The Liberal Project v. Ressourcement

An Analysis of the Nature of Contemporary Theology

There are many ways of categorizing theology in the contemporary world. In centuries past, it was common to use denominational affiliation as key boundary markers, but that approach has broken down. Conservative Anglicans and conservative Presbyterians may have far more in common with each other than the conservatives have with liberal members of their own denominations. Protestantism has become so theologically incoherent that I feel closer in doctrine to Pope Benedict XVI than I do to some Baptists. 

For a time (from, say, the 1950’s to the late twentieth century), it was useful to speak of Evangelical versus liberal theology, but not anymore. Evangelicalism spans such a wide theological spectrum that within its general, sociologically defined ethos, radically incompatible theological approaches jostle for position. Evangelicalism has become something like Anglicanism with liberal, evangelical and charismatic wings held together more by institutional loyalty than by theological convictions. The mere fact that a theologian teaches in an Evangelical institution or writes for Evangelical publishers tells you nothing about what kind of theological approach to expect. It could be anything from fundamentalism to Marxism. It could involve gender theory, psychobabble, environmentalism or panentheism.  In many ways, the book tables at the Evangelical Theological Association reflect the image of the world in which we live today. Evangelicalism and the Spirit of the Age have each other’s phone numbers. 

I would like to suggest an entirely new typology for this task which will help us make sense out of puzzling phenomena such as those documented in James Dolezal’s book, All That is in God. In that book he shows that even conservative, confessional Protestants, as well as Evangelicals, are writing things today that are inconsistent with the classical, orthodox doctrine of God contained in the ancient creeds and Reformation era confessions. This is an astonishing fact that cries out for explanation. How did we get here?

In response to this question, I want to suggest that there are two main approaches to writing theology in the contemporary world: the liberal project and the Ressourcement project. Both are responses to modernity, but whereas one attempts to make peace with modernity, the other sees modernity as in terminal decline and so is focussed on surviving the fall of modernity and continuing the Christian faith after modernity. All contemporary theologians can be classified as participating in one or the other.

The Liberal Project 

The liberal project originated in the Enlightenment and has two wings: historical criticism of the Bible, which stems from the pantheist Spinoza and doctrinal revision, which stems from the pantheist Schleiermacher. The Enlightenment (1648-1804) was a rejection of orthodox Christianity by many of the leading intellectuals of Europe and an attempt to substitute reason alone for revelation as the basis of knowledge. It cleverly leveraged the prestige of early modern science through rhetorically sophisticated sophistry in order to drive a wedge between faith and reason that did not exist before and does not need to exist. 

The Enlightenment was a reversion to the materialism, the mechanism and the nominalism of the pre-Christian Epicureanism and Atomism that the early church fathers deliberately rejected as they transformed the philosophical tradition of the ancient world using metaphysical concepts deduced from doctrines derived from biblical exegesis. In the Enlightenment, however, the older, Christian metaphysics of Nicaea was gradually eroded, and Western culture entered – in fits and starts and over a long period of time – its post-Christian, neo-pagan era. This is what I call modernity. 

The question confronting every theologian today is how to position oneself with regard to modernity. Hardly anyone takes the entirety of secular modernity on board in toto. And hardly anyone is left untouched by it. All of us swim in the ocean of modern culture and we cannot avoid it even if we are trying to spit it out! Should we make peace with modernity? Can we come to acceptable terms? We want to continue to live as Christians, but we also want to participate in modern society. 

For centuries (from, say, the 17-20th centuries) it appeared that this was quite possible, and we just need to negotiate terms. In the early 21st century, however, modernity has become more aggressive and demanding toward the church. All the energy in the culture wars comes from an aggressive cultural Left and the church is clearly on the defensive. Liberal democracy itself, a major fruit of the détente achieved between conservatives and radicals, is now under threat. The culture of death is expanding, and the surveillance society is ramping up. 

Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, has resonated so strongly because it shows that the weird political things that we hear about in the news have roots in philosophical ideas that redefine what it means to be human. This confirms what many have suspected but been slow to articulate, namely, that the crisis of modernity is not really political or ethical but metaphysical and theological at root. Modernity is not just bizarre or quirky; it is in deep trouble philosophically. It may take a long time to fall apart (because it is so wealthy) but the process began long ago and is accelerating.

Over the past 150 years the project known as historical criticism has dominated the study of the Bible in the Western academy. It arose under the influence of Hegel’s philosophy in the mid-nineteenth century, but its roots lie in the philosophical naturalism of the Enlightenment stretching back to Spinoza. Historical criticism is focused on the biblical text as a human product of immanent forces within “history” (which is defined in naturalistic terms so as to exclude the supernatural). Evangelicals have been dabbling in historical criticism since the nineteenth century, so the current iterations of Evangelical historical criticism are nothing new. 

Evangelicals have even sought to create their own versions of historical criticism using labels like the “grammatical historical method” to try to “tame” historicism and combine it with a continued acceptance of miracles, providence and revelation. But even the most conservative proponents of the historical critical project tell us that we must focus on the human authorial intent of the text and its single meaning. What has been lost is the unity of Scripture, divine authorial intent and the spiritual sense of the text that is built on the literal sense and discerned by contemplation of the text in the light of doctrines previously drawn from the text. 

Sensing this loss as a serious problem, the movement known as “theological interpretation of Scripture” has attempted to recover the theological significance of the text and re-connect exegesis and doctrine. However, many of the proponents of this movement have been unwilling to challenge the philosophical foundations of historical criticism and have therefore only been partially successful in restoring a properly theological reading of Scripture. Brevard Childs is the premier example here. A truly theological approach to exegesis has yet to arise in the form of a postcritical, theological commentary.

When it comes to the other wing of the liberal project, doctrinal revision, the situation has changed rather dramatically since the middle of the twentieth century. Up to that point, the radical revisionism in the direction of pantheism as seen in process theology was almost uniformly rejected by confessional Protestants and Evangelicals. But since that point, various forms of relational theism have become the current fad within otherwise orthodox theology. We see denials of various aspects of classical theism including the denial of the impassibility, simplicity, timeless eternity and immutability of God. Such denials place these theologians outside the classical orthodox doctrine of God enshrined within the ancient, ecumenical creeds and the Reformation-era confessions. This is a remarkable development with immense implications for the future. 

A new doctrine of God is emerging among Evangelicals, a doctrine of God that can be fit into the philosophical naturalist metaphysical parameters of modernity. In this approach God and the world exist on the same plane of reality. One way to put it is that God is historicized. Thus the shadow of Hegel lengthens over Middle Earth and what the shadow obscures is the reality of the transcendent Creator of Scripture. Doctrines of God that fit into modern metaphysical limitations will cut contemporary theology off from the classical, Christian tradition, and from the Bible itself. This is what has prompted the rise of the Ressourcement project. 

The Ressourcement Project 

In the Roman Catholic world, the Ressourcement approach began with Pope Leo XIII’s call in 1879 for a recovery of the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas and it really took off in the early 20th century with the recovery and publication of patristic sources by figures like Henri De Lubac and Jean Danielou. In the later 20th century Protestant figures such as Thomas Oden, Richard Muller and John Webster emerged as leaders in a similar kind of attempt to recover valuable resources from premodern theology that could help us resist the acids of modernity and develop a theology for the post-postmodern future. 

Two periods of church history which have emerged as of critical importance for the Ressourcement project are patristic theology, especially the 4-5th centuries, and post-Reformation reformed scholasticism. One advantage of studying post-Reformation reformed scholasticism is that it puts one in touch with a living branch of the Augustinian-Thomist tradition that has deep roots in fourth-century, pro-Nicene theology. These are the sources we need to recover if the classical doctrine of God is going to survive through the dark ages of modernity and be available to future generations whose task it will be to rebuild culture and civilization once the neo-paganism of the modern West has exhausted itself in its futile rebellion against reality. 

We can see many Evangelical and confessional Protestant theologians today recovering the pro-Nicene theology of the 4th century. The work of Scott Swain, Michael Allen, Fred Sanders, Matthew Barrett and others is exemplary. We also see good work being done in post-Reformation scholasticism by scholars such as Carl Trueman, Richard Muller, J. V. Fesko, Stephen Duby and many others. Many of these figures look back to John Webster as an inspiration and model. The theological landscape looks quite different today than it did even 20-30 years ago. Unfortunately, however, it is both more promising and at the same time more polarized than before, since the revisionist project has picked up speed and historical criticism continues to make inroads into Evangelical biblical scholarship.  

A key component of the Ressourcement project is the recovery of the true purpose of theology. Much modern theology has been deformed by excessive preoccupation with apologetics from Schleiermacher to the present. There is a place for apologetics as a kind of applied theology. But it must be subordinate to exegesis and doctrine, rather than domineering. What I mean is that when apologetic concerns drive revisionist programs then apologetics has gotten out of control and needs to be reined in by confessional orthodoxy. For example, when contemporary revisionists tell us that we must sacrifice Divine impassibility to make our doctrine of God more relevant to modernity, then apologetics needs to be sent to its room without supper to meditate on its sins. The worst thing we can do today is to take apologetics too seriously as if it were the central concern of theology. It makes a good servant of theology but a poor master. 

What is the purpose and goal of theology? I would say that Christian theology is an attempt to speak truly about God and all things in relation to God on the basis of Divine revelation. Its purpose is to prepare the saints for worship by facilitating their sanctification, especially by means of the renewing of their minds, so that their worship may be intelligent and, thus, fully human. Human beings made in the image of God have received the gift of reason, by which they are capable of language and logic, and so this aspect of human nature (along with all the others including the emotions, the will and the body itself) must be directed toward the worship of the one, true God in order for the human creature to fulfill its telos and glorify the Creator. Therefore, the church has great need of the office of theologian and Christian theologians should work primarily under the authority of the church, rather than the secular academy.

Contemporary theology needs to shift away from the liberal projects because the opportunity costs of investing so much time and effort in appeasing a dying culture is too high. The church needs to focus on God and on understanding all things in relation to God, rather than trying to make it possible for a neo-pagan culture to accept our doctrine without being converted. Our first priority, which is essential for all spiritual growth and cultural flourishing, is to heed the words of the Apostle John: “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” (1 John 5:21)