Reformed and catholic!?!?

It seems like a simple question, which doesn’t have a very simple answer:

Can Christians and churches be catholic and Reformed? Can they commit themselves not only to the ultimate authority of apostolic Scripture but also to receiving this Bible within the context of the apostolic Church?

Allen and Swain believe that the answer to that question is a simple “yes!” In fact they say that “to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity.” (4) Allen and Swain take the next 160 or so pages to unpack the complexity of this seemingly simple answer.Reformed Catholicity

Joining the rather popular, and encouraging trend, of theological retrieval (which we see in Radical Orthodoxy, Evangelical Ressourcement, and Resourcement Thomism) Allen and Swain provide us with a Sola Scriptura based logic for pursuing a Reformed retrieval program. They argue that one can take the distinctive features of Reformation theology and ecclesiology in order develop a truly catholic theology – that is a theology which embraces the Great Tradition of the Church.

Overview

They begin their argument, or manifesto, for Reformed Catholicity, by sketching the logic behind the claim that the catholic church is the context for doing theology. They base their argument upon the notion that the church is the “School of Christ.” This first chapter dips into ecclesiology and pneumatology and shows that the Spirit, who is the teacher, abides in the church and ensures that its apostolic teaching is guarded through the reading of Scripture. This establishes the basis for saying that “the church is the school of Christ, taught by the Spirit of Christ; the church is the seedbed of theology that flourishes by the anointing of Christ.” (46)

Their argument then turns the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In chapter two they seek to defend this doctrine from recent criticisms. Most of these criticisms are based upon seeing this doctrine from a modernist perspective rather than seeing the doctrine as it truly is meant to be understood – in a reformed catholic context. In chapter three they argue that the more one is committed to the authority of scripture the more one is compelled to honor and respect the teachings of those in the church that came before us. They show that Scripture and tradition are not mutually exclusive. Scripture generates tradition, and tradition serves scripture by helping us read it.

Chapter four attempts to provide an argument for a “ruled reading” of Scripture on the basis of Reformed theological and ecclesiological principles. (96) This chapter provides a solid foundation for reading scripture in light of one’s doctrinal commitments. To most theologians this seems quite obvious – we always bring our theological baggage (I wish there were a more positive word for this) to our reading of Scripture. And this is Okay! However, many biblical scholars argue that we should try not to do this – we should try to read scripture solely based upon historical criteria. Those scholars need to read this chapter.

Their last chapter is a defense of the practice of proof texting in theology. They show that “a proof text signals a symbolic relationship between commentarial specificity and dogmatic synthesis as well as exegetical precision and cognizance.” Thus most critiques against proof-texting (done well) actually misunderstand the practice.

This last chapter is followed up by an afterword written by J. Todd Billings. He sums up the vision of Reformed Catholicity by applying it to the life of congregations on the ground. Pastor theologians will find this chapter incredibly interesting since it compares and contrasts the catholic reformed vision of the church and ministry with a consumeristic – moralistic therapeutic deism so prevalent in the church.

Thoughts…

I really appreciated this book; probably because I was already on board with the overall project of reformed catholicity. So instead of focusing on critiquing Allen and Swain’s work I want to highlight several further lines of research that come out of this book.

  1. The Goal of the Spirit’s Pedagogical Role & Papal Infalibility – There is an interesting footnote in chapter 3 which waves this topic. Given the Spirit’s role abiding within the church and teaching the church, the fact that the church’s understanding of its apostolic foundation and and must grow, and the fact that the Spirit’s goal is to lead the church into the eschatological future of fully knowing God we might want to rethink Papal infallibility as not completely wrongheaded – we might want to consider it to be more akin to an over-realized eschatology.
  2. The Role of the Pastor-Theologian – Allen and Swain argue that theology and exegesis work hand in hand. They says that more theologians should commit to an ongoing practice of doing exegetical work in lectures, conferences addresses, and their personal writing plans. I want to make a suggestion that they overlook – theologians should preach more in their churches. Some of the greatest theologians were pastors at one point or another in their life: Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer. The discipline of theology would be better served if theologians had to regularly preach in their home churches.
  3. Christian Education – In order to become better readers of scripture – and thus hopefully better “doers of the word” – we need to learn how to read scripture well. We learn to read scripture well when we have a strong theological foundation – In other words we need to learn how to read scripture with the great catholic tradition in mind. This will involve “pre-loading” Christians with doctrine before they approach the text. What is the best way to do this? Is it catechetical classes? Sunday School? More doctrinal preaching? Really I don’t know. But it’s a vital question for the health of our churches.

In my opinion Reformed Catholicity paints a picture of being a catholic protestant that is far bigger than simply including Reformed believers. Most of what Allen and Swain say could be appropriated by anybody within the Reformation tradition. As somebody who doesn’t subscribe to a Reformed ecclesiology (I’m “Baptistic” & Reformed), I appreciated the fact that their “Reformed theological and eccelsiological principles” where broad enough that someone with Reformed sensibilities but a free-church ecclesiology could embrace.

Reformed Catholicity is a fantastic book. If you are a pastor or theologian who cares about the fact that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic then you need to read Allen and Swain’s manifesto for being Reformed (protestant) and catholic.

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