Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Reclaiming the Doxological Designs of the Reformation
By Dr. Kevin Hartley
The following article is designed to provoke within the reader an examination of the motives of his soul, as one of the offspring of the Reformation, who, amid the theological controversies, arguments, and propositions in our day, both in academia and without it, are careless in their endeavors (meaning absent a concern for the holy nature of God); it is written to provoke our blushing and bemoaning, to bewail the rotten disposition of our souls, through an examination of the motives of those engaged in theological advance, debate, and publication. It is but an effort to provoke us to once more plead the wretched state of our vacant souls and cry to our sovereign Lord that He have mercy to enliven our souls as once He did so long ago.
An examination of modern theological pursuits in both academic and lay settings, of which this writer has been party to and participant in both, should discomfit the children of the Reformation, as there can be found but vagrant propositions and mindless theological controversies replete with little to no godly honor or profit. The efforts of academic and lay scholarship in this present age evinces we have hanged our harps upon the willows, not dissimilar to the days when Judah ceased her worship of God in Babylon. Reformed theology has been in captivity so long that tears no longer stain the pages of her ramblings. In the innumerable publications and conferences of our day no harps can be heard strumming, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory (Is. 6.3), there are not doorposts shaking in our seminaries, there are no souls found weeping while reading our Systematic Theologies, and there are few moved beyond the excitation of the natural man in the endless writings found in our midst. There are but dry and dusty books and halls, evident of no life within or without or solemn halls.
Once, reformed theologians bled their fingers dry out of awe and wonder of a God so glorious; their ink seemed to barely touch the page as they wrote with a godly fear of so weighty a task. They engaged in considering the study of God with unsettled souls fearful of so daunting a task. They could be heard shrinking at the thought of engaging in wonders so far from their feeble reach. They smeared the ink of their pages with felicitous tears of gratitude and praise. Nearly extinct in our day is such a heartfelt study of God. Today, the pages written in theological endeavors are dry, cold and callous; they are full of spite and disdain, betraying a pompous and self-glorifying design not seen perhaps since the age of Scholasticism. There is a wasteland in Reformed Theology replete of godly affection and true religion in the scholarship and controversies of our day. Systematic Theologies bleed nothing but the human spirit, treatises, journals, articles, and blogs, either champion their scholastic regimen, or are filled with merely vitriol and pompous posturing. The dry study of God so prevalent among the children of the Reformation in our day is so absent doxological form it is not only an offense to a holy God, but an unprofitable and vain endeavor for those embarking upon its path.
It should make the reader tremble to consider how the writings of the men of the Reformation are an indictment of the vacancy of the souls of today’s writers. One marvels how a truly godly soul is able to exegete God’s word without being struck with the fear and awe of the sovereign Lord’s majesty. How is it that men claiming that they love the sovereign grace of God never speak of Him in a glorifying manner? How is it that anyone can speak of His salvation without a humble fear of a task so weighty that is far beyond the abilities of this mortal frame? It has become but as Isaiah once wrote of Israel, a time where., the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken (Is. 28: 13). As Isaiah would note of Israel in that day, so is it in our day; the task of theology has become but a crown of pride in our day.
As theologians and lay writers today have engaged in countless theological efforts they have left merely a barren wasteland of dry theological machinations’; they have forgetten that the exercise of theology must have no other design than to glorify God, to wit the reading soul is laid low in abject humility and brought to an excitation over the wonder of true grace. Theology without doxology is but a futile endeavor; it leaves one ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth absent any improvement of the soul. True religion does not engage in such endeavors without the harp in hand; theology has no benefit without its proper intended use, so that both the writer and reader and brought to the wonder of true doxological musing.
The Reformation left us a heritage of doxological theology. One cannot read Calvin’s Institutes without being struck by his doxological design and useful conclusions for improving his reader in faith. Similarly, one cannot open a Puritan text without being struck by the strum of the harp that has been taken from the willow, heard as an undertone to their every word. Why then do the majority of Reformed publications today far too often leave the soul vacant and unimproved in godliness? Why are our shelves full of innumerable books from these days that teach theology without a stirring of the reader’s godly affections? It can be likened to a bible study that teaches historical fact, memorization of verses, and theological import, but not the proper use of the text for the improvement of the soul. A biblical scholar can be made without faith, but what good is a biblical scholar without faith? What good is a theologian who writes absent the goal of God’s glory, not his? Furthermore, what good is a theological book, article, blog or commentary, without the goal of God’s glory, our humility, and the improvement of the reader in faith and awe of God? One cannot read Matthew Henry’s Commentary without being struck by his every application of his conclusion to the improvement of the soul of his reader. While the reader of a present day commentary has no stirring of true godly affections, no advance in true humility and wonder, they are far unlike the men of the Reformation who ever took pen in hand with a terror of the wonder of their subject. It is time the children of the Reformation learned how to truly conduct themselves as their forefathers. If we are the offspring of the Reformation it is time we take the harp out of the willow in our endeavors. Let this reprove our souls, hearing Paul’s words to Timothy, Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do (1 Timothy 4: 1), as a check to our vain efforts that are unprofitable to the glory of God and improvement of godly souls. Let us heed Calvin’s words, when he wrote of this text from Timothy, saying:
He judges of doctrine by the fruit; for everything that does not edify ought to be rejected, although it has no other fault; and everything that is of no avail but for raising contentions, ought to be doubly condemned. And such are all the subtle questions on which ambitious men exercise their faculties. Let us, therefore, remember, that all doctrines must be tried by this rule, that those which contribute to edification may be approved, and that those which give ground for unprofitable disputes may be rejected as unworthy of the Church of God (Calvin’s Commentaries).”
What then remains for the theologians and those they entertain in our day? It is far time for a new Reformation to begin, one that begins first in our heart and souls. It is one that must so strike us with an infirmity of the flesh that we dare not write or speak of our holy and sovereign God without a doxological breath. The endeavors of our theology should again begin from the precept of our debasement; we should crawl to our keyboards and pulpits as men that have been in the presence of an awful God. We must learn to write with pages stained by the tears of true wonder and godly felicity, when ever making mention of so worthy a God as ours. Otherwise, what good is all our endeavoring; we will find that all our books, our conferences, our seminaries, and our churches, are nothing more than vain ramblings from senseless and affectionless souls that could speak of the God of heaven, but were those He never knew and those that never knew Him. It is far time for the true children of the Reformation, that claim its heritage and doctrines, to plead with heaven’s King for a rekindling of true religious affections for their lifeless souls. It is time for Christian to tell Faithful of the one called Talkative travelling in our midst, saying, “He is the son of one SAY-WELL; he dwelt in Prating-row, and he is known of all that are acquainted with him by the name of TALKATIVE in Prating-row; and notwithstanding his fine tongue, he is but a sorry fellow (Pilgrim’s Progress: John Bunyan).”