01 October 2004

response from trueman

Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary was kind enough to provide a very helpful, clarifying, and gracious response to my post below that was occasioned by his essay on Calvin and Calvinism. Here is what he has to say (forwarded via Doug Green):

I don't normally respond to anything on the web; but as this seems legit and as the person has taken time to critique an article, rather than a book, I'm happy to offer a few lines of friendly response. My article, though only a survey piece, is an attempt at summarising the approach laid out in detail by Muller's PRRD [Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics], and by a number of us in specific monographs and so is, I guess, useful as a starting point for a general assessment of the approach as a whole. Maybe the reviewer would consider posting this (although, as I say, I don't usually have any patience with web discussion).

1. The easiest point to answer is that relating to my perceived failure to bring the story up to Princeton and beyond. This was simply outwith the contractual scope of the essay.

2. The reviewer appears to read me as arguing that form and content are separable in the sense that there is no relation between them, and he correctly points out the theoretical naivete of this position. I agree that it is naive; but I never intended to claim as much as is imputed to me. The point of the approach argued by Muller and co. is not that form and content are completely separable but that scholastic form does not imply particular doctrinal content. In the works of H E Weber, Otto Weber, E Bizer, P Althaus, and lesser lights such as J B Torrance and Alan Clifford, it is repeatedly assumed or asserted that scholastic form necessarily brings with it a particular doctrinal content, whether, for example, a predestinarian determinism or an incipient rationalism. The point of my argument is that such is not the case; I am not arguing for absolute independence of form and content, merely that they are not so related in the case of scholasticism that the presence of the former allows us to make a priori judgements about specific doctrinal loci and their interrelationship or structural and material function. Specific claims made on the basis of the study of specific texts in specific contexts is what I am calling for.

3. I agree that ordering of topics can be doctrinally significant; but again, I would also argue that this is not necessarily so. If one wishes to argue that Calvin's placement of predestination in the later editions of the Institutions has a primarily doctrinal significane, one must prove this from the texts, not assume it as basic. The Melanchthon argument does not exclude the doctrinal motive; but it does makes it unnecessary as an explanation; and thus it raises the evidential bar that much higher for those who wish to make the doctrinal case. Again, specific claims made on the basis of specific texts in specific contexts is what I am calling for.

4. Reception of texts by later generations is, of course, a complex matter. It may well be that the pedagogical motives for a topical ordering in one generation are lost to later generations, that predestination does become axiomatic as a means of driving the system etc. I don't disagree; what I see myself as demanding is that (a) we do not confuse later use of texts for original intention; and (b) any case made for use of a text is made with reference to context and actual usage, not generalised abstractions and a priori assumptions.

5. The final point of response is to the criticism that, because my narrative refuses to do systematics, I have only half-done my task. This is a criticism of my work I have come across frequently -- indeed, my good friend Garry Williams at Oak Hill starts his lectures each year by quoting the relevant section from the introduction to my John Owen book and then telling his students that he intends to do the exact opposite in his classes! The criticism rests, of course, on a definition of my task which I refuse -- or, at least, which I refuse as the only legitimate definition of my task. Does a historian, even a historian of ideas, have to address the 'doctrinal truth' question to be doing proper history? This seems to me to represent a very narrow view of the work of the historian. I could write pages on this in defending the legitimacy of never raising the question of whether these theologians were correct or not.

In fact, I will respond briefly with just two points: first, the idea that Christian history (if one believes in such a thing -- and that is a controversial point in itself) must end up in systematics to be Christian seems a highly contentious point, akin to Christian cake baking having to terminate in cakes made specifically for the church picnic if it is to be legitimate; why cannot history done well to the glory of God be Christian? Why, for example, may I not conceive of the 'Christian' adjective in 'Christian history' as speaking primarily to motivation rather than method or conclusion, as a vocation rather than a methodology? This is a contentious claim, I know, and not one I wish to debate at length at this time, but the larger point is clear: just because the way I do history is not to the reviewer's taste does not render my approach illegitimate or half-finished, even for a Christian.

Second, I think that if one is demanding that history have a contemporary pay-off (and, again, that is claim which needs to be justified, not assumed), then one need not see this in systematic terms: by demonstrating that many apparently doctrinal issues are not completely -- or even at all -- doctrinal is surely a useful function, particularly when one sees the church politics that is so frequently built on contentious doctrinal readings of Reformed Orthodoxy? Does my refusal of the systematic task really make my work mere historicism or, worse still, an interesting antiquarianism? By highlighting the way in which other factors shape and inform the theological task, I think such history fulfils an important critical function. Indeed, to be really contentious, I would argue that the narrative of Reformed Orthodoxy needs to be even less theological than it is is now, taking full account not only of genre and intellectual contexts, synchronic and diachronic, but also of wider political, social, economic, and pastoral concerns. More analytical integration still of the doctrinal documents with non-doctrinal contexts is necessary to enrich the narrative; not an always-potentially-narrowing a priori commitment to producing a theological result.

On the whole, Dr. Trueman has addressed a number of my concerns quite adequately, though I do have some remaining questions. Morever, I think the last two paragraphs make for an interesting discussion, though, naturally I agree with much of what he suggests. Perhaps I'll post some further thoughts and comments when time permits.