The Decline of Confessional Orthodoxy & Rationalism

Leaving behind Reformed Orthodoxy, a trajectory much of Western theological thought is still on, resulted from a fundamental shift in philosophical patterns of thought. New Rationalism, espoused by men like Leibniz and others, would eventually lead theologians away from confessional commitment to a more loose retainment of Reformed principles. Philosophy would be moved from an ancillary science in relation to theology to the priority in theological exposition.

Helpful in understanding this decline is the division of Reformed orthodoxy given by Richard Muller, professor of historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. He divides Reformed orthodoxy into early, high, and late periods.[1] It is this late period with which we now deal. Roads were being paved to the Enlightenment, and the effects of the downgrade of the confessional era were magnified and perpetuated with the advent of Humian and Kantian philosophy. The theological atmosphere in today’s seminaries and churches is hardly different from the one boiling in the early eighteenth century. First, I want to give something of a reason for the pulling away of confessional orthodoxy. Second, I want to draw three parallels between the historical disregard of the Reformed confessions and the modern state of affairs.

The confessions: products of a broader philosophical-methodological tradition

If confessional Reformed orthodoxy grew out of a particular context, it grew out of a syncretistic one wherein Renaissance humanism and Medieval scholasticism came together to form what we might call a distinctly Reformed scholasticism. Scholasticism, with its precision and methodological character, was blended together with humanism centering upon a recovery of the ancient languages of Greek and Latin. The Reformation resulted not in a recapitulation of Medieval scholasticism per se, nor in a wholesale adoption of humanism without qualification, but in a distinctly Protestant brand of scholastic methodology and a uniquely Protestant––in both Lutheran and Reformed circles––development of theology.

Much of Thomas Aquinas’ concerns were retained within the accepted Reformed orthodoxy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His proofs for God’s existence, His theology proper, etc., were all carried over into Reformed thought with little to no controversy. Christian Aristotelianism on one hand, and Ramist philosophy on the other, were both developmental of the broader Reformed landscape.[2] Doctrines that selected for revision by the Reformers had mostly to do with anthropology as it relates to the sovereignty of God and the order solutis, specifically justification. Post-Reformation orthodoxy continued discussion on all of these loci, but also re-introduced scholasticism as a method for systematizing the theology proffered by the Reformers and the great tradition (the historical Church).

With Christian Aristotelianism, Thomism, and Ramism as the philosophical context of Reformed development, the way the confessions and catechetical works were brought together was by virtue of a particular methodology and assumed philosophical theology or metaphysic (e.g. the natural theology of Aquinas). Any alterations or relinquishing of these foundational formulaic principles would inevitably result in a shift away from the perceptual need of the confessions. If the rationalism of the eighteenth century––not a balanced Thomism or Christian Aristotelianism––became the assumed philosophical standpoint, then there was no problem with subverting the articles of faith to the articles or reason, contrary to the historical-universal affirmation that reason (as a creaturely philosophical exercise) was subservient to revelation.[3]

Thus, with the introduction of eighteenth century rationalism paving the way to the Enlightenment, later Reformed orthodoxy suffered. There was no retaining a significant continuity between the later period and the early to high periods with the rejection of the relationship between revelation and reason, nor was there much hope that confessions would continue their dominant role on the Protestant stage of theological development. Now, I want to turn to some of the ways this lapse in confessional orthodoxy has affected the modern church by drawing three apparent similarities between then and now.

Three Reasons Today Is Like Yesterday

1. Confessions are now largely relegated to important historical artifacts, but not necessarily adequate doctrinal standards for any one church or institution

Confessions come and go, nowadays, at the whim of opinion. Little to no interaction occurs with the confessions beyond that of a superficial disagreement held in tension with historical appreciation and admiration of their once-significant role in helping the church along. If a confession is disagreed with, it’s disagreed with because the doctrine is not preferable. There has not been, as far as I can see, a meaningful wrestling with the content of the confessions which constitute a sufficient reason for rejection.

It wasn’t until recent that the words “without passions” in 2.1 of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith became controversial, particularly with my association (ARBCA). And the only reason they became controversial is because the meaning of those words have just now been brought back into the theater of theological attention within Reformed Baptist and Reformed Presbyterian circles, thanks to recent excavation and exposition of the doctrine of impassibility. This is indicative of the fundamental shift away from the confessions in the mid eighteenth century perpetuated until this very day.

Today, churches are more or less encouraged to create their own statements of faith or doctrinal standards rather than adopt some archaic theological document which, as an enlightened people, we’ve progressed beyond. Because of this, the splintering of Protestantism is more apparent than ever. Opinion, tested or not, reigns supreme over the historical recognition of the articles of faith to be believed by the church. This is, at its core, the rationalism of the eighteenth century still at play.

2. Orthodoxy is more obscure than ever

It’s been said that the only contemporary heresy is the heresy of calling out heresy. Doctrine is now the result of speculation and untested opinion rather than proper reason and sound exegesis. Philosophy has lost its position as the handmaiden of theology and no longer serves its purpose in evaluating the strength of prolegomena or hermeneutical presuppositions. So, what seems right is usually what wins the day. On this subjectivist model, orthodoxy, or right teaching, is always a moving target because it’s, quite literally, always in flux.

We may come to a settled position for a time, right before it is uplifted and replaced by a completely different doctrine a few years later. One extreme example of this, which has been rightfully checked by many evangelicals, is the “new perspective on Paul” primally advocated by men like N. T. Wright. But don’t let this obvious example fool you. This sort of “replacement” theology is happening all over the place, and it has been happening for quite some time.

One could look at the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth, or the fideistic, if not quasi-Socinian tendencies in Cornelius Van Til and his modern disciple, Scott Oliphint.[4] None of these alterations to the Reformed tradition as it relates to doctrines such as justification, inspiration, anthropology, and natural revelation are in line with the Reformed confessions and their undergirding philosophical presuppositions. This, as with our first example, began in the eighteenth century with a moving away from confessional Reformed orthodoxy.

3. Thinking philosophically is now an offense

It seems odd that modern Christians who assume a brand of loose rationalism would curtail philosophical thought. But, this is exactly what’s happened. The objective truth inevitably discovered by virtue of scholastic reasoning is an enemy of relative opinion. If one reasons like Aquinas, Turretin, or Ames, they will not be the life of the party. Reasoning as they reasoned, precisely and logically, militates against much of what is held near and dear in many institutions of higher learning and within many local churches. But, as alluded to above, behavior such as this is to be expected after the shift away from confessional standards in the eighteenth century.

With the rejection of Reformed scholasticism in favor of a rationalistic approach, where revelation subserves reason instead of the other way around, comes a disruption of theological harmony and philosophical effectiveness.

Conclusions

It is my hope, in realizing where we’ve come from, we would also realize why we need to return to some crucial principles recovered in the Reformation and post-Reformation. Theology appears as if its conducted in a vacuum today, almost, but not quite, cut off from the philosophical and dogmatic contexts of yesteryear. New, however, isn’t always better and––just maybe––older, in terms of the church’s doctrine, is always better. After all, our theology sprouts from the doctrine handed to us in the first century of the church by Christ and the apostles. All theological development moves forward from and upon that point.

It’s the earliest doctrines of the church which gives importance to the creeds, and the creeds which go on to give importance to the confessions, and so on. We have never been cut off from our family lineage more than we are today. Moving away from the confessional standards in the eighteenth century was the first step in a wrong and ruinous direction. May we work to recover what has been lost to the glory of God, for the adornment of the Gospel, and for the edification of Christ’s church.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 30-31.
[2] Peter Ramus was a Reformed philosopher in the sixteenth century who influenced men such as William Ames. His method of logical discourse by categorical dichotomy resulted in highly precise and concise systematization, easy to follow and effective in academic environments.
[3] Ibid., 73. As noted by Muller, the Reformed affirmed a priority of revelation over reason. This is not to be confused with the Socinian error of rejecting a natural theology in favor of an erroneous view of God’s revelation and the place thereof. It was, rather, the demonstrable fact that revelation––if it indeed be revelation from God––is the rule to which we must conform according to reason rather than contrary to it.
[4] I draw this similarity based on what is said of the Socinians in Turretin’s Institutes, Vol. 1, pp. 6-7. The rejection of natural theology, something Van Til does by virtue of his misplacement of the doctrine of revelation, was originally a Socinian trait. Another idea having in common the rejection of natural theology is fideism, in which case one need not give reasons for their faith. Christians, the fideist thinks, should be content to believe simply for the sake of believing. I do want to be clear that I do not think Van Til was a Socinian or even a fideist, but some of his teachings, I believe replicated the trademarks of those respective positions––perhaps inadvertently.

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