We exist in our own time (just as the post-Reformation writers existed in their own time). The challenge for Christians today (as was the challenge for them, in their day) was, “what are we standing upon?”
Of course, we say, “We can know God through His revelation of Himself”. But there are questions prior to that: “what is knowing” and “through revelation, what do we know and how do we know it?”
In the post-Reformation period, in the midst of all of the turbulence, across time, and across geography, the post-Reformation writers had the presence of mind to sit down and try to categorize these questions. More recently, I’ve seen on the Internet in a couple of places, the question, “is Theology a Science?” I think this is a good thing. But for Christians today, it really is only the beginning.
Lane Keister looked at this question recently over at Green Baggins, providing a look at Louis Berkhof’s overview of the question:
The question revolves around the definitions of the two terms. What one means by “theology” and what one means by “science” will carry the day in answering the question. It seems fairly obvious that if theology is a science, it is a science that is different from the “normal” sciences we think of today (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). With the advent of Kant’s denial that human beings can truly know anything beyond what the senses can apprehend (Kant did not deny the existence of things beyond the realm of the phenomenal world; rather, he posited that they were objects of faith, not knowledge), theology as a science has fallen on hard times.
Of course, Berkhof (and the Reformed Orthodox writers) lived before the advent of post-modernism, and what is known as “the end of foundationalism”. Berkhof, specifically, was contending with “logical positivists” in his world, who held that “belief in God is only justified on the basis of adequate ‘evidence’” (Craig G. Bartholomew, Michael W. Goheen, “Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2013, pg 217).
Bartholomew and Goheen go on to relate that “most philosophers who have seen clearly the structure of this particular opinion [classical foundationalism] have rejected it. On close scrutiny they have found classical foundationalism untenable” (citing James Sennett summarizing Alvin Plantinga, in “Analytic Theist”, pg 104).
Without going into too much detail, what is being rejected (when “classical foundationalism” is rejected) is an epistemology that rode in with the Enlightenment. Only that for which there is sufficient “evidence” ought to be believed.
Our “post-Reformation” writers here did not have to deal with this level of scrutiny. Or rather, as was written about as “the decline and fall of Reformed Orthodoxy”, after about 1750, the Reformed writers did begin to contend with this enlightenment-based epistemology, and weren’t, in very many instances, prepared to do so.
[At this point, there is a tendency to blame “revivalism” for the failure of “confessionalism”. I do tend to think that’s a simplistic response, and that Christian and confessional writers of our day need to move beyond the pointing of fingers at “revivalism” and rather look at some of the deeper questions.]
I’m not prepared to go into all of that now, although Lord willing, it will follow. For those who are interested in following the story of Reformed Orthodoxy, it becomes the story of continuing to pick up the threads from the Medieval era, and continuing to understand them through the ages.
We, today, have this same opportunity to pick up the threads, and look for the connections.
Muller concludes his introduction section:
Despite their late appearance and academic origin, however, theological prolegomena address issues that are always present and must always have their effect on doctrinal statement.
The production of any theological formula brings with it fundamental questions of the relationship of language to divine truth, of the capability of any human statement to bear the weight of revelation, and of the relationship of statements concerning God to grammatically identical statements concerning the world of sense and experience.
The inherent paradox of the use of finite forms to discuss an infinite truth, of the presentation of concepts relating to an incomprehensible Being and the unfathomable mystery of his relation to the world and its creatures, hovers in the background of all theological statement.
Prolegomena merely make these issues explicit. What is theology? What is the relationship of theology to God’s own truth? Where does theology stand among the ways of human knowing? How can a knowledge or wisdom concerning divine things draw on the resources of human reason and human language? What are the necessary and irreducible foundations of theological statement?
Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., p. 86). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.