Francis Turretin’s theology is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it’s not just any old systematic theology. It’s an “elenctic” theology, which means it’s conducted in a particular fashion and is shaped apologetically. Though the account is orderly and flows in a fairly clear manner, Turretin isn’t actually covering every issue in a systematic or organic fashion. He’s covering the material by arguing for, or against positions held by atheists, Catholics, Anabaptists, and so forth, and generally getting to what he thinks ought to be covered in order to maintain the faith.
What’s interesting is that this reveals both the similarities and the differences between our context and the 17th Century context in which Turretin was writing. On the one hand, it’s been fascinating to find the questions that exercised theologians the time that most today wouldn’t bother about. For instance, Turretin devotes several questions and multiple pages to the issue of which texts ought to be used, the Vulgate, the Hebrew and Greek, the Septuagint, and so forth in his dispute against the Roman Catholic theologians, whereas I can’t imagine any major systematics trifling with the issue today. Moments like these reveal the way certain issues that are massive in our current context, will one day become footnotes in ever-shifting conversations.
On the other hand, it’s instructive to note the parallels or the similarities. When you notice a 17th Century theologian addressing a trend you still run across, then you begin to note broader, more perennial problems. So, again, when it comes to Scriptures, Turretin spends a lengthy section (Vol 1, Q. V, pp. 70-86) devoted to answering the charge that the Scriptures contain real contradictions. This question actually exemplifies both dynamics. People have always been concerned with contradictions within Scripture, and yet Turretin spends most of his time answering numeric and genealogical oddities instead of the kinds of problems most harmonizing apologists trouble themselves with nowadays.
Still, that’s not the section that caught my eye. What I found fascinating was his listing of the various opponents he was attempting to defend the Scriptures from, as well as their various motives for proposing contradictions in Scriptures.
First, he says, come the atheists and unbelievers:
“…yet the enemies of true religion and of Scripture in every age flatter themselves that they have found not a few contradictions in it and boast of their discoveries in order to overthrow its authenticity; Porphyry, Lucian (of Samosata), Julian the Apostate and others formerly of the Gentiles, and many atheists of the present day who declare that they have met with many contradictions in it which cannot in any way be reconciled. Thus there is the necessity of taking up this subject particularly in order that the integrity of the Scriptures may be preserved safe and entire against their wicked darts. (Vol. 1, Q.V, Sec. I)
Obviously, this is unsurprising. Unbelievers are going to try to undermine the truth of the Scriptures. Dawkins and his high school fanboys will be on to exploiting any possible errors. The next three types of “under-miners”, though, are the ones whose motives I find most interesting because they are believers who “affirm” the Scriptures, and yet press the issue of contradictions all the same.
We have to deal here not only with declared atheists and Gentiles who do not receive the sacred Scriptures but also with those who, seeming to receive them, indirectly oppose them For instance, the Enthusiasts who allege the imperfection of the written word as a pretext for leading men away from it to their hidden word or private revelations; the papists, who while maintaining the divinity of the Scriptures against the atheists, do not scruple with arms fitted to themselves to oppose as much as they can its own and so the entire cause of Christianity, and to deliver it up to the enemy by insisting upon the corruption of the original so as to bring authority to their Vulgate version. Lastly, many Libertines who, living in the bosom of the church, are constantly bringing forward these various difficulties and apparent contradictions in order to weaken the authority of Scripture. (Vol. 1, Qu. V, Sec. II)
To be clear, we have:
- Enthusiasts who want to supplement the written word with their own “spiritual” insights.
- Roman Catholics who press inconsistencies in order to argue for the Vulgate (and the Magisterium in the long run).
- Libertines who press the “contradictions” in order to undermine the authority of the text, presumably in order to create space for their own deviations.
I found this fascinating because, with some minor variations, we basically have the same kind of moves being made by similar groups. We still have Enthusiasts or Spiritualists today. For many, we encounter them in the hyper-Pentecostal types supplanting the text for the movements of “the Spirit” who overrules the dead “letter” of Scripture. Or, they can be found in their more postmodern descendants appealing to textual indeterminacy, aporia, or “tensions” in the text in order to introduce the insights of their own favorite cultural interpreter to fill the gap. (My current favorites are Girardian interpretations that posit discrepancies between OT and NT in order to introduce their words about mimetic theories apparently “hidden from the foundation of the world” and so forth.) Roman Catholics (though not all), will appeal to similar difficulties and tensions as a reason to stick to an authoritative Magisterium that can settle all of this nasty interpretation business for us, and just hand us a nice, clean list of doctrines. Finally, there are the modern-day Libertines, be it old-school Liberals, or progressive Revisionists, who appeal to Bible difficulties of all sorts in order to create space for reshaping Christian ethics along new lines.
Apparently this sort of thing is not as new as we’re tempted to think. I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in that.
Of course, this doesn’t excuse us from taking their objections and challenges seriously. Turretin’s example is important here in that while he doesn’t budge an inch, and he’s just as liable as any of his age to engage in some polemical flaming (we often fail to account for the rhetorical and political climate of earlier ages when we judge the writings of earlier theologians), he takes his opponents seriously enough to later report their challenges accurately and answer them with intellectual diligence.
Turretin is also instructive also in who he doesn’t list for criticism or condemnation: honest readers in the Church troubled with Bible difficulties. One could see that as an indication that he doesn’t believe they exist, but it’s also important to note that he doesn’t immediately shut down the question of difficulties. In fact, he spends the next fifteen or so pages running through dozens of them, producing the readings and opinions of various scholars and their attempts to resolve these difficulties, carefully noting the variety of options. He doesn’t simply close the conversation with a “Shut up and believe, sinner.” It seems his concern is to answer the question of contradictions presented by his opponents, precisely for those sitting in the pews who might be led astray or be deprived of the confidence of the Scriptures. Be gentle and tender with the doubters, even as you protect them from the challengers.
The current challenges we’re tempted to think of as unprecedented obstacles to a rather straightforward trust in Scripture for establishing doctrine and life, are really just iterations of very old tunes. We’ve been here before, risen to the challenge, survived, passed on the faith, and moved on to meet the next version of the same old thing.
Soli Deo Gloria