformers): Our vision of creative theology is to take the truth of the faith handed down to us, to listen to the questions that emerge from our context (by "context" we mean the ideas, practices, and cultural characteristics of a given moment), to see the gifts that our context gives to us, and to put these all together in a way faithful to the Scriptures, attentive to the tradition, and engaged with the context. That is, in theology we don't just simply re-state the tradition to the context. Nor do we abandon the tradition in light of the context. We take the tradition, listen to the context, and labor to re-articulate, and, in some cases, to re-conceive the tradition in dialogue with the context.

I take your question to be whether the Reformers ever argued for such a thing.

My answer is yes and no.

First, the no part. I can't think of a place where one of the magisterial reformers explicitly advocated for the kind of theological method I'm describing. I don't know all of their works as well as I'd like, but in what I do know I can't remember a place where one of the reformers theorized about creative theological method. Bavinck, later, will do so. As will John Murray (Jeremy refers to both of these in his talk). But earlier than those guys, I don't really know of a place. So, with respect to theory, or to an articulation of a creative theological method, I can think of know place to cite where the reformers did such a thing.

Now, the yes part. Even though they may not, as far as I know, have theorized about it, it seems to me that their work demonstrates their instincts toward this very thing.

After all, the Reformation was a contextual theological movement (attending to the ideas, practices, and cultural practices of a given moment) that took the tradition (cf. Calvin's copious usage of the fathers) and re-appropriated that tradition in light of the questions of their day (cf. Calvin's constant attention to contemporary ideological and political developments).
It wasn't mere reiteration. It was affirmation in light of new intellectual developments and cultural questions. Thus the theological method they employed, whether they theorized about it or not, seems to me to be fundamentally creative in the sense I've described.

In this respect then, one could cite almost the entire reformational corpus, but let's stick to a (highly generalized) look at Luther and Calvin for time's sake: Luther's development of the visible/invisible church distinction--a distinction only minimally conceived (for obvious contextual reasons) before this. Luther's appropriation and development of Augustine's thoughts on justification along to the lines of a strong law-gospel dichotomy undeveloped in Augustine. Luther's emphasis on the vernacular (which were seen as novel in Wycliffe's day). Luther's rejection of transubstantiation and development of the idiosyncratic vision of consubstantiation. Luther's treatises on political matters (the role of soldiers in the church, the right of peasants to revolt [or not]). Calvin's Treatises on the Sacraments in which he tries to re-conceive of the sacrament in order to unite protestantism around one table, Calvin’s notion of spiritual presence in the Supper, Calvin’s development of the doctrine of Union with Christ, Calvin's reframing of auricular confession (which he affirmed) in light of the priestly work of Christ, Calvin's philosophically informed notion of the decrees of God, Calvin's political thought, which not only appropriated but transformed Augustinian political categories, etc. etc.

And this is not even to mention Calvin's frank appropriation of humanistic intellectual categories (which is reminiscent of Augustine's appropriation of neo-platonism and Aquinas' use of Aristotle).

As far as I can tell, all of this was creative in the sense that I'm describing. None of it was merely reiterative of the tradition. All of it was an affirmation of the tradition that simultaneously developed it--even as it preserved it. And this, of course, is preisely what the WCF is.

So, like Jeremy, my problem with any notion of theology as a fixed enterprise is two-fold: First, it is simply mistaken as a matter of historical fact. Secondly, it is inattentive to the fact that guarding the faith handed down to us in a given cultural moment requires not only reiteration but also re-conception. After all, as Jeremy says, to say the same thing in a different context is to say something different. We have to work—creatively—to speak the old tradition in a new moment.

Will this creativity entail error? Yes. But so does mere reiteration. Alas, as H. Thielicke says, "all of our theological work will need to be bathed in the justifying blood of Jesus." But I think the creative task actually preserves us from error better than the alternative (which, as Jeremy shows, tends to create the liberalism it presumes to repudiate).

Ultimately, I’m afraid the only way to really "guard against error" is to be silent.

And so perhaps I should!


Please allow me to make a distinction that I did not see in your comment. It certainly is possible to propose a modification to the Standards without fear which would clarify or expand upon some point in it. It should also be possible to add a point not addressed in the Standards but agreeable thereto. I don't see any repercussions coming on someone trying these things.

However, if an elder were to propose a change or modification that changed the basic theology of the Standards or contradicted them, then they would, by definition and their own oath of office, be proposing something that would contradict the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. This would compromise the theological basis of the PCA based on our shared understanding of Scripture.

These are two different scenarios with very different underlying propositions. It would be helpful to differentiate between them in this discussion.

By His grace,

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