When OT Scholars Do Historical Theology

It comes out about as accurate as Historical Theologians doing serious OT work. I say this because I recently asked whence folk (FVists among them) get the idea that Martin Bucer’s soteriology marked a substantial break from Martin Luther’s. I don’t think they would get that sense if they were actually reading Bucer but they might if they were reading some secondary lit. As I tell my students most secondary lit is dreck.  There are a few reasons for this.  First, much secondary lit is published for the wrong reasons, namely, professional advancement. Scholars should publish when they have something to contribute but the academy is not without its sins and one of them is that promotions are premised upon publications. People tend to do that for which they are rewarded. Thus scholars sometimes publish before they should. Second, some books just aren’t very good. I can think easily of 5-10 books that should never have been published, at least not in the form in which they appeared, but they appeared anyway. Why? In some cases it was because the writer was saying what people wanted to hear. Unfortunately, that happens more than we would like to think. Third, sometimes scholars get used to being addressed as “Doctor so and so” and they start to believe that they are omnicompetent.  They forget that they started their careers only really knowing one little field and they begin to believe that they can do more than they really are able to do.

Before me is The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985). Apparently some folk are citing a chapter, on Martin Bucer, in this volume as evidence that Bucer’s soteriology different substantially from Luther’s (one finds a bit of this same line of thinking in Martin Greschat’s biography of Bucer too—I’ve argued with Greschat’s reading of the Reformation here. In the Bucer bio he simply assumes that Bucer taught the tertius usus legis and Luther did not). Well, check the end notes to the chapter. Most of the references are not to Bucer’s Opera Omnia but to a variety of secondary texts, several of which are quite dated. Some of the secondary literature to which the author appeals is simply controversial, e.g., H. E. Weber. Even where the author does cite primary sources he does so in the service of an interpretation of Bucer which is certainly not obvious or necessary.

This is to be expected when Bucer or any other figure appears as a talking head in a chapter that is only a rung of a ladder in a larger argument. Bucer is meant to pop up, say his lines, and move off stage to make room for the next talking head in the survey. A Reformation historian would not take such a linear (longitudinal) approach. His approach would be treat Bucer in his context and his research would be more inductive. He would read Bucer, in context, and ask “what are Bucer’s concerns?” “What is Bucer trying to say?” It is just a little less historical to come to a figure and ask, “what did Bucer say about x?” or “Did Bucer use the same expression as Luther?” I guess that, as an OT scholar, HGR would be more sensitive about questions in his own field but as a historian of theology he’s a little ham-fisted.

Were I researching Bucer I would not look to an OT scholar to teach me Reformation history and theology. Blockhead that I am, I would expect him to teach me Old Testament. What surprises me is that folk are apparently taking this account seriously as Reformation history and using it as a foundation for arguments about the nature of Bucer’s soteriology and his relations to the rest of the Reformed tradition.

Bucer was regarded by Calvin and the other Reformed leaders in the 16th and 17th centuries as an orthodox Protestant on justification. Bucer learned his doctrine of justification from Luther. He learned his doctrine of double justification from Luther who preached two sermons on that topic in 1518-19. In both cases the first ground of justification was said to be Christ’s righteousness imputed and the second justification was only what we would call vindication or sanctification as evidence of justification. That was Bucer’s doctrine of double justification. This notion that Bucer had some distinct doctrine of double justification is simply confused.  You can read more on this here: “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107-34.

I am not saying that Bucer’s theology is identical to Luther’s, not at all. He identified with the Reformed reformation. He accepted the more highly developed role for the Spirit in Reformed theology. He accepted the notion that we justified in order that we might be sanctified (which at least some Lutherans accepted), he accepted the Reformed church polity and the Reformed Christology and view of the sacraments. These were regarded as organic developments not a repudiation of Luther. There’s no concrete evidence that I’ve seen, and here I’m thinking of Bucer’s massive (400,000 word) Romans commentary, that Bucer abandoned the basic sola fide conviction of the Reformers. Yes, the compromise at Regensburg was complicated, but explainable in light of the pressures and circumstances under which the compromise was reached (see the article linked above). Yes, Bucer was a Christian humanist, but so was Calvin and his Protestant credentials are undoubted. So was Melanchthon and so were a number of leading Protestants. Being a Christian humanist did not entail a corruption of the Protestant doctrine of justification. The Renaissance, as it was appropriated by the Reformers, was much more about pedagogy and academic methodology than it was a particular philosophy or theology.

As I see it there was a strong pan-Protestant consensus in the 16th century on justification and unless there is clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, we should continue to think that Bucer held the doctrine of justification as accepted and articulated by all the Protestants from Augsburg (Art 4) to Heidelberg Q. 60 to Westminster Confession ch. 11.

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  1. Thanks Dr. Clark, this definitely supplements much of what you’ve been lecturing on in class. Ad Fontes!

  2. Scott
    Another example of this kind laziness is seen in the constant reference to B.B. Warfield as a through going Darwinian theistic evolutionist. Peter Barnes in the Banner of Truth magazine (May 2009) confidently claimed that the great Princetonian was in fact ‘a Darwinian of the purest water’ citing as his source the work of Noll and Livingstone. More recently in the aftermath of the Bruce Waltke dust-up, Michael Bird likewise pinned the label on BBW that he was a unabashed evolutionist.

  3. Can someone point me towards an unimpeachable source that would clear the (admittedly muddy) waters around Warfield and evolution? My understanding is that he held to common descent for all life with the exception of human beings. Is this in fact true? And if it was how did he reconcile this belief with the traditional reading of Paul that seems to suggest that death did not exist prier to the fall?

    • I think the last person I heard speak of Warfield and evolution was Dr. Darryl Hart on the Reformed Forum (It was an odd reference he brought it up in the context of a discussion of a letter between Machen and his mother regarding Princeton’s policy of letting black students live in the dorms). I think Ron Numbers discussed Warfield in his book “The creationists as well. Is this a point of dispute? Perhaps the better word for what (I think) Warfield believed would be “common descent”.

  4. The only kind of Historical Theological work I’d trust an OT scholar to do is to study the OT theologies of various OT theologians! (E.g., studying and comparing the approaches of of Von Rad, Noth and Wolfe to the final 4 verses of 2 Kings, should anyone find such a study interesting, of course!)

    Nice post, Scott!

  5. Scott,

    I seem to remember Mike Horton protesting the silliness of N.T. Wright wanting to limit the conversation about exegeting N.T. texts to N.T. scholars. As Mike pointed out, the texts don’t mean something different when exegeted by Systematic or Historical Theologians.

    You put your finger on the real problem when you wrote “… sometimes scholars get used to being addressed as ‘Doctor so and so’ and they start to believe that they are omnicompetent. They forget that they started their careers only really knowing one little field and they begin to believe that they can do more than they really are able to do.”

    The solution is not to restrict scholars to ever narrower specialties, but to insist that they actually produce genuine scholarship.

    BTW – When I was doing some research on the development of Calvin’s view of Baptism (in relationship to Luther’s and Bucer’s views) I was astonished at how frequently “scholarly” articles cited each other (or simply filled in the blanks with assumptions) rather than citing original sources.


    • Sorry about that. The “mvpcworshipblog” post was from David Booth.

    • Hi David,

      Well, the credibility of a piece of research depends its quality. It’s not that people can’t do cross-disciplinary work but it is rare for it to be done well. Michael Polanyi was a scientist who turned to the history of science and philosophy and made a real contribution, so it happens. In that case, however, Polanyi wasn’t doing drive-by history. He was careful and thoughtful.

      I can’t just start writing on OT topics at an academic level. OT guys wouldn’t and shouldn’t take me seriously. Systematics is a little different because it is a synthetic discipline. It draws on the work of bib studies and historical studies. Some systematicians are good biblical exegetes. Murray was quite skilled for example. Mike Horton doesn’t publish a lot of detailed biblical exegesis in the traditional sense but if one pays attention to the work he’s done in his WJKP series and in his covenant theology book or in his preaching, it’s quite good.

      I find, however, with a few exceptions, that most systematicians aren’t very good historians. They don’t ask genuinely historical questions. They don’t use the methods of historians. History for them is mere prologue to what they are doing, which is prescriptive teaching. Thus, systemticians, in my experience, frequently get things wrong because they rely on bad secondary lit or mis-read primary sources. By the same token, historians frequently make theological blunders because they aren’t trained in theology. Systematicians usually have at least a little historical background in sem.

      Someone wrote to alert me to the use to which HGR’s work is being put and I was a little surprised such a piece was being given the sort of weight it apparently has.

  6. Johnson and Steve,

    I would check out “The Princeton Theology,” ed. Mark Noll. Therein is an article by Warfield called “Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation” from 1915.

    Sorry, Dr. Clark. Don’t mean to get off topic.

    • Thanks Nick!

      I’ve asked our library to order a copy and I’ll likely get my own copy too. It looks promising. The recommendations are very strong indeed.

  7. Great historical theology comment! I am constantly troubled that so many of the difficulties which we face today have already been faced and answered by our Reformed forefathers, however these great works are not interacted with but simply side-stepped and ignored. Which brings me to another question: When will the “Corpus Reformatorum” be published in a critical edition with an English translation?? We need a Parker Society to gather a reprint already translated works which have passed out of print. I believe that such works would surely encourage and defend classic post Reformation orthodoxy and provide a solid base for meeting the continuing challenges raised against Christ’s truth.

      Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

      And ‘someone’ has said that one cannot be a student of theology without also being a student of church history; original sources are indispensable.

      Unfortunately most today think that given we are the latest to hit the scene we automatically have the best insights and most nuanced perspectives…

      • “Unfortunately most today think that given we are the latest to hit the scene we automatically have the best insights and most nuanced perspectives…”

        To quote someone amongst us:
        “Nunc super tunc”

  8. In terms of the “fontes” we are at an interesting point in history.

    Never has so much primary material been available. For example, vast numbers of Reformtion texts are being digitised by the Bavarian State Library and being made available through Google Books. You can also now find a lot of French Reformed sources through Gallica, a service provided by the Bibliotheque nationale.

    Likewise, I was recently at the Library for the History of French Protestantism, and they allowed me to photograph about 400 folios of manuscript, which I now have stored on iPhoto.

    At the same time, fewer and fewer English-speakers read Latin or the European vernaculars. There are plans afoot to translate some more of Bucer’s works into English, but my experience of translation suggests this will be really slow going, and as the pool of Latinists shrinks, there’s a vanishing chance that anything as huge as Corpus Reformatorum will be translated into English.

    So the summons ad fontes will fall on deaf ears until we have more of the viri & feminae trilingui on whom the Renaissance depended.

    Otherwise, our situation is more that of Coleridge’s ancient mariner: water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

    • “and as the pool of Latinists shrinks, there’s a vanishing chance that anything as huge as Corpus Reformatorum will be translated into English.

      So the summons ad fontes will fall on deaf ears until we have more of the viri & feminae trilingui on whom the Renaissance depended. ”

      Dr. Clark,

      What levels of Latin knowledge would academics consider to be competent enough to be doing such work as translation? Is the B.A. in classics a degree that’s becoming worthless?

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