Forces of culture influence and shape our thoughts. In turn, what forces shape evangelicalism and the Reformed faith? Two different forces have shaped each theological movement: the Romantic idea of the genius on one end of the spectrum and the doctrine of the church on the other.
The two forces produce very different outcomes—in evangelical churches, the genius theologian looms large as the one who molds a theological movement. Reformed churches, on the other hand, have a commitment to a scripturally subordinated confessional authority, or confessionalism, that shapes the church. Herein lies a significant difference between evangelicalism and the Reformed faith. When we understand these different shaping forces, we can seek to pursue the path of confessionalism rather than that of a genius theologian. In confessionalism, a person commits to a corporate confession of faith written by the church throughout the ages, whereas in the genius theologian approach, a lone individual creates a school of thought that people try to emulate and replicate. In what follows, I explain the origins and nature of the genius theologian and contrast it with the confessional approach of the Reformed churches. Realizing Reformed churches are liable to fall into genius theologian mode, I conclude by spelling out the dangers of this pitfall.
…One of the thrusts of Romantic philosophy was the creation of the idea of the genius. Under the sway of emotion, French philosophe Denis Diderot claimed that the genius was an artist, a rule breaker, one who transcends the bounds of civilized man to blaze his own path. In his nineteenth-century Essay on Original Genius, Scottish Presbyterian William Duff argued that the indispensable characteristic of genius is an unrestrained imagination because this is what makes the genius unique and creative. This sets the stage for the Romantic influence on evangelicalism and the genius theologian.
The multi-branched tree of evangelicalism has no root in a single theological confession but in a coterie of theologians. Evangelicals typically look to big names as the lodestars for their understanding of the Christian faith. People are drawn to the genius and creativity of a theologian or pastor based upon their own interests. Are you interested in Christian Hedonism? Then you turn to John Piper. Are you trying to live your best life now? Then Joel Osteen is your genius. Do you believe that all theology is eschatology? Then Wolfhart Pannenberg is your instructor. Are you concerned about having a bombastic voice in the culture wars? Then Doug Wilson is your cup of tea.
J. V. Fesko | “Reformed Confessionalism v. The Genius Theologian'” | January, 2023
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I like the trajectory of the article but didn’t the reformation partly occur by “geniuses” in relation to the “church” (eg. Luther and the 95 Theses)? The problem arises when the church confessions or ruling bodies err. At that point we must follow scripture and the reformers become “geniuses” although they are orthodox. I think it perhaps is not as simple as confessions vs personalities.
I understand the formal similarity but as I understand John’s argument, he’s contrasting the confessional traditions with the American evangelical cult of personality. Luther reformed a church, which confessed the faith. Luther is a difficult character in this equation for early Lutherans since, for a time, some were required to subscribe to Luther’s writings but since that time, the confessional Protestants have subscribed confessions. Both Luther and Calvin did not want to start movements. They weren’t trying to be personalities or rock stars or celebrities. American evangelicals flock to celebrities and put their implicit faith, too often, not in God’s Word but in the opinions of celebrities. This is the contrast he’s drawing.