Saturday, May 16, 2009

Arrogance and Reformation in the Postmodern Age

Well this is a reply to Phil Baiden's post "Humility and the Modern Age" which appears to be at least partly inspired by a comment I made on a different post, and which reading back I have no idea why I wrote that there, it seems like I was having a dig, and so I am very glad that Phil has had a dig back. Now this is what blogging is all about, airing your views and giving everyone the chance to push back so that you can learn what you say sounds like to other ears. So in replying to Phil I am not trying to score points, or even win an argument, but to better understand and to be better understood.

Phil says of me: "He’s a nice guy. He’s very tall and he grows a fine beard. He’s very up-to-date with all the latest theological goings-on." Of which only the second point is really 100% true, but I would give a 50% rating to the 1st and third propositions, altough I would hasten to add I am working on bringing the 1st up closer to the 70% mark, whereas I am quite content with the level of the third!

So I should say of Phil: "I love Phil, he is a genuine, integral and compassionate human being. I love the fact that he is a mainline minister who teaches doctrine not platitudes, and I am sure he is a great blessing to his two congregations." What follows is not a qualification of that but actually stems from that respect and affection. I am not attacking Phil, but an argument he makes, and I do so because although I am not sure I can convince him, I am sure he respects me enough to try and understand what I am saying.

So here is the deal. Phil seems to be equating contemporary critique of the reformers with chronological arrogance, that I feel I somehow know better because I stand at a latter point in time. On the other hand Phil advocates humble study which avoids novelty or construction, because to go beyond or to contradict the reformers would suggest that he is somehow better or wiser than they were. This whole edifice is however built upon a funamentally false assumption: that is that theology can ever take place in the abstract, as it were in a vacuum. Luther constructed his theology against the context of a Medieval Catholicism that had lost sight of the essential truths of Christianity. Calvin constructed his theology against the context of a Europe still in turmoil as a result of the reformation and a protestant Europe attempting to work out what life would/should be like without the Roman Catholic Church in control. Both reformers, and many of their contemporaries, were seeking to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to their particular historical and social contexts. Their theology when read today is an excellent example of contextual theology but it simply should not be imported wholesale into your present day context. To do so is not humility but anachronism.

I don't care if you are a fan of Calvin or Wesley, Edwards or Gregory of Nanzianzus. All these theologians are wonderful examples of people applying the gospel of Jesus Christ to their contexts. They can even be excellent and fruitful sources for constructing theology today. (In fact all theology should be done with a view to what has already been done) But they can never be the last word. Standing on the shoulders of a giant in order to see further is not arrogance or disrespect it is appreciation for and appropriation of what they worked for and achieved. ( it is also a way of avoiding their blind spots even while you struggle to recognise your own!)

When I seek (and urge you) to see further than Calvin or whoever, it is not because I conceive of myself to be a better Christian, or even a more able theologian (I simply don't) but because I must. Because Calvin never saw the 21st century and this is where we are. The truth of God in Jesus Christ never changes, but the application and communication of it must change in every new historical, cultural and linguistic circumstance that God's people are called to be witnesses in. This is not arrogance but the continuing reforming of God people to be the blessing God calls them to be to God's world. The pastor/theologian is the bridge between God's unchanging truth and the ever changing world, one bank of the river never moves but the other frequently does, and hence so must the bridge if it is to continue to serve God's purposes faithfully.

Let me know what you think :-)


  1. We're not a million miles away, Jon.

  2. No, only about 12,000 literally, and probably within spitting distance figuratively :-)