Archive Peter Escalante Sacred Doctrine

Irenicism, Truth, and Method

Our first essay, as Mr. Wedgeworth explains at its beginning, is a deeper and more thoroughgoing examination of a controversial claim we addressed in outline in a previous essay kindly published by Credenda Agenda. There, we were concerned to outline, for pastors especially, the intellectual and pastoral background of some recent critiques of the Reformed tradition. Here, however, the historical and theological aspects of the critique are considered directly and at length.

The doctrine of Christ is certainly the first thing of first things, and thus at the very heart of the matters we aim to explore in this forum. Given that, and given that is the first full length essay to appear in this forum, Mr. Wedgeworth’s essay offers an occasion to discuss our approach to questions of sacred doctrine. And more about that shortly.  But first, someone might ask just how the following essay can be said to be irenic, since it aims to firmly refute a number of errors– and isn’t that polemical? The answer will, I think, be obvious to the discerning reader. The claims being refuted here are themselves certainly polemical. But refutation of polemical claims in a patient but rigorous way is not itself a polemic answer, but rather an irenic one, conducing to understanding of the truth; and irenicism certainly doesn’t mean unwillingness to clearly state the truth or to critique error. It simply loves truth more than the misleading feeling of being “right”, and knows too that on the way to truth, there are no shortcuts.

Whereas some of the critics of Reformed doctrine of Christ assume a priori that the entire Western tradition wholly went off the rails at some point in history (the date varies, but the claim itself is tiresomely invariant), the reader will notice that Wedgeworth’s exposition does not make those kinds of sweeping polemical assumptions, but rather, patiently and charitably attends the sources and, from the catholic vantage point afforded by Reformed principles and method, carefully distinguishes the true, the false, and the confused in ancient writers. Arriving at a judgment of truth, through the path of unstinting justice to what is there to be known, is the shalom of the mind; just as truth itself is the great common ground of real peace among men. And one cannot be more irenic than that.

And now a word about the principles of our approach to matters of sacred doctrine. In this line of inquiry on our forum, we will follow the mainstream tradition and method of the Reformers and the evangelical doctors, who themselves stood in a line of continuity with the better ancients and medievals. This tradition means:

1. Primacy of the inerrant Word read as a unity according to the historico-grammatical method, a method which is definitive, contains within itself all appropriate modes of literary analysis, and is in no need of any hermeneutic supplement. We aim to encourage understanding of the Word as classically understood in the Reformed schools, and to critique neo-allegoricism which seeks to find “meaning” in the Bible apart from its historicity.

2. Drawing a sharp distinction, following the Reformers themselves, between essentials and theologoumena, as opposed to the intellectual constipation and sectarian spirit (or sometimes, historical role-playing) of hyperconfessionalism. And as a point of ethos and method:  patient, charitable, intellectually responsible consideration of claims, without partisan spirit or odium theologicum. But for the exemplars of this manner of inquiry, we look to the Reformers, and later Irenic doctors such as Pareus and Forbes, as models, and most recently, to venerable teachers such as Bavinck. We carefully distinguish their principled and cosmopolitan comprehensiveness from the kind of indifferentism and sentimental ecumenism which showed up in their day, and is prevalent in ours.

3. Judicious use of philosophical tools as investigative and explanatory aids for grasping and expounding Scripture, but not as providing extra-Biblical data for speculation about the proper objects of sacred doctrine. This means a rejection of false, irrationalistic “Hellenistic-Hebrew” dichotomies, since, following the Reformers and the mainstream tradition, we assert the utility of the liberal arts and related disciplines for reading and preaching the Word, and also assert the harmony of what is true in philosophic knowledge with what is known from the Word. But it also means a rejection of speculative theologies which take intellectual or imaginative conjecture as a material element.

4. Classical theism and classical apologetics, rejecting absolutely the skeptical and gnosticizing transcendental turn in modern theologies, even and perhaps especially in those which mistakenly regard themselves as “conservative”–which unwittingly share the transcendentalism of their “liberal” opposite numbers, but with merely a different and angrier inflection. The creation and its clear implication of a Creator is knowable even by fallen man, and the capacity for natural knowledge, although distorted accidentally by depravity, is not destroyed. In this thesis, we affirm the teaching of Calvin and the Protestant consensus, including the Princeton doctors and Bavinck. To affirm the opposite and and claim that even natural knowledge, as such, depends upon regeneration, is to substitute fanatical gnosticism for Biblical Christianity.

5. Careful attendance to the texts of old and recent masters, who, when known at all, are usually more often talked about than actually read. This isn’t a vice of self-taught armchair theologians only. One can find gross caricatures and faulty summaries even in much academic discussion of history and historical theology. In all our fields of interest in this forum, we aim to foster rigorous and independent-minded scholarship of the classical sort regarded as ideal before the 1960s. In historical theology, we could point to the work of Richard Muller as an eminent example. Further, beyond careful reading of those whose names are already known, we aim to encourage rediscovery of forgotten writers, in close engagement with the new medium electronic archives such as the PRDL.

6. A principled aversion from and deconstruction of undefined theological buzzwords which are used all too often as substitutes for thought and argument, always muddy discussion, and smuggle irresponsible meanings into discourse under cover of unexamined prestige. Thus, we aim to encourage careful definition of terms and a responsible understanding of their senses in different modes and contexts. Writers who think they’ve actually said something at all– let alone something true– by merely parroting “incarnational” or “missional” or “sacramental” or “Trinitarian” or “autonomy” are simply being culpably sloppy– but this is an extremely widespread vice and one we hope to help remedy by better example.

7. The Reformers worked from the principle of Hebraica veritas, that the ancient Jews were the best guides in navigating the more difficult aspects of discerning the historical and grammatical sense of Scripture, and further, that given the early tainting of the Gentile churches by pagan practices and mentality, and given the diligent guardianship of the ancient texts and languages by the synagogue, the modern Jews were also to be gratefully looked to as a great help in recovering the true sense of the Word. In this forum, we aim to follow the old principle of Hebraica veritas into the field of modern Biblical research, especially the ancillary inquiries of Second Temple and intertestamental studies, and host conversations about the meaning and significance of these new lines of research.

Those are in outline the principles of the kind of inquiry we hope to foster in matters of sacred doctrine.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.

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