Tag Archives: Nancy Pearcey

The Reformation versus the Post-Reformation?

For quite a while it was customary for historians, theologians, and preachers to bewail the post-Reformation as a sort of regrettable appendix to the glory-days of Calvin and Luther.  I certainly encountered this way of thinking in my theological training.  I was taught that the Reformation was a glorious return to the Word of God, but immediately after the Reformation “scholasticism” negated many of its great gains.  Moreover, it was alleged that many of the problems in Reformed theology in the last 200 years can be traced back to this scoundrel, “scholasticism.”  It ruined almost everything.  “Scholastic” thus became a loaded, pejorative term.  If you heard a Reformed minister or theologian describing someone as “scholastic,” you knew that they were one of the bad guys in theology.

All this came to mind again as I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004).  I have much appreciation for the book’s overall argument.  Pearcey believes we need to recover the idea of a Christian worldview and I fully agree.  However, I do take issue with some of her historical analysis.

In chapter 2 she describes how medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas formulated a view of creation that involved a nature-grace dualism.  It is a two-storied view of reality.  The Reformation, however, overcame it.  Writes Pearcey, “The Reformers sought a return to a unified field of knowledge, where divine revelation is the light illuminating all areas of study” (page 81).  Thus, away with dividing life into secular vs. sacred.  All of life is one before the face of God.  We are called into this world to live all of life according to Scripture.

A major historical problem appears when Pearcey posits this Reformation perspective against that of the post-Reformation.  This paragraph illustrates the issue:

Despite all this, the Reformers’ emphatic rejection of the nature/grace dualism was not enough to overcome an age-old pattern of thought.  The problem was that they failed to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights.  Thus they did not give their followers any tools to defend those insights against philosophical attack — or to create an alternative to the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism.  As a result, the successors of Luther and Calvin went right back to teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities, using Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems — and thus dualistic thinking continued to affect all the Christian traditions. (page 82)

Where to begin in discussing this?  First I wonder: why would it have been necessary for the “Reformers” (this is a broad term) to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights?  From my reading of Calvin, to take but one Reformer, he was quite able to adapt the existing theological/philosophical vocabulary of his day in order to express himself.  For example, in his discussion on providence in the Institutes (1.16.9) he writes about absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and consequent necessity (necessitas consequentiae).  Why would there be a need to create a new vocabulary?  The existing vocabulary was already quite rich.  Why would a new vocabulary have to be crafted to repel philosophical attacks or to create an alternative to dualistic philosophy?  I fail to see how all this follows.  My non sequitur alarm bells are ringing.

But more significantly, note Pearcey’s own vocabulary:  “the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism” and “teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities.”  She assumes that scholasticism is something with a definite content, including Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as its basis.  Scholasticism was taught in universities, she says.  But nowhere does she precisely outline the content of this “scholasticism.”  She does not indicate whether she’s speaking of theology, philosophy, or any another field of study.  Moreover, nowhere does she indicate whether or if this post-Reformation scholasticism differed from pre-Reformation scholasticism in any way.  But she is quite sure that it was a bad development because it ensured that dualistic thinking would be harboured in Protestantism for some time to come.  The broad generalizations here raise these and more questions.

Here’s the nub of the problem:  scholasticism was a method of teaching.  As a teaching method, it was especially marked by the use of careful definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques.  It was a method used across the spectrum to convey different systems with widely differing theological content.  There were Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, as well as Lutherans and Reformed.  The scholastic teaching method was used both in the classroom and in writing.  However, there are examples of theologians often identified as scholastic writing books that are not at all scholastic.  Some of the best post-Reformation works on Christian piety and experience come from men who spent much of their time in the academy using the scholastic method.   A friend (an expert in this area) pointed me to Antoine de Chandieu.  This Huguenot theologian used the scholastic method in various works, but he also wrote a collection of meditations on Psalm 32.  I might point out too, that though it sometimes happened, it was considered bad form to take the scholastic method into the pulpit.  It was meant for the university context, not the church.  Readers wanting to look into this more should have a look at this book.

Pearcey also argues that post-Reformation scholasticism used “Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems.”  This raises questions too.  Are we talking about theology?  What do you mean by “basis”?  What do you mean by “system”?  What time period are we discussing exactly?  Let’s say we’re talking theology, so systems of theology.  Let’s say by “basis,” Pearcey means the foundations, what it’s based on.  To be even more specific, let’s say we’re talking about the period of early orthodoxy (1565-1640).  Let’s then take one of the preeminent handbooks of Reformed theology from this period, the 1625 Leiden Synopsis.  What was the basis of the Leiden Synopsis?  “We shall commence our disputations with Scripture, since it, being divinely inspired, is the principle for the most sacred Theology, its source of proof, and its means of instruction.”  Scripture is the principle, the basis (or to use the technical term, principium cognoscendi).  Nothing about Aristotle.  From my reading of post-Reformation Reformed theology, this is typical not exceptional.

Contrary to what Pearcey and others have argued, the post-Reformation did not negate the gains of the Reformation — it built on them.  Or to put it in other terms, there is more continuity between the Reformation and post-Reformation than has sometimes been recognized.  So where does that leave Pearcey’s attempt to explain the continuing prevalence of dualistic philosophy?  I reckon she has to find another explanation.  Perhaps the cause has more to do with something as simple as the innate human proclivity to double-mindedness.

 


A Missiological Reflection on the RCN and Women in Office

 

Over the last few years, I have written several times about my concerns regarding the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Occasionally, I’ve received feedback from members of the RCN, including office bearers.  Some of the reaction has been encouraging – in the sense that the correspondents shared my concerns.  Others have been negative and even sometimes hostile.

In one instance, a brother from the RCN wrote to express his surprise that I could be a doctor in theology and not endorse the direction of the RCN.  In his way of thinking, any intelligent and educated person would surely see that the RCN was going the right way.  In another instance, a brother wrote and suggested that I had neglected the issues.  Moreover, with my concerns I was relegating the churches I serve to irrelevance in this contemporary world.  If we want to be relevant missionary churches, he wrote, we have to be open to new insights and prepared to enter new paradigms.

I have heard these sorts of things before while serving as a pastor in Canada.  The same types of arguments have been used to promote the acceptance of theistic evolution.  We were told that intelligent and educated people are not going to be able to accept at face value what the Bible teaches about creation – for example, that the universe was created in six ordinary days, and that man was created as a special creation of God from the dust of the earth on day six.  I have always said that if intelligent and educated people will not accept that, then they need to repent of their unbelief.  We were told that being an outward looking, missionary church means that we need to accommodate what “science” tells us about origins.  No one will take us seriously if we just maintain what the Bible says.  We will become irrelevant if we are creationists.  To that, I have always said that our calling is not to be relevant, but to be faithful to the Word of God.  The world does not set our agenda.

That was about creation.  But what about women in office?  In what follows, let me reflect a little bit on Synod Meppel’s decision from a missionary perspective.  What difference does it make for the missionary calling of the church to have women in office or not?

Our Saviour sent out his church into this world with the Great Commission.  He sent the church to preach the gospel to all humanity.  Moreover, he also instructed us to teach new disciples about everything that he has commanded in his Word.  Mission includes not only preaching the gospel, but also discipling new converts in following God’s will.  That includes his will for the roles of men and women in the church.  When it comes to mission, there is no way to avoid these issues.  A Reformed approach to mission begins with the preaching of the gospel, but it certainly doesn’t end there.  If Christ teaches us in his Word that only men are to serve in the offices of the church, then Reformed missionaries must teach what Christ teaches in his Word.

However, the gospel itself is threatened by the direction that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands has taken.  This is because the authority of Scripture itself is under attack.  Everyone must understand this:  we are not dealing with questions of exegesis.  Instead, we are confronted with questions at the most basic level of hermeneutics.  Is the Bible the inspired Word of God?  Is the Bible infallible and inerrant revelation from the Holy Spirit?   Did the Holy Spirit say that only men are to serve in the offices of the church?  We are back to the most basic question confronting Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:  “Did God really say?”  Then the question was about fruit, now it’s about the place of women in the church:  “Did God really say that only men can serve as office bearers?”

When a high view of the authority of Scripture is lost, then everything is up for grabs, including the gospel itself.  Once you begin questioning whether the Spirit really said some things in Scripture, there is nothing preventing you anymore from questioning whether the Spirit said everything.  Of all the offensive teachings in the Bible, nothing is more offensive to unregenerated human nature than the cross and the penal substitutionary atonement offered there.  It is only a matter of time before the biblical gospel of Christ crucified is questioned, compromised and, eventually, even completely lost.

The historic Reformed view of Scripture is that nothing and no one stands above Scripture.  With their decision at Synod Meppel, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have betrayed that view.  And since Christian mission and commitment to the Great Commission depends on a high view of Scripture, the time will come when this new view of the Bible will gut the missionary endeavours of the RCN.

We’re told that we need to change our view on such matters as women in office in order to stay relevant to the culture.  But I ask:  since when has it been our priority to be relevant to an unregenerate and lost culture?  The true church has always been odd and out of place in this world.  Augustine rightly contrasted the City of God (the church) with the City of Man (the world).  These are two different worlds at odds with one another.  While we want to reach that other world, we must do so on God’s terms, not on the terms of unregenerate culture.  When it comes to mission and evangelism, faithfulness is to be our greatest concern, not relevance.

A colleague who serves as a missionary in Brazil has been reading a book by Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth.  On Facebook he posted this excerpt from the book:

It is a common assumption that, in order to survive, churches must accommodate to the age.  But in fact, the opposite is true: in every historical period, the religious groups that grow most rapidly are those that set believers at odds with the surrounding culture.  As a general principle, the higher a group’s tension with mainstream society, the higher its growth rate.

My colleague noted that the RCN’s compromise on women in office is inevitably going to relegate them to decline and insignificance.   History demonstrates that this is correct.  In church after church, chasing after relevance by accommodating Scripture to the culture has led to vapid, weak, and puerile churches.  These are churches that do next to nothing for the advance of the gospel anymore.  In North America and elsewhere, churches that have gone down this path end up meeting on Sundays with a few old ladies – and no mission work at all.  Women in office will eventually spell the end of mission.

It is counter-intuitive to think it.  Fallen human nature thinks that relevance must be the way to missionary success.  But mission is the way of the cross, and the cross turns human thinking upside down.  The cross is foolishness – no one would think that God would save through something so offensive, and yet he does.  Some missiologists might think that God will give us success through pandering to the world and its feminist ideology.  But the Scriptures teach us to expect God’s blessing when we are faithful to the Word, despite the fact that it grossly offends the world.

With all my heart, I deeply lament the decision of Synod Meppel.  It grieves me enormously when I see churches that were once faithful taking this unfaithful path.  One of the saddest things is what it is going to do to the missionary witness of the RCN.  This is going to be a tremendous set-back when it comes to the advance of the gospel.  Satan laughs as God’s Word is twisted in the name of mission and being relevant to the culture.  And while I grieve, I am sure that our Lord Jesus Christ is grieving even more.  The church entrusted to take his Word to the world has betrayed it.  That’s a tragedy of the highest order.