Moule and maturing theologically

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?

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Great thoughts here.

    CK

  2. Posted by Mike Jarvis on October 4, 2007 at 12:14 am

    I would whole-heartedly agree with your concerns, Paul. To add, have we also allowed the voices of the past dictate our interpretation of the text simply because we’re unwilling to do the hard work of exegesis?

  3. Though you don’t address it directly, I think there is another concern with “staunch” confessionalism. It is the fact that the Christian life becomes the mental exercise of adhering to a set (be it the LBC,WCF, 3FU, etc.) of propositions about God and the Word, rather than attempting to experience God personally in our lives.

    Christians then become contented with affirming certain propositional truth as espoused in confessions or creeds, assenting to their truthfulness, but often they lack a sense of personal holiness. This doesn’t make the confessions bad, it makes our practice of Christianty bad.

    Therefore we must be reminded our fidelity is first to the person of Jesus Christ and His Word; living a life pleasing and acceptable to Him, and only then to the confessions and creeds we create to better understand and appreciate our Faith.

  4. David,

    Good point. However I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m making some sort of postmodern argument against propositional statements.

    My Christian experience has more propositions than a dog has fleas and experiencing God is not antithetical to those propositions anymore than the dog can ignore his fleas.

    I think the point you make in the second paragraph is key that we not “become contented with affirming certain propositional truth as espoused in . . .” historical articulations. This is part of what I was getting at. Just because it has been said really well at one point in history does not mean that nothing more can be said or even said better.

    Allow me stir the pot for you some. I believe rigid creedalism is what keeps some theologians from questioning their theological systems even though all the exegesis in the world will not justify some of their conclusions. I’ll be glad to provide examples if it’s really necessary.

    David, thanks for your comments. Insightful as always.

  5. Another implication of what I was relating from Moule is that a doctrine being “new” from a historical perspective is not evidence of its unorthodoxy. What I learned from Moule is that something being relatively new might be a sign of maturity and doctrinal growth in the Church. This of course is not always the case but theologians should be careful when dismissing an issue simply because it was undeveloped or uncharted by historic creeds. Would anyone say that the Apostles Creed gave clear shape to biblical Christianity? No. Then why should we assume that post-Reformational confessions have finished the task? We shouldn’t.

  6. You haven’t stirred it much for me. I agree that we can become settled into creedalism if not careful. Some, though not intentionally, even appear to raise Confessions to the level of Scripture.

    Now, I’m not against propositional truth, nor creedal affirmations. And at the same time I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel every few generations either. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and should look back at the contributions of great godly men with thankfulness to God. But we should be maturing (I’d say the church is going through sanctification, much like an individual) in our understanding of the things of God. So that as we grow in grace as the church, we should be semper reformada, reformed and always reforming.

  7. I think we need to distinguish between a “new” doctrine, and an undeveloped doctrine. Many teachings in the church have been enhanced and developed over the last 2000 years. In this sense, they aren’t new, rather they’re maturing.

    By this measure, we could safely say almost every, if not every, theological category has been improved upon down throughout history. The Protestant Reformation was at the same time, a return to old truth, yet with a new and improved understanding of that truth.

    For a doctrine to be “new” then, in the strictest sense of the word, would be technically unorthodox, simply because it is not in line with the historic church’s position. This is why besides being unbiblical, the teachings of Mormons or JW’s are unorthdox (heretical), they find no precedent in the history of the church.

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