Protestants Need to go Back to Basics


Published November 16, 2023

First Things

Last Monday I had the pleasure of delivering the opening lecture for the newly-founded Center for Classical Theology. The brainchild of Matthew Barrett, of Midwestern Baptist Seminary, its aim is to reinvigorate Protestantism by reconnecting it to its historical and theological roots in the patristic and medieval periods. Unfortunately, much of modern evangelicalism sorely needs to recover “classical theology”—the term Barrett uses to describe orthodox Christian doctrines as set forth by the creeds, the Great Tradition of theology exemplified by the ancient ecumenical councils, and traditional Protestant confessions such as the Westminster Confession. 

Recent scholarship in both the ancient church and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism have exposed an unfortunate problem with large swathes of the conservative, and especially evangelical, Protestant world. Much good work was done over the last century in both articulating a high view of the authority of Scripture and developing more self-conscious and sophisticated theological approaches to biblical interpretation. But at the same time, many Protestants became disconnected from creedal and confessional teaching on the doctrine of God (and thus by inference, from Christology). Many conservative Protestants did not even notice that this was the case, as their understanding of what the creeds and confessions actually claimed was refracted through a biblicist lens that was detached from the history of doctrinal debate behind these documents. 

Hence, doctrines such as simplicity, immutability, and eternal generation have been redefined or have vanished altogether in certain Protestant communities, even as many who played a role in this maintained a verbal commitment to the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith. The conservative criticism of liberal Christians—that they use orthodox words but mean something different—somehow did not apply when the people doing so affirmed the historical resurrection but rejected the basic elements of the classical doctrine of God. 

A recovery of classical theology is thus long overdue for a variety of reasons. The language of confessional Protestantism and orthodox evangelicalism was historically rooted in these classical doctrines. The Reformers and their hearers took it for granted that theology is always to be done in careful dialogue with the past and, as much as possible, in continuity with it. But this is simply counter-intuitive to an evangelicalism shaped more by revivalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the fundamentalist-modernist strife of the early twentieth. 

That points toward one of the reasons classical theology and classical theism now seem implausible to many. True to its roots, evangelical Christianity in our modern day is too often impatient with language that seems speculative and abstract and with doctrine that cannot be easily instrumentalized. Hence some evangelicals conclude we must have a God who changes because the Nicene categories for God’s immutability seem too deep for Christians to fully grasp and have little immediate payoff in the present. Add to this the new need for God to possess that most important of modern human virtues—empathy—and the God of classical theism would appear to be neither plausible nor useful to modern man. 

Yet the biblical portrait of God in passages such as Job 28 is powerful precisely because it asserts his sovereign transcendence over this world. It is his very otherness that is key, not his empathy or his capacity to change or modify his being. He does not need to become God. He is God. This is one reason why Paul counsels us to focus on the things that are above. And Nicaea and Chalcedon provide us with the categories for understanding how this simple and unchanging God can manifest himself in the flesh.

These doctrines are important. A time of social upheaval and chaos such as ours is likely to send even the most devout Christians into despair unless they can place the terrifying flux of life in the earthly city against the unchanging reality of the sovereign God himself. It is the same with personal suffering. What patient suffering from cancer wants a doctor who has cancer too? They want a doctor who can overcome their illness. That is the God of classical theism. He does not need to suffer as God. He needs to take human flesh and overcome death in that flesh. Classical theology articulates a magnificent doctrine of God and calls us to set aside the concerns of the immediate present for contemplation of the divine majesty as revealed in the person of Christ, a revelation made all the greater when set against the backdrop of the God of classical theism. 

A recovery of classical theology also raises an interesting ecumenical question. Why do Protestants, especially those of an evangelical stripe, typically prioritize the doctrine of salvation over the doctrine of God? If an evangelical rejects simplicity or impassibility or eternal generation, he is typically free to do so. But why should those properly committed to the creeds and confessions consider that person closer spiritually to them than those who affirm classical theism but share a different understanding of justification? 

This is a real issue. At an Association of Theological Schools accreditation meeting I once found myself placed among the “evangelical” attendees. In that group was someone who denied simplicity, impassibility, and the fact that God knows the future—all doctrines that I affirm. Those are not minor differences. Wistfully my eyes wandered to the Dominicans at another table, all of whom would at least have agreed with me on who God is, even if not on how he saves his church. We would at least have shared some common ground upon which to set forth our significant differences. The Reformed Orthodox of the Westminster Assembly would have considered deviance on the doctrine of God to be anathema and, if forced to choose, would certainly have preferred the company of a Thomist to that of someone who denied simplicity, eternal generation, or God’s foreknowledge. Why do we not think the same? The modern Protestant imagination is oddly different from that of our ancestors. 

The Center for Classical Theology is a wonderful step in the right direction for Protestantism. May it help us to recover our roots in Nicaea and in classical theism, understand our confessions more accurately, and think about the nature of our ecumenical discussions more seriously.


Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

Most Read

EPPC BRIEFLY
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church

SEARCH

Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today

More in Evangelicals in Civic Life