Creeds, Confessions and the Development of Doctrine: Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part Two

Last week, I offered some preliminary thoughts on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology.  This week, I want to consider why it is that theology demands more than just harvesting the immediate results of the exegesis of biblical texts. 


Proper Christian theology is always speculative, in the specific sense that it has to address matters not only of economy (how God acts in history) but also of ontology (who God is in eternity).  The great creeds of the ancient church, and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation which affirm their teachings, are the fruit of this speculative theology, addressing not just the acts of God but also his identity, something which requires more than just the construction of a redemptive-historical narrative culminating in Christ. To understand why this is so, we need to see how and why the church has come to confess Christ in the way she does – in other words, a knowledge of theological controversies.


Here is an example.   For many years, I taught a basic introductory course in patristic theology, the anticipation of which was typically not a cause of great excitement for students.  They (rightly) wanted to learn about the Bible.  And the Ancient Church Fathers seem too remote, historically and intellectually, to be of much use to their future ministries.  Given this, I started each course with a question designed to unsettle them.  I would randomly pick on a student in the first class and ask ‘How many wills does Christ have?’   I recall only one occasion when the student gave the correct answer.  Every other victim intuitively responded ‘One.’   At which point I offered the lethal follow-up: ‘So which does he lack, the human will or the divine?  Or perhaps his will is a fusion of the two into one, and therefore neither human nor divine?’


The students usually knew they had been trapped but tended to offer a defense along the lines of ‘But you don’t find the teaching that Christ has two wills anywhere in the New Testament!’  To which I would reply that that might be the case with reference to explicit texts, but it was nonetheless the only position that ultimately made sense of the New Testament’s witness to the identity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Only a two-willed Christ could save; and to understand why, they needed a firm grasp of the development of theological arguments over time.


This is just one instance of what we might term the development of doctrine.  'Development’ terminology can disturb Protestants as it might imply that the truth of the gospel fundamentally changes over time.   But I am not using the terminology that way.  I am referring not to the essential change of truth but to the elaboration and clarification of doctrinal concepts in a manner which refines the theological grammar and metaphysical framework necessary for a correct understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God and Christ.  These concepts and the language in which they are expressed do not operate as alien impositions on the Bible.  What they do is keep us alert to what the whole of scripture says even as we read particular passages.  In short, as Mike Allen at RTS put it to me recently, ‘theological jargon helps with reading canonically.’


The patristic debates about God and Christ provide excellent examples.   We all know that language of Trinity, hypostasis and substance is not there in scripture.*  But Protestants use that terminology to set forth a grammar or metaphysical framework for understanding how the Bible names God.  And the reasons why those creeds and confessions speak the way they do is intimately connected to the history of debate within the church.


Numerous models for understanding this pattern of development have been offered over the years.  Perhaps the most famous example is that of Cardinal Newman who (while still a Protestant) wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.  A long and subtle work, his basic contention was that doctrine develops from the Bible as trees grow from seeds: the final product may not look like the original but is it continuous and consistent with it and its growth is also inevitable.


As attractive as it is, this approach is missing one important point: the role of controversy.  Theologian Bernard Lonergan, sympathetically critiquing Newman, points out that doctrinal development is rarely, if ever, linear but rather happens dialectically, through the clash of opposing ideas.  To put this in simple terms: one model for God and Christ is offered which is proved inadequate for dealing with the biblical testimony; and in the process by which it is found wanting, new models are proposed, and so on and so forth until there is some definitive resolution of the question at hand.  So the various modalist and subordinationist debates of the fourth century lead eventually to the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.


The established theological grammar of 381 then sets the terms for future debates on related issues.  Yes, the grammar of divine naming in the Trinity is resolved; but that resolution itself raises questions for Christology and shapes how those can be answered. So we then have the debates of the early fifth century and the consequent resolutions of Ephesus in 431 and then Chalcedon in 451.  These in turn create questions which lead to the development of dyothelitism (that Christ has two wills, not one) and other superficially arcane but really very important concepts such as the anhypostatic nature of Christ’s human nature.


This point about the subsequent logic of theological debates after the Trinitarian question has been resolved at Constantinople in 381 has been made (critically) by Brian Daley in his recent volume, God Visible. Nicene orthodoxy sets the terms and provides the foundational concepts of later Christological discussion.  I made much the same argument, though more appreciatively and at a much more popular level, in my book, The Creedal Imperative. 


The same applies to other doctrines.  For example, those of divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility can seem abstruse and counter-intuitive in the light of a surface reading of scripture.  Yet far from being some kind of Greek philosophical intrusion onto the Christian faith, as the bogus bromides of a previous era held, in reality these concepts are vitally important to biblical, Christian, Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Reflecting on the patristic development of Trinitarianism, Rowan Williams states clearly what is at stake in his recent book, Christ the Heart of Creation, p. 69:


The logic of creation requires God to be God as much as it requires creation to be finite; without a clear assertion that God cannot be conceived as passive or divisible, we are left with various versions of a universe in which divine and finite being are in some sense understood as univocally related, in such a way that the divine self-subsistence and liberty are put in question.


And what Williams says here applies to the doctrine of God found in all churches and institutions which profess Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or most important from my own ecclesiastical perspective, Reformed.  Even a quick glance at the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, or the Second London Confession makes it abundantly clear that they each affirm that God is simple, immutable, and impassible. This Nicene faith is Protestant orthodoxy too. 


At this point, some may be tempted to ask, But isn’t this all a bit abstruse and irrelevant to everyday Christianity?   Well, whatever the subtlety of language and concepts developed in the course of these discussions about God, I would urge the reader never to forget that the basic motivation which drove creedal development and refinement was this: the church was striving to confess with both humility and precision a God in whose Trinitarian name we are all baptized and a Christ who is both Lord and who saves.  There is nothing more doxological or practical than that.  And (again a theme to which we shall return) it reminds us that the church worships God not only for what he has done for us but also for who he is in himself. 


In my next post I want to turn to the strengths and limitations of the discipline of Biblical Theology.

As a postscript, anyone concerned that the biblical doctrine of God is either unpreachable or unpastoral might want to see how pastor Liam Goligher preaches simplicity in this sermon and how theologian Todd Billings explains in this article how he has found divine impassibility to be vital in his own time of illness.

* I am grateful to Rev. Chad Vegas for reminding me that 'hypostasis' is found in Heb. 1:3.   I should have expressed myself more clearly on this point: the meaning of the term, as debated and used by the Fathers, is not an obvious given in scripture.