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Why It’s Hard to Trace “Trajectories and Continuities” (Muller)

In Richard Muller’s volume on the doctrine of God (vol. 3 of his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics series), he sets himself the task of reconnecting some broken links in the history of theology, links without which the doctrine of God cannot be grasped. It is a complex task, and no wonder that it takes thousands of pages to accomplish in detail. When Muller talks about his method (p. 30), he describes the general problem as “identifying trajectories, continuities, and discontinuities” in the Christian tradition.

The main continuities he has in mind are from era to era, which is why his volumes on the post-Reformation period constantly exceed that time frame, and necessarily include some substantial essays on Reformation and Medieval theology. As Muller shows in his careful studies of the foundational doctrines (Scripture and God), the conventional wisdom about the differences between patristic, medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation eras is all messed up; it’s conventional enough, but not wise. Restoring these connections would be work enough for any project. But as he works these seams between epochs, Muller also exposes another set of continuities that need attention:

Most studies of the medieval doctrine of God have emphasized the philosophical character of the doctrine, with comparatively little interest in the traditionary elements that carried over from the patristic into the medieval period and with virtually no interest in the relationship between doctrinal or systematic theological formulation and the history of exegesis. By contrast, the few studies that have appeared dealing with the doctrine of God during the Reformation have tended to ignore the traditionary elements, to emphasize the relationship of Protestant teaching to Scripture (without, however, clear reference to the continuities of the exegetical tradition), and to stress in addition the early Reformation antipathy to scholastic argumentation and to philosophy.

This is characteristically dense and learned Muller prose, so let me just unpack it a bit. What, supposedly, is the difference between the patristic doctrine of God and the medieval? Well, the medieval is more philosophical and speculative. But why do we think that? Because “most studies…have emphasized the philosophical” aspect of medieval thought.

It’s a curious thing. I freely admit that if you take a page of Athanasius and lay it alongside a page of Aquinas, you’ll notice that the 13th century thinker is working at a much higher level of conceptual abstraction than the 4th-century thinker, even when they’re talking about the same thing (consider the difference between Athanasius asking “what was God to do with his ruined creation?” and Aquinas cataloging the ends of the incarnation and distinguishing types of necessity). So yes, the generalization about a difference in idiom and approach is helpful. But that generalization then takes hold, and draws the attention of researchers to focus only on the differences. Meanwhile, medievals are also commenting on Scripture, praying their devotional theology, and handing on church doctrine catechetically. Most modern studies of the medieval doctrine of God emphasize the philosophical. Hold that thought.

Move down to the next era. What, supposedly, is the difference between the medieval doctrine of God and the Reformation doctrine? Well, the Reformation is more biblical. Again, plausible enough and easily demonstrated by laying a few pages side by side. But in this case, to carry out the contrast in detail you have to ignore all the serious biblical commentary of the middle ages (again), ignore also the way the Reformation simply hands on much of that tradition (“the continuities of the exegetical tradition”), and finally, ignore the moments of philosophical interest in the Reformation while exaggerating the anti-scholastic moments.

You see what’s happening. Even among academics, a cartoony middle ages (all philosophy, no Bible) is contrasted with a cartoony Reformation (all Bible, no philosophy), both of which seem to have fallen from the good old simple days of the church fathers. And this matters for Muller’s project because, if scholarly apprehension of the period from about 600 to 1600 is that skewed, there is no chance of understanding what the post-Reformation Protestant dogmaticians were doing. A much clearer picture emerges, as Muller points out (III:30-31), when you take apart these abstractions and look at the texts more open-mindedly. For one thing, you can begin to notice an overwhelming “underlying agreement in the interpretation of numerous key biblical loci” straight from the early medievals through the late Protestant scholastics, who held firmly to “the exegetical tradition of which the Reformers were a part.” For another thing, theology and piety are deeply connected throughout these eras. But to notice the former, you’d have to read Bible commentary, and to notice the latter, you’d have to read sermons. And you may have already been warned that those things don’t count for certain periods. You may not even have access to them in your library, and they may not even be available in translation.

Nor are they on syllabi, and this is the point I want to conclude with. All the interpretive distortions cataloged above are exactly the distortions you would expect if you organized theological education according to four or five areas of specialization that fit the grid of the modern research university. It’s all tidy enough: History is history, philosophy is philosophy, Biblical studies is biblical studies, and spirituality is spirituality. Well-trained philosophers reading Aquinas’ philosophical work understand it deeply, but are unlikely to be able or willing to consider his Bible commentary. Or, if you take any of the dogmaticians with whom Muller is concerned, and drop them into the grid of the Berlin model of theological education, you find them coming apart into entirely predictable bits and pieces. One reason Muller had to write very long and very detailed books on this period is that he had to push the discipline of historical theology hard enough to force it to take into account at least the histories of doctrine, philosophy, biblical interpretation, and devotion. The post-Reformation Protestant dogmaticians were doing all of these things, and anybody working in the modern academy is all but guaranteed to have blind spots in most of these areas. It’s not just that they haven’t had time to study all the other subjects; it’s that the other subjects are disciplinarily ruled out of bounds and rendered invisible by the modern system. It takes real single-mindedness to open the modern academic mind wide enough to take in the more comprehensive, less constrained work of the Protestant Scholastic theologians.

And more to the point: It takes the same kind of counter-cultural focus to take in and do justice to the Christian doctrine of God. It is an ongoing task.

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