As a pastor I don’t have a lot of time to read academic journals, but I do subscribe to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Westminster Theological Journal. Some articles strike my fancy more than others, but I always find something beneficial.
Case in point: Robert Letham’s article “Catholicity Global and Historical: Constantinople, Westminster, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century ” in the Spring issue of WTJ (Vol. 72, No. 1). (As an aside, Letham’s volume on The Holy Trinity is one of the best theological books I’ve ever read). In this article, Letham makes two related points.
1) The global church, if it is to be truly catholic (universal), must be apostolic; that is, grounded in Scripture as understood by orthodox church tradition.
2) The evangelical church, if it is to be apostolic, must make more of an effort to be catholic; that is, aware of the breadth and depth of the historic teaching of the church.
For example, Letham argues that the Westminster Assembly did not conceive of its work as defending a narrow tradition.
The Assembly’s Reformed context establishes its Catholic credentials, for the Reformers were at odds not with the Catholic tradition but with its immediate representatives. Evidence abounds from Luther, Calvin, and their contemporaries. In Westminster’s case, this is abundantly demonstrated from the minutes, where the records have shown beyond the slightest doubt that every theological question was debated from a foundation of exegesis of biblical texts, in dialogue with the history of exegesis reaching back to the early days of the church. So pervasive is the focus on the exegesis of the Bible that it would be futile here to list the tests on which debate turned—the evidence is literally overwhelming. However, it was not carried on in isolation; it took place self-consciously as part of the great tradition of the church. (52)
Today’s evangelicals do not make the same efforts toward catholicity. As a result, we end up repeating old mistakes.
Might it not have spared a lot of turmoil if Pinnock, Sanders, and Boyd [i.e., advocates of open theism] had been aware that what they paraded as an exciting new development was merely a rehash of Socinianism? Would it not have helped if they had been aware that their claim that the church was held captive by Greek philosophy sprang from ignorance that this theory had been refuted many times over? (55)
And regarding the first point, Letham warns that before we chuck historic Christianity (because we now live in an exciting global context) we should remember that the catholic faith did not come from America or Europe.
There are those who claim that we are entering an entirely new era requiring a massive paradigm shift in the church’s thought and action. In this case, historical theology is merely a curiosity. It may have a part in an ongoing conversation but the debate has moved on. The past is effectively sidelined since a conversation, as it progresses in subtle and dynamic ways, renders obsolete and irrelevant the comments made five minutes ago. Many voices praise the idea that the church will be freed from its captivity to Western Europe and North America. This misses the point that the foundations of the church were laid by Egyptians (Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine), and a Syrian (John of Damascus), so say nothing of the apostles (Middle-Eastern Jews)—these hardly look like Western Europeans, let alone North Americans. (55)
Here’s Letham’s conclusion:
Global Christianity in the twenty-first century, to be truly catholic, must be apostolic—grounded in Scripture and built upon the teaching of the church. It is worryingly evident that many who have leaped onto the bandwagon of globalism—mainly in this country—are ready to move beyond the foundation. On the other hand, it is my impression that for too many in the evangelical and Reformed churches, an appreciation of the historical catholicity of the church is lacking. Only when these distortions are corrected will it be possible meaningfully to reaffirm with Constantinople I, “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” (57)
If you can get your hands on the latest issue of WTJ, read Letham. And while you’re at it, Paul Helm’s article on the misrepresentation of B.B. Warfield is also very good.
Above all, go read some old books, even older than the Reformation once in awhile.