Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Determining the Degree of our Debt to the Dead

"Confessional Reformed folk have always had a deep appreciation for the fathers and the medieval theologians," writes R. Scott Clark in his Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice. "It was the Anabaptists, not the Reformed, who sought to do theology without reference to the past." Clark writes:

The Reformed orthodox demonstrated a remarkable catholicity of spirit and knowledge and drew upon the entire Christian tradition to formulate their theology. If we are to follow the classic Reformed pattern, we too must become scholars of the fathers and even of the medieval theologians, who established much of the Christian theological vocabulary and the intellectual categories in which both the Reformers and the post-Refomation theologians did their work.

Indeed, argues Clark, it is indicative of a "Reformed Narcissism" to ignore or dismiss our debt to the past. Yet this debt to the dead notwithstanding, there is a "gulf fixed" between us and such luminaries as Anselm, Aquinas, Lombard, Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini, Staupitz, and Wycliffe: The Protestant Reformation.

Though we embrace many of the same doctrines as our medieval forebears, we also embrace the conviction that sinners are justified only on the ground of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received through faith alone, a theological insight learned from Luther, Calvin, and Reformed orthodoxy, not from the fathers or the medieval theologians (emphasis added).
I can hear a couple objections echoing from the Papist Peanut Gallery that I would like to raise and discuss. First, is Protestant soteriology really a "genuine theological novum" as McGrath is often quoted as saying and as Clark seems to concede? Secondly (and more profoundly), is the Protestant penchant for picking and choosing which bits of the fathers' teachings we embrace (accepting the Trinity but denying historical apostolicity, for example) not an example of the very Naricissim that we decry in evangelicalism?

In short, how ought we confessional Protestants to determine the degree of our debt to the dead?