It is always interesting watching theological controversies that take place on the internet. Often something fairly interesting is being discussed, but at the same time I wonder, 'Is a blog the best place to make sustained arguments about intricate theological points?' Then, as the controversy really ramps up, I wonder, 'Is Twitter really the best place to have sustained theological arguments?' To the blog question, I will usually agree that it can be a good medium (maybe not the best but good). To the Twitter question, well, I am not one who can contribute anything of substance in 280 characters (even if you string 80 tweets together).
As I watch some of the controversies, especially coming out of the Reformed world, the same underlying question seems to be addressed: To what extent can theology continue to develop and change even with regard to core doctrines like the Trinity? I am not sure I have a great answer to this question. Nor do I think that I am an expert in this field. What I have found provocative, however, are some thoughts by Herman Bavinck.
Bavinck wrote during a time when Modernity, causing many to question core tenets of the Christian faith. There were those who argued that the core doctrine (in one article he mentions the Trinity as Christian doctrine par excellence) needed to be significantly transformed to fit with the developing understanding of the world that Modernity brought with it. On the other side, there were those who responded to Modernity by arguing for strict adherence to the Creeds and Confessions with no thought to the Modern context. Bavinck thought both these options led down dead ends and denied the truth of the reality. He says this:
No one who empathizes with his own age can be against everything modern in every respect. Even though modern theology in general thinks and lives from Christian tradition much more than it presumes to do, so too orthodoxy, unless it totally cuts itself off from its environment, stands to a greater or lesser degree under the influence of the intellectual current of this century.
Bavinck's point is that, in his day, both 'Modernism' and 'Orthodoxy' influenced each other. Neither of them were completely cut off and were unaffected from each other. The question then for the so-called 'orthodox' was: how does one respond to this influence from the philosophical thought around us. Bavinck believed that Reformed theology was the only theological perspective that had the answer to this question. Because of the Reformed commitment to sola Scriptura, the Reformed do not hold out the Creeds and Confessions - the standard of truth but always return to the Scriptures.
The name Reformed has within it the demand and obligation to continually review the doctrine and life of one’s own person and household and our whole environs according to these scriptural and historical principles. We are reformed for reform and vise versa.
In response to Modernity and its philosophical and theological developments, Bavinck argued that Reformed theology was uniquely situated to respond. The response was to return to Scripture and ask it new questions. To appeal to what the settled opinion of the church (no matter the age), could not be the answer.
Those who profess the Reformed religion can and must, as long as they remain true to their origins, never give the impression that for them orthodoxy per se is the highest truth. However high we may estimate the confessions of the church, they are a ‘standardized norm’, subservient to Holy Scripture, and this always remain subject to revision and expansion.
For Bavinck, Reformed theology has the obligation to take seriously not only the historical confessions of the church, but also the current philosophical challenges of the world. In taking both of those seriously, the Reformed tradition then came to Scripture to consider what it said. Perhaps the doctrine needed to be revised or expanded to remain true to Scripture, perhaps it didn't. What did need to happen, was for the Reformed to constantly submit the opinions of the past and present to Scripture, not appealing to anything, but the authority of Scripture.
Bavinck's answer to the questions surrounding 'Modernism' and 'Orthodoxy' was a return to Scripture. It was a return that kept in mind the concerns of both 'Modernism' and 'Orthodoxy'. This return to Scripture recognized the place of Scripture as the norma normans (norming norm) and all other authorities as norma normata (normed norms).
I still don't know that I have a great answer for the extent to which our theological thoughts should develop and change with regard to core doctrines (like the Trinity). However, Bavinck is helpful in this. We must remember that the final authority is Scripture and, thus, we must appeal to that as our final authority. The appeal to the authority of Scripture then gives us freedom. Freedom to read, understand, and appropriate modern philosophical and theological trends where they align with Scripture. Freedom to embrace and love the Creeds and Confessions of the church while not being slavishly bound to them, but able to critique and question their formulations of doctrines. Freedom to be corrected ourselves when our own thinking goes off track. For Bavinck, and I think for us, sola Scriptura frees us from the fear of an unorthodox Modernity and dead orthodoxy.