Friday, April 12, 2019

Christology: The Central Dogma of Reformed Orthodoxy?

Dr Richard Barcellos writes in his Lecture Notes on Biblical Hermeneutics, “Here we must be careful not to infuse later, neo-orthodox concepts of Christocentricity into the historical data. The Christocentricity of the Reformed and Reformed orthodox was redemptive-historical and not principial … But we must still be careful with the term Christocentricity. Christology must not be viewed as the central dogma of the Reformed orthodox.”[1]

What did he mean by this statement?

I would like to present the following article as an elucidation of what Dr Barcellos meant.[2]

Barcellos asks, “Terms such as Christ-centered and Christocentric are used often in our day. But what do they mean? The older way of describing the concept these terms point to, the target or end to which all of the Bible tends, is encapsulated by the Latin phrase scopus Scripturae (i.e., the scope of the Scriptures). This concept gained confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Savoy Declaration, and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith in 1.5, which, speaking of Holy Scripture, says, “. . . the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God)…’”[3]

He continues, “The post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians embraced a whole-Bible hermeneutic. This manifested itself in their understanding of the scope of Scripture. Though scopus could refer to the immediate pericope, it also had a wider, redemptive-historical focus. Scopus, in this latter sense, referred to the center or target of the entirety of canonical revelation or that to which the entire Bible points. For the seventeenth-century Reformed orthodox and their Reformed predecessors, Christ was the scope of Scripture, being the primary means through which God gets glory for himself.”[4]

Thus, within the context of the “Scopus Scripturae,”[5] where the entirety of Scripture points toward Christ as the “target” in a redemptive-historical sense, this scopus of Scripture was understood as the “Christocentricity” of the Reformed orthodox. According to Dr Barcellos, “the relationship between the testaments was seen in terms of a promise/fulfillment, figure/reality, type/anti-type motif,” and all of revelation consummates in the coming of Christ.[6]

However, Neo-orthodox Christocentricity stands in stark contrast to the loci method of the Reformed orthodox.

What is the loci method of the Reformed orthodox?

Rehnman explains, “The loci method … resulted in works with a sixfold pattern of topics, organised after the biblical and historical order (an inheritance from Lombard’s Sententiae), where each locus was examined in the light of redemptive history.”[7]

In this method, “Scripture, and not Christ the Mediator, is a fundamental principle or foundation of theology in Reformed orthodoxy,” writes Barcellos. In such a methodology, which uses Scripture as the principium cognoscendi (principle of knowing), basic theological topics or categories discovered within Scripture is organized according to loci theologici. These loci were “clusters of organizing principles that help determine the focus of theology. Thus various biblical themes such as sin, redemption, justification, grace, etc. furnish some of the loci theologici for systematic theology.”[8] In other words, these loci theologici were “major heads of systematic theology.”[9]

Now, having discovered the basic topics of Scripture using these loci, the Reformed orthodox “reverses the process and organize Scripture passages into their overarching categories, thereby disintegrating their original contexts.”[10] Therefore, Scripture is thereafter organized and understood according to the theological topics (loci theologici) initially derived from it.

The Reformed orthodox started with Scripture, and concluded Christocentricity in terms of the historia salutis or redemptive history. Considering the fact that Christ is the scopus (target) of Scripture, and He is at the “soteriological center of the work of redemption” (pace Muller), the Reformed orthodox do not view Christology as the central dogma of Reformed theology. As mentioned earlier, the loci method distinguishes several loci theologici (or theological categories/topics) derived from Scripture, and Christology is only one of them.

Contrast this with the Christocentricity of Neo-orthodoxy.[11]

Rousas Rushdoony worded the crux of the problem very well, and I shall quote him extensively here. He writes,

“Another tendency which plagues current Christology is the neo-orthodox thinking which ostensibly is Christocentric because it considers the Christ of Scripture a higher universal than the Father. Being indifferent to God-in-Himself and concerned with God-in-relationship, and finding the deity exhaustively revealed in relation, neo-orthodoxy centers its focus on Christ because it has no other focus. But the Christ it centers its attention upon is hardly recognizable. The results of critical biblical scholarships are fully accepted. The historical Jesus is separated from the Christ, and the Christ becomes the universal, participation in whom constitutes the essence of being a person and being saved. All men are lost and saved, reprobate and elect, in terms of this correspondence. The essence of God is revelational activity, and the essence of man is faith. Hence, God must reveal Himself and is known in the Christ, in activity, while man must inherently believe, since such is his nature. Neo-orthodoxy thus tends toward universalism; all men must eventually be saved because all men are men only as they believe. Similarly, God is God only as He reveals Himself in revelational activity, supremely in the idea of the Christ. Thus God to be God must be fully involved in history, become fully involved in contingency, lay aside all his incommunicable attributes, if He has any, and become the opposite of Himself. From liberal sources, neo-orthodoxy has been criticized as a St. Vitus dance in no-man’s-land. Its Christology can be further described as a ladder in empty space, reaching from nowhere to nowhere. Neo-orthodoxy can say God was in Christ because there was then no God apart from Christ; in that revelational activity, God was exhaustively present. The incarnation for Barth, for example, was God’s complete humiliation and self-sacrifice, and he can even speak of God suffering “death and perdition.’”[12]

What Dr Barcellos considers as excesses of the so-called “Christocentricity” of Neo-orthodoxy is also founded upon the Neo-orthodox erroneous view of Scripture.

Neo-orthodoxy teaches that the Bible is merely a medium of revelation (contra the Reformed orthodox view that Scripture is the infallible, inerrant, final authority of the Christian faith).[13] For neo-orthodox theologians such as Karl Barth, revelation depends on the subjective, experiential, interpretative encounter of each individual with Scripture (that is, the Bible).

The Bible “becomes” the Word of God when the Spirit uses Scripture to direct a person to Christ. The truth value of propositions found within the Bible is subordinate to, and inconsequential with regard to, the personal subjective encounter one has with Christ through it. Hence, for the Neo-orthodox, there is no objective truth.

Rudolf Bultmann even goes so far as to “demythologize” the historical Jesus of the Bible. He writes, “The Christ who is proclaimed is not the historical Jesus, but rather the Christ of faith and of the cult.”[14] Here, Bultmann means that the Christ revealed to the reader when the Bible becomes the Word of God through one’s mystical experience is not the historical Jesus documented in the Gospel narratives. “For Bultmann there is “no question that the New Testament conceives of the Christ event as a mythological occurrence,” even though Jesus Christ is a historical figure. Thus “historical and mythic are here peculiarly interlaced.” Next to the historical event of the cross, “stands the resurrection, which is in and of itself no historical event.’”[15]

In neo-orthodoxy, Truth is thus not founded upon a correct hermeneutical process using Scripture as the inerrant, authoritative, propositional foundation, but via a mystical experience which is subjectively varied and variedly subjective. The student reads the Bible’s printed pages (regarded as a mere medium of divine revelation), which then becomes the actual Word of God to him in his mystical experience. As such, “Truth” is no longer objective, but paradoxical and even apparently contradictory.

Christocentricity, then, becomes a hermeneutical and theological necessity because such a low view of Scripture lends itself to no other focus or dogma in theology other than Christ. And this Christ is part of a Christology not founded upon objective propositional truths exegeted from Scripture. As noted above, Rushdoony has aptly likened Neo-orthodoxy’s Christology “as a ladder in empty space, reaching from nowhere to nowhere.” This proverbial ladder is founded upon an erroneous view of Scripture that denies objective, propositional revelation and truth. The ladder then reaches out into the numinous heavens to an ultra-transcendent, unknowable God – a deity that can never be known by mere human minds. To Barthians, God is ontologically unknown and unknowable even in his revelation of Himself. Neo-orthodox Christology is thus based upon a mystical understanding of the Bible via subjective spiritual experiences, and not upon objective biblical exegesis of revealed truths.

Barcellos concludes, “The method of Reformed orthodoxy, then, started with the text of Scripture and its exegesis, went to the synthesizing of Scripture in terms of interpreting difficult passages in light of clearer ones and identifying its (i.e., Scripture’s) unifying theme or themes based on its various levels of meaning, and then (and only then) categorizing the exegetical and canonical-theological findings in the long-practiced loci method of dogmatics.”[16]

Using Scripture as the cognitive foundation of our knowledge of theology, the loci method finds several foundational, theological categories within Scripture, unlike Neo-orthodoxy which centers her focus upon Christ because it has no other focus.


[1] Richard Barcellos, Lecture Notes on Biblical Hermeneutics (Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies), 92.
[2] Forgive me if I am mistaken!
[3] Richard C. Barcellos, “Scopus Scripturae:John Owen, Nehemiah Coxe, Our Lord Jesus Christ, And A Few Early Disciples On Christ As The Scope Of Scripture,” Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies Volume 2 (2015): 5.
[4] Ibid., 6.
[5] See Barcellos, Biblical Hermeneutics, under heading (number) 4, 89. Barcellos writes, “According to Reformed orthodoxy, then, Christ is the scopus (target) toward which the whole of Scripture tends. This view of the scopus of Scripture was closely related to their view of the relation between the testaments.” Ibid., 91.
[6] Please read Barcellos, Biblical Hermeneutics for more details of the Scopus Scripturae of the Post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy.
[7] Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen, ed. Richard A. Muller, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 156.
[8] James T. Bretzke, Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary: Latin Expressions Commonly Found in Theological Writings (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998).
[9] George Thomas Kurian, Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary: The Authoritative Resource on the Christian World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).
[10] Timothy Wengert, “Biblical Interpretation in the Works of Philip Melanchthon,” in A History of Biblical Interpretation: The Medieval through the Reformation Periods, ed. Alan J. Hauser, Duane F. Watson, and Schuyler Kaufman, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 326.
[11] “Between the two world wars, the work of Barth and Bultmann spawned a new theological movement called neo-orthodoxy (or dialectical theology). Dominated by Barth and another Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, three basic assumptions guided the approach of neo-orthodox theologians to biblical interpretation. First, God is regarded as a subject not an object (i.e., a “Thou” not an “It”). Thus, the Bible’s words cannot convey knowledge of God as abstract propositions; one can only know him in a personal encounter. Such encounters are so subjective, mysterious, and miraculous that they elude the objective measurements of science. Second, a great gulf separates the Bible’s transcendent God from fallen humanity. Indeed, he is so transcendent that only myths can bridge this gulf and reveal him to people. Thus, rather than read biblical reports of events as in some way historical, neo-orthodoxy interpreted them as myths meant to convey theological truth in historical dress. Critics, of course, pointed out that the effect of this approach was to downplay the historicity of biblical events. Third, neo-orthodox theologians believed that truth was ultimately paradoxical in nature, so they accepted apparently conflicting statements in the Bible as paradoxes for which a rational explanation would be both inappropriate and unnecessary. By accepting apparently opposite biblical ideas as paradoxes, critics noted, neo-orthodoxy in effect seemed to cast doubt on the assumption that rational coherence underlies and binds together the diverse ideas of Scripture.” William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 58.
[12] Rousas John Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1995), 165–166, emphasis mine.
[13] For Barth, “Certainly, the Bible is “not itself or by itself God’s occurring revelation,” but rather it testifies to the occurring revelation, as the proclamation promises the future revelation. “This promise … rests, however, on its manifestation in the Bible” (Karl Barth, Die kirchliche Dogmatik, 1.1:114). For itself, the Bible does not claim any authority.” Barth continues, “One therefore pays the Bible a pernicious and even unwelcome honor, when one identifies it directly … with revelation.” Henning Graf Reventlow, History of Biblical Interpretation: From the Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century, ed. Susan Ackerman and Tom Thatcher, trans. Leo G. Perdue, vol. 4, Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 391.
[14] Ibid., 396.
[15] Ibid., 403.
[16] Barcellos, Biblical Hermeneutics, 92.