Priority of Theology Proper over Soteriology

frog

Puritan Board Freshman
In Carl Trueman's article, "Protestants Need to Go Back to Basics", he states:
A recovery of classical theology also raises an interesting ecumenical question. Why do Protestants, especially those of an evangelical stripe, typically prioritize the doctrine of salvation over the doctrine of God? If an evangelical rejects simplicity or impassibility or eternal generation, he is typically free to do so. But why should those properly committed to the creeds and confessions consider that person closer spiritually to them than those who affirm classical theism but share a different understanding of justification?

This is a real issue. At an Association of Theological Schools accreditation meeting I once found myself placed among the “evangelical” attendees. In that group was someone who denied simplicity, impassibility, and the fact that God knows the future—all doctrines that I affirm. Those are not minor differences. Wistfully my eyes wandered to the Dominicans at another table, all of whom would at least have agreed with me on who God is, even if not on how he saves his church. We would at least have shared some common ground upon which to set forth our significant differences. The Reformed Orthodox of the Westminster Assembly would have considered deviance on the doctrine of God to be anathema and, if forced to choose, would certainly have preferred the company of a Thomist to that of someone who denied simplicity, eternal generation, or God’s foreknowledge. Why do we not think the same? The modern Protestant imagination is oddly different from that of our ancestors.

Are disagreements on theology proper -- like the ones mentioned on simplicity, impassability, eternal generation and God's foreknowledge -- more serious than disagreements on soteriology, such as justification?
 
I don’t t know if I would immediately jump to ‘more serious’ when it comes to some of those things. Open theism, absolutely.

I see these doctrines in two categories (which I made up, so feel free to critique as you see fit)

Primary doctrines: Justification, Trinity (confessing Nicea), Incarnation (confessing Chalcedon), immutability, omniscience, etc.

‘Supporting’ doctrines: Eternal generation, impassibility, simplicity (God is His attributes), etc.

To deny the primary doctrines is to be heretical (RC, open theists, pelagians, etc)

To deny the supporting doctrines does not automatically make you heretical, but it does mean you are inconsistent and potentially on the path to heretical positions.

I should probably come up with better names for the categories, but here we are.

We just had a thread on this but I cannot find it.
 
Ultimately, yes. There was (is) a former Covenanter guy, whose name I will not mention, who was outstanding in debates on justification with EO and RCC. The only problem is he was an outspoken Arian. He actually identified as Arian and Unitarian.
 
It’s definitely a question I’ve thought more about recently. In the non-confessional evangelical church there’s a tendency to make “gospel issues” the dividing line, and I think there would be a comfort with incorrect views of God so long as the gospel is understood correctly (and often even that is not). This seems strange to me as most of the early church heresies address incorrect beliefs about God and likewise the creeds seem more interested in a proper understanding of God than of salvation.
To whom much is given, much is required. I think to reject penal substitutionary atonement is dangerous, but to make that an absolutely necessary belief implies that much of the church was not saved before the reformation. At the very least, I’ve now seen theology proper as far more important than I have before. And, I would say, having a view of God consistent with the 3 creeds is a line of orthodoxy.
 
One may want to reflect upon the order of doctrines in our Catechisms and Confessions. Our salvation is not a mere salvation from hell - but truly and fully - a salvation by which we enter into an eternal communion with the Triune God through Jesus Christ the God-Man mediator (John 17:3). Theology proper, as well as Christology, is of first importance. As others have said, there is a reason the early church wrestled with these matters as having primary importance.

However, that said, there is a huge difference between the unlearned Christian who has never been exposed to the deeper things of God, and who can only confess, "I believe I am saved by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ" (praise God!) because they know nothing more than that -- and the doctors of the Church who reject orthodox theology proper and Christology.

Truly, not many should be masters / teachers.
 
It’s definitely a question I’ve thought more about recently. In the non-confessional evangelical church there’s a tendency to make “gospel issues” the dividing line, and I think there would be a comfort with incorrect views of God so long as the gospel is understood correctly (and often even that is not). This seems strange to me as most of the early church heresies address incorrect beliefs about God and likewise the creeds seem more interested in a proper understanding of God than of salvation.
To whom much is given, much is required. I think to reject penal substitutionary atonement is dangerous, but to make that an absolutely necessary belief implies that much of the church was not saved before the reformation. At the very least, I’ve now seen theology proper as far more important than I have before. And, I would say, having a view of God consistent with the 3 creeds is a line of orthodoxy.

We see something like that with TGC and Big Eva. Everything, usually politics, became "Gospel Centered." Everyone was excited to go to the latest Passion Conference or Excited for the Gospel or something like that. When everything is Gospel-centered, at least for Big Eva, we soon realize why having a strong doctrine of God and a basic understanding of ethics for politics becomes necessary.

 
I think Trueman is reacting to the modern almost lassez faire attitude towards the doctrines of the faith that were hammered out in debate in the early church. And because there had been relatively few attacks on them (with the exception of the Socinians and a few other groups), we have come to think of them as less important than they really are. Add to that the pathological unwillingness of many pastors to use any systematic theology in their preaching, and you have the recipe for what's going on today.

The problem is that Trueman overreacts to a certain extent. It's not an either/or, as if we could only be supremely concerned about doctrine of God or doctrine of salvation. The inter-relationships of the doctrines of God and salvation are such that concern for one involves concern for the other. The reason heresy in the doctrine of salvation is so concerning is that it will inevitably trace back to an errant doctrine of God. And if someone has the doctrine of God wrong, that will inevitably work its way out towards the doctrine of salvation.
 
Ultimately, yes. There was (is) a former Covenanter guy, whose name I will not mention, who was outstanding in debates on justification with EO and RCC. The only problem is he was an outspoken Arian. He actually identified as Arian and Unitarian.

His problem began with a faulty doctrine of Scripture.
 
I have to agree with John above. Some theology proper issues are more important (first order issues), but on supporting or secondary issues of theology proper, I think soteriology has to take precedence when we are discussing fellowship. I can't imagine feeling I have more fellowship with a Roman Catholic than with Wayne Grudem simply because we agree on intricate philosophical debates about God's simplicity, when that same Roman Catholic would deny the gospel of Christ.

To be clear, I'm not saying that's what Trueman was saying, just that it could be a position one might take if absolutely prioritizing theology proper. I do think Trueman is right that evangelicals have neglected theology proper, but we shouldn't overcorrect to the point of erasing the other foundational doctrines that define our Protestant faith.
 
I suspect that, for the average Christian, or even the average pastor, who knows much about doctrine, the issue has to do with how clearly they believe that such doctrines may be found in Scripture. For example, it seems to me that most Christians don't have a hard time seeing the doctrine of the Trinity or of God's omniscience or of justification by faith in Scripture, but they struggle to see simplicity or impassibility or the eternal generation of the Son in Scripture. In other words, I don't think that, for most Christians, the issue is a lack of concern for theology proper versus soteriology, but rather a concern with what they think is clearly taught in Scripture versus what they think is built upon a series of assumptions that they sometimes struggle to square with Scripture. Thus, although they don't mind people holding such views as those denoted above as “supporting doctrines,” they don't think that they rise to the same level as doctrines that they believe to be more clearly based in Scripture.

I haven't yet read the above linked article, but I wonder if Trueman took this perspective into account. Perhaps he has, and perhaps he disagrees with such a perspective, but it still wouldn't be fair to suggest that such Christians don't really care about theology proper as much as they should. For, the dividing line for them is not really between theology proper and soteriology, but between what they think is more clearly taught in Scripture versus what is not so clearly taught in Scripture. So, in seeking to correct them, the answer wouldn't be to chide them for their lack of concern about theology proper, but to show them how some of these doctrines are clearly derived from the text of Scripture. They may or may not buy all the arguments, and they may still want to "agree to disagree" on some points, but the issue still will not be that they don't have enough concern for theology proper.
 
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I suspect that, for the average Christian, or even the average pastor, who knows much about doctrine, the issue has to do with how clearly they believe that such doctrines may be found in Scripture. For example, it seems to me that most Christians don't have a hard time seeing the doctrine of the Trinity or of God's omniscience or of justification by faith in Scripture, but they struggle to see simplicity or impassibility or the eternal generation of the Son in Scripture. In other words, I don't think that, for most Christians, the issue is a lack of concern for theology proper versus soteriology, but rather a concern with what they think is clearly taught in Scripture versus what they think is built upon a series of assumptions that they sometimes struggle to square with Scripture. Thus, although they don't mind people holding such views as those denoted above as “supporting doctrines,” they don't think that they rise to the same level as doctrines that they believe to be more clearly based in Scripture.

I haven't yet read the above linked article, but I wonder if Trueman took this perspective into account. Perhaps he has, and perhaps he disagrees with such a perspective, but it still wouldn't be fair to suggest that such Christians don't really care about theology proper as much as they should. For, the dividing line for them is not really between theology proper and soteriology, but between what they think is more clearly taught in Scripture versus what is not so clearly taught in Scripture. So, in seeking to correct them, the answer wouldn't be to chide them for their lack of concern about theology proper, but to show them how some of these doctrines are clearly derived from the text of Scripture. They may or may not buy all the arguments, and they may still want to "agree to disagree" on some points, but the issue still will not be that they don't have enough concern for theology proper.
I agree strongly with this. Very insightful, thank you.
 
Let me clarify my position:

I see those who deny eternal generation/simplicity (all that is in God is God), and impassibility in the same way I see arminians. If taken to their conclusion, these same people would be heretics.

As Arminians —> pelagians

So

Deniers of eternal generation —> Arians

Edit: just as there are many Arminians who have taken it to its logical conclusion and are therefore heretics, there are many who have taken the road of denying these tenets of the doctrine of God to their conclusion, and are therefore heretics.

The RC who knows what they are talking about are on the wrong side of that equation; they are already consistent, and therefore heretical. But their doctrine of God is still right (on these issues which evangelicalism has dropped the ball on)
 
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In Carl Trueman's article, "Protestants Need to Go Back to Basics", he states:


Are disagreements on theology proper -- like the ones mentioned on simplicity, impassability, eternal generation and God's foreknowledge -- more serious than disagreements on soteriology, such as justification?
"Why do we not think the same? The modern Protestant imagination is oddly different from that of our ancestors." This is such an enlightened statement. We can all point the finger at a variety of reasons as to why this is true. From the lack of study and devotion of the lay person to the deviance of some theologians/clergy/authors etc.. So many wish to find "middle ground" on various issues which can be useful yet we have seen that, when you give an inch, they take a mile, play out. Many will say they will draw a line in the sand yet do the opposite when it comes to actually doing so.
 
Let me clarify my position:

I see those who deny eternal generation/simplicity (all that is in God is God), and impassibility in the same way I see arminians. If taken to their conclusion, these same people would be heretics.

As Arminians —> pelagians

So

Deniers of eternal generation —> Arians

Edit: just as there are many Arminians who have taken it to its logical conclusion and are therefore heretics, there are many who have taken the road of denying these tenets of the doctrine of God to their conclusion, and are therefore heretics.

The RC who knows what they are talking about are on the wrong side of that equation; they are already consistent, and therefore heretical. But their doctrine of God is still right (on these issues which evangelicalism has dropped the ball on)

Exactly. Doctrines like eternal generation are second-order reflection. Not second in importance, but rather they are reflections upon previous thinking. That is why many say, "But I don't see that in the text. I'm just reading pure and simple bible." But if we deny them, as you note, we lose it.
 
I'll be honest guys, I no longer respect Trueman. And his fellow co-host. I literally DO NOT trust their judgment or ability to discern in real life up close. Sorry not sorry if I won't let it go: but they absolutely refused to see their budding Pastrix friend for what she was despite countless people warning them. So I'm supposed to respect his perspective and discernment when in real life he demonstrated he has little or submit my judgment to his as if he's an expert? Pfft. Please.

Anyway: for those of us who affirm Sola Scriptura, tradition is not on equal footing with Scripture. That's not biblicism, its keeping things in proper place.

If only the Bible itself gave us instruction by explicitly saying what, if any doctrine, is of "first importance." hmm.
 
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What does there Bible say is of first importance?
Christ is died.
Christ is risen.
Christ shall come again.

That he was crucified for our sins according to the Scriptures. that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelv
 
SolaScriptura said, “for those of us who affirm Sola Scriptura, tradition is not on equal footing with Scripture. That's not biblicism, it's keeping things in proper place.”

Right on.
 
Anyway: for those of us who affirm Sola Scriptura, tradition is not on equal footing with Scripture. That's not biblicism, its keeping things in proper place.

Is Trueman saying tradition is on equal footing? We all agree that Scripture is the norm that norms lesser norms. And 1 Corinthians 15, in answering what is of first importance, does not rule out Roman Catholicism, since they too, if inadequately, affirm that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
 
Theology proper, as well as Christology, is of first importance. As others have said, there is a reason the early church wrestled with these matters as having primary importance.

However, that said, there is a huge difference between the unlearned Christian who has never been exposed to the deeper things of God, and who can only confess, "I believe I am saved by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ" (praise God!) because they know nothing more than that -- and the doctors of the Church who reject orthodox theology proper and Christology.
To clarify, is your position that theology proper is of first importance, but for the unlearned Christian errors in soteriology (such as Romanism on justification) are a greater issue than errors in the deeper things of God (such as impassability)? However, for "doctors of the Church" errors in either matter are unacceptable.

Does "doctors of the Church" refer to ministers?
 
Is Trueman saying tradition is on equal footing? We all agree that Scripture is the norm that norms lesser norms. And 1 Corinthians 15, in answering what is of first importance, does not rule out Roman Catholicism, since they too, if inadequately, affirm that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
That's shorthand for the Gospel. So, for instance, the OT confirms the one-and-only uniqueness of the sacrificial system - which points to Christ's atoning work, and the NT affirms and drills down on the absolute "one-and-onlyness" of the work of Christ. That's what it means to say he died for our sins "according to the Scriptures." And Rome rejects this. Instead Mary is Co-redemptrix and her tears at Calvary, etc., have saving merit. Rome DOES NOT affirm that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.

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Is Trueman saying tradition is on equal footing? We all agree that Scripture is the norm that norms lesser norms. And 1 Corinthians 15, in answering what is of first importance, does not rule out Roman Catholicism, since they too, if inadequately, affirm that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
Yeah, there's "saying" tradition is on equal footing... and then there's responding to voluminous Scriptural argumentation with a sneering dismissal that its just "biblicism."
 
Yeah, there's "saying" tradition is on equal footing... and then there's responding to voluminous Scriptural argumentation with a sneering dismissal that its just "biblicism."

Could you give an example of who is giving voluminous Scriptural argumentation for a particular position, and who is dismissing it with sneering? The way you described it, I don't see how anyone could possibly disagree, leaving me thinking there is probably more going on.
 
Exactly. Doctrines like eternal generation are second-order reflection. Not second in importance, but rather they are reflections upon previous thinking. That is why many say, "But I don't see that in the text. I'm just reading pure and simple bible." But if we deny them, as you note, we lose it.
Is the difference between second order in reflection and second order in importance indicating that denial of a doctrine, derived as a necessary consequence of more immediately apparent Scripture, logically leads to rejecting those more evident aspects? If so, does the doctrine's significance vary for the unlearned and the learned Christian?

My theology proper is weak. What are the logical consequences of denying simplicity, impassability or eternal generation?
 
Is the difference between second order in reflection and second order in importance indicating that denial of a doctrine, derived as a necessary consequence of more immediately apparent Scripture, logically leads to rejecting those more evident aspects?

Yes.
If so, does the doctrine's significance vary for the unlearned and the learned Christian?

In terms of immediate fellowship, yes. I don't expect Aunt Lula May to be able to explain why ESS is wrong, though most of them know when you say Jesus doesn't have as much authority, they know that is wrong.
 
Exactly. Doctrines like eternal generation are second-order reflection. Not second in importance, but rather they are reflections upon previous thinking. That is why many say, "But I don't see that in the text. I'm just reading pure and simple bible." But if we deny them, as you note, we lose it.
I think there is a sense at least in which certain definitions of those doctrines are second-order, though. It is true that Scripture has implications and some of those implications are very important, but the further we build philosophically off of the foundation of Scripture, the less I think we can absolutely require those things as necessary. Again that is not to say no implications can be viewed as essential.

I probably won't gain any favor by this, but I appreciate James White's headlights analogy. Scripture gives us light that illuminates many things clearly, but eventually on the edge of the light things get fuzzy and we need to be more charitable. The closer we get to the edge (I.e. the more layers of philosophical development we are from Scripture), the less tightly we should generally hold conclusions as essential, it would seem.
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@Blood-Bought Pilgrim
Since you agreed me earlier, I felt the need to clarify. I wasn’t quite getting at what you thought I was, and the fault is certainly mine. I was unclear. My clarification and @RamistThomist reply is more what I was saying.
Thanks for the clarification. I would still say I largely agree with you, even if what I was saying wasn't quite what you were getting at.
 
Colossians 2:8 : See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (ESV)

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (NASB 95)
 
The closer we get to the edge (I.e. the more layers of philosophical development we are from Scripture), the less tightly we should generally hold conclusions as essential, it would seem.

That is technically true, but on the issues (Doctrine of God; partitive exegesis; kenosis) where White has gotten in trouble are not those on the edge of the light. It is what the entire church has always affirmed.
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Arius: Proverbs says Wisdom was created by God, and Paul calls Jesus the Wisdom of God.
Athanasius: You are misunderstanding the Economy of God. Here are reasons why....
Arius: I'm just reading the Bible. I don't need philosophy.

Literally how that debate went.
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Colossians 2:8 : See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (ESV)

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (NASB 95)

Can you explain what vain philosophy here is, who is using it, and how the stoichea are taking us captive?
 
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That is technically true, but on the issues (Doctrine of God; partitive exegesis; kenosis) where White has gotten in trouble are not those on the edge of the light. It is what the entire church has always affirmed.
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Arius: Proverbs says Wisdom was created by God, and Paul calls Jesus the Wisdom of God.
Athanasius: You are misunderstanding the Economy of God. Here are reasons why....
Arius: I'm just reading the Bible. I don't need philosophy.

Literally how that debate went.
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Can you explain what vain philosophy here is, who is using it, and how the stoichea are taking us captive?
Some sought to capture the Colossian believers through means of philosophies and vain deceit. The kind of philosophy that threatened the Colossians and was the chief problem as it was contrary to Christ. Now is that to say that every fiber of philosophy is wrong and dangerous? No. However, one must be on-guard not to be deceived by philosophies and the traditions of men. In no way, fashion nor form should any believer give-way to any speech, writings, traditions, etc that are contrary to the teachings of Christ.
 
Some sought to capture the Colossian believers through means of philosophies and vain deceit. The kind of philosophy that threatened the Colossians and was the chief problem as it was contrary to Christ. Now is that to say that every fiber of philosophy is wrong and dangerous? No. However, one must be on-guard not to be deceived by philosophies and the traditions of men. In no way, fashion nor form should any believer give-way to any speech, writings, traditions, etc that are contrary to the teachings of Christ.

Who here is saying we should live by the stoichea of the old order, the worship of angels and the like, against which Paul warned? It's easy to say vain philosophy is bad; it's more difficult (and often doctrinally dangerous) to point it out among classical theists. Specifics.

What are these bad traditions being advocated by classical theists (and by extension, the history of the church)?
 
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