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An Excellent Model for How to Do Historical Theology

The Spirit of the Age: The 19th Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession focusses attention on one, relatively minor, theological controversy that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century in American Presbyterianism. In 1903 the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the main Presbyterian body in the US at the time, made an addition to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). It added chapters 34 “Of the Holy Spirit” and chapter 35 “Of the Gospel of the Love of God and Missions.” The question that Fesko raises and answers in this book is why the Presbyterians of that era would have added a chapter on the Holy Spirit to the Confession as if the Confession itself had omitted the doctrine of the Holy Spirit when it was composed in the 17th century. A naïve reader might think “What possible harm could there be in spelling out what we believe about the Holy Spirit in a separate article of its own?” The naivety of many ordinary pastors and people, however, was exploited by theological liberals who did what liberals are good at doing, namely, using orthodox language to undermine orthodoxy. Explaining the ins and outs of how this was done and why is the purpose of the book.

Progress and Optimism

In chapter 2 Fesko describes the nineteenth century context of the revision of the WCF. He notes that “Nineteenth century America marked by the perception of progress and optimism.” (10) Note that he says “perception of” progress. Fesko is well-aware of the fact that the idea of progress is over-inflated in modernity insofar as material-technological progress is thought to include moral-spiritual progress when there is no necessary connection, as the Nazi take-over of the world’s most educated and technologically advanced nation in the twentieth century demonstrates. But, as he argues, many theologians, such as Charles Briggs and Phillip Schaff, were caught up in the spirit of the age (that is, Progressivism) and “champed at the bit to revise the doctrinal standards” of the church. Briggs believed that the nineteenth century church “had advanced beyond the Westminster Confession” (Fesko quoting Briggs, 11). Briggs was critical of the doctrines of God, Trinity, creation, anthropology, Christology and sin. The point is that the revisionists were not tinkering around the edges of doctrine; they were advocating a wholesale alteration of the historic faith. This background is essential for understanding the significance of what otherwise seems rather innocuous. The point is that the revisionists were not tinkering around the edges of doctrine; they were advocating a wholesale alteration of the historic faith. Click To Tweet

The critique of the WCF was bound up with the critique of “scholastism,” which nineteenth century progressive theologians saw as regressive and highly deficient. They held that the Westminster divines had come up with a rationalistic system first and only then scoured the Bible for proof texts to be used to provide a plausible basis for the system, which was entirely speculative in origin. Scholasticism was the progressive bogeyman used to frighten conservatives into compliance. Briggs believed that “the Spirit had been more active in the last three centuries than at any other time in recorded history.” (13) This is an amazing statement. But upon hearing this a naive conservative might think he is talking about the world missionary movement. He is not, however. He is talking about modern science and technology with a dash of political liberalism thrown in. For him, progress means the advance of evolutionary theory, which promises a complete explanation for everything from a mechanistic and materialistic perspective.

Briggs reinterprets the work of the Logos as “the universal light on all people” (19) but instead of seeing the rise of Greek metaphysics as preparation for the Gospel, as the church fathers did, he sees it as the new truth that comes after and supersedes the Gospel. Briggs sees the Spirit as working in all people in history, not as being tied down to the particular revelation focused on the Incarnation. Drawing on German mediating theology, Briggs redefines Christ as a symbol of historical progress rather than as God being incarnated in a particular man in a particular place at a particular time.

Systematics or Dogmatics?

One of the biggest differences between the scholastic method and modern systematic theology is that the scholastics organized dogmatics according to the loci method whereas modern theology prefers a central dogma approach. Click To TweetFesko shows that the WCF keeps Christology and pneumatology closely bound together, while the 1903 revision does the opposite. (39) Fesko points out that one of the biggest differences between the scholastic method and modern systematic theology is that the scholastics organized dogmatics according to the loci method, that is, as a list of topics, whereas modern theology prefers a central dogma approach. The central dogma approach can be used to analyze the theology of historical figures like Calvin and Luther or movements like Reformed and Lutheran theology. We see this in the suggestion that all Calvin’s theology has as its controlling center the doctrine of predestination or in the contention that all Luther’s theology is centered on justification by faith. The central dogma approach can also be used to write a systematic theology. The individual theologian selects a doctrine that seems to be of central importance and then constructs a whole system with this doctrine as the controlling center. The result of this effort, which is appropriately called “systematic theology” as opposed to “dogmatics,” is that reason gets to play a larger role in the selection and relative positioning of material. The loci approach seeks to cover the entire range of doctrine and to show how various doctrines interrelate and mutually condition one another. Reason is used in analysis and deduction more than in synthesis and induction, which are more prominent in the central doctrine approach.

It should be noted that “systematic theology” is a modern phenomenon and it can be used to transform the entire content of the Christian faith by utilizing one doctrine as a lever with which to move all the others from their original places in the edifice to new places. Thus, the central doctrine approach works well for those who want to engage in revisionism.

The Myth of Progress

Fesko relentlessly accuses the 19th century revisionists of wanting to alter the entire edifice and not simply to improve its clarity or manner of presentation. He points to Hegelian philosophy, Darwinism and Pentecostalism (43f) as influences that stressed the idea of the new age of the Spirit supposedly dawning. He writes “Briggs was inebriated on the myth of progress” (47) and this judgment could easily be extended to liberal Protestantism as a whole.

In chapter 3 Fesko explores the patristic and medieval roots of the WCF’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I encourage you to read this chapter for yourself, but I am not going to discuss his trek through Augustine to Peter Lombard to Thomas Aquinas to the Reformers in detail. I hope the thesis that the WCF articulates the historically orthodox doctrine of the Holy Spirit throughout the Confession is not all that controversial. Fesko spends most of his time in his area of expertise, the theological milieu that produced the reformed confessions. He does an excellent job of showing the exegetical depth of the theology being written by the theologians who wrote the Confession. He stresses that the Westminster divines were “not sectarians but catholic Christians.” (69)

In chapter 4 Fesko studies the Pneumatology of the WCF. But before diving into the 17th century, he stops to discuss the influence of Hegel in more depth. This part is really important. He shows an awareness of the medieval roots of Hegel’s philosophy of history in the thought of the medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore. Chances are you have never heard of this person, unless you happen to read Cyril O’Regan or Eric Voegelin, which you really ought to do if you want to understand modern theology. In Hegel’s thought, God becomes manifest in history through three successive stages: the kingdom of the Father, the kingdom of the Son and the kingdom of the Spirit. It is a kind of modalism, but different from ancient modalism in that God is no longer actually transcendent. God is actually in history; God is history unfolding. For nineteenth century liberal Protestants under the spell of progressivism, this scheme was immediately applicable. The present (the nineteenth century) was obviously the dawning of the third age of Spirit.

Joachim of Fiore was an anti-Augustinian medieval mystic who saw history as the unfolding of the Trinity. God’s self-revelation for Augustine and the orthodox tradition was centered on Jesus Christ as the hinge and climax of history. But for Joachim of Fiore history has three parts, not two. This inevitably displaces Christ as the center and replaces him with the Spirit who is the symbol of the third and highest age. One can think of it is a a direct contradiction of Jesus’s words in John 15:26 where he says the Spirit will bear witness to him. Figures like William Blake and Gotthold Lessing were highly influenced by Joachim. Lessing wrote of the “new eternal Gospel” that would come in the third age. (77) The Westminster divines were “not sectarians but catholic Christians.” Click To Tweet

Hegel formed his philosophy of history under the influence of Jacob Boehme and Joachim of Fiore and his goal was to interpret history as the progressive revelation of God as the symbol of the eschaton – heaven on earth. Fesko documents the influence of such ideas on Briggs, Schaff and Nevin and sets their desire to have a separate chapter on the Holy Spirit in the context of this new, evolutionary, progressive myth.

Fesko discusses the criticism of the scheme of Joachim of Fiore by Thomas Aquinas and shows that “Joachim’s trinitarian view of history demolishes Christ’s role in Christianity as well as the unified work of the Trinity.” (87) For Aquinas, Christ works in all of history, and this leads to a different (that is, an Augustinian) philosophy of history. In addition, there is a vast gulf between the orthodox Christology of the ancient church and the new Christology promoted by nineteenth century liberal Protestantism. In short, the work of the Spirit is uncoupled from Christ. When you think about it, this could be the summary statement of the core of modern theology. After being uncoupled from Christ, the Spirit is next uncoupled from Scripture and Tradition. Then the “Spirit” is basically the symbol of the “spirit of the age.”

Reformed Catholicity

In conclusion, Fesko draws the obvious lesson: “. . . moderns should not create a mythological narrative that Reformed orthodox theologians created their system from logic and illicit speculation.” (103) The use of “scholasticism” is a scare tactic and basically a form of anti-intellectualism. Fesko holds out as an alternative to modernist revisionism a vision of reformed catholicity in the tradition of the WCF. He notes that Hegelian philosophy has greatly influenced twentieth century figures such as Barth, Moltmann, and Pannenberg. He also notes Hegelian influence on Kuyper, which may be surprising to some. I would go further, however, and see Hegelian influence on the entire social trinitarian movement in the twentieth century, which departs from Nicene orthodoxy and embraces the philosophical naturalism that flows from Kant and Hegel like a flood that carries much along with it in chaotic fashion.

Fesko also warns against the central dogma approach to systematic theology. In fact, if we define “systematic theology” as characterized by the central dogma approach, then I think we can and should contrast it to “dogmatics” as characterized by the loci approach. I would favor retrieving a scholastic, premodern dogmatics characterized by the loci approach and rejecting as unusable modern systematic theology characterized by the central dogma approach.

Fesko has written an excellent case study in historical theology that uses a narrow issue to open up vast and important insights into the nature of modernity and the kind of premodern dogmatics we need to recover. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

*This review was originally published in Dr. Carter’s newsletter.

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the author of Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018) and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Baker Academic, 2021). He is currently writing a third volume in the Great Tradition trilogy on the recovery of Nicene metaphysics. Other upcoming projects include an introduction to Theology in the Great Tradition and a theological commentary on Isaiah. He serves as Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and as Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church. His personal website is and you can follow him on Twitter.

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