C. F. D. Moule passed away a few days ago (30 September 2007). He held a teaching post at Cambridge that was once held by Erasmus. The news of his passing got me to thinking about an issue somewhat related. I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of Moule and by that I mean his writing (otherwise I never knew the man). However some of his work has enjoyed a wide readership and I remember being greatly challenged by his The Birth of the New Testament as I moved away from an uncritical embrace of critical views while in college.
One of the fruits of his scholarship was helping his readers to see that the church has not evolved so much as it has theologically developed and matured. For example in The Birth of the New Testament, he develops the idea that the Church “gradually emerged into an awareness of its distinctiveness” (107). According to Moule this accounts for the more rustic nature of theology early on in the Church’s existence which continued for centuries. I think we should note well that this is a simple yet significant point to contend with.
It is for this reason that we should be careful about dismissing a more mature expression of a doctrine simply because it is not recorded in the earliest creeds of Christendom. If left to a mere Christianity that embraces a so-called “ancient-future” faith (usually putting more emphasis on the “ancient” part) then the discipline of systematic theology will become unnecessarily ham-strung by less mature expressions of theology. For example, how many centuries would it be after the formation of the ancient creeds before the doctrine of justification would enjoy a full recovery and articulation? Furthermore can we only talk about other doctrines like eccelesiology and eschatology the way the Fathers did? Moving forward in history, should the Westminster standards or the Second London Confession (or any other) be the last word on a doctrine?
I am not anti-creed or confession and I’m not a “no creed but Christ” type. My baptist tradition and the church I currently serve are exhibits A and B that this is not the case for me. However I do have the concern that rather than seeing creeds/confessions as historical guideposts they have been uncritically embraced by some as the last word on a particular issue of theology. The outcome is that theological discussions tend to become a “who departed from Westminster-2nd London-Heidelberg-etc.-etc” debate rather than a discussion of Scripture and how exegesis should have priority in the shaping of our theology. Those who disagree with me here will typically say something like “we should do our theology with the voices of the past” but I say even such voices must yield if sound exegesis proves they were misguided or wrong. Could it be that some expressions of confessionalism have forced interpretations of texts that are more concerned with protecting a system rather than getting at what the text actually says?