The Formation of Christian Doctrine with Dr. Malcolm Yarnell

Wyman Richardson:  Dr. Yarnell, I’d like to say from the start that your book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, was refreshing insofar as it constitutes a unique and singular contribution to theological prolegomena from a free-church perspective.  You note in the work the relative absence of prolegomena in our tradition (while acknowledging that some, like Millard Erickson, have made substantial contributions).  Why is this?  Is there something germane to the free-church tradition in particular that makes intentional and substantial attempts at theological prolegomena either undesirable or difficult?

Malcolm Yarnell: I am glad that you enjoyed this aspect of the book, for it is central to understanding the purpose of the monograph. First, let me be clear that there have been free churchmen who have written theological prolegomena, the discussion of theological method. What makes this book different from previous attempts is that it intentionally looks to the confessional practices of the free churches (more particularly, the believers’ churches) for their theological method. I do not think there is anything inherent within the free church tradition that makes such an attempt undesirable or difficult. Rather, the lack of previous attempts indicates the historical placement of the free churches amongst the state-churches.
Believers-only churches were not only disallowed prior to the widespread establishment of religious toleration in the West, they were often severely persecuted. It was difficult for free church theologians to live (one thinks here of martyred theologians such as Balthasar Hubmaier and Michael Sattler), much less have the leisure to reflect upon the difficult problem of theological method. Disclosing the free church theological method is not undesirable to the free churches; rather, historically, the free churches have had to plead for the very right to exist against the persecuting churches of the Roman and Protestant traditions.
Even after toleration of dissenting churches was allowed, our people were kept out of the universities. It was not until the last two centuries that free church theologians began to receive the theological training necessary for such an exercise. Unfortunately, after such training, those theologians in the free churches who were even minimally interested in theological method tended to think in the magisterial manner of the academy in which they were educated, rather than according to the manner of the free churches from which they were called. My hope is that the book will serve as a clarion call for free church theologians to cease forsaking their own churches in favor of an alien paradigm. I have little doubt that some will not like it, precisely because it calls into question their fundamental presuppositions. However, God has never given this particular preacher a comfortable ministry.

Wyman Richardson:  You say on pages 115-116 that the original impetus for this book was the desire to see a free-church response to Cardinal Newman’s famous An Essay on the Development of Doctrine.  As one who is intrigued by Newman’s approach, I found this fact fascinating. You do note that this book is merely a first step and not a complete response to Newman.  I wonder if you feel that such a free-church response is essential today?  Why is this important and do you intend to pursue a more exhaustive response to Newman?

Malcolm Yarnell: John Henry Cardinal Newman is probably the most underrated theologian in the modern era. Most systematic theologians, especially in the Protestant tradition, tend to look toward authors who intend at the most to critique the church rather than build it up, or at the least who construct a theology that the church cannot live. Newman intentionally set out to build up the church and his theology was one that his church could utilize, although in his lifetime this was not always evident. (It was not until after World War II that many Roman Catholics began to see that Newman’s theology was helpful for bringing the Roman Church into conversation with modern humanity.)
Unfortunately, the sheer genius of Newman proved not only beneficial to Roman Catholicism, something that Benedict XVI also recognizes, but it proved attractive to those Protestants seeking a firmer though ultimately elusive historical basis. The brilliant thesis of Martin Luther was in showing that a return to Scripture did not entail submission to Rome; the brilliant thesis of Cardinal Newman was in showing that a return to truth might occur through submission to Rome. (Newman liked liberalism as much as Southern Baptist conservatives do.) In my opinion, Newman’s greatest legacy may be the intellectual subversion of the Reformation, a subversion that occurred while he wrote An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. The crisis of Reformation theology, especially with the current wholesale trend towards ecumenical theology, is found in Newman and his doctrine of doctrinal development.
This is why I believe there must be a response to the English Cardinal. As the free churches have become more aware of the history of the churches in general, they have discovered that Christians in other churches and at other times are not necessarily as depraved as they had sometimes led themselves to believe. This deepening historical awareness, a positive movement, also brought a sense of ecclesiological insecurity, a negative byproduct compounded by a loss of preaching upon biblical ecclesiology. As a result, some free churches have suffered loss of members to the Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran communions, or even more radically, to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Unless the free churches regain their theological foundation, we will continue to see the loss of our distinctives. If this were merely a historical loss, I would not be so exercised. The problem is that it entails the loss of what I believe to be the proper foundation of theology.
Do I plan to address Newman’s ideas with regard to development more deeply in the future? It would be an honor if that were my task. However, Newman deserves a worthier opponent than this middle-aged obscure theologian. When Newman is definitively answered, it must come from a wisdom that I fear I do not yet possess, if ever. However, perhaps someone will see fit to use my preliminary attempt as a basis for addressing Newman. For the sake of the New Testament churches, I believe it must be accomplished.

Wyman Richardson: You rightly bemoan the gutting of the term “evangelical” and the reduction of this word to a kind of “mushy middle”, lowest-common-denominator position that lacks clarity and force.  You also note how the term was originally bound up with ecclesiology but has now been divorced from any polity structure. In reaction, you use the term “evangelical” in its original sense and association with Magisterial Reformation polity and ecclesiology, thereby declaring your own apprehension with applying the term to Baptists.  I was curious, however, about why you did not mention perhaps the most well-known definition of “evangelical,” the Bebbington Quadrilateral?  Doesn’t Bebbington’s definition have more force and substance than the weak, tepid, and market-driven construct that you rightfully reject while at the same time providing a definitional construct that crosses denomination and polity lines?  Cannot a Baptist in good conscience hold to this idea of “evangelical” and not compromise his Baptist identity or lapse into the vacuous approaches that the term popularly carries with it today?

Malcolm Yarnell: Wyman, I appreciate this question tremendously, for it lets me address the evangelical problem from the perspective of modern evangelical historiography, a field upon which whole careers are made and broken. (Did I use the terminology “mushy middle”? I hope not, for that would belittle my respectful concern regarding where the movement may be going.) If I were providing an encyclopedic taxonomy of “evangelicalism,” which was not my intent in the preface, I most certainly would have included the work of David Bebbington. This premier historian’s fourfold definition of evangelicalism as crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism is both historically viable and religiously attractive. If “evangelicalism” were to be authoritatively defined, then Bebbington’s construct would be most attractive. However, for all its merit , the problem is that it is an historical definition and an historian’s definition. As an historical definition, which is all I imagine the professional historian Bebbington meant for it to be, it is subject to the vagaries and variances inevitable with the movement of history; as an historian’s definition, it carries no authority beyond those academics and others personally persuaded by the writings of Bebbington (and I am one of those). Bebbington’s definition has gained wide and deserved credibility among historians of the evangelical period from the late-eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century.
But ultimately, the definition of “evangelical,” even by such an accomplished historian as David Bebbington, is subject to the same problem outlined in my preface: it lacks ecclesiological normativity. Unless a church decides its own meaning of “evangelical,” it will always be subject to shifts in meaning, according to whatever the latest poll and the reporting pollster indicate. Sociology is a poor substitute for biblical theology, as I pray church leaders will increasingly discern. Academics, whether historical, sociological, or theological, for all of its helpfulness, possess no ecclesiological authority whatsoever. Jesus Christ established the churches as his agents of reconciliation with the world, and no para-church institution or employee may lay claim to such divine mandate. As a result, it would be grossly presumptuous of any Christian academy to assume for itself theologically normative authority. As to your last question in this group, a Baptist church as a free church can do whatsoever it desires with the term, “evangelical.” Wisely, most have preferred to leave the matter alone, perhaps because they intuitively recognize that the term is unstable. Theology deserves a firmer foundation than that.

Wyman Richardson: I’m curious about your methodology. You choose to speak throughout the book through association with various figures and positions.  As such, your proposals are presented somewhat vicariously through representative persons and episodes within historical theology.  I wonder what you see as the particular strengths of writing theology in this particular manner? Why did you choose to write the book like this?

Malcolm Yarnell: The particular strength of writing a biblical systematic theology with great respect for the contributions of history is that it helps keep a person honest. When theologians claim undue creativity, they are contradicting the preacher (koheleth) of the Old Testament: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The sensitive theologian will recognize that the biblical exegesis that we attempt is really just a new presentation of some old problem. Moreover, I personally believe it is wise to rely upon our theological forefathers. The truly great theologians are those who recognize the exegetical contributions of those who came before us. Respect for one’s elders seems to be a lost virtue in this emergent age, following closely upon the heels of the self-sufficient liberal age. When we theologians assume that we can read the Bible apart from the witness of the churches through the ages, we display a despicable pride.
Finally, as I indicated in the preface, theology is best done in community. The great thing for the modern historian is that the works of the early fathers, the medieval theologians, the Reformers, the modernists and fundamentalists, and those who do not fit well in a particular period are so widely available. Why not ground one’s theology in the Great Tradition, even as one provides a biblical critique of the various traditions that are grounded in the movement of God throughout history? Historical theology at its best is biblical theology conducted in conversation with the great Christian thinkers that have come before us.

Wyman Richardson: Methodist theologian Tom Oden has introduced a number of younger Baptists (like myself, ironically, in a Southwestern Seminary chapel service) to the Vincentian Canon through his paleo-orthodoxy programme.  You are sympathetic to the importance of antiquity, universality, and consent, noting that theological neophilia is an act of “hubris.”  Yet you are ultimately skeptical of the idea of a “patristic consensus,” pointing instead to the numerous conflicts, contradictions, and variances in patristic thought.  Yet Oden and others are quite passionate about the existence of a “classical Christian consensus” (Oden’s term).  Granting the maddening variety in patristic thought, was there not a core consensus or recognized orthodoxy on a number of key issues? Is consensus really so elusive when one considers the patristic writings?

Malcolm Yarnell: Thomas Oden is one of the greatest theologians alive this day. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hosting him as the guest lecturer for our annual Day-Higginbotham Lecture series at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have an abiding appreciation and hearty approval for his efforts to encourage what he refers to as “young fogies,” by which he means younger theologians who are highly interested in orthodoxy. And I would classify myself as one of those who encourage our students to know and ground themselves in classical Christianity. I do this in two ways: First, at the basic level, I utilize the major orthodox creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Formula of Chalcedon, Quicunque Vult) and encourage my students to know them, even memorize them. Second, at the more advanced level, I lead my fellow students, who have graciously allowed me to shepherd them, to read the major theologians of East and West, including Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, for instance.
However, I want my students, while they appreciate the brilliant contributions of the early church theologians, to see that they were not perfect. Like theologians today, they had their blind spots. What Protestant or free churchman can truly justify the sacerdotal system constructed by Cyprian, a system that has distracted many from the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross by focusing upon the sacrifice of the priest? What true Christian really wants to excuse the persecuting society that Augustine clearly justified in his theological innovations? The point I try to make in the book is one that is largely bypassed in the current rush to patristic theology: Although I personally believe we should hold to a basic Christian orthodoxy, which the early church fathers worked through especially with regard to Trinity and Christology, I also believe we must read the fathers critically. When we treat one theologian or synod or historical period with singular authority, we have in effect undermined the biblical canon.
Similarly, when it comes to the various periods of historical theology, although I have two degrees in Reformation theology, I refuse to treat the Reformation uncritically. This is why I do not measure orthodoxy through the ancient creeds alone or by the Synod of Dort, etc. And this is why I argue that the free churches must be willing to listen to the church fathers, the medieval schoolmen, the Reformers, as well as the modernists and fundamentalists. However, standing in judgment above every theologian, every council, and every period is Jesus Christ, who reveals Himself through the Bible. If we look at theology or theologians or their books or their conciliar decrees other than through the cross of Christ, we will err. We must ever be careful to follow Christ alone as revealed in the Bible alone through the illumination of the Spirit alone in the midst of the gathered body of Christ.

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