Why Calvinism Not Lutheranism? Books

Last week over at First Things James Rogers asked:

Why is Calvinism so influential among American Evangelicals while Lutheranism is not? We might describe the statistically modal convert to Calvinism—that is, the most frequently observed kind of convert—as a person like this: A young adult, usually male. Raised in a broad though indistinct Evangelical (and sometimes nominally Catholic) home. Bright. A reader. Searching for better intellectual answers to questions about God, Jesus and the Bible. Is open to becoming a pastor. Why does this young man so much more often become a Calvinist instead a Lutheran?

It’s a good question. When I was doing my theological searching early on, I found myself initially more attracted to Lutheranism given their apparent lack of emphasis on predestination as well as Luther’s fiery wit. (Also, I was in my anti-Piper phase.) In fact, many of us raised in more a-historical, non-denominational Evangelical backgrounds are likely to hear of Martin Luther as the Reformer, instead of Calvin, just because of the 95 theses and the issue of justification by faith. So why is it that so many of us end up learning the Westminster or Heidelberg catechism, instead of Luther’s?

Rogers lists a number of possible reasons I find worth summarizing here:

  • American Lutheran churches have tended to be ethnically-focused and insular. That alone just makes it harder to even find.
  • Beyond that, it’s hard to read your way in. Calvin wrote an influential systematics, while Luther’s works are more piecemeal and polemically-situated. That makes immersion in the one easier than the other.
  • In the same vein, Lutheran Confessional documents assume and refer to a lot of church history, so their clarity and accessibility leave something to be desired. Reformed documents tend to spell things out more cleanly, assume less, and verify more, making them welcoming to the newbie. The opposite holds true of the catechisms–Luther gives less and assumes more. Westminster gives more distinctly formative theology to the inquirer.
  • Ecclesiastically, Calvinists know their Bibles and confessions, on average better than their Lutheran counterparts, so you’re more likely to run into a Calvinist who knows their stuff.
  • Sacramentally, Lutheran practice and theology is even less accessible. Functionally, most Evangelicals are rockin’ a pseudo-Zwinglian view of Baptism and the bread & wine/grape juice. Making the jump to baptismal regeneration and Luther’s consubstantion is leap, both theologically and experientially.
  • Drawing on Lutheran theologian Philip Cary, he makes big contrast between the two modes of piety: one focused on the mental assent of the believer, and the other on Christ’s faithfulness alone as the sole ground of my comfort. The Evangelical/Calvinist assures himself by remembering he’s assented in proper faith, while the Lutheran has it because he remembers Christ’s faithfulness given to him in baptism. Lutheran air is made of thicker stuff than the Zwinglian rationalism and nominalism the average Evangelical is used to, so it’s a bit of more an awkward shift than simply picking up a Reformed soteriology.

Finally, he ends with an appeal to Lutherans to be as winsomely passionate about evangelizing for a Lutheran view of Word and Sacrament as Calvinists are about predestination.

Me with BooksReading My Way In – Given Rogers’ Lutheranism, his apology for it is understandable and somewhat slanted read of Calvinist piety is somewhat forgivable. Only somewhat, though, given the classic Reformed emphasis on union with Christ, which, honestly does all that the Lutheran’s does, as well as gives us a bit of a boost into sanctification. That said, his point about the cultural difference is a real one. Still, the more interesting point for me was the one about reading, because in my experience far easier to read yourself into Calvinism or Reformed theology. I would say there are a few reasons for this, though, beyond Calvin and confessional documents.

As DeYoung points out in the article I referenced yesterday, Calvinism (whether broadly or narrowly defined) has dominated the theological conversation in America since its founding. I mean, just think about the Pilgrims–Puritan Calvinists. Beyond that, Reformed thought, especially its soteriology, can be found across denominational lines be it Episcopal, Presbyterian, Particular Baptist, or whatever else. This is also the case in our revival heritage. While Finney is horrifyingly hyper-Arminian (and that’s really unfair to Arminians), much revivalist piety has still had a Reformed rooting. In other words, it travels well, which means that if you go digging into the literature, you’ll be able to find broadly Reformed thinkers in various places.

Institutionally it’s been better represented as well in terms of universities, publishing houses, and authors. This last one is probably the most pertinent one right now. Honestly, it’s easier to read yourself into Calvinism, because who knows of any good, current, pop-level Lutheran books, writers, or preachers? Tullian Tchividjian? (I kid.) Really though, the only current theologians I can think of are Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson–brilliant heavyweights, to be sure–but not exactly great book-club reading. Maybe someone might name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but again, not very pop or accessible, and at this point in history he’s become a figure that transcends confessional lines. There’s no current Lutheran author I know of, comparable to a Tim Keller or even a John Piper for popular reach.

So when a theologically-minded young man (or woman) goes shopping around for books on pressing theological subject, if he’s not pulled into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or some emergent, Heidegger-quoting business, it’s far easier to put a copy of Desiring God (Piper), or Knowing God (Packer), into his hands than find something written by a Lutheran. Or again, when a pastor is looking for a book to turn into a sermon series, it’s the Calvinists that are publishing en masse, so some Reformed emphasis will be bleeding into non-Reformed Evangelical preaching. That prepares the young Evangelical hearer to search for more of the that rich vein. Even picking up Rogers’ point about confessional literature, yes, I found Heidelberg before Luther’s Catechism, but I did so because of Kevin DeYoung’s excellent little commentary on it The Good News We Almost Forgot.

If you want my two cents, then, for why so many young, theological types choose Reformed theology over Lutheranism: books. Accessible, pop-level books that gave us a big picture of God, and a desire to read the thicker theologians and texts that we’d catch glimpses of in those pages.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can Calvinism Accommodate Other Systems of Thought?

Kevin DeYoung had an interesting little post last week. He essentially riffed on E. Brooks Holifield’s contention that, to a large degree, American theology for the first couple of centuries, “was an extended debate…about the meaning and the truth of Calvinism.” After filling out the historical picture a bit, DeYoung then gave his own four reasons why it’s unsurprising that American theology still is consumed with wrestling with Calvinism, or rather, Reformed theology:

1. It is an all-encompassing worldview which, when handled with consistency, does not easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.

2. It is a scandalous theology, utterly at odds with later American ideas of egalitarianism and self-determination.

3. It is so absolutely other-worldly–either in glory or in shame, depending on your perspective–that it begs for a response. It’s almost impossible to be indifferent to Calvinism.

4. When pastors, theologians, churches, denominations, and movements are gripped by the vision of Reformed theology, they tend to be dogged in their persistence to perpetuate it, defend it, and celebrate it.

The whole thing’s worth reading. I find myself mostly nodding my head at his four observations. Reformed theology is pretty comprehensive, definitely scandalous, demands a response, and commands loyalty. That’s part of what has drawn me in. I do find myself wondering about part of the first point, though, as to Reformed theology’s inability to easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.

I guess I’d have to ask, which rivals are we speaking of here? Are we talking about rival systems of thought in general like Buddhism or Marxism? Or just rival systems of theology like Thomism, or, Lutheranism, or something? If the first, well, yes, but then again, I’d say that’s a feature of Christianity in general, not merely its Reformed iteration.

If the second, then I’d say, well, maybe. From what I’ve come to understand (and I’ll easily concede DeYoung’s expertise here) certain types of Reformed theology are a little more open to taking on shared insights and emphasizing commonalities with, say, Thomism on the doctrine of God, or Lutheranism in justification and so forth. So, a post-Van Tillian, or Kuyperian might really emphasize the distinctness of the systems, while those steeped in post-Reformation orthodoxy might want to emphasize the catholicity and continuity of thought at points. Also, it may depend on what we’re referring to when it comes to the term “Calvinism.” Is it only Dordtian soteriology, or the broader framework of thought? Either way, that shifts the discussion. Again, these are just my novice impressions.

Certainly, I won’t dispute DeYoung’s closing judgment:

Although Calvinism is certainly not the dominant theological tradition like it was in the early days of this country, it continues to be a potent strain of religious devotion. Read through the most popular blogs and you’ll see the debate has not died down. When it comes to assessing Geneva, one person’s city on a hill is another person’s pit of hell.

Final question: What do ya’ll think? I’m particularly interested in those of you who have some familiarity with the Reformed tradition. How accommodating can Calvinism be?

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: My buddy Dr. Brian Mattson weighed in on the question here. The response is excellent and worth the read. His big takeaway:

Calvinism, as an all-encompassing worldview, and when handled with consistency, is superior to its rivals in the act of accommodating rivals.

 

How Can A Blogger Love?

The Triune God simply is love, and it is out of the love that he is that he condescends to save sinners through the obedience of the Son. Unsurprisingly, then, he commands his children who have been adopted and are being transformed into the image of the Son, to love one another (John 15:12).  But what does that love look like?

Paul offers us a punchy little summary at the center of  his extended meditation on love in the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.love one another

I got to thinking about this last weekend at our staff retreat during our hour of meditation, and my mind took a strange turn. As I began to reflect on what this would look like concretely in my own life, I started wondering what it would look like specifically in the area of blogging.

What would it look like to blog with love? To approach writing and the entire range of social media practices that accompany it, as an aspect of my Christian discipleship submitted to the loving lordship of Jesus? To undertake blogging in dependence on the Spirit, so that when people look at me, they see glimpses of the love of Jesus?

As an exercise, I wrote some brief, meandering reflections on each phrase in those verses. Since I think I’m not the only one out there who ought to be struggling with that question, I offer them up here:

Patient and Kind- I imagine blogging with patience might include the practice of waiting to write and post. There are times when quick responses are possible, but slowing down to make sure the words we write are true, both in content and form, takes the patience of love–both of people and the cause of truth itself. Given its pairing in the text with kindness, I suspect it likely includes patience with others on the internet. Patience when their writing is mediocre. Patience when their theology needs some tuning up, but they’re clearly on a trajectory. Patience to remember that you were once such as these (and to someone you still are.)

Arrogant or Rude – I don’t have the space to go into the radical change eliminating arrogance and rudeness in our blogging habits would have. It is a common-place that internet culture, even certain wings of Christian blogging culture, is infected with coarseness and a total lack of respect for dialogue partners. The Christian looking to imitate Jesus, to love the way Jesus would, must put aside all false judgments of superiority that lead to the condescension and contempt polluting our posts, tweets, and comments.

Lack of Envy or Boasting – Blogging with love would exclude both envy and boasting.  Initially, that means some of us might write a lot less, given how much is written or posted as a response to the success of others.  Also, we’d be more likely to rejoice when a friend’s article goes viral instead of mourning our own that lies ignored in its respective corner of digital space; when we truly love the way Christ does, the good of our sister is our own good. There’d probably be a lot less humble-bragging as well, and a lot more encouragement of our brothers and sisters who labor alongside of us. What’s more, we’d trumpet our own successes a bit less, and be little more circumspect about re-tweeting all of our positive mentions, in an attempt to build our reputation and platform.

Doesn’t Insist on its Own Way – This one wasn’t as obvious at first. On a surface-level reading it would probably mean listening to my editors with greater humility. While that’s something I probably should do, it seems this has more to do with cutting out the self-serving way we approach our blogging. Our blogging will be less about our self, our name, our platform, our glory, and our self-interest. We don’t have to entirely neglect our own interests, of course, but our object will be to lift up Christ’s name and to forwards the interests, good, and welfare of others in our community. We will write for the common good of others and the church, not merely our own.

Not Irritable and Doesn’t Keep a Record of Wrongs– When we cease to place ourselves at the center of our hearts in our blogging, irritability and resentment will hopefully fade away as well. When I am at the center of my affections, every post I disagree with seems to have been written specifically to annoy me and cross my will. Because of my pride, I find myself writing or commenting out of irritation with a post, or an author, instead of a heart of love. Beyond that, much of the pointless internet drama happens because So & so is still grieved over the critical review Such & such gave his book, would settle down. Or that one time there was the week-long shenanigans over the tweet you swear everyone misinterpreted? Yeah, we’d finally let go of animosities we built up in that battle too.

Does not Rejoice in Wrongdoing, but Rejoices at the Truth – This one’s big. So often our rejoicing comes from the wrong reasons. We rejoice when we see an opponent put in their place, or a favored position trumpeted loudly. And, honestly, that’s not always bad–sometimes these positions ought to be trumpeted and these persons do need to be set in their places. But all too often, our concern isn’t about the truth being championed, but about our own vindication over against those with whom we disagree. Because of that, we don’t really mind that an argument was straw-manned, or someone was mildly slandered–but we should. Blogging that rejoices at the truth is one that takes delight in the truth being known, even when that means being proved wrong.

Bears all Things, Hopes all Things, Endures all Things – Finally, blogging with love means bearing, hoping, and enduring all things. It means bearing insults and misunderstandings, at times–not passively submitting, but steadfastly refusing to return evil for evil in the Spirit of our Savior. It means hoping the best of people, reading charitably, and receiving honest criticisms in the best possible light. Or, when the best possible light is still darkness, trusting that this same Spirit is at work in their heart and mind. It means enduring through the empty days, the lonely days, the quiet times when no one seems to read or care, except for your heavenly Father above, whose eye is ever watchful on the works of his children.

Of course there’s more to life than blogging, and more to love than the paltry reflections I’ve offered up here. Still, for those of us who desire our words to be more than a noisy cymbals or clanging gongs, they’re probably a decent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Economic Shalom–Bolt’s Theology of the Market Beyond Biblicism

boltEconomics is complicated. Establishing a Christian approach to economics seems even more daunting a task, especially given the amount of ink that’s been spilled when it comes to a Christian approach to money and wealth. Trying to wade into the conversation without any sort of guide then, can be overwhelming. As someone who has only begun to stumble towards developing my own thought in this area, I was delighted to receive a copy of John Bolt’s new little volume in the Acton Institute’s series of primers on faith and work, Economic Shalom: A Reformed Primer on Faith, Work, and Human Flourishing.

Though the cover’s a bit drab and uninspiring, the writing is not. Bolt manages to deliver an accessible, lively introduction to basic economics in what amounts to an “unapologetic defense of a free market economy set within a democratic liberal polity” (pg. 171) from a Reformed theological perspective. I emphasize “a” Reformed perspective for two reasons. First, Bolt explicitly draws from a primarily from the Dutch Reformed tradition, most specifically from the thought Neo-Calvinists like Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper. Also, as is evident in his arguments against them, there are other Reformed voices who would probably disagree with his construal.

Now, while I don’t have the time give it the justice of a full review, I did want to highlight the couple of key strengths that make this a valuable resource for those looking to give deeper thought to the issues of faith and economics.

The primary strength of Bolt’s proposal is try to move us past the simple biblicism that tends to run rampant in these theological discussions. In the first chapter, he disposes of the idea that there is clearly one “biblical economics” that can be cleanly read off the surface of the text. He does so partially by surveying the economic thought of three major christian ethicists, Walter Rauschenbusch, Ronald Sider, and David Chilton, using essentially the same biblicistic assumptions, end up with a wide variety of contradictory economic proposals ranging from interventionist socialism to theonomic libertarianism.

Instead, he holds up the thought of Herman Bavinck, who put forward a more chastened reading of Scripture that takes into account it’s salvific purposes:

A Reformed approach to the Bible resists reading it in a flat manner as so many disparate bits and pieces of inspired, useful knowledge that can be picked up here and there as we have need of them. A Reformed handling of Scripture does not treat it as a manual for child-rearing one day and a textbook for financial management the next. It is a mistake to go to the Bible for scientific knowledge, a point John Calvin already made in his Genesis commentary when he observed that the words “let there be a firmament” (1:6) are meant not for the sophisticated mean of learning but “for all men without exception” and can be understood even by the “rude and unlearned.” Calvin then added: “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Two important aspects of Reformed hermeneutics are illustrated here: The first is the perspecuity of Scripture, the conviction arising from the priesthood of all believers that Scripture’s essential message can be grasped by all who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Reformed people do not rely on a priestly caste of theologians to tell them how to read the Bible. Second, though the Bible is relevant for every dimension of human life, it has a very specific and well-defined purpose: “that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Bible is a salvation book and not an economics textbook or social renewal manual. And it is with this particular focus on salvation that Bavinck addresses the question of the Bible’s relevance for economics. (pg. 15)

Instead of piling up a bunch of verses and trying to see which specific commands can be cleanly mapped onto the current political system, Bavinck proposes we recover the main spiritual purpose of the Scriptures–the restoration of fallen man to God through the Gospel. From there, humans begin to be restored to their proper relationships with each other and are enabled to begin taking up the form of life rooted in God’s creational norms. Where do we go to find those norms? Well, back to the Scriptures, but now, we don’t go looking for particular commands, but the general principles that underlie and inform them. For this reason, Bavinck won’t speak directly of a “biblical economics”, but rather an economic system that is consistent with Scripture.

While not slavishly following Bavinck at all points, Bolt’s approach is broadly consistent with it. He offers up a defense of the ordered liberty of free-market capitalism as consistent with a broad biblical theology we find in Scripture: creation bursting with potential awaiting cultivation; the freedom and vocation the of Imago Dei; the universal sinfulness of humanity after the Fall; our epistemic limitations as finite creatures; the providence and sovereignty of God in the allocation of resources; biblical principles of work and charity from the wisdom literature; a conception of justice as opportunity and the restraint of evil; the truth of our redemption through Christ; an amillenial eschatology that eschews over-reach or pessimism. It is in light of these principles that he draws on the work of economists to deal with the market, consumerism, ordered liberty, and social inequality.

I’ll be brief about the second strength, as it follows directly from the first: Bolt demonstrates a humble restraint in his judgments on a where rhetoric typically runs wild. Because of this, Bolt goes about explaining basic economic concepts, demonstrating their compatibility with Scriptural principles, and dealing with common Christian objections to a market economy with sanity and grace. While it’s easy to imagine a number of robust challenges to Bolt’s account, it won’t be on account of undue dogmatism or a lack of Christian charity.

All of that to say, I would warmly commend Economic Shalom to anyone tired of simplistic accounts, both on the Right and the Left, theologically and politically. Bolt has done the Church a service writing it.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Everything Hangs on a Word”: A Song for Preachers

When I was in football, we used to psych ourselves out before a game by listening to loud, aggressive music. Very meat-headish, but, well–it was football. Funny thing is, sometimes I still do that–only for preaching. While most of the time it’s not loud, aggressive music, but some sort of focusing song by Josh Garrels, or something to keep me rooted in the Gospel as I go up, my favorite is “Listen Through Me” by Thrice. I can’t think of a modern song that better captures the pathos and power of the preaching of the Gospel:

See these ragged shoes?
The soles are worn straight through
While I proclaimed
The king has sang the blues
If you’ve got better news
Then make it plain
He laid aside his crown
All our crimes he carried
Was lifted from the ground
With our burdens buried
Listen to me
Though I speak of sober things
Listen through me
Though a man of lips unclean
I speak truly
What you only think you’ve heard
Everything
Everything
Everything hangs on a wordSparing no expense
He made recompense
For all the earth
The story’s an offense
So get down from that fence
And bless or curse

He laid aside his crown
All our crimes he carried
Was lifted from the ground
With our burdens buried
The shadows all had flown
In the light diminished
He emptied out his lungs
Crying it is finished

Listen to me
Though I speak of sober things
Listen through me
Though we’re men of lips unclean
I speak truly
What you only think you’ve heard everything
Everything
Everything hangs on a word

A word…

The shadows all had flown
In the light diminished
He emptied out his lungs
Crying it is finished

Listen to me
Though I speak of sober things
Listen through me
Though we’re men of lips unclean
I speak truly
What you only think you’ve heard everything
Everything
Everything hangs on a word

 Soli Deo Gloria

Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

bosnian gravesOne of the most common tropes in popular theology today is that a God of Love couldn’t be a God of Wrath. The two are completely and utterly opposed. The God of Jesus Christ, overflowing with love for the world in the Gospel, couldn’t possibly stand over against the world in wrath and judgement. Love affirms, while wrath condemns. Love embraces, while wrath rejects. Love is the unfathomable beauty of God, while wrath is everything dark about human hate projected onto God.

Miroslav Volf used to think that the too–until the Bosnian War, that is:

The apostle Paul ascribed to God actions and attitudes that stand in sharp contrast with how such a doting grandparent behaves. He spoke rather freely of God’s “judgment”, “condemnation”, even of God’s “wrath” (see Romans 1:18-3:20). Setting aside the litany of things that the Apostle believed merit God’s condemnation, let’s focus on the fact of it. In particular, let’s examine the appropriateness of God’s wrath, the strongest form of God’s censure….

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pp. 138-139

Wrath isn’t the opposite of love, then–indifference is. There are caveats on all of this, of course. It must be remembered wrath is not a primary attribute of God, but rather a relative one provoked by sin–much the way mercy are. What’s more, God is impassible and so his wrath must be conceived of within the parameters of the Creator/creature distinction, with the appropriate safeguards of analogical language in place, protecting us from some crude, explosive Zeus-like wrath. And yet, the bottom line is that it is still something properly, indeed, necessarily affirmed of the God who is the Lover of the world.

free of chargeOf course, there’s a danger that comes with a theoretical knowledge of God’s wrath–that we keep it at arm’s length and fail to relate it to our own sin:

    Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgment, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes. Where would the line be drawn? On what grounds could it be drawn? Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape. To condemn heinous offenses but not light ones would be manifestly unfair. An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation…

-ibid, pg. 139

And yet, thankfully that is not the whole of the story. God’s love is revealed not only in condemnation of sin, but chiefly in the salvation of sinners from that judgment in the death of his Son:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Soli Deo Gloria

Naughty Systematic Theologians, Just Be ‘Biblical’!

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency of some historical scholars to act as if, unlike naughty dogmatic theologians, their own confessional commitments aren’t driving any of their exegetical work. Being biblical scholars, their conclusions aren’t beholden to anything but the text, unlike those theologians coming to Scripture as they do, armed to the teeth with distorting theological preconceptions.

Apparently this isn’t a new thing.

In the first volume of his tremendous Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck comments on the similar myopia of some of the ‘biblical theologians’ of his own day:

However, this school suffers from grave one-sidedness as well. While it thinks that it is completely unbiased in relating to Scripture and that it reproduces its content accurately and objectively, it forgets that every believer and every dogmatician first of all receives his religious convictions form his or her church. Accordingly, theologians never come to Scripture from the outside, without any prior knowledge or preconceived opinion, but bring with them from their background a certain understanding of the content of revelation and so look at Scripture with the aid of the glasses that their church have put on them. All dogmaticians, when they go to work, stand consciously or unconsciously in the tradition of the Christian faith in which they were born and nurtured and come to Scripture as Reformed, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic Christians. In this respect as well, we cannot simply divest ourselves of our environment; we are always children of our time, the products of our background. The result, therefore, is what one would expect; all the dogmatic handbooks that have been published by members of the school of biblical theology faithfully reflect the personal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of their authors. They cannot, therefore, claim to be more objective than those of explicitly ecclesiastical dogmaticians. The “pure” gospel that Ritschl finds back in Luther and Jesus corresponds perfectly to the conception he himself formed of it. All these so-called biblical schools, accordingly, are continually being judged by history; for a time they serve their purpose and recall a forgotten truth, but they do not change the course of ecclesiastical life and have no durability of their own.

Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prologomena, pg. 82

While Bavinck goes on to fill this out a bit, there are a number of comments to be made on this fascinating text. First of all, long before any postmodern theorists came along to tell us so, Bavinck knew about the historical-situatedness of all of our interpretive efforts. I point this out simply to say this isn’t a new thing, and apparently this recognition can apparently fit comfortably within the structure of a classic, Reformed understanding of Scripture, objective revelation, and so forth.

Second, and this is really the point I’m interested in, biblical theologians are just as theologically and socially-invested in seeing the texts go a certain way. This isn’t to say that we can’t have conversations across traditions about the texts, or a denial that we can correct our theological confession in light of the study of Scripture. Some of the most confessionally-conservative theologians I know of still make interpretive moves that are different than their theological forebears in the tradition, even when confessing essentially the same creed. What’s more, people do convert and shift from one confessional tradition to another. I know I have.

Still, whenever I see a biblical scholar chastising the theologians of, oh say, the Reformed tradition, for their reliance on a certain text to establish their doctrines, because an ‘objective’ reading simply doesn’t yield that doctrine, it is probably an instructive exercise to look up his/her own church affiliation.

Soli Deo Gloria