Volume 27 - Issue 3
Reckoning With the Past in An Anti-Historical AgeBy Carl Trueman
As I prepared this article I was reminded of the very first issue of the English journal, The Evangelical Quarterly which was issued in January 1929 as part of a concerted attempt to articulate the historic Christian faith in times that were not particularly well-suited to such an endeavour. On the back cover of that issue is a series of names of those who had agreed to write articles for the journal. Among the names are those of Professors Ridderbos and Schilder of Kampen. The presence of their names on that list speaks volumes of the consistent ecumenical desire of Reformed theologians throughout the ages to propagate their faith in an intelligent and articulate manner; of their desire to combat heresy while at the same time engaging in well-mannered dialogue with those with whom they disagree.1 It would indeed have been very opportune for this article if the programmatic statement about the Reformed faith which that journal’s first issue contained had been written by a Dutchman—and from my personal perspective, had I been editor I would certainly have arranged it thus—but, as a matter of fact, that honour was accorded to an American, Caspar Wistar Hodge. In an essay of 20 pages or so, Hodge expounded the basic principles of the Reformed faith in a context which showed both his knowledge of its historic origins and emphases and the looming crises which it faced. Indeed, his remarks on the rising Swiss star, Karl Barth, offer us insights into early orthodox responses to the new theology. More than that, they remind us that 1929 was a transition point in the history of Reformed theology, a time at when great change was about to sweep over the Reformed world. In the closing paragraph, Hodge makes the following comment:
Doubtless this Reformed Faith is suffering a decline in the theological world today. What has been termed ‘Reformed spring-time in Germany’ we cannot regard as the legitimate daughter of the classic Reformed Faith. In Scotland the names of William Cunningham and Thomas Crawford no longer exert the influence we wish they did. In America the influence of Charles Hodge, Robert Breckinridge, James Thornwell, Robert Dabney, William G.T. Shedd, and Benjamin Warfield, seems largely to have vanished.
This list reads almost as a metaphorical obituary for Reformed theology, being as it is a litany of dead Reformed theologians, with Warfield—the most recently deceased—having been dead at that point for eight years. If Hodge had had a less Anglo-American focus he might also have added the names of Kuyper and Bavinck, who died in 1920 and 1921 respectively. The times they were indeed a-changing and, in retrospect, we can see that 1929, witnessing as it did the reorganisation of Princeton Theological Seminary and the end of classical confessionalism at that institution, was an historic turning-point for Reformed theology.
I shall return to Hodge’s article later on. What I wish to do in this article is to argue that once again confessional Reformed theology, along with its close relatives of confessional Lutheranism and conservative evangelicalism, stands at a crucial crossroads in its history; and that the opening years of the twenty-first century present the orthodox Christian world in general with a series of serious challenges to its theology and its ecclesiastical identity. I want to make the case that the only hope for such orthodox theology, and for the churches which give visible expression to such theology, lies in the ability—or rather the willingness—of those of us who claim the name Christian to be what we always should be. That is, exponents of a counter-cultural movement which finds its norms and its purpose not in an assimilation to the wider culture but in a recovery of its own distinctiveness.
The aspect of modern life which I wish to highlight as presenting one of the most significant threats to the Reformed faith is that of the tendency of the modern world to be anti-historical. By this, I mean the aversion of modern men and women to tradition and history as a source of wisdom and even authority. In a world where the very language that is used reflects the deep-seated suspicion of all things old and an adulation of most things new, this is hardly a contentious claim. It is, however, one which has massive significance for the church and for theology.
Before engaging in a closer analysis of this problem, we must first acknowledge that it is too easy for those who spend their lives studying ideas and concepts to overestimate the role of self-conscious intellectuals in creating this anti-historical atmosphere. When students, in the rarefied atmosphere of university libraries, read of anti-historical tendencies many instinctively reach for their textbooks of anti-historical philosophies and the primers of deconstructive method. Yet to do so is to expose themselves to the error of seeing the problem of the importance of history merely as a crisis in intellectual method and philosophy. It is certainly to be seen as such in certain contexts. But as so often happens in the history of ideas, a problem which appears to manifest itself as primarily philosophical and intellectual can have roots which lie deep in the wider cultural milieu.
We must be aware that we live in a world where, for most people, designer labels, credit cards and the Pill are of far more immediate and decisive significance than the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci or the musings of Michel Foucault. In other words, to understand the world in which we live, we must not only engage in intellectual genealogy in order to establish the philosophical roots of the modern world but we must also broaden our analysis to engage with the wider sociology of knowledge. Thus what follows will not be confined solely to the history of ideas as traditionally conceived but will also look at the broader picture of society.
The intellectual roots of the modern anti-historical tendency can be found in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Whether one looks at the continental or at the Anglo-American tradition, it is quite clear that the rhetoric of the new and the novel quickly becomes associated with the improved and the better. While the last thing of which a theologian in the sixteenth century or before wished to be accused was novelty or innovation, in the Enlightenment era an iconoclastic view of history and tradition was seen as part and parcel of the freeing of humankind from bondage and darkness. Thus, Voltaire, Kant and company were happy to understand themselves as taking part in an ‘enlightenment’ and to surround their work with the language of liberty, while dismissing their predecessors as scholastic, obscurantist, and inhabiting the dark ages. This intellectual tendency toward the exaltation of the new at the expense of the old was massively reinforced with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. At this time new modes of production, urbanisation, and the rise to dominance of the middle classes led to the fundamental reshaping of society and its values. In an apocalyptic passage in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx, writing in the heat of the Industrial Revolution, describes the changes he sees around him:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.2
Thus the preference of the Enlightenment for the new and the novel at the level of ideas found its social counterpart in the changes driven by the Industrial Revolution, and its concrete expression in the changed economic and social relations in society. All of this militated against the older, classical notion that history and tradition were important sources of positive wisdom.
Looking around today it is quite clear that these anti-historical tendencies have reached something of a crescendo in the Western societies of the present time. The advanced consumerism of the West promotes novelty as an absolute virtue. Marx would no doubt have seen this as the result of capitalism’s need to be constantly creating new products and new markets for itself. One may hesitate to go all the way with the Marxist analysis of the situation in purely material terms but one cannot deny some truth to such an argument. It is, after all, crucial that we do not wear yesterday’s fashions, sport yesterday’s labels, or listen to yesterday’s music lest we be labelled, not so much ‘reactionary’ as ‘square’ or ‘out of touch’. And who says that this is the case?—The people whose financial security depends upon the sale of more and more of their products. In addition, the cult of youth is evidenced in everything from the domination of adverts aimed at young people on television to the plethora of available anti-ageing products. The underlying ideology would seem to be clear: the young, the fresh, the new is good; the old, the aged, the traditional is bad.
This anti-historical commitment of modern consumerist society finds its ideological counterpart in the some of the strands of that amorphous group of philosophies which go under the over-used name of postmodernism. Ever since Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, secular thinking has been aware of the specious nature of claims to objectivity in all realms, including the historical. Even within a modernist framework the need for a hermeneutic of suspicion in the study of history comes across clearly in the work of a traditional Marxist historian such as Eric Hobsbawm. In the introduction to The Invention of Tradition, (a collection of essays on the creation and applications of various traditions), along with accompanying spurious historical pedigrees, Hobsbawm notes three overlapping uses of types of tradition since the Industrial Revolution. Some traditions establish or symbolise the social cohesion of certain groups; some establish or legitimise institutions or certain power relations; and some inculcate value systems, patterns of behaviour, and social conventions in the interest of socialisation and social stability.3 What underlies each of these three types is the manipulation—or even ‘creation’—of history and historical narrative for some ulterior political purpose, either of social control or of legitimisation.
What is a useful critical tool in the hands of a traditional Marxist becomes an utterly destructive and self-defeating weapon in the hands of those thinkers who have pushed the hermeneutic of suspicion to its logical conclusions. In the world of postmodern history, the point is neither to reconstruct the past, as in the work of tradition positivist historians, nor to construct it as in the work of traditional Marxists, but rather to deconstructit. It is to lay bare the hidden agendas which underlie all historical narratives and to ask the key question again and again, who owns history?4 For the ownership of any given historical narrative is intimately linked to the question of who wields power in the present. Hence, the last two decades have seen a ferocious reaction against the traditional narrative of history that focused on Europe and on white heterosexual males. This has been reinforced by a consequent growth in histories from other perspectives, for example those of women, blacks and gays. Perhaps the most famous and articulate exponent of this rejection of traditional history was the late French intellectual. Michel Foucault. As Richard Evans summarises the position of Foucault on history:
History [for Foucault] was a fiction of narrative order imposed on the irreducible chaos of events in the interests of the exercise of power. And if one version of the past was more widely accepted than others, this was not because it was nearer the truth, or conformed more closely to ‘the evidence’, but because its exponents had more power within the historical profession, or within society in general, than its critics.5
For such as Foucault, therefore, histories do not offer explanations of how we come to be where we are in the traditional sense of the word; rather they offer bids for power, attempts to legitimise particular institutions or attitudes in the present. Thus, historical narratives, along with other attempts to provide all-embracing explanations of reality or to make truth-claims, must be unmasked and exposed as the bids for power that they really are. As the Enlightenment downgraded history and tradition by stigmatising them with the language of obscurantism and reaction, and as consumerism has made space for history only as a marketing opportunity in the shape of theme parks and nostalgia shops, so much recent philosophy has labelled history as yet another surreptitious attempt to exert power under the guise of objective truth. Taken together, the voracious appetite for novelty and innovation that marks advanced consumerist societies, and the inveterate cynicism of the modern world, whether expressed in popular political apathy or sophisticated postmodern theories, have proved to be a potent anti-historical, anti-traditional combination.
The Impact on the Church
This article is not intended as a sketch map of contemporary society. The purpose is to address the very serious question of where and how orthodox, Christian theology as classically conceived, can speak to this day and this generation and why, therefore, time should be spent studying it at the start of the third millennium. Before a positive agenda can be offered, however, some time needs to be spent assessing the impact of the various anti-historical trends, noted above, on the Christian church. If society at large is losing its sense of history, and if the academy is launching a full-frontal assault upon the very possibility of history, how is this affecting the church?
I want to suggest that anti-historical trends of the pragmatic, consumer society of the West have elicited two differing but equally inadequate and, ultimately, anti-historical, responses from the church in the West. First, part of the church has itself enthusiastically embraced these tendencies and has abandoned its self-conscious position within a historical tradition, leaving itself somewhat rootless. Second, part of the church has attempted to grasp the significance of history once again by seeking traditions to enrich its spirituality, but has done this in a manner which is historically fallacious and ultimately a symptom of precisely the same consumerism which has shaped the first response.
To take the first point, the evidence of a collapse in historical rootedness is evident for all to see. We can start by looking at the liturgical practices of the church. By ‘liturgical practice’ I do not mean specific formal liturgies such as the Book of Common Prayer. Rather I use the term to refer to the broader linguistic and ritualistic shape of Christian worship: the kind of songs that are sung, prayers that are prayed, and sermons that are preached. When looked at in these broad terms, the last twenty or thirty years have seen a veritable transformation of Christian practice, with many churches abandoning traditional hymnody and worship service structures in favour of songs that are more contemporary and service styles that are more conducive to modern sensibilities. More often than not, these changes are implemented with more than a passing reference to the need to attract young people to church—a most legitimate aim but also perhaps a significant modification of the emphases contained in the Great Commission where the category of age receives no specific mention. It is also interesting that a clear connection is being made between attracting youth and breaking decisively with the past in key areas. The ideology of consumerism, with its emphasis on novelty, youth markets etc., clearly lies just below the surface.
To use language that is familiar to a consumer society, no one should make the mistake of seeing the move to contemporary praise songs and service styles as simply a straightforward, value-neutral repackaging or rebranding of a traditional product. After all, at a basic level, language and worship forms offer significant lines of continuity with the past, a past which inevitably shapes our identity in the present. This is seen quite clearly in the Bible’s own teaching, whereby the Passover is instituted as a means of commemorating God’s mighty act of salvation of ancient Israel. The ceremony was to be repeated annually as a reminder to the Israelites both of what God had done in the past and, consequently, who they were in the present. The historical connection is underlined by the reference in Exodus 12:26–27, where God instructs the Israelites what to say when their children question them about why the Passover is celebrated. The same is true in the Christian church: connection with the past is vital. Of course, the Bible and the sacraments provide us with the basic, vital historical connection to God’s saving action in Christ; but there is also a wealth of theological and church tradition which, while not authoritative in the way that Scripture is, is yet extremely useful for maintaining the knowledge of who Christians are, through relating them to the past; and one important avenue for this is the church’s current liturgical practices. The language and the practices of the Christian community, tried and tested over the centuries, while not in themselves absolutely sacrosanct, should not be casually abandoned or lightly cast to one side. They are an important element in the identity of the church; and to break decisively with them on the purely pragmatic grounds of enhanced marketability risks the displacement of the church’s historic identity.
Of course, Protestantism has always had the potential of providing fertile soil for a theology and a church culture which disparages tradition. The notion of scriptural authority as articulated by the Reformers and by subsequent Reformed and Lutheran thinkers inevitably subordinated church tradition to the Bible. It created a situation where tradition could, where necessary, be abandoned. They regarded the Bible as the sole source of revelation and that inevitably meant Protestants were far more critical and selective in their approach to the church’s dogmatic tradition than was typically the case in medieval Catholicism. Nevertheless the Reformers and the subsequent tradition never intended this notion of scriptural authority to act as the means for a wholesale rejection of the church’s theological traditions in themselves; they saw it simply as a critical tool by which those traditions could be continuously critiqued and reformed.
While there were groups within the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which argued for just such a rejection of all tradition on the basis of a radical biblicism, it is most significant that these groups were not part of the magisterial Reformation and were repudiated by the mainstream. The most famous and influential of these were the Socinians. The Socinians originated in Italy but flourished in Poland. They rejected even the doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation on the grounds of a literalist hermeneutic combined with an emphatic rejection of metaphysics within theology.
Here there are obvious parallels with the sophisticated theological-historical work of later liberals such as Adolf von Harnack, but at a less sophisticated level, the Socinian understanding of scriptural authority is alive and well within the evangelical church today, fuelled by the very anti-historical and innovative forces of modern western consumerism. At the level of ideology, it can be seen in the work of the so-called ‘openness of God’ movement associated with such as Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd—a movement which, incidentally, shares significant ground with the work of von Harnack as well as to early Socinianism in its opposition to the alleged distorting metaphysics of the orthodox Christian tradition, patristic, medieval and Reformation, on the grounds of a radical scripture principle. Thus, their god has limited knowledge of the future and continually changes in relation to his creation. Given the amount of metaphysical language deployed in patristic trinitarian discussions, we may well ultimately find that this Socinian approach to theology will place God’s trinitarian nature in danger. Maybe this will not happen, but, as this has always been the result of such anti-metaphysical crusades in the past, the omens are not good.
At a more mundane level, the application of this crude Scripture principle can be seen in the everyday life and practices of evangelical churches around the world where cries of ‘No creed but the Bible’, preaching which fails to draw biblical exegesis into theological synthesis, and a disregard for historic patterns of worship and confession, are offered in all seriousness as examples of fidelity to the authority of Scripture. The underlying assumption seems to be that the Protestant notion of scriptural authority can only exist with an iconoclastic attitude to tradition, a position the Reformers themselves would have repudiated. This kind of neo-Socinianism, whether at the level of ideology or of practice, is one response of the church to the challenge of modernity and consumerism.
So much for the first type of church response to modern anti-historical tendencies. The second response is, on the surface at least, almost the exactly the opposite. This response is that of recovering earlier Christian tradition as a means of rediscovering a more authentic spirituality than the church in the West has generally offered. The most influential example of this in Britain is the so-called rediscovery over the last two decades of Celtic Christianity and the spirituality of the Celtic churches in the early Middle Ages. In a veritable cornucopia of books, the Celtic way has been promoted in church circles as the recovery of a previous lost dimension of church tradition. The Celtic way is promoted as more in tune with nature, as less obsessed with the theme of sin, as offering a spirituality which appeals to the whole person, and as being more rooted in images than in words. All of this is seen as giving it a superior value to that of sin-obsessed Western Augustinianism, particularly as this found its ultimate expression in the word-centred, cerebral religion of the Reformation. The Reformation, as the birthing-room of modernity and Enlightenment, of imperialism, of individualism (whatever that means), and ultimately industrialisation is seen as the ultimate theological disaster and the source of many of the modern world’s ills.
Yet this ‘Celtic revival’, while superficially appearing to represent a return to history and tradition, is on the whole simply a theological manifestation of the same phenomenon we see in society around us. It is an eclectic and nostalgic appropriation of a pseudo-history which supplies the church with a specious historical authenticity. To apply the categories of Hobsbawm, the church, having lost sight of its real historical roots, has invented traditions for the purpose of socialization and legitimation in the present. Within the mythology of the Celtic Christianity movement, the ideal of the Celt functions for today’s adherent of Celtic Christianity in a manner similar to that in which the ideal of the ‘noble savage’ did for the generation of Rousseau.
As to the historical integrity of the movement, this has been exposed as a complete sham in a book by Donald Meek, Professor of Celtic, at Aberdeen University.6 He points out that none of the high-profile advocates of Celtic spirituality know any of the Celtic languages, and so have no direct access to the sources. He analyses the cultural history of the movement, with its highly selective approach to Celtic matters and exposes it as a historical con-trick. Indeed, his work is embarrassing in the way that a badly-matched boxing fight is embarrassing. In the end, one almost feels sorry for his opponents because they have taken such a merciless and effective beating from a man who actually reads the sources and knows the history.
What Meek demonstrates so well is that Celtic Christianity is more akin to the New Age movement in terms of its rejection of the literary in favour of the visual, its obsession with ecological issues, and its desire to reject certain aspects (though by no means all) of Western culture. Indeed, one area where the new Celtic Christians reveal their Western, consumerist colours so effectively is in the matter of ascetic practices. The rigorous penitential system which was one of the hallmarks uniting Welsh, Scottish, and Irish churches, is conspicuous only by its almost total absence from the modern Celtic Christianity movement.7 Like pampered Hollywood stars who proclaim there adherence to Buddhism, and meditate daily, yet continue to live lives of massive consumption and self-indulgence, most modern Celtic Christians appear to take the bits of the tradition which appeal and leave the rest, unpurchased, on the shelf.
As such, it is scarcely the authentic recovery of historical tradition which it claims to be, but is rather the invention of tradition by a culture which finds itself rootless and disillusioned. Such a culture needs to invent a history for itself that will meet its contemporary concerns. It is, therefore, only superficially different from the outright rejection of tradition that can be seen in many evangelical quarters. It uses language, names and symbols which would appear to give it historical integrity; yet it does so in a manner that is driven not by the sources but by the romantic vision of certain people in the modern world.
In sketch form this is the Western European world of today. Christianity is no longer the dominant cultural force which it once was: in other words, we live in a post-Christian, pluralistic society. The church itself has in large part abandoned its historic pedigree, as is evidenced by the worship songs that are sung, by the kind of things spoken in church and by the widespread ignorance of church history and tradition. Furthermore, where tradition is held in high-esteem, as in the Celtic Christianity movement, it is often done in a way that is both self-consciously iconoclastic towards the Western tradition in general and the Reformation tradition in particular. With this in mind some will ask: why study orthodox, historic Christian theology, particularly in its classical Reformed form, at the start of the third millennium? I would like to reply to this by proposing two theses.
One: the Reformed tradition takes seriously the biblical teaching that God is primarily a speaking God
It almost goes without saying that the Reformed church originated in a movement of words. The Bible translations, the pamphlets, the sermons, and even the changes to church architecture which the Reformed church embodied, all speak volumes about the increasing significance of words in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While social and cultural historians would no doubt root this in a complex of historical forces, from the invention of the printing press to rising literacy rates, burgeoning trade, changing fiscal policies, and increases in bureaucracy and record-keeping, for those who take self-understanding and even theology seriously as categories of significance to historians, the conviction among the Reformed that God is a God who speaks must also be allowed to play its part in the analysis. The importance of the notions of command and, above all promise to the Protestant message, immediately meant that Protestantism was inevitably going to be an irreducibly verbal phenomenon. One simply cannot command or promise by mere symbols, as was made so clear in the Reformers insistence that the sacraments could not be administered except in the congregation and in the context of the clear and comprehensible preaching of the word.
In addition to this very obvious point, we might also make reference to the careful articulation of the relationship between the Word of God conceived as the second person of the Trinity, and the Word of God as Scripture, both of which identifications are commonplace in Reformed theology. The emphasis upon God the Father working by the Word through the Holy Spirit as the ontic source of our knowledge of God was not seen as standing in any way opposed to the emphasis on the inscripturated Word as the cognitive ground for theology. God and words were thus theologically inseparable in the Reformed account of revelation. This simple point finds biblical warrant in the consistent scriptural testimony to God as the God who speaks, who uses words in order to address mankind and to reveal himself to mankind, whether in the context of Mount Sinai or of the Mount of Olives. The Christian God is the God who speaks, who communicates and relates to his people in a manner which is inextricably bound up with speech and with words.
At this point it is necessary to highlight two current trends, one broadly cultural, the other more narrowly intellectual, which strike at the very heart of this notion of a speaking God. The first is the general shift within our culture from the literary or the verbal to the visual and the iconic. As the Reformation, and the Reformed theology which it nurtured, were in part the products of a cultural shift from the visual to the verbal, we now stand at a point in history where the cultural pendulum is swinging back somewhat in the opposite dimension. While the sixteenth century had its printing press and its book industry, today there is television and, more recently, the internet. While it is true that these latter media involve words and language, the emphasis or the dominant mode of communication within both is that of the visual image. To give examples is easy: one can cite the US presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, where radio listeners thought Nixon had won while television viewers gave the result to Kennedy. The reason? Kennedy lookedcool, suntanned and physically prepossessing while Nixon, although he sounded more impressive, was pale and gaunt, having just returned from hospital. If the television could exert such ominous power in 1960, how much more significant is it today, in a world where the most powerful men and women in the world are, with little doubt, those who control the giant global television industry.
This cultural shift raises huge questions for the church and for theology. For a start, the church has to face the perennial question of how its message can be communicated in the surrounding culture. Such a question has always involved some form of dialogue with and accommodation to the wider context, even if for some, this has only meant that the word must be preached in a language society can understand. The major question that is posed by our increasingly visual culture is: can the gospel be communicated in a more visual manner?
There are many who answer yes to this question—and do so with an unnerving passion. To return to the interest in Celtic spirituality, this is a movement that lays far more stress upon the emotions and upon symbols and aesthetics than upon the intellect and upon dogma. It is the classic spirituality for the visual age, with its mysticism, its artwork and its disdain for classic doctrinal formulations. But it is not Celtic spirituality that needs to be focused on here. What we need to be concerned about is the replacement of preaching and doctrine in many generic evangelical churches with drama, with so-called liturgical dance, with feelings, emotions and mystical experiences, and, sometimes, with elaborate sacramental ceremonies which make the Catholic Church look positively Puritan by comparison. They all speak of the transformation of Protestantism from a word-based movement into something more concerned with aesthetics of one form or another.
This is where a thorough grounding in the classic Reformed or evangelical faith is so important at the level of church leadership. If the central notion of the God who speaks is more than simply a social construct, an act of cultural projectionism, then the movement against words in the church—whether words in preaching, prayer, or doctrine—is a movement with profound theological implications. It is not simply a rebellion against words in themselves: it is also a rebellion against the God who speaks them. Yet it seems that the argument is being won within the churches by the advocates of the new aesthetic Protestantism almost by default. Of all the forms of Protestantism to emerge from the Reformation, that of the Reformed tradition is the one which reflected at most length upon the notion of the God who speaks and worked out the implications of this for the church’s theology and practice. It is thus crucial at this time that the Reformed church should take the lead in critiquing current aesthetic trends within evangelicalism and reasserting once more the centrality of God and of God’s speech to the church at large. I would suggest that Reformed theology, with its rich tradition of careful reflection upon the notion of the God who speaks, is superbly placed to address these issues with the seriousness and the biblical fidelity which they demand.
The war against words, however, is not simply being conducted at the level of popular cultural trends. It has also received significant intellectual expression in the various schools of literary criticism and social science which emerged from France in the nineteen-sixties and which now hold sway within many universities and seminaries in Europe and North America. While any generalised description of these schools is bound to be simplistic, it is accurate to say that one characteristic which many share is the notion that meaning is ultimately determined by the reader or reading community and not by the author or the texts themselves. The so-called ‘death of the author’ is something one sees frequently trumpeted from the lecterns of lecture theatres, books of literary theory, and the pages of influential literary journals.
In a significant study of such theories from a Christian point of view, Kevin Vanhoozer has argued that the death of God in the sixties became the death of the author in the nineties. In other words, he sees the attack on the authority of authors and texts as being, at root, a theological problem, a rebellion against God. Certainly, the case seems compelling. If Dostoievsky was correct in seeing the non-existence of God as thrusting man into the abyss of ethical nihilism, then Vanhoozer would seem to be correct in seeing the death of God as thrusting man into the abyss of epistemological nihilism. In other words, the speaking God is that which gives meaning to all life, whether it be moral codes or texts.8
Once again, this is where the Reformed faith is singularly well-placed to meet the challenge. While there is considerable evidence that many within the broader evangelical constituency are flirting with aspects of postmodern literary theory, though often in a highly derivative and simplified form, Vanhoozer’s warning ought to be heeded. While the days when the meaning of texts could be regarded as generally clear and self-evident are long gone—and the Reformed, with their understanding of the epistemological impact of sin should have no problem with this idea—the notion that communities or readers create meaning is highly dangerous and ultimately thrusts God back into the realm of the noumenal, incapable of communicating with his people. Once again, it is here that the Reformed emphasis upon the God who speaks to humanity, the God who accommodates himself to human capacity, is both counter-cultural in terms of wider trends but also crucial in terms of the future survival of the church. Christians have a God who speaks; and that has profound implications for the manner in which they are able to interact with and appropriate contemporary trends in epistemology.
Two: The Reformed Faith appreciates the beneficial aspects of history and tradition
The suspicion and disdain that characterises much of the modern attitude to history and tradition was noted above. At the level of mass culture, the impact of consumerism as generating a continual need for the new and the novel was noted. At the level of philosophy, a brief look was given at the approach to history of those such as Michel Foucault, who regard the writing of history as being about power and manipulation, in the present as much as in the past, rather than about being a quest for the ‘truth’, whatever that might be.
There is a level at which the Reformed can agree with such as Foucault. The emphasis in the confessional documents upon total depravity should alert the church to the fact that history and tradition, like everything else, can be written, manipulated, and used in a manner which is profoundly abusive.9 Indeed, there is a sense in which one could read Foucault’s writing as perhaps the greatest reflection upon the significance of total depravity for historical writing which there is. Where Foucault errs, along with many Marxists, is in his failure to see that history and tradition can also be profoundly helpful, even liberating, to humanity. The assumption of Foucault is that all history is about power, about classifying and marginalising, about promoting a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality that is based upon power relations. For Marxists, tradition and history are too often ways of cultivating false consciousness, of maintaining class distinctions and therefore of keeping the poor in their subordinate position in the economic foodchain. For both Foucault and Marxists, therefore, it is imperative to unmask the hidden and manipulative agendas which underlie the writing of the history of the maintenance of traditions. Christians too should be in the game of unmasking the ungodly agendas and bids for power that lurk around every corner—even, or perhaps, especially, in the church; but they must also be aware that, as Christians, their attitude to history should be more nuanced than Foucault and company.
First, they must question the blanket assumption that is found in this kind of secular philosophy that all history and tradition is, by definition, manipulative and abusive. This can be done indirectly by applying the same yardstick to the Marxists and the disciples of Foucault as they apply to others. They could be charged with writing history that is simply ideology dressed up as truth, that is subtly manipulative, that simply marginalises and disenfranchises those whom they wish to subjugate for their own ends; but they would probably have little difficulty agreeing with this claim and little would have been achieved beyond showing the futile nihilism of these approaches when consistently applied across the board. Relativising the relativisers ultimately calls forth cries of little more than ‘So what?’ from those watching on the sidelines. Far better to point to the profoundly disorienting cultural and social effects which the collapse of history and tradition have brought in their wake in recent years. As historical ignorance and anti-traditionalism has increased with the rise of Western consumerism, society has not witnessed any great liberation; rather, there has been the creation of a desperate and deep-seated craving for precisely the kind of identity which history and tradition are capable of supplying. Thus, for example, we have the rise of new, militant nationalisms and the invention of the pseudo-historical New Age spiritualities. The removal and destruction of traditions and histories which actually have some roots in the real past have frequently not liberated humanity but rather left aching voids which have been filled with synthetic traditions and histories which are indeed truly the invention of those who promote them; and arguably these have proved far more manipulative than many which have gone before.10 Multinational consumerism reduces all of life to a bland and rootless present, and, as humanity finds itself free-floating and rootless, it desperately strives to create (rather than rediscover) for itself a history and a network of tradition which will give it value and identity. The death of history and the death of tradition has not proved to be a liberating experience; it has merely created a hole into which any old fairy-story can now be fitted.
The first reason for the importance of the study of the Reformed faith in this context is, therefore, that it does provide the church with a history and a tradition upon which to build its identity and understand its place in the wider world. The Reformed church, with its creeds, confessions, catechisms, and theological tradition provides its people with the historical continuity for which so many people crave today and which is so crucial if they are not to be blown here and there by every puff of doctrine or every passing fad. Unlike alternative traditions, such as that of Celtic spirituality, however, our tradition is defined by public documents, creeds, confessions, and historical movements, not by romantic speculation about what might have happened, speculation which speaks more of contemporary aspirations than actions in real time-space history. Of course, the past can be romanticised and people can become idolatrous with regard to traditions. This is a most serious and ever-present danger, and one has only to think of the way that the Reformed faith has been used in the past to realise that it can as easily be a means of oppression as of liberation. However the danger at this particular point in time would seem rather to be that of thoughtless iconoclasm rather than of rampant idolatry. This is not to say that the church is simply in the business of maintaining its tradition for the sake of tradition and of accepting uncritically all that the tradition contains. That would be to raise tradition to the level of revelation, the very thing against which our Reformation forefathers reacted so strongly. It is rather to argue that our tradition provides us with a place to stand and a starting-point from which we can assess the world around us, ourselves, and even our own tradition. By so doing, we can acknowledge in all humility that, while the church in the past may indeed have made mistakes, informed reflection on that past is nevertheless crucial to any intelligent engagement with the present. I would suggest that the critical appropriation of church tradition which we see in the best theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in fact provides a fine model of how to relate to history and tradition today.
This is also where the catholicity of the Reformed faith offers great opportunities. A careful reading of the great Reformed theologians of the past indicates that Reformed thought is far from sectarian in its spirit. The great trinitarian creeds of the early church provide the backdrop to the tradition; and those theologians who lie behind the confessional standards of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while standing firm on their beliefs and adamantly refusing to reduce all doctrine to the level of adiaphora, yet interacted with all shades of theological opinion and still provide both a theology and a pattern of engagement which seeks to do justice to the wider theological scene in a manner which is articulate rather than obscurantist. An appreciation of history, and of the doctrinal struggles of the church throughout history, are surely crucial to the avoidance of a narrow sectarianism and self-righteousness in the present. If the church capitulates to the anti-historical forces at work around us, it is exposed to all manner of unfortunate consequences, not least the potential of repeating many of the theological errors of the past.
While this is to argue for the general usefulness of history and tradition, note must also be taken of the fact that for the Reformed, the problem with the relentless assault on history and tradition, at both intellectual and popular levels, also has a profound theological dimension. Our understanding of God is that he is a God who works through history, and whose identity and purposes are bound up with the way he has acted in times past. This is an important biblical truth, as any number of references in the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophets or the New Testament tell us. We cannot simply accept either the radical approach to history and tradition which reduces it all to the level of a power struggle, nor can we opt for the innovative and creative approach which is found in Celtic spirituality, which simply creates the past it wishes to discover. History means something because God is its author; and at root, the attacks on history from both the academy and modern popular culture are profoundly theological because they are attempts once again to push God out of the big picture. They may not deny his existence; but they effectively deny him any positive relation with his creation. That is at best Deism.
This is why Reformed theology is so important. With the centrality of the notion of covenant to its theological scheme, the Reformed faith places the God who works in history right at the heart of its confession. At the level of theology, this is surely as crucial to holding the Bible together as a theological unity as is the notion of the one God who speaks in the Bible. It is one of the strengths of Reformed theology that it sees the biblical history as witnessing to the actions of a single God who is committed to the salvation of his people through the Messiah who marks the culmination of the history of his covenant people. While there are manifest problems in extending this approach to our reading of post-biblical history, the notion of covenant, the place of families and children within our understanding of the church, and the centrality of the sacraments to our worship, all reinforce the importance of continuity with God’s saving actions throughout history. As soon as sight is lost of this historical dimension to God’s action, then there will be a tendency towards mysticism and individualism and all sight is lost of the real significance of the church as the covenant community of the God who rules over history and works within history. We will also lose sight of the importance of theological and practical humility in the Christian life: so much of today’s attitude to the past is iconoclastic; so little of it reflects the attitude of people like Paul in the Pastoral letters. Acknowledging that God works in history means that we acknowledge that he has worked in the past; and acknowledging that he has worked in the past means that we acknowledge that we may not ignore that past as if we today had all the answers. In short, without God as its author, history becomes meaningless, as do the lives of all those who make up history. All that is left is the unchained and autonomous individual in the present. The way we worship becomes whatever suits us here and now; and our theology becomes whatever we think the Bible means or whatever the latest scholarly consensus tells us it means. In short, we lose any perspective from which to be self-critical.
We might add, finally, that when we lose sight of God’s work in the past we may easily also lose sight of his work in the future, of the eschatological dimension of the Christian faith. Once we neglect the past, we will also just as surely fail to understand the significance of the present in relation to the future. This is one of the reasons why many evangelical churches have an over-realised eschatology. The failure to understand the significance of history in God’s purposes has led to a failure to understand the balance that exists in the Bible regarding the now/not yet tension in relation to the coming of the kingdom. This provides fertile soil for, at the trivial level, nothing but triumphalist worship songs with no room for Christian suffering, and, at the more openly dubious level, prosperity teaching, total healing movements, and all manner of groups who fail to come to real grips with the reality and the problem of evil in the present day. Such over-realised eschatology is itself another function of a consumerist, credit-card culture that wants everything now, and will not wait until tomorrow. The disastrous pastoral consequences of such teaching, not to mention its theological inadequacies, are visible round about for all to see. By contrast, Reformed theology, by giving due place to history in God’s purposes, points beyond the present to a brighter future in eschatological glory and thus does justice to the biblical tension involved in living in the world between Pentecost and the Parousia.
Why, then, should we study the Reformed faith today? The answer is because it offers the most effective and biblical antidote to the forces around us which most threaten Christianity. These are Western materialist consumerism, and its concomitant ideologies of the superiority of the new and the rejection of the old. The cultural war around us is, at a very deep level, a war against history and thus, against the God who works in and through history. In this context, the Reformed faith sets forth the theological importance of history with supreme clarity; it also offers us a framework for doing justice not just to biblical history but also to church tradition.
Times are hard for Reformed traditionalists, not least because of precisely this current questioning of the value of history. But they should not lose heart—if God has worked in the past, then he will work in the present and in the future. I thus leave the last words to Caspar Wistar Hodge, who concluded the essay alluded to earlier in the following way:
[T]hough in theological circles and in ecclesiastical courts the leaders of Reformed thought find scant recognition, wherever humble souls catch the vision of God in His glory and bow in humility and adoration before Him, trusting for salvation only in His grace and power, there you have the essence of the Reformed Faith, and God in His providence may yet raise up a leader of religious thought who shall once again make the Reformed Faith a power in the theological world. If and when this happens we may confidently expect a true revival of religion in the Protestant world.11
1 The term ‘Reformed’ is used throughout this article to refer to the tradition of theology which attempts to place itself self-consciously in the tradition of thought epitomised by the ancient creeds of the church and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation.
2 Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings I (London: Penguin, 1973), 70.
3 Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), 9.
4 For a survey and discussion of postmodern approaches to history by a historian who is is profoundly influenced by Michel Foucault and Hayden White, see Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History (London: Routledge, 1997). For a vigorous restatement of a modernist position, see Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta, 1997).
5 Evans, In Defence of History, 195–96.
6 Donald Meek, The Quest for Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 2000).
7 See Meek, The Quest for Celtic Christianity, 95 ff.
8 See Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Leicester: Apollos, 1998).
9 By ‘total depravity’ I do not mean that everybody is as bad as they possibly can be but that every aspect of humanity is corrupted to some degree by the Fall. Thus, epistemology becomes in part a moral issue and all claims to mere, absolute objectivity are rendered false.
10 Along similar lines, though from an avowedly Marxist perspective. Terry Eagleton has criticised postmodernism precisely on the grounds that it is profoundly politically disempowering: see Terry Eagleton. The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).
11 Hodge, Evangelical Quarterly, January 1929, pp. 23–24.
Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.