One of the things I’ve learned over the last few years of reading theology is that caution and discernment ought to be exercised in our caution and discernment in our sources for theology.
What do I mean by that?
Well, let me give you an example I ran across while reading Stephen Holmes’ excellent work The Quest for the Trinity. (I highly recommend this so far!) Tertullian was a church leader in Carthage in the North of Africa in the early part of 3rd Century and one of the greatest theologians in the West up until that point. His writings are voluminous and he was a staunch apologist and defender of the faith against such heresies as those of Marcion, the Gnostics, and the anti-Trinitarians.
Ironically enough, later in life, embraced the teachings of Montanism–a “New Prophecy” that ended up being condemned by the Church as a heresy. It was during that time that Holmes says Tertullian penned an important text entitled Against Praxeas, which ended up becoming one of the most important texts for solidifying and shaping Latin Trinitarianism. While Holmes contends that Tertullian didn’t essentially add anything new to the doctrine of the Trinity, or work it out fully, he still refuted a number of dangerous heresies and he basically cleaned up the discussion and gave the Western church the language it needed to codify it and protect it (trinitas, person, substantia, etc).
This is all the while being technically a heretic in another area of doctrine.
What are we to make of this? Well, I think it serves as a caution that we ought to be careful about being too careful about who we read, or even who we think can teach us truth. There is a a healthy care that students of theology should take in who they select as their main sources of theological inspiration. For instance, if your major inspiration for theological development, or your only precedent for a particular position, are the rationalist Socinians in the 16th Century, that’s a good sign you’re probably on the wrong track.
Still, the Church Father Origen said some really weird things that were eventually rightly condemned by the Church. But his concept of eternal generation, in the right hands, was gold for theology, and his commentaries, defenses of the faith may still be read with intellectual and spiritual profit. God can and has used even those theologians and philosophers whose views have suffered serious deficiencies and flaws to strengthen the faith of the Church.
I’m a pastor, so I take care about the books I tend to recommend, especially with my students. If I suspect that it will lead unsuspecting students astray, I won’t recommend it. Or if it has a redeeming value beyond some issues, I will strongly caution about the aspects of a work that are could distract from its overall value. Yet pastors and other students of theology need to beware of cloistering ourselves in the comfortable halls of our own favored theological neighborhoods. I can admit in my own life, when I’ve found out that a certain author espouses a view on the atonement or God’s covenants I find defective, I’ve been tempted to simply steer clear altogether and not “waste my time.” But that would be a mistake.
We ought to be careful about dismissing the theological offerings of theologians who differ from our favored tradition in theology. As a Reformed Christian I can (and have!) read Wesleyans, or even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians with great profit, both in areas of overlap as well as areas of theology I strongly differ. Just because I disagree with them on justification or the nature of sanctification, that does not mean I can’t glean insights or have my own theological convictions sharpened and strengthened.
My brief point, then, is: be careful of what you’re careful of. Be a discerning reader. Know yourself well and have friends and mentors who can challenge you and keep you on the rails. But for the student of theology, hyper-active fear of reading the “wrong” material might be something to be something to guard against as well.
Soli Deo Gloria
This is so interesting that you bring out this particular point while reading this particular book. We read it for Crutchmer’s doctrine class last semester and wrote a paper on it. I felt that Holmes himself was too careful, in summing up the last 100 years of trinitarian theology as “a catastrophic story of loss.” (xviii)
Contrast that with Fred Sanders’ take: “The modern categories also provided a great opportunity for an unforeseen development and elaboration of the doctrine of the Trinity.” (“The Trinity,” in Mapping Modern Theology, 44)
or Wesley Hill:
“[abandoning accusatory rhetoric] might enable an interesting discussion of whether some of the conceptualities of classical trinitarian theology might be restated not by a wholesale rejection of the contemporary ‘revival’ but through a dialectical engagement with its concerns.” (“Divine Persons and Their ‘Reduction’ to Relations,” IJST 14.2, 159-60
I really enjoyed The Quest and I learned a lot, but “catastrophic” seemed a bit hyper-active to me.
Derek, thank you for reminding us to read with care, but to read.