Evangelicals and the Formation of Christian Doctrine

A guest post by David Buschart

Evangelicals are, almost by definition, deeply concerned with matters of theology and doctrine.

Formation of Christian Doctrine

And, in recent years, there has been a flourishing of interest among North American evangelicals in matters of history. (The multiple manifestations of the latter include the rise of a cadre of outstanding evangelical historians [e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll], increasing numbers of evangelicals undertaking doctoral studies in history, and the turn to historical resources that has accompanied evangelical interest in “spiritual formation.”) However, evangelicals have continued to virtually ignore the intersection of these two (i.e., theology and history)-theology and doctrine as historical phenomena.

There is a cluster of questions and topics which surround this intersection, most notably the nature and function of tradition and traditions, and the topic addressed in the book reviewed here, the development of doctrine. To my knowledge, the only two book-length treatments of this topic by evangelicals in recent decades are Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church (Eerdmans, 1979) and Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Blackwell, 1990). Given the interest among evangelicals in both theology and history, it is surprising that this intersection has not been more thoroughly examined. And, given the nature and relevance of the questions entailed, the development of doctrine is a topic which warrants thoughtful engagement.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell’s book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), will serve as a prompt to this engagement. It is ambitious in scope, which is sometimes an author’s response to the fact that an important topic has been all-but-ignored for too long. In just 200 pages, he addresses a variety of questions related to theological method (Ch. 1), describes four important perspectives on the formation of Christian doctrine (Ch. 2), presents and defends a “Believer’s Church proposal” regarding the formation of doctrine (Ch. 3), offers some biblical and historical analysis of the development of doctrine (Ch. 4), presents and defends a “Believer’s Church proposal” on the development of doctrine (Ch. 5), and concludes with moving “Toward a Free-Church History of Theology” (Ch. 6).

Yarnell has a working knowledge of a large body of primary sources related to theories of the development of doctrine, and cites or engages the major figures associated with this topic. He is both descriptive and analytical, presenting and critiquing major theories, and he is constructive, formulating and proposing a “free-church” view of doctrinal development and the history of theology.

Yarnell writes very self-consciously from a “free-church” perspective. He indicates this at the outset, and repeatedly turns to it throughout the book. In the process, he frequently takes time to distinguish this tradition from both “evangelical” and “Reformed” perspectives. It is important for Christian theologians to engage their work from within specific ecclesio-theological traditions, and I celebrate and commend this approach. Sometimes, however, even I found Yarnell’s repeated contrasts with and critiques of “evangelical” and “Reformed” theologians distracting from following the line of thought he wished to develop. Furthermore, he did not offer a clear summary description of what he means by “free-church.” One can infer or assemble something of a description as one encounters the many references to it throughout the book. However, sometimes it appears that “free-church” is synonymous with “Baptist,” at other times with “Anabaptist,” at other times “Believer’s church,” at other times some combination of these.

Rather than attempting to engage the entire scope of the book, every chapter, in the space of this brief review, I will limit myself to three chapters in which Yarnell advances constructive proposals.

The Foundation and Development of Doctrine

Chapter Three is devoted to “The Foundation of Doctrine: A Believer’s Church Proposal.” Reflective of Yarnell’s free-church perspective (noted above) he looks to the sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader Pilgrim Marpeck for wisdom in formulating “the foundation of doctrine.” Yarnell gives a thorough description of Marpeck’s thought on a wide range of topics, including theological method, the authority of scripture, the covenantal

character of free-church ecclesiology, the importance of obedience and discipline in free-church ecclesiology, and elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. Unfortunately, he never brings these matters together into a coherently articulated synthesis or “proposal” regarding “the foundation of doctrine” (the title of the chapter).

In contrast with Chapter Three, where Yarnell dialogued primarily with one figure, Pilgram Marpeck, in Chapter Five, “The Development of Doctrine: A Believer’s Church Proposal,” he engages a wide range of figures, from the early English Separatists to later Baptist figures such as John Robinson, John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Andrew Fuller, from Herbert Butterfield to Leopold von Ranke and John Lord Acton, from Adolf von Harnack and Jean Daniélou to Oscar Cullmann and Gerhard Ebeling. He also discusses a wide range of topics, some of which are of significant potential relevance to a theory of doctrinal development, including theologies of “further light,” theologies of “illumination,” theories of historiography, and some fundamental components of a theology of history. These are precisely the kinds of topics that evangelicals (and others) need to engage in thinking about the development of doctrine, and Yarnell’s presentation can provide a helpful introduction to these topics. As was the case in Chapter Three, however, he does not synthesize his considerable learning so as to actually formulate and advance the “proposal” promised in the chapter title.

And, the following and final chapter does not resolve this. Identifying Chapter Six as “the goal toward which” the entire book is directed, Yarnell moves “toward a free-church history of theology” (chapter sub-title). The chapter is thought-prompting and shaped by clearly articulated free-church theological commitments and emphases (such personal salvation and covenantal freedom). But, what is not clear is how it serves as the culmination for the book. While echoing once again numbers of the distinctively “free-church” beliefs, it is not clear how what Yarnell says here is dependant upon or builds from the preceding five chapters. In the final pages of the book, he discusses some of the history of Southern Baptist views of slavery, and this could have served as one case-study for a theory of development or history of theology, but he provides historical description without any substantive theoretical analysis.

As indicated at the top of this review, the cluster of issues and questions which animate parts of the book are important and too-long neglected. Yarnell possesses a great deal of historical and theological knowledge related to these issues and questions, and this book serves to introduce and analyze many of them. It does not take the next steps of synthesis and formulation of theories or “proposals,” as appears to be intended. Nonetheless, Yarnell is treading where far too few have dared to tread, and I hope that he continues the journey and continues to share his findings with the rest of us.

(Originally published in The Denver Journal, Vol 11: Nov 4, 2008. Republished with permission)


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