Catholic and Reformed

In the current issue of Pro Ecclesia (Spring 2014) Todd Billings offers what he describes as a “Catholic-Reformed” alternative to Moral Therapeutic Deism and to contemporary “correlationist” approaches to contemporary theology. He finds “correlationist” instincts operating not only in latter-day Tillichian efforts to catch the wave of postmodernity, but also in “archaeological” attempts to retrieve a lost gospel behind the encrustrations of tradition (he cites NT Wright). 

A Catholic-Reformed theology holds that “in the communal proclamation of Scripture through word and sacrament, believers are nourished by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.” It is a “theology of retrieval,” which “patiently and creatively attends to the texts and traditions of earlier ages” rather than “privileging the question s of the present cultural moment.” It would demonstrate a “catholic sensibility,” drilling into a particular tradition until it reached the “catholic water table” that can serve as common ground (138-9). He offers an excellent brief demonstration that Catholic-Reformed theology and church life is not his invention (139-40).

Todd points to a number of scholarly movements that give hope for the revival of a Catholic-Reformed paradigm: theological interpretation of Scripture, research that overcomes false polarities in patristic (e.g., East v. West on  Trinitarian theology) and Reformation (Calvin v. the Calvinists) theology, various movements of ressourcement and retrieval of the Catholic tradition. 

His proposal has a lot in common with what I’ve recently advocated under the heading of Reformational Catholicism. His proposal is more scholarly; mine is (in intention) more on-the-ground ecclesial. That is merely a difference of focus, because I am encouraged by the same movements Todd enumerates. His heroes are the same as mine – Nevin, for instance, and in today’s world Matthew Levering.

But there do seem to be differences. I don’t point this out to maintain differance or to protect turf, but for the sake of (I hope) clarification. First, I think the Bible ought to have a more active and disruptive role in theology and church life than Todd seems to allow. Luther claimed that he discovered something central that most of the Western tradition had missed. Is it impossible that a “bold, individual biblical scholar” (137) might do the same again? Scripture is inevitably and rightly read from within a community and hence a tradition, but we need to be ready for Jesus to challenge our traditions through His Word as relentlessly as He challenges Pharisaical traditions.

Second, I suspect that the Catholic-Reformed proposal is itself more disruptive than Todd appears to think. To enact this program requires some busting-up of paradigms. Perhaps this is again a difference of focus, between the seminar room and the church.

Finally, I suspect that there’s a different understanding of the pattern of history lurking in the background. As I see things, history is not a smooth progress of tradition but is marked by battles, apocalyptic endings and beginnings. Every genuine retrieval is also an upheaval.

(J. Todd Billings, “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition,” Pro Ecclesia 23:2 [2014] 132-46.)

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