12 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 2: Defining Catholic (3)

(For Parts (1) and (2) of the "Defining Catholic" project go here and here. For Part 1 observations go here.)

This post represents the final one on identifying the "catholic" in Reformed catholicism. Michael Allen, on faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, was the keynote speaker and presented his paper The Central Dogma: Order and Principles for Reformed Catholicity. Together with Scott Swain, Allen is the author of the recent book "Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval in Theology and Biblical Interpretation" (2015). Drawing on the thesis of his book and the theme of the Convivium, Allen argued for two principal points. First, pace Richard Muller (the preeminent scholar of early Protestant historical theology), the initial generations of theologians in the Reformed tradition actually had a "central dogma." And second, this central dogma was part and parcel with the historical catholic tradition.

Most folks might immediately assume that the "central dogma" of the early Reformed theologians was predestination. Muller has successfully debunked the canard that the doctrine of election was the starting point of Reformed theology from which all other doctrines were in some way deduced. The Reformed certainly believed in God's election of some to salvation but this teaching represented the conclusion of close exegesis of the biblical text and not as the a priori from which other doctrines were derived. In fact, Muller contends that exegesis and not doctrine is the "central art" of the Reformed.

Allen did not dispute the centrality of exegesis to the Reformed project but painstakingly demonstrated that there was nonetheless a central dogma. This dogma was the doctrine of God. This doctrine did not, however, function as an abstract, metaphysical starting point for a series of successive speculative conclusions. Instead, the Reformed doctrine of God first found its origin in biblical exegesis and then functioned as an organic root from which other dogmatic, exegetical projects drew sustenance. Drawing on Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, Allen concludes that "the simple fulness of the triune God is the root [not pre-supposition] of Reformed faith and practice." 

For his second contention, Allen showed how the Reformed doctrine of God did not represent an innovation. "While [the doctrine of God] may well be the root of uniquely Reformed claims, this doctrinal prism is generically catholic." Thomas Aquinas, anyone?

Allen went on to spend considerable time developing the exegetical work done by the reformers in the Reformed tradition in which they fleshed out the content of the doctrine of God. In this respect they built on the catholic root of the doctrine without losing sight of the value of the contributions made by those who had lived and worked in earlier generations. Allen ended his paper in the following words:
But this doctrine does advance the glory of Reformed theology and draws us from the outer courts into the Most Holy Place, for the most distinctive thing about Reformed theology is how its thoroughly catholic doctrine of God is applied [ever-more] consistently to the other topics of theology, just as the kingdoms of our thought become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.

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