4:43PM Mar 11, 2022
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it is our delight to have Dr. Steve Holmes with us. Dr. Holmes is Senior Lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews of Scotland. His research is broadly focused on Christian theology in its classic forms, including both its history and contemporary expression. Within this wide field, he presently is interested in three in the three main areas of evangelical Christianity, Baptist theology, and English puritanism. His most recent work is Christian theology, introducing the classics with Sean Bill wall scape set to release on September 14 of this year, Dr. Holmes, it's our honor to have you.
It's good to be with you.
To begin, would you be willing to tell us about some of your fresh, fresh research projects, please?
Yes, indeed, my, my most most recent research based books have been on the doctrine of the Trinity published in the States as the quest for the Trinity, and on Baptist theology, out with gente Clark, and that kind of captures two areas which I'm still interested in, on the one hand, thinking hard about the doctrine of God, and how that has been expressed in history. And I'm doing more work on that. And I'm moving I think, from thinking specifically about the Trinity to think about Christology, but how, how Christology relates to the doctrine of God. And on the other hand, the history of my own traditions as a as a Baptist and an Evangelical, I find in, in academic work, these traditions have been largely understudied, beginning to be corrected, particularly for evangelicalism in the last generation, but there's much more to be done. And so I'm very interested in in works of recovery there of looking back at the tradition and trying to understand what motivated some of the things that were said and done.
Would you be willing to share a little bit about the quest for the Trinity Trinity? How is it that you decided to launch this this massive research project?
It was, it goes back, actually, several years. And I said, the book is a history of the doctrine of the Trinity, although told in a slightly odd way in the play, start with the history of the 20th century Trinitarian revival, so called, and then go back and start with biblical texts in the early church and work my way through the medieval and Reformation period, just to test how much of what has been hailed as a recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity in the late 20th century, how much that really was a recovery of what had previously been said, and how much it was something new. And my conclusion is that fundamentally, it's something new. The but the Deep Origins of the book, come in, in just realizing, as I read historical sources, that there were certain absolutely key assumptions that everybody held in one direction, between about the fourth century and the 18th. And got reversed, simply reversed in the 20th century. One of these has to do with a doctrine called divine simplicity, the idea that, that God's life is, is in compositors, without part, right the way through the Christian tradition, people simply assume that if you believed in this, you must be Trinitarian. And if you doubted this, you couldn't be Trinitarian. And then suddenly, about 1930, we start believing the exact opposite, that you've got to choose between Trinity and simplicity. And I wanted to know, why did that switch happen? And so I went back and read through the history and tried to tell a story that I hope is convincing, and true to the sources of how Trinitarian theology in the 20th century took some very, very novel directions.
Now, it's such a massive project. In some ways, were you trying to correct or update a Hansen's work to search for the Christian doctrine of God? Were there points in perhaps Lewis era as I see it and his legacy that you were trying to correct? Help me understand more of the vision?
Okay, those books. I were really my sources. So as in particular, I find a remarkably good book. There are one or two areas where I'm not sure I'd want to correct him so much as as we rebalance and emphasis I think there could be more said about this or that. But a lot of I was working with trying resources, but a lot of what I was doing was was trying to bring specialist monographs like that which has really transformed our understanding of what's going on in the fourth century between ICAO and Constantinople. But all of that good historic Work hadn't really affected what we were doing as systematic theologians when we sat down to talk about the Trinity. And I wanted to recover some of that work and to bring it to the field of my own field of systematic theology and say, look, the history is being told differently now and being told differently for really good reasons when we look at the primary sources, and we need to catch up with that and and understand what we're saying and doing. So as an Hansen. Really, we're, we're platforms I gratefully built on rather than opponents I wanted to correct
that. You also are a scholar of evangelicalism, and a lot has happened in the last couple decades since David Bebbington came out with his famous quadrilateral. Indeed, the problem of defining evangelicalism has become harder, not not more simple. Tell us about your work into evangelicalism.
Okay. Yes, I mean, David Bebbington has been a teacher and a good friend to me also here in Scotland, of course, and I, I value his work greatly. But one of the things I've been fascinated by is the varieties of evangelicalism. And I think part of the origin of that interest comes in a certain a dissatisfaction or that the British evangelicalism tends to be understood even by cultural commentators right here in the UK, as through the lens of accounts of American evangelicalism. And obviously, the two movements have have deep common origins. Whitfield and Wesley preaching both sides of the Atlantic Edwards works sent across and and eagerly republished and read, but they're also really significant differences. And one of the I kind of wanted to set out, I set out wanting to look at some of those differences. And to say, this needs to be noticed, you can't look at what's going on in with movements, such as the religious right in the United States, and say, That's what it means to be evangelical in Britain, it doesn't work like that. And so after that, you then start to notice more and more regional differences. evangelicalism is different in Scotland with a Presbyterian Heritage than it is in England with Episcopalian heritage, and, and things like that. So I'm very interested in in the differences. And that, of course, then gets you back to this question of definition. Well, if if these movements are different, then what holds them together? So I mean, in in the United States, it's not unreasonable to say the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a crucial defining point of evangelicalism, there are bringe figures and institutions, but fundamentally, it's there. But actually biblical inerrancy has virtually no currency in the UK at all. One small organization uses the language. And so you can't say it's biblical inerrancy that holds us together. Certainly, there's a respect for the Bible, but it's expressed differently. So So what is it that holds us together? So those are the sorts of questions that have have occupied me in this sort of area.
Dr. Holmes, you wrote a blog post recently entitled, finally, colon evangelical theology, indeed, getting a lot of press time, tell us about the journey that you had in preparation for the thesis behind that article.
Okay, well, that was that was a kind of confessional piece having, having published on the nature of evangelical theology, having been the chair of the theological commission of the British Evangelical Alliance and sat on its Council and now its board and I came to the conclusion really, quite recently that I'd finally understood to my own satisfaction, what evangelical theology meant, and I wanted to let some people know about that, which is the origin of that blog post. The what comes behind it, what is a conviction that actually because of the sorts of questions that we've just been talking about, about the varieties of evangelicalism, the best way to define the movements, tends to be historically and sociologically, more than theologically there are certainly theological distinctives, but none of them are very defining. Each time you say evangelicals are people who stress commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy say as Mark Noll started sorry, Tim, Timothy Lawson starts a definition somewhere. You immediately have to put in a footnote and say, but actually, there's a fair number of other people who stress historical Christian orthodoxy who, who aren't evangelical. And so I came to the conclusion that some time ago that the easy definitions The movements were to tell a historical story, Mark Nolan, in his work on American evangelicalism talks of the movement as a community of conversation. And that worked well for me. But that what you have is a story that begins with the revivals in the 1730s. And out of that comes a movement of people who sharply disagree about all sorts of things, but nonetheless talk to each other. And they argue with each other, and their arguments with each other matter more to them than their arguments with people outside of the movement. And so that that sense of a kind of historical sociological definition was one i i became comfortable with. And I almost put to one side the question of can we define evangelical theology? And then suddenly, I realized that something had coalesced in my mind that now I thought I could define evangelical theology. And so that was the origin of that blog post
angelical ism a set of doctrines or is it a methodology, a theological methodology? Or is it something else?
evangelicalism itself is a historical Christian tradition, and probably best defined as such, it has certain doctrinal emphases. And what I do in that blog post is, is argue that what differentiates evangelical theology from other traditions is largely a matter of emphasis rather than the particular doctrines held. So one of the inspirations I guess, is the Great Church of England Bishop JC Ryle, a major figure in in British and indeed worldwide evangelicalism round about 1900. And rial is at one point engaged with in debates with the Catholic wing of the Church of England, which at that point was really quite orthodox in traditional Christian terms. And there's not very much vile acknowledges that he believes that his opponents don't. But what he says is, what we think is important is different. So for you, the absolutely crucial thing is say that you have bishops, and that these bishops are properly consecrated, I believe in bishops, but that's not important for me. What's important for me, is the authority of Scripture, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and I know you believe in those things, but you don't give them the same as importance as I do. That's what makes me an evangelical and you not, and that sort of vision of different levels of importance of emphases gave me the clue to say, I think I can understand the distinctive theology of evangelicalism without distorting it now.
This model that you've developed of the shape of theology and the prioritization of the various doctrines and components, being the recipe on which theology is based or historical tradition identifies itself, could that be applied beyond the evangelical tradition? In some way there are Catholics, so to speak, even outside of the Roman Catholic Church within Anglicanism, Episcopalian ism in America, even in in some nondenominational churches, you'll have sort of a Catholic feel, if you will, to the to the worship style, could it? Could it be that actually not just evangelicalism, but other Christian traditions, too, could best be identified by this prioritization and shape of theology?
I think possibly it could. I mean, I don't claim to be an expert in the Catholic tradition. But I think there is something there that says, what, what, what makes you Catholic? Well, it's not just that you believe that. Say a respect for the church tradition is important. Lots of people believe that lots of Evangelicals believe that. Or that you're convinced that the right way to order a church is with bishops and priests and deacons. It's that you say that these things are primary, that this these things are are of first importance, you don't just happen to believe those things. You say actually, that's, that's pretty central to my understanding of Christian identity. And so the level of emphasis as well as the particular doctrine held, I think does become important. In lots of Christian traditions, yes.
Is this model of the shape of theology is that different from the old model of primary and secondary doctrines of primary and secondary importance? Some Christian traditions are used to the vocabulary of saying these doctrines have a primary importance and therefore, to be part of this church or to be defined as a Christian according to our understanding, you must affirm these, but these are doctrines of secondary importance. Excuse me, I shouldn't have said that. This was necessary for your identity died. and disease. But but these other doctrines of secondary importance are necessary for the fellowship within this congregation but not not to be identified as Christian. Is this model different from from the doctrine of primary and secondary doctrines?
I think it's a little more nuanced. I think the problem problem is a strong word. But I think I'm trying to say that just to sit on an account where we've got certain doctrines that are primary, and some that are secondary, just gives us kind of two boxes to put things in. And I want to say, well, I want a bit more than two boxes, I want the contours on a map where some peaks stand up very high, another standard of middling height, and, and there are gradations in between. And then there's at some valleys are very deep and others less deep. So I want a bit more granularity than I can get out of just primary and secondary doctrines. But it's, it's very much the same sort of idea. And I do think that one of the things that's going on with the birth of the evangelical movement in the 18th century, is precisely a reevaluation of what people have been taught our primary and secondary doctrines. You. You look at the history at the end of the 17th century, so just a generation before the the evangelical revivals and you have violence, religious violence over the question of whether one is to be Presbyterian or Episcopalian in Scotland, where I live in, in America, Timothy Cutler is dismissed as rector is fired from his job as rector of what was to become Yale, because he used to work sorry, one line for words from the Anglican prayer book, at the end of a prayer in public, that level of denominational identity, that level of, of we are not what you are, was deeply entrenched around about 1700. And then suddenly, you've got Edwards inviting an Anglican preacher like George Whitfield into his pulpit, just a generation later. And so something has shifted really significantly, about the importance attached to ideas of churchmen ship, this is not what we're going to get excited about any more. Rather, we're going to get excited about the gospel that is preached, and the the effect we see it having on people's lives. And I want to be excited about that. Not about matters of how we order the church, certainly
like your homes, in your continued research on the nature of evangelicalism, despite the tremendous variety that we see in Christianity around the world. What is it that gives the church its essential unity?
Its faithfulness to Jesus has to be were named Christians. And because we're faithful to Jesus, we believe what He taught us that the one he called Father is the only God that the spirit has sent His Spirit to give us new life, that through His death and resurrection, we have hope for the future. forgiveness of sin, rebirth. These are the things that are absolutely central, it seems to me to any anything that wants to call itself Christian, you start doubting some of those things. And you're, you're well, well on the way to not being part of that movement in in my understanding. Dr. Holmes, we're
so grateful for your time this morning. Thank you.
It's very good to talk to you. Thank you.
That's where we'll cut the interview. And Sure. Would you have just another five or 10 minutes to follow up on some of those things? Yeah, of course. Yeah. First of all, I'm terribly sorry with my voice. I'm struggling with a cold.
No, no. I hope you recover soon.
It's Dr. Holmes, I'm fascinated by your thesis. Part of my own background is that I studied with Cardinal Dulles Cardinal Avery. Yes, he of course did the models of the church boy, yes, indeed. Yes, he was a big humanist. And I studied with him, of course, in his in a Jesuit context and on TGS Moody Bible Institute, which has never angelical school and so on. And I'm fascinated by this, the ecumenical implications of your thesis in the broader ecumenical world. And yes, in this particular Interview Project, which this is a this interview is a specimen, we've hit about 5050, some interviews now, we've really been blessed to to have all kinds of experts open up to us and allow us to interview them. And that last question at the end, what Yes, despite the diversity, what is it gives the church unity? People are filing themselves, excuse me, people are filing themselves into neat categories. There's a group and so far the majority of the interviews that we've had where people say it's the person of Jesus Christ. I was interviewing John Mark Reynolds, who's, you know, he, he he was explaining it perhaps especially articulately he was saying that it's the person of Jesus Christ. That's, that's the charisma. That's the center. You know, his life story is the center for the Apostles Creed. It's that confessional nature that that that defines us. And a bunch of evangelicals are signing on to that I was talking last week to Chris Wright, head of the Lang and yelling in partnership, and he was just extremely articulate at that position, as was yourself. There's a group that saying it's the Holy Spirit that gives us unity. It's this immediate experience with God and some of the ecumenical voices to like when I was I was talking with Wesley Granberg Michaelson, who's on the board of counsel for the World Council of Churches, he, other ecumenical types are also saying so it's not just Pentecostal types, but also ecumenical types. Were saying it's the Holy Spirit that gives us unity. There is no visible recipe for unity, but it's the Holy Spirit. There's another group that that I believe will say, sacrament, we've been having trouble getting in touch with the Catholic community. Just they have not been the first to to respond. But but from my time with them at Fordham, I'm confident that the sacrament is the unity of the church for them. There's there's another group that's saying justice, and in my own context, we we'd call them progressive Christians, that group they want to hold to justice is central. So let's see, who am I leaving out? There. See, secondly. There's a fifth month to I'm sorry, it's just escaping me at the moment, but people are neatly filing themselves into these categories. That's very interesting, isn't it? To me, it's an absolutely fascinating and I wonder how far can that be stretched? Not just not just in the definition of evangelicalism, perhaps, in the definition of Christianity at all is shaped eigene actually the the foremost question. Let me know your thoughts. And where would you take this interview project from here, if you were running?
That's, that's, that's an interesting question. Is that about shape is that? I suppose it is. Because all of those I mean, I, I'd want to sign up to all of those things. Clearly, I believe that the gift of the Spirit is important. I believe that justice is the calling of the church, I believe the sacraments. But what what are those? So yes, I suppose it is about shape. And that's interesting. And but does it connect to Dallas's model? It might well do. It does seem to me that this is a really significant question in ecumenism when I've been involved in formal ecumenical work, bilateral talks, and so on. Or, actually even more when I've overheard informal conversations among students or, or reading blog posts or whatever. It's something that people don't get for some time. You will find people from an evangelical Baptist tradition, like mine, saying, Yes, I understand that you've got bishops, but that doesn't matter. And somewhere down the line may eventually click actually, that does matter to the fact that it doesn't matter to me. If it doesn't mean it doesn't matter to you. And so it's realizing that what I think is important, and what someone else thinks is important, might be very different things. And we've got to cope with those different estimations of importance as well as, as well as the different beliefs. Where would I take an interview series like this? I mean, I don't know what you are, I know that you're, you're putting edited, edited chunks up on the web. I mean, the other thing you could do with it, I suppose, is some sort of formal research and markup type stuff, which isn't really my field, but get a good social scientist on it. And say, you know, when you start to spot these, kind of, look, we're getting five classifications here. It gets somebody who knows what they're doing with interview data, get them to do the analysis. And you've you've probably got some interesting things to publish, actually. I've been terms of, yeah,
I'd love to put it into, you know, as soon as as soon as I complete, actually solidifying the models. I think it's time to come around to people and say, This is what this is sort of a preliminary finding. Now, I've done that theologically with me. Can't can one Who holds justice or sort of human flourishing as an evidence of sign of true Christianity? They hold that as top priority. They also hold to the to the doctrine person, Jesus Christ, they also hold separate, but they also hold the revelation and so on. But, but probably just to to ask various leaders. How, how open can we be with these different priorities? Yeah. random questions would like to you? Yeah, that's,
I mean, that would be interesting, wouldn't it? I suspect, the answers you get, there's a, there's a very defensive mindset sometimes. And the problem is if they start if they stop stressing, historic orthodoxy, stop stressing the person of Christ, then fairly soon, they will stop believing in the incarnation. I'm not sure that's true. I think, you know, there was many counter examples. There are examples, but that that kind of defensive mindset that we've got to stress these things, otherwise we'll lose them is definitely out there. And I think you'd find some of that. But who knows, I mean, that the joy for search is you don't know what's coming until you've done it. Fascinating. Talk to you. Yes, yes. And do my best to Josh. Thank you so much. Okay, okay. Thanks for calling. Goodbye.