Eric has posted a provocative article on the current state of theological education among the Reformed and Presbyterians in the American South. Having recently graduated myself, I can say that, barring a few exceptions, his analysis is accurate. Particularly distressing is the “robotic” confessionalism that he laments, for it often succeeds in poisoning the well of actual Reformed tradition for others. “If that’s what it means to be a traditionalist,” one might complain, “then who needs it?” The problem with this reaction is that it opens up a maelstrom of uncertainty, creating some rather shallow and reactionary theological movements.
What we need is a Reformed, or perhaps more broadly, an Evangelical Resourcement.
This will require, above all else, maturity. We need a more truthful historical consciouness. We need to be interdisciplinary. One cannot really understand Reformed theology without knowing something about Augustine, Humanism, Biblical studies, Conciliarism, and the political landscapes of the 14th-18th centuries. We also need to have a proper view of “catholicity.” This does mean an appreciation for the past- early church included, as well as later writers from outside of our tradition, but it does not mean an uncritical appropriation of any of these, nor does it in any way mean being less than authentically Reformed. It is precisely because we are settled on our foundational concepts that we have the ability to read broadly. We are not afraid. We are confident.
We also need an academic community that converses with the worshiping community. As it stands now, “church publishing houses” are wholly unreliable in conservative Reformed circles. One is much better served skipping the P&R and instead buying the books that the P&R author is citing, typically from Cambridge, Oxford, Eerdmans, or some other broadly academic publisher. The downside with these superior academic works, however, is that they rarely seem to have a faith investment in their subject matter. The conversation quickly becomes “professional,” in the worst sense of that term. We have to bridge this gap, through both faith and truth.
To do any of this we need leaders. There seem to be two sorts of leaders as of now. There are the museum-keeping and dynasty preserving conservatives on the one side, typically resistant to change and critical analytic thought. The other side, however, are rarely an improvement. They tend to swing in the opposite direction, despising tradition (and reason!), looking to innovate and criticize at every opportunity. These rarely maintain their movements, thus giving away the institutions to their opponents, who in turn manage to dull the shine. And while all this happens, too many young thinkers decide to jump ship, to any number of options: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and even mainline Liberalism. This is tragic for several reasons, not the least of which being that they are actually leaving a tradition that was founded on academic and intellectual integrity in the face of repression. Reformed theology should be the best in the world, and it is our own fault that it is not.
So who shall we look to? The best men I know are clearly transition men. They are men of war, bloodied from endless battle, and even these tend to have some modern baggage that prevents them from fully espousing the Reformed position on faith and reason (Van Til’s legacy will prove to be an obstacle rather than a help), nature and grace, and church and state. I want to applaud them, honor them, work with them, but move beyond them, yet in doing so I feel somewhat unanchored and adrift, not to mention ambitious and naive.
One of the best assets for those in this (my) position has to be the internet. I’ve found some truly amazing people online, and I am encouraged to see genuine theological masters, even if they are not recognized professionals. The internet also allows for these personalities to converse and work together, all the while remaining in their various locations. We do not need any sort of “movement” other than doing what we do in our normal callings. Of course, a few books from David, Peter, and Thomas would be a nice.
This needs to be pastoral as well, and so I say take comfort. Even amidst challenges and disappointments there is hope. Greater things are yet to come. But along the journey let us also remember, that the greatest virtue is love. Temper your ambition with kindness. Season your speech with empathy. Innovate with thanksgiving.
Seek ye first the kingdom, and the universe will be yours.