Historical Theology and the Golden Mean

Doctrines do not evolve from a lungfish stage to that of homo sapiens sapiens. Their development is much more like a family tree. There is the line of orthodoxy; there are the distant relatives of heresy; and error is the cousin whom one tends not to visit. Historical Theology is like genealogy. It is about interactions over time, each of which has its own story and a bearing on the next generation.

At some time, in some place, God raises up someone to make a theological breakthrough. It marks him out from his contemporaries and begins a dynasty of doctrinal development. It happened to Anselm. While fighting the sons of William the Conqueror for control of the church, and introducing scholasticism, this Archbishop of Canterbury said that the atonement was about being reconciled to an offended God. Now, he didn’t quite get the nature of the offence correct, but he set the discussion on the right track. In this case, the golden mean was not reached by a marriage of Anselm’s views to those of his contemporaries, but by the rejection of the other views’ suit and waiting for a better offer.

There are other times when there is a meeting of minds. In the case of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin and the Lutherans courted for some time until it became clear that the Lutherans had no interest in a match. Calvin then approached Bullinger. This time things went well, and the result of their union was the Consensus Tigurinus: the Reformed view of the sacrament.

Historical Theology is about people as much as it is about ideas. Sometimes the people get in the way. When George Whitefield parted company with the Seceders and went to preach for Church of Scotland ministers, the Seceders wanted to respond. That response came from the pen of Adam Gib. Unfortunately, by the time he had dealt with the Church of Scotland, the Church of England, and Whitefield himself, there was so much mud in the air that no one could see that Gib had posed some valid questions which are still being asked of itinerant evangelists today.

Then there is Zwingli’s extended hand. At the conclusion of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, Luther Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, and Zwingli agreed on fourteen and two-thirds out of fifteen points. Alas, over that last third of a point, Luther refused to shake hands with Zwingli. Like tabloid journalists looking for the man who bit the dog, post-graduates after a dissertation topic ignore the international sigh of relief which went up when the Reformers all agreed on original sin. They are much more interested in keeping that old “This is my body” feud in the news.

Many advances in doctrine do come out of controversy. The problem is that polemical writing tends to lack nuance. Indeed, writers are perfectly capable of caricaturing their own positions. Zwingli probably said “bare signs” often enough for people to think that that actually was his considered opinion; whereas Calvin clearly thought that Zwingli, were he alive at the time, would have happily signed the Consensus Tigurinus. Not only so, but writers are perfectly capable of changing their minds. In the early 1740s, Gilbert Tennent thought that John Thomson was unregenerate and that his book on Conviction of sin was detestable. Ten years later, Thomson is a respected gospel preacher, and his book is commended. And it is Tennent who has changed, not Thomson.

Finding the golden mean involves mediating family disputes and observing generational development. Every doctrine has a family tree.

Originally published at: https://idgebbie.wixsite.com/presbyterianpicante/post/historical-theology-and-the-golden-mean

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