A time of social upheaval and chaos such as ours is likely to send even the most devout Christians into despair unless they can place the terrifying flux of life in the earthly city against the unchanging reality of the sovereign God himself. It is the same with personal suffering. What patient suffering from cancer wants a doctor who has cancer too? They want a doctor who can overcome their illness. That is the God of classical theism. He does not need to suffer as God. He needs to take human flesh and overcome death in that flesh.
Last Monday I had the pleasure of delivering the opening lecture for the newly-founded Center for Classical Theology. The brainchild of Matthew Barrett, of Midwestern Baptist Seminary, its aim is to reinvigorate Protestantism by reconnecting it to its historical and theological roots in the patristic and medieval periods. Unfortunately, much of modern evangelicalism sorely needs to recover “classical theology”—the term Barrett uses to describe orthodox Christian doctrines as set forth by the creeds, the Great Tradition of theology exemplified by the ancient ecumenical councils, and traditional Protestant confessions such as the Westminster Confession.
Recent scholarship in both the ancient church and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism have exposed an unfortunate problem with large swathes of the conservative, and especially evangelical, Protestant world. Much good work was done over the last century in both articulating a high view of the authority of Scripture and developing more self-conscious and sophisticated theological approaches to biblical interpretation. But at the same time, many Protestants became disconnected from creedal and confessional teaching on the doctrine of God (and thus by inference, from Christology). Many conservative Protestants did not even notice that this was the case, as their understanding of what the creeds and confessions actually claimed was refracted through a biblicist lens that was detached from the history of doctrinal debate behind these documents.
Hence, doctrines such as simplicity, immutability, and eternal generation have been redefined or have vanished altogether in certain Protestant communities, even as many who played a role in this maintained a verbal commitment to the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith. The conservative criticism of liberal Christians—that they use orthodox words but mean something different—somehow did not apply when the people doing so affirmed the historical resurrection but rejected the basic elements of the classical doctrine of God.
A recovery of classical theology is thus long overdue for a variety of reasons. The language of confessional Protestantism and orthodox evangelicalism was historically rooted in these classical doctrines. The Reformers and their hearers took it for granted that theology is always to be done in careful dialogue with the past and, as much as possible, in continuity with it. But this is simply counter-intuitive to an evangelicalism shaped more by revivalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the fundamentalist-modernist strife of the early twentieth.
That points toward one of the reasons classical theology and classical theism now seem implausible to many. True to its roots, evangelical Christianity in our modern day is too often impatient with language that seems speculative and abstract and with doctrine that cannot be easily instrumentalized.