For those of you not familiar with Richard Muller, he is somewhat of a giant in Historical Theology of the Reformation and post-Reformation period. Many on the more conservative and traditional end of the Reformed spectrum (and others) hold him in high regard as (1) he has shown the vitality of post-Reformation figures’ theological activities and engagement with Scripture–the theological and exegetical vitality of those involved in the framing of the Westminster Standards, for example–and (2) he is seen by many to have dismantled the idea that there is a radical disparity between Calvin and the Calvinists after him, among other things. Parts of his multi-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics are standard text-books and readings in various Systematic Theology and Apologetics classes at Westminster Theological Seminary, and I suspect other Reformed seminaries as well.
In the middle of a less well known work of his, The Study of Theology, Richard Muller makes the following comments. I think they get at something many of us on the Conn-versation blog hold dear. Faithfully standing in our Reformed tradition means we need to re-articulate our theology and to re-understand what it looks like for us to live out Christ as we (the church) move into ever changing contexts.
How should such an approach impact our conceptions of what it means to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), to mention an example directly relevant to many reading this blog? What should it mean to be a confessional denomination? What ‘is’ a confession? Cannot a confession be Biblical at one point in time and yet still need re-articulation in later and different contexts? Is there a way to be a church standing in the heritage and trajectory of the WCF and yet not be bound to subscribe to it in a ‘strict’ manner? Is there a way to subscribe to the WCF requiring not that we simply hold to it but rather demanding that we—in conversation with the WCF—rearticulate and recontextualize our theology in changing worlds? (Have I used enough Harvie Conn vocabulary here?)
With these questions in view, some of which may go beyond Muller’s intentions, what do we think of his comments below?
…dogmatics cannot just be the recitation of the doctrinal statements of the church in a topical rather than a historical order nor can it be just the contemporary exposition of someone’s theological ideas, no matter how brilliant they might be. The doctrines must be churchly, and the exposition, also churchly in its basic attitude and approach, must be contemporary in its expression. If the contemporary aspect of the definition is lost, the exposition lapses into a reconstructive, historically defined approach that can at best produce for present-day examination a doctrinal overview from a bygone era. This kind of theology is no better than the attempt to take a particular document from a past era—even a document as valuable as Calvin’s Institutes or Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae—and use it as a textbook in theology. The past must be consulted, but not copied without regard to the new historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves. If, on the other hand, the great doctrines of the church are not addressed, the exposition lapses into a subjectivity and personal or even idiosyncratic statement….There is, therefore, in dogmatic or doctrinal theology a clear relationship between contemporary faith-statement and the normative doctrinal constructs known as dogmas. The question for dogmatic theology is precisely how these dogmas relate to the biblical witness on which they have been founded, to the larger body of doctrines that belongs to theology but that has not been as closely defined as the so-called dogmas, and to the ability of the contemporary theologian or minister to proclaim the significance of the biblical witness for the present. (611)
The mistaken self-exaltation of which doctrinal or dogmatic theology is all too easily capable can, moreover, be described and avoided in terms of this hermeneutical model. If a theologian exalts any particular doctrinal construction and insists that it become the key to interpreting the entirety of Scripture and to organizing the entirety of theological system, the scriptural Word becomes stifled by human a priori, by what is perhaps a brilliant but nonetheless false contrivance of a particular theological ego. It is an error for a systematic theologian to assume that any particular schematization of a biblical idea or group of biblical ideas can become the basis for the interpretation of texts in which those ideas of doctrines do not appear. (612)
The biblical norm provides doctrinal theology with its primary topics, while the historical norm provides theology with an ongoing meditation on and interpretive elaboration of the contents of Scripture in the light of the historical experience of the believing community…In other words, biblical theology has the potential of reopening the text of Scripture for systematic use on issues and topics where traditional interpretations have either been mistaken or have led to omissions of insights of themes from our theological systems. (613)
The question confronting contemporary systematic theology, of course, is whether or not the traditional form still serves adequately the presentation of the body of Christian doctrine—whether, in fact, the preliminary examination of the character, sources, and methods of theology that ought to precede any system of theology now demands the alteration not only of detail but also of basic patterns of organization. (616)
The page numbers are from the printing of Muller’s The Study of Theology appearing in the Moises Silva edited Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation: Six Volumes in One. As an aside, reading the six books contained in that volume was one of the best reading-time investments I made in college—outside of class work : ). I HIGHLY RECOMMEND it to everyone, especially Silva’s Has the Church Misread the Bible?, V. Philips Long’s The Art of Biblical History, Tremper Longman’s Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Vern Poythress’ Science and Hermeneutics (dealing primarily with the work of Thomas Kuhn), and Silva’s other contribution God, Language, and Scripture. In many ways the Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation volumes and the 1988 WTS faculty symposium Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, a Challenge, a Debate stand as the most nuanced and best explorations of the Bible and how to study it from a more traditional inerrantist point of view—at least the most nuanced and best explorations from a more traditional inerrantist point of view with which I am familiar.
Stephen (the Foolish Tar Heel)