The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology: The Catholics Part 1: Confessional Evangelical Catholics

This is the fourth of eight articles exploring the present state of Evangelical theology. The first, second and third can be found here, here, and here.

Introduction

In the last two articles, we explored the ancestral home of Evangelical theology: the Classical Region. But now we shift our attention, following the tribes who have travelled over mountains and woodlands to settle in a new region: ‘Catholicity’. In some areas we find tulip fields, in others we find Boswellia groves.  The region finds itself at the centre of trading roots with mainline, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic regions. Of course, though this is new terrain for the tribes that have travelled from the Classical plains, the region itself is in many ways an ancient one. If the two tribes found in the Classical Region continue to work within the frames of reference set by post-war, pre-millennial Evangelicalism, the theologians who have travelled to the Catholic region have been spurred on by the likes of J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul to look further back into history for sustenance. They have seen flaws in both Classical Conservatism and Classical Postconservatism. With the former, although they applaud the Biblical emphasis and doctrinal conservatism, they recognise that the atomistic hermeneutical approach to Scripture is often often at odds with Scripture itself – and has led to some unfortunate moves (such as Wayne Grudem’s semi-Arianism). Postconservatism, with its emphasis on postmodern philosophies and openness to the wider theological world, gives a way out of this trap. However, Catholics also see worrying elements within Postconservatism, including a potential repetition of mainline Protestantism’s slide into liberalism.

Hence the journey into a new region, spurred on and inspired by the 20th Century ressourcement movement. In mid-20th French and German Roman Catholicism, theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs Von Balthasar desired to return to the ‘sources’ of Catholic theology – especially Scripture, the Patristics, and Thomas Aquinas – in order to refresh the wells after the dryness of 19th Century Neo-Thomism. This spilt over into other denominations as Anglicans, Orthodox and Lutherans began to reengage with the Platonic Patristic vision. On a separate track, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics wrestled with the theology of the Post-Reformation Scholastics as a foundation for re-thinking each of the loci of traditional dogmatics. This aspect of Neo-Orthodoxy mainly passed Classical Evangelical theology by as even Postconservatives virtually ignored the depth of Barth’s Scholastic dialogue partners.

In the past few decades many Evangelical theologians have ‘returned’ to the sources, spurred on by the rapidly growing treasury of historical theology and worn out by Evangelicalism’s attempt to ‘keep up’ with the latest cultural fad. These theologians have sought enrichment and rest in the wells of small-c catholic theology and tradition. Ad fontes, after all, is in the Protestantism genes. But which sources do we look back upon? For Confessional Evangelical Catholics, it is to the traditioned confessions of 16th and 17th Protestantism that nurture is found. For Ecumenical Evangelical Catholics, it is further back into the ecumenical theological unity of the pre-Medieval Church. Taking what they can from post-war Neo-Evangelicalism, both Confessionals and Ecumenists nevertheless want to move forward by looking back. Evangelical Catholics have learnt the lessons posed by CPE that the Conservative tradition on which they were raised was as much a product of modernism as the liberalism they rejected. They are not convinced by D.A. Carson’s rejection of postmodernism, even if they are sympathetic to his concerns. However, Evangelical Catholics are nevertheless still a conservative tribe, though one in a different paradigm to CCE. In some ways, Evangelical Catholicism a form of theology after postconservatism, a post-postconservative theology.

First, let us explore Confessional Evangelical Catholicity.

 

Reformation ressourcement

Evangelicalism has had a somewhat lukewarm approach to the Protestant Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries. This may be because of the pietist and subsequently ecumenical instincts in 18th Century revivalism, as well as the preponderance of Non-confessional Baptist, Holiness and Pentecostal churches within its ranks. ‘Dead orthodoxy’ was as much a threat to the burgeoning movement as Enlightenment revisionism. Confessions have been dismissed as non-biblical, turning the Bible into a philosophical system, a regression to pre-Reformation scholasticism – even a betrayal of the Reformation due to the expectation of holding to an extra-Biblical standard. Confessional Evangelical Catholics (CEC) think that such an attitude is a mistake. More than that: for them it has left Evangelicalism intellectually impoverished and orthodox Protestantism outflanked on either side by the heavyweights of Protestant liberalism and Catholic/Orthodox dogmatic retrieval. Although Confessional theology has always been a presence in Neo-Evangelicalism, it has been the ground-breaking research into Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics by Richard Muller that has drastically revised the caricature of Protestant scholasticism as dry and philosophical. In his peerless scholarship, Muller has demonstrated the continuity between Calvin and the scholastics,[1] the diversity of the Reformed movement and the centrality of Christ,[2] the depth of patristic engagement amongst the Reformers and their scholastic successors, as well as the rich biblical studies written by the Protestant scholastics.[3] In his magnificent four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Muller has brought the depth of intellectual engagement and biblical wisdom of the Post-Reformation scholastics to a new generation.

Following this earthquake in historical theology, CEC have argued that Post-Reformation Scholasticism offers intellectual tools to bolster the academic heft of Evangelical theology. They emphasise that the Reformation was not a break from Catholicism but was rather a return to original Catholicism after the corruptions of the late Medieval period. They thus understand themselves to be Catholic Christians – to be a true Evangelical is to be Catholic, and vice versa. This means that they are particularly keen to maintain classical catholic doctrines of God after the shakings of the 20th Century. Following the research of Paul Helm, old terms like eternity,[4] simplicity,[5] impassibility,[6] providence,[7] and classical metaphysics[8] have come back into vogue. The classical understanding of the Trinity is emphasised in reaction to 20th Century alternatives.[9] This is because, for CEC, these are deeply Scriptural doctrines. Nearly all CEC theologians emphasise the rich interaction between dogmatics and Biblical studies. Even when they are rearticulated into a more modern parlance – as with Kevin Vanhoozer[10] – this is about retaining the traditional understanding of the divine attributes.

The Protestant sola doctrines (justification by faith,[11] the priority of grace,[12] Scripture alone,[13] Christ alone[14] etc) are Catholic doctrines, in that they express the fullness of the Christian faith found in Scripture and the Patristics. Most of CEC will cherish the atonement traditions inherited from Classical Conservative Evangelicalism (such as penal substitution), though not all. CEC understand the Reformers, and the Post-Reformation Scholastics after them, as being firmly rooted in Patristic scholarship, having a high view of the church and liturgy, and deeply sacramental – hence they were Reformed Catholics. Christ’s body and blood are truly (if spiritually) eaten and drunk when receiving the sacrament – rejection of transubstantiation doesn’t mean rejecting the Patristics.[15] Indeed even Aristotle is back in vogue. Instead of seeing him as a return to paganism, some CEC theologians have seen how his method was always used as a tool for articulating doctrine rather than a grid imposed on the Scriptures. Even if this is a Neo-Aristotelian method (bolstered by engagements with the latest postmodern philosophy), it is nevertheless a Protestant Aristotelian ressourcement.

This has in turn led to a reappraisal of classical pastoral care in the Confessional tradition. CEC turn away from the worship-as-entertainment-and-pastor-as-celebrity model, as well as the kind of Evangelical activism promoted by such preachers as David Platt.[16] Instead, taking inspiration from Eugene Peterson, figures like Michael Horton,[17] Todd Billings,[18] and Ian Stackhouse[19] have returned to classical Protestant models of ministry. This Protestant ressourcement encompasses all pastoral theology, including liturgy[20] and homiletics.[21] Preaching, study, contemplation, pastoral visiting and presiding at the sacraments as seen as central to what it means to be a pastor. Indeed, unlike in some seeker-friendly churches, such practices are seen as deeply evangelistic. As well as the ressourcement of ecclesial theology, CEC has begun to turn to Reformation and Post-Reformation political theology. Although there are multiple figures in this area, it is W. Bradford Littlejohn and the Davenant Institute journal Ad Fontes which is leading the way. Littlejohn’s research has focussed on returning Richard Hooker to his rightful place as a leading light in the Reformed political theological tradition of the late-16th Century.[22]

 

Alternative Postmodernisms

At the same time as digging into the Biblical and Catholic grounds of the Reformation’s Confessional theology, CEC often find themselves positively engaging with the latest in Continental philosophy. In that they are drawing on pre-Enlightenment philosophy to articulate the revelation contained in Scripture, they find a ‘frenemy’ in Poststructuralism which also found itself in opposition to Enlightenment foundationalism. Continental philosophy is utilised by Kevin Vanhoozer to defend Biblical authority and classical Protestant hermeneutics[23] and by Michael Horton to explore the Reformed understanding of the covenant.[24] Both Vanhoozer and Horton draw on the ‘linguistic turn’ in 20th Century theology to defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. This sets them apart from Classical Conservatives, who (though also defending Biblical inerrancy), avoided or critiqued such philosophical developments. Another theologian/philosopher who has developed this interaction between Reformed theology and Continental philosophy is James K.A. Smith. His Cultural Liturgies series has been a game-changer. In these three volumes, Smith uses such philosophers and theologians as Charles Taylor, Pierre Bourdieu, Maurice Merleau-Pony and Oliver O’Donovan to create a wide ranging Reformed ‘liturgical anthropology’ and political theology through engagements with the phenomenological tradition.[25] Recognising that as embodied creatures, humans ‘learn’ thinking from our context, Smith emphasises that liturgy and habits helps form us as disciples in a secular environment at a deeper level than even preaching and reading. Whereas sometimes Classical Postconservatism could lapse into an uncritical embrace of aspects of postmodern (especially poststructuralist) thought, the kind of approach taken by Vanhoozer, Horton and Smith shows the potential of a Christian and Protestant postmodern philosophy.

For Michael Allen and Scott Swain, CEC theology is about pursuing ‘catholicity on Protestant principles.’[26] For James K.A. Smith, Evangelicals should ‘embrace our confessional, ecclesial, churchly, Protestant traditions and locations as the gifts they are – as rich, historically traditioned streams of the apostolic faith that are tangible ways to confess and live the catholic faith.’[27] This means that CEC theologians take the confessions of their denominations seriously. Horton and Vanhoozer turn to the Westminster Confession, Smith to the Belgic Confession, and Littlejohn to the 39 Articles. However, this is not to say that such theology is uncreative confessional repetition. Oliver Crisp has drawn on Anglo-American Analytical philosophy to creatively rearticulate classical formulations in Christology,[28] the atonement,[29] and even a ‘deviant’ Calvinism.[30] Christopher Holmes has developed a new Reformed articulation of pneumatology, drawing on Augustine, Aquinas and Barth.[31]

It is at this point that we find a fecund interaction between Confessional Evangelical Catholics and Confessional mainline postliberals, so much so that the lines are often blurred between the two regions. The greatest example of this can be found in the work of Katherine Sonderegger, whose Systematic Theology[32] may prove to be the defining work of this tribe. Although in many ways a mainline theologian, her expert navigation of post-Barthian scholarship, Biblical theology and classical theism places her firmly within the Confessional Evangelical Catholic camp. In her doctrine of God, Sonderegger draws on Moses’ encounter with the burning bush to develop a biblical metaphysics of divine unity and ‘compatibility’ with creation. She turns categories upside down, referring to God’s omnipotence as his ‘humility’, and his omnipresence as his ‘hiddenness’. Such orthodox Protestant theology draws on a rich tableau of theologians from Augustine and Aquinas, to Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth. The late John Webster (like Sonderegger, a Barthian scholar), turned increasingly to the work of John Owen and other Post-Reformation scholastics in his later writings. Such theologians as Carl Trueman have followed after Webster in finding in Owen a muse for exploring what it means to be a ‘Reformed Catholic’.[33]

 

Conclusion

It is difficult to predict the future of this movement. It is certainly currently one of the most creative in the Evangelical world. The continuous high-quality output shows no sense of slowing down. Book series such as the New Studies in Dogmatics and Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture have proven to be gems. An excellent site to keep track of some of the latest developments in this area is The Davenant Institute.[34] Especially in North America, this is arguably the most exciting theology to emerge out of the Evangelical country. Considering that a similar movement is happening in mainline ‘post-postliberal’ theology (which often makes defining the borders between the two quite difficult!), it also offers much ecumenical potential. To see this in action, the Los Angeles Theology Conference Series, organised by CEC theologians, shows the fecund interaction between Evangelical, Mainline and Roman Catholic theologians all emerging from the catholicity of their respective confessions.[35]

However, there is the question of to what extent this is limited to a mainly white, Western world. Although there is a surprising growth of Post-Reformation scholasticism in the Presbyterian churches in South Korea, much of the Majority World, or even Western non-American Evangelicalism (as in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) have found themselves looking at alternatives to the classical Protestant tradition (such as Barth and Pentecostalism – see articles 6 and 7 in this series). The composer Claude Debussy once remarked of Wagner that his music was ‘a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn’. Despite the fecund richness of Confessional Evangelical Catholicity, one wonders whether the same my be applied here also.

 

Representative theologians: Richard Muller, Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Horton, Katherine Sonderegger, Paul Helm, James K.A. Smith, Oliver Crisp, J. Todd Billings, W. Bradford Littlejohn, Stephen Holmes, Steven J. Duby, Matthew Barrett, Stephen Wellum, James E. Dolezal, Bryan Chapell, Rob Lister, Christopher R.J. Holmes, Carl Trueman, Daniel J. Treier, R. Michael Allen, Scott R. Swain, Stephan Hampton, Robert Letham.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012)

[2] Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008). For more on the diversity of the Reformed tradition, see W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Tomes (ed.), Beyond Calvin: Essays of the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition (The Davenant Press, 2017)

[3] Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 4 Volumes

[4] Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God without Time (Oxford: OUP, 2011)

[5] James E. Dolezal, All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), and God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Pickwick Publications, 2011)

[6] Rob Lister, God Is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward A Theology of Divine Emotion (Nottingham: IVP, 2012)

[7] Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1993)

[8] Steven J. Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics and the Task of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019)

[9] Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2012) and Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2017) and The Triune God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016)

[10] Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: CUP, 2010)

[11] Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification and Michael Horton, Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 2 Volumes

[12] Carl Trueman, Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017)

[13] Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017)

[14] Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Christ as Savior (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017),

[15] J. Todd Billings, Remembrance, Communion and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018),

[16] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2010)

[17] Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014),

[18] J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011)

[19] Ian Stackhouse, The Gospel-Driven Church: Retrieving Classical Ministries for Contemporary Revivalism (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2004)

[20] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centred Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), and Michael Horton A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centred Worship (Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003),

[21] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centred Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005),

[22] W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans and Protestant Political Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2017)

[23] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005)

[24] Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology, Covenant and Place: Union with Christ, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008).

[25] James K.A. Smith, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 3 Volumes

[26] Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theoloogy and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), p.13

[27] James K.A. Smith, ‘The Future is Catholic: The Next Scandal for the Evangelical Mind’, in Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), p.158

[28] Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), and God Incarnate: Exlorations in Christology (London: T&T Clark, 2009)

[29] Oliver Crisp, The Atonement: The Reconciling Work of Christ (London: IVP, 2020)

[30] Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)

[31] Christopher R.J. Holmes, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015)

[32] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015)

[33] Carl Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (London: Routledge, 2007)

[34] https://davenantinstitute.org/

[35] See Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (ed.), Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan): Christology Ancient and Modern (2013), Advancing Trinitarian Theology (2014), Locating Atonement (2015), The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture (2016), The Task of Dogmatics (2017), The Christian Doctrine of Humanity (2018), and Divine Action and Providence (2019)

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