Learning from the Learned

I am of the opinion that we can learn more from the dead than from the living. Or, at the very least, the dead still speak (Hebrews 11:4). But are we, who claim to be living, listening? And what better way to do that than by reading them?

Yet one of the challenges of reading the older writers is that they don’t have much patience for our world of immediate communication. That is to say, we require much patience to read those who would have assumed that their readers would not be distracted by a barrage of incoming communiques, and could consume a hearty meal because their literary palates had been sharpened and disciplined for that purpose.

Sometimes, then, we need someone to assist our modern minds by giving us a taste of what they thought, debated and believed and, particularly, to show us how relevant their thinking is for today. This is true of all disciplines and thus no less true in terms of Christian theology.

Enter Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.[1] This four volume work introduces us, as the name indicates, to the theological developments that followed the historic Reformation. But since this work is not readily available and is trying even to the most disciplined of readers, I thought I would take it upon myself to write my own summary of PRRD, especially highlighting the main contributions of these older thinkers. 

Please note that the following are my personal reflections on Muller’s work – there are no exact quotations. Confessional references to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) are included in parenthesis (where applicable) so that the reader can examine these principles from the perspective of the wider church’s reflection on them and compare them with the scripture references provided in the Confession. 

1. The text of scripture and especially its exegesis (explanation and interpretation) is the primary and final source of all sound theology. (WCF 1.1-2,4)
2. That the text of scripture either teaches theological truths explicitly (in their very words or formula) or implicitly (by good and necessary consequence). (WCF 1.6)
3. Without the work of the Spirit, our attempts to understand God are completely in vain (even if our theology is scripturally accurate). (WCF 1.6, 7.3, 10.3&4).
4. The pursuit of theology (the knowledge of God) is incomplete without:
i) acknowledgment of some mystery inherent in the subject matter (though not descending into unbiblical mysticism) ii) worship and love towards God iii) application to and/or in our Christian walk. (WCF 1.6, 2.2, 21.1).
5. Philosophy and logic are aids in our explanation of this knowledge but must never form the ground of our knowledge. Pursuant to 4. i), theologians -whose object of study is the infinite- must tread carefully and never subject the truth of scripture to the limited understanding of a finite being. (WCF 1.1).
6. Precision in theological formulas serves to: i) clarify essential truths and ii) to ward off heresy (especially those who are imprecise for the purpose of promoting said heresy). This pursuit of precision in theology is not legalism or formalism (being masked in pious language) but a noble attempt to incorporate all of scripture’s teaching concerning the whole counsel of God along with a sincere desire to submit to said teaching. (WCF 1.1).
7. The proof of the orthodox’s rejection of rationalism is revealed in their interaction or refutation of heresy, as the arguments heretics and heretical doctrine were (often) based on man’s ability or inability to understand something whereas the orthodox denied the ability of men to fully comprehend the mysteries of God. Thus orthodoxy sought the exercise of faith in understanding, as opposed to understanding leading to faith. (WCF. 1.6, 10.1).
8. Development in doctrine need not lead to a calcifying of the heart of the Christian faith but is an expression of faith in and unto maturity of thought.
9. To that end, it served to form the basis on which the “old paths” (Jeremiah 6:16) and the tried and true doctrines of scripture may be passed on to the next generation as a godly heritage (alongside of formal expressions of faith in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches). (WCF 1.5 & 31.4).
10. Therefore, theology exists to serve the needs of the church in its teaching ministry and offices. Theology is not an individual enterprise but a solemn interaction with scripture while conversing with the wisdom of Christians past and present, thus admitting of universal (not merely personal) benefit. (WCF 25.3).

1. Muller, Richard. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volumes 1-4, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2010.

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