by Tyler Smith
In their book Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Reformed Theological Seminary’s Michael Allen and Scott Swain argue that to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity rather than away from it. You can get their new book on Pre-Pub right now.
I spoke with Dr. Swain about the growing movement of “renewal and retrieval” within Reformed theology, correcting common misunderstandings of sola scriptura, and why proof texting shouldn’t get such a bad rap.
For some time there has been broad interest in drawing upon tradition for the sake of renewing the contemporary church’s theology, piety, and worship. Language of “retrieval” originates with a handful of Roman Catholic theologians of the last century. However, a number of Protestant theologians (including Karl Barth) also have sought to draw upon classical resources for constructive dogmatics. The common assumption on all sides is that something in modern theology is broken and that the tradition might offer guidance about how to fix it.
You mention that there are numerous examples in the Reformed tradition of “thoughtful appropriation of the catholic tradition.” What are some notable examples?
The Reformers of the sixteenth century did not see themselves as hitting the “reset” button on church history. They saw themselves as reforming the catholic church on the basis of the church’s supreme authority, Holy Scripture, in attentive dialogue with faithful teachers and traditions of the church. This is evident not only in the wide appeal to the Church Fathers and Medieval Doctors by Reformation and Post-Reformation pastors and theologians (indeed, the discipline of “historical theology” emerges from Protestant soil in the seventeenth century). It is also evident in the way early Protestant theologians appropriate classical theological categories (related to Trinity, Christology, divine action, grace, etc.)—often quite creatively in service of distinctly Protestant ends—in their interpretation of the Bible. Peter Martyr Vermigli’s biblical commentaries are a good example of this kind of creative appropriation of the catholic tradition in a Protestant vein.
Why is retrieval necessary, beyond just a desire for something “ancient”?
Retrieval, at its best, is not a matter of romantic nostalgia but about apprenticing ourselves to the church’s wisest teachers of Holy Scripture. In retrieval, theology interrogates the church’s best Bible teachers and asks: what were their animating principles, what time-tested categories did they employ, and how might those principles and categories inform the way we read the Bible and do theology today?
Retrieval helps us get beyond parroting the past and teaches us to speak the language of Zion. Retrieval is about learning the grammar of theology from the church’s best speakers so that we can put together meaningful theological utterances today in our own idiom, in light of our own pastoral challenges, for the glory of God and the good of the church.
How do you think the Reformation principle of sola scriptura has become misunderstood or corrupted over time? How should we understand sola scriptura in the context of Reformed catholicity?
Many folks assume that the proposition, “Scripture is the supreme source and norm for theology,” entails a second proposition, “the individual is Scripture’s best and therefore supreme interpreter.” Protestant theology in mainstream Lutheran and Reformed thought into the eighteenth century affirmed the first proposition but denied the second. They were convinced that the church and its teachers [should] possess an interpretive authority to which the individual interpreter was, in some sense, accountable—ultimately under Scripture’s supreme authority.
However, since the eighteenth century, many Protestants, including large portions of the evangelical tradition, have assumed that the first proposition entails the second. Therefore, such Protestants tend to be leery of church confessions, especially when it comes to biblical interpretation, and to believe that the individual’s private judgment about the interpretation of the biblical text is the final court of appeal for theology.
We believe the modern approach to sola scriptura rests upon an unbiblical anthropology and an unbiblical ecclesiology and thus seek to relocate sola Scriptura within the context of a more biblical understanding of humanity and the church. The older Protestantism has much to offer in this regard, not because it is older but because it is more biblical.
Proof texting is controversial because we are all very familiar with bad examples of the practice! Our (admittedly provocative) defense of proof texting is not intended so much to commend the use of parenthetical Scripture references in theological prose as it is to commend a more sophisticated understanding of the symbiosis that obtains between sound biblical commentary and sound dogmatic theology. It gestures toward a more expansive understanding of what it means to be “biblical” in systematic theology by demonstrating how patterns of thought drawn out of biblical commentary have functioned historically as conceptual grids for constructive theological discourse.
What advice would you give to pastors or future pastors who want to move their congregations toward “Reformed catholicity”?
First, set aside the latest book on pastoral ministry and read Martin Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls or pick up any number of Hughes Oliphant Old’s books on the history and practice of Reformed worship. The Protestant tradition has an embarrassment of riches from which pastors might draw in shaping a “Reformed catholic” approach to ministry. Second, as you read such resources, don’t just pay attention to what they said and did but pay attention to why they said and did what they said and did. Faithful ministry is not like a Civil War reenactment where we can simply parrot what others have done; faithful ministry requires that we learn the art of war. Third, get busy praying and ministering in light of the biblical wisdom these sources commend!
***Rediscover the riches of the apostolic faith—pre-order the book now!