Reformation Theology: Maintenance or Revision?

Last month Rutherford House, in association with the World Reformed Fellowship Theological Commission, hosted the 17th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference at Palmerston Place Church, Edinburgh. Matt Williams attended the conference and here he shares a summary of EDC17. 

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation was an especially apt occasion for the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, a biannual event organised by Rutherford House since 1983. Held in association with the World Reformed Fellowship, the aim as explained by Rev Prof Andrew McGowan was to ask, as those who are part of the Reformed tradition, ‘whether our task is to closely defend that theology, or to seek its development and revision for the 21st century’. This was to be done through rigorous academic engagement with a range of issues and from a variety of global (though mostly Western) and disciplinary perspectives. However, as was stressed by conference organisers, the context for this engagement would be worship, with which each day’s programme would begin.

Dr John McClean began the conference with his paper “Are We All Catholic Now?”, an assessment of a recent movement known by its proponents as ‘Reformed Catholicity’. Recognising the legitimate concerns that have led a number of Reformed Christians to explore Roman Catholicism, Dr McClean showed how this movement seeks to re-appropriate certain neglected elements in the tradition. This is not, or should not be, with a view to establishing a new theological centre but rather to maintain a Scriptural focus with a deepening of its interpretation through the aid of resources from the tradition. Immersion in its classical historical expressions should not narrow the vision of the Reformed church but rather increase its sense of catholicity as it delves more deeply into the riches mined from the canon, which is given to the whole people of God.

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Professor Tony Lane followed with his contribution “We believe in one, holy, Catholic, apostolic… and Reformed Church?”. What was essentially being asked here was how to express a Reformed understanding of the creedal affirmation of a church that is ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic’. Prof Lane proceeded to outline the issues that these four categories present to a Reformed/Evangelical/Protestant Christian, being a member of that part of the church that claims the Reformation as its heritage. The answer offered came in the form of an approach based on Jurgen Moltmann’s ecclesiology, which keeps the four categories but ‘views them in three ways: as statements of faith, as statements of hope and as statements of action’. In this way, the fourfold claim about the Church can be upheld as theological reality, as a pointer towards what will one day come to pass fully, and as a goad to works of practical love in the present.

Tuesday’s afternoon session comprised of six short papers, divided into two simultaneous streams. Four of these were focused on questions about the work of individual theologians, with Donald MacLean presenting on Thomas Boston, Bruce Pass on Herman Bavinck, David Rathel on James Torrance and Alexander Irving on Tom Torrance. On a more historical note, Dr Ken Stewart uncovered the multiplicity of theological influences that shaped John Knox’s contribution to the Scottish Reformation. Dr Arnold Hujgen looked at a wider theme from a systematic perspective, suggesting how the principle of Sola Scriptura may be helpfully renewed.

Rounding off the first day was Dr Rob Norris, with his ambitiously titled “The Future of Reformed Theology – A Study in Continuity and Discontinuity”. Dr Norris began by isolating what he argued to be the heart of what constituted a ‘Reformed identity’ and outlined it as ‘a profound sense of the presence of God and the consecration of life to him’. That this cannot be said to be uniquely ‘Reformed’ is only an indication of the fact that it is essentially a definition of biblical Christianity, of which the Reformed strand is the purest (though by no means the only) expression. Scripture, as breathed by the Holy Spirit, is the only legitimate grounds for the development of theology in the direction of unity. Pursuing this without compromise is a task to which the Reformed tradition has a unique contribution to offer in the promising new endeavour known as ‘Receptive Ecumenism’. What must be remembered, however, is that unity is ultimately an act of God and given as a promise rather than a goal that human strivings alone are able to reach.

Being the 500th year of a Lutheran event, Professor John Barclay chose to focus on the Wittenberg Reformer rather than that of the later John Calvin in his paper “Biblical Interpretation and the Communication of the Gospel: Learning from the Reformers”. Prof Barclay drew attention to the fact that Martin Luther was first and foremost a biblical interpreter, and that this is what characterises his output more than any other feature. Moreover, it is not simply the biblical text itself, but the text as interpreted according to the gospel message that must be conveyed. Such an understanding led Luther to a ranking of canonical books according to the extent to which the gospel is clearly manifest in their content. It is likewise the preacher’s duty to express through scriptural interpretation that central message of grace, and to do so in terms that are contemporarily relevant. This is the shortfall of NT Wright’s work insofar as it emphasises the narrative scope of the Bible without making sufficiently apparent the radical incongruence of God’s work in Christ and its challenge to the individual. Quite generally in much biblical interpretation (both at lay and scholarly level), an over reliance on ‘historical’ understanding can be alienating for those with a different frame of reference. Most significantly of all, it can stand in the way of reaching those in our society (and beyond) who need the gospel most.

The second paper of the day was given by Dr Cynthia Bennett Brown under the broad heading “Reformational Relevance? Christian Faith for a Post-Christian Generation”. This was addressed by setting out to show how the Reformation legacy could be brought to bear on the problem of suffering. Noting the differences in context between the problems faced by the contemporary Western world and that of the 16th century Reformers, Dr Brown pointed out that there is something universal about the experience of suffering remained. The relatively less well known (though at the time highly influential) Reformer Katharina Schütz Zell gives one example of how this can function in ministry. Zell was an artisan class woman who embraced serious and costly leadership in pastoral care alongside diligence in her role as a housewife in a way that might be seen as antithetical by modern thinkers. However, these callings were brought together under a strong view of duty before God, as is expressed in Zell’s voluminous writings as well as the biographical information about her. Engagement with the problem of suffering in her output was biblically focused but far from ‘cerebral’, shaped as it was by her profound experience of loss in the death of two children and her husband. Zell challenges those who claim the Reformed heritage as their own to take seriously its call to respond to the reality of suffering by entering into it relationally and not simply analysing it conceptually.

FullSizeRender Photo credit: Stuart Weir

Unfortunately absent due to illness, Prof Bruce McCormack’s paper was nevertheless produced and duly delivered by Dr Mark Elliott. Looking at the question “What is Non-Negotiable in any Theology that wishes to be “Reformed”?”, Prof McCormack focused on the role of the creeds and confessions in the articulation of Reformed faith. These are by definition not irreformable since they, along with every other statement of the Church, are subject to the critique (and therefore correction) of the Scriptures. However, certain doctrinal stances are non-negotiable in the establishment of ‘Reformed’ identity; foremost among these are distinctive understanding of the two pairs justification and atonement, and Christology and sacramentology. These distinguish the Reformed tradition both from its close neighbours the Lutherans and also those branches of the church that lie at a further distance. However, these doctrinal constants have not been able to prevent an alarming tendency towards capitulation to prevailing culture amongst Reformed churches, and this is the key challenge to which those who bear the name of this tradition must address themselves.

Bringing Wednesday’s proceedings to a close, Professor Henri Blocher’s ‘Fathers and Reformers in the Church’ set out to understand the role of Luther, Calvin et al theologically. In the absence of specific offices that could be equated with the Reformers’ role, Prof Blocher looked instead at biblical patterns of God’s dealings with his people. He concluded that with few viable options to choose from, the renewing function of Elijah and Ezra are the best fit when one examines historically the role of Luther in particular in relation to the Church Fathers. This comes into particular relief when one sees those things that the Reformers targeted in the Roman Catholic church as characteristically pagan elements, bearing family resemblance to some of the religious (or sacrilegious) practices condemned by Old Testament prophets of Israel. Indeed, such tendencies need to be combatted today and it is the particular preserve of the Reformed tradition (if not obviously the capability of its contemporary leading lights) to undertake this fight.

Bringing a non-Western perspective to the conference in the concluding paper, Rev Dr Kin Yip Louie gave an account of “Reformed Theology in Asia”. Dr Louie began with broad brush, yet carefully expressed, portrayal of the Asian economic and political context for the Church’s articulation of its theology. The key in such a situation was that the gospel should be contextualised, something that the Reformed tradition in the West (and some of its flagship institutions) had not sufficiently realised. Although Christians bear a universal identity as ‘forgiven sinners in Christ’, the meaning of the gospel is dynamic in that its implications are only unravelled gradually in its interaction with new cultural situations. Thus the challenge of tribalism, for example, is not an absolute evil but a corruption of what is good in claiming a distinctive national identity, an identity that, moreover, Christians should be encouraged to affirm. The challenge to Western Reformed theologians in particular is to turn their minds and pens away from sometimes cloistered debates towards crucial issues of contextualisation affecting the global Church.

The final session of the conference was a question time with the panel comprising of all the main speakers (bar Prof Barclay, who had prior commitments elsewhere). Prof McGowan chaired the discussion on questions ranging from the phenomenon of the New Apostolic Reformation, the place of the Eastern Church vis-à-vis the Reformation, the priorities in church ministry and education and the balance to be struck between ‘maintenance and revision’. On this final issue, which was the theme of the conference, there was largely agreement that some combination of conservation and progress was required, but the need most mentioned was not a doctrinal per se but the reality of the Holy Spirit’s work and presence.

As is perhaps the case with all conferences, especially those of a theological ilk, there were more questions raised than answers. And yet there was a surprising level of unanimity on fundamental doctrinal points which belay the fragmentation in the Reformed Church so much lamented by many of the participants. Perhaps this can be partly explained by the particular demographic of the attendees or even the situation, whereby there was perhaps more social pressure towards concord than its opposite. But even if the latter is the case, it does not take away from the power and potential of such an occasion to galvanise this section of the church into pursuit, within the means of its own confessional resources, of greater catholicity. When this aim is vaunted as what it really is, namely obedience to the Lord of the Church rather than socially expedient conformity, then will be present the motivation which stands every chance of directing the maintenance and revision that is nothing more (and nothing less) than the discipleship required of Reformed Christianity.

Matt Williams, Durham: 1st September, 2017

Rutherford House would like to thank Matt Williams for this overview.