From Augustine to Warfield: One Anglican’s Dislike of (Most) Western Theology
Preface: I readily acknowledge that my theology is imperfect and, as I explain later in the post, I’m not disparaging Western theology.
For some time people have given me quizzical looks when I mention not liking (most) Western theology. Some are confused. Others presume I’m kidding. Still others scold me for offering an oversimplistic assessment of an enormous field. There have even been a few who nod knowingly, assuming I’ll be following them to Eastern Orthodoxy within a couple years. Trying to sort out and explain all this has been a rather difficult task. Perhaps the best way to explain my perspective is to say that my experience reading Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform was a microcosm of my overall experience with christian theology generally and Western theology specifically:
- Olson didn’t get into the New Testament period, but it’s worth mentioning that I’m fascinated by it. Five out of five stars!
- I found everything from the apostolic fathers absolutely invigorating. Five stars.
- The section from Nicaea to Constantinople still captured my interest, but certainly not to the same degree. Three and a half stars.
- Another decline occurred between Constantinople and Ephesus, but not nearly as significant. Three stars.
- The pattern of declining interest continued during the period spanning from the last four ecumenical councils to the Great Schism. It felt like a chore to get through. One and a half stars.
- From this point Olson’s survey of Eastern theology basically concluded and he shifted to Western theology almost exclusively.
- I found the high and late Medieval period to be arduous reading. Half star.
- The chapter on the Protestant Reformation was like a good movie you’ve seen too many times. Unlike a film like The Shawshank Redemption that seemingly improves with each viewing, my enjoyment of the Reformation theology has been steadily decreasing with each “viewing.” There was a time when I would’ve given it five stars, but now I give it one and a half.
- The chapter on the Counter-Reformation was irritating and frustrating. Like Godfather: Part III, I couldn’t help but dwell on what could have been. Half star.
- Reading about the various theological reform movements like pietism was awful. One star.
- Catholic theology in the 19 century was just painful. Half star, and I’m being generous.
- The advent of liberal theology in the 19th century once again reminded me of my view of the mainline denominations–a lot of good but ultimately misplaced thinking. Plus I’m definitively not a fan of the conservative Protestant theology from that period. One star.
- It wasn’t till Olson got to the early to mid-20th century that I again found myself reading with significant interest once more. Vatican II alone earned this period of Catholic theology three stars.
- The stuff on 20th century Protestant theology had me captivated. Five stars.
- Although Olson’s book didn’t go into the 21st century, I’m a big fan of many contemporary theologians like N.T. Wright, Thomas Oden, Stanley Grenz, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Walton, Kenneth Bailey, and so forth. Five stars.
In other words, I dislike most theology from roughly the mid-4th century, e.g. St. Augustine, through the 19th century, e.g. B.B. Warfield. By definition that includes most distinctly Western theology. My experience reading Olson’s book was something like eating a reverse Oreo: I liked the stuff on the outsides way more than the stuff in the middle. That is, to an ever-increasing degree my beliefs are being influenced by the Ante-Nicene Fathers and 20th/21st century theologians.
Of course, Olson’s book is a survey. While the general themes do correspond with my overall outlook on the trajectory of Western theology, there are numerous things I like about a great many church figures and movements during that roughly millennium and a half middle period. For example, I’m a big fan of Augustine’s conception of the Two Kingdoms, I’m in awe of Aquinas’ mind (even as I dislike his theological conceptions), I can hardly speak highly enough of Wyclif’s work to restore the importance of Scripture, I absolutely love Erasmus’ satire, Hooker’s via media principle is no small part of why I’m Anglican, and I think the Oxford Movement is just plain sweet. Moreover, I readily acknowledge that my reading of Western theological literature is exceedingly limited in comparison to the massive output of even one of the prolific writers, let alone Western theological texts collectively! Yet I have read Augustine, Abelard, Lombard, Aquinas, Hus, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Spener, Edwards, Wesley, Finney, Warfield, and others. In the process I’ve developed a great deal of respect for these individuals. I appreciate their devout faith, rigorous thought, accomplishments, etc. There’s much to be learned from them and I’m by no means disparaging anyone who studies those figures and their corresponding fields. Nevertheless, I’m just not passionate about nor do I care to study (in much detail) that period of Western theology.
As a general practice, I distinguish between the objective value of a thing and my subjective feelings about it. Sufjan Stevens has immense value as a musician. I can’t stand the sound of his music, though. Journey has scant transcendent value, but I love their music. Likewise, I recognize the objective value of Western theology in terms of its literary corpus and documentation of man’s ongoing wrestling with God. I see much value in understanding the theological development, and I enjoy the historical reconstruction. The fact remains, however, that I dislike the general trajectory of Western theology from about the fourth century up till the 20th century. It’s a bit like my view of Charles Finney. He’s an essential figure for knowing American church history and elements of his life can be fascinating to study. His legacy upon Protestant culture, theology, and practice are incalculable. Yet I still can’t stand the dude’s theology. I feel much the same way about the vast majority of Western theologians, albeit I’m not nearly as passionate in opposition as I am to Finney.
For some time I’ve been trying to figure out my “reverse Oreo” preferences. This is still very much a work-in-process, but I’ve come up with two reasons I prefer early and late christian theology. First, I seem to resonate with theology coming out of pluralistic settings. The apostolic fathers lived before Constantine and Christianity’s corresponding assent to societal dominance. Mirroring those ancient figures are contemporary theologians who are writing in a post-christian context. I’m not sure how this plays out in the theological realm, but I have a nagging suspicion this is significant. Second, I greatly value the interaction between Eastern and Western thought. Philip Yancey once wrote, “Truth is not found in one extreme or the other, but in both extremes together.” I heartily agree. There are elements I like and dislike within Eastern and Western thought. I find they complement one another and foster healthy doctrinal tension. I see almost a Yin Yang relationship that I think christian theology needs. Yet as the Roman Empire eroded, so did the interaction between east and west. For centuries the two realms drifted apart culturally, linguistically, philosophically, economically, and politically until there existed Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, both of which were claiming to be the faithful continuance of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. In my humble opinion, the resulting theological polarization negatively impacted both. It has only been in the relatively recently past, and the past two decades especially, that political and technological developments have reopened the lines of communication. As I read contemporary theologians I’m sensing increasingly Eastern nuance, and I think that’s a good thing.