Thursday, April 03, 2008

Adherance to Doctrinal Statements

Westminster Theological Seminary's recent suspension of Peter Enns for his book on understanding the nature of scripture that board perceived as violating the Westminster Confession intrigues me.

It intrigues me because I just can't fathom the sanity of adhering to a creedal statement written in 1642. In 1642 they barely understood Koine Greek, biblical scholarship was only in its infancy, they had next to no understanding of the customs, practices and thinking of ancient world, and they had very few of the writings of the early church Fathers that we now have. For almost every conceivable reason there is evidence to think that people trying to interpret the bible in 1642 could have made serious errors. Indeed, the majority of scholars today would say they did.

In that century, Isaac Newton published one of the greatest works in the history of science. Yet today his work is a historical curiosity, marking the beginning of serious scientific study. In a like manner the Reformation and confessions of faith resulting out of it mark the beginning of serious biblical scholarship. No sane person today would reprimand a quantum physicist for failure to adhere to Newton's theories. Likewise, the thought that someone might reprimand a biblical scholar for failure to adhere to a seventeenth century interpretation of the bible seems like a joke.

It frustrates me that colleges actually exist who adhere to such doctrinal statements and see it as their duty to churn out students who believe such things. Such indoctrination results in a massive amount of bias, propaganda and apologetics contaminating scholarship. Modern interpretations and theories end up judged on their conformance with seventeenth century doctrinal statements! I have learned to steer clear of such biased 'scholarship'. Before reading any book I now attempt to ascertain whether it is written by a person who has been indoctrinated with seventeenth century confessional standards, because their bias so often completely undermines their scholarship and destroys any objective value in their work, as they always twist the evidence in such a way that it just so happens to end up proving the conclusions that they started with. In practice this seems to mean avoiding completely reading 'scholarship' produced by anyone in the Reformed or Presbyterian traditions, and careful filtering of Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran writings.

I think the fact that I myself abandoned the doctrinal teachings of my childhood church as a result of serious biblical study has resulted in me having very little tolerance of people who fail to do likewise and who simply push the party line and doctrinal statements of whatever group happens to have indoctrinated them.


Blogger bsjones said...


Blogger Drew said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Drew said...

Your post drove me to reflect on this issue even more deeply so I looked into more of the historical conditions for Westminster - both the confession and the seminary.

"The question is if science has progressed, if theology has progressed, and if biblical studies have ballooned as a result of resource availability from a paucity of materials to a veritable glut of ancient resources now available to scholars both professional and lay, it no longer makes sense for Westminster to continue to assert that:

'The Westminster Standards are the climactic statement of Reformed Theology. In a very real sense, their publication in 1647 brought the creedal development of the Protestant Reformation to its historical conclusion.'

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a wonderful statement in the Book of Order that places these confessions, including Westminster, in their proper place:

'Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” that is, “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.'"

Blogger Abigail said...

Even more liberal Christians constantly refer to their creeds in ways that surprise me. For instance a Presbyterian, pastor acquaintance of mine often criticizes soteriological exclusivity and penal substitution, but when discussing, say, ecclesiology, simply assumes Reformed tradition as the starting point. Personally I don't really understand what's so all-important about interacting with Calvin on infant baptism or Luther on the Eucharist, etc. ... or how a phrase like "ecclesia semper reformanda" could be a trump card in an argument. (But you know us young Americans and our authority issues.)

I don't know much about seminaries but I've begun to get the impression that many of them exist for the sole purpose of creating ideological clones and it disturbs me. I always thought the goal of higher education was normally to make sure students understand all the issues, not to force them to take a particular stance?

--Zelda (for the moment) on TheologyWeb. Been reading your blog for almost a year now, just never got around to commenting.

Blogger bsjones said...

The advantage of adherance to creeds is unity within the group ( or cult).

For me, the truth is more important. For example, I can't say I believe in all the parts of the Westminster Confession. Some parts I disagree with, some I don't know, and some I DO agree with.

Blogger bsjones said...

I guess both are important: (1) truth and (2) unity based on respecting traditional doctrines.

Blogger Roger Pearse said...

Um, if Christianity is defined by revelation rather than discovery -- and it surely is -- then it's very hard to see what the fuss is about. To innovate is to be heretical. We have no lack of churches that chose not to expel the heretics in one generation, to leave them in a position of power, and then found the heretics expelling the Christians in the next one.


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