Reformed Confessionalism v. The Genius Theologian

Reformed Confessionalism v. The Genius Theologian

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Friday, January 13, 2023

Through the work of the Spirit and Word of God, the theological spine holding the body of truth upright is the doctrine of the church. Apart from church and confession, people have nowhere to turn but to the biggest and brightest theological celebrities. If we make the theological genius’s unique distinctives the hallmark of what it means to be Reformed, we are swimming in the stream of Enlightenment Romanticism and individualism. Individually, we are free to hold distinct theological positions, but when it comes to defining the church’s corporate faith, our confessions define what it means to be truly Reformed. We must never allow, therefore, the genius theologian to displace the church and the role of its scripturally subordinated confession.  

Forces of culture influence and shape our thoughts. In turn, what forces shape evangelicalism and the Reformed faith? Two different forces have shaped each theological movement: the Romantic idea of the genius on one end of the spectrum and the doctrine of the church on the other.

The two forces produce very different outcomes—in evangelical churches, the genius theologian looms large as the one who molds a theological movement. Reformed churches, on the other hand, have a commitment to a scripturally subordinated confessional authority, or confessionalism, that shapes the church. Herein lies a significant difference between evangelicalism and the Reformed faith. When we understand these different shaping forces, we can seek to pursue the path of confessionalism rather than that of a genius theologian. In confessionalism, a person commits to a corporate confession of faith written by the church throughout the ages, whereas in the genius theologian approach, a lone individual creates a school of thought that people try to emulate and replicate. In what follows, I explain the origins and nature of the genius theologian and contrast it with the confessional approach of the Reformed churches. Realizing Reformed churches are liable to fall into genius theologian mode, I conclude by spelling out the dangers of this pitfall.

The Romantic Idea of the Genius

Noted historian of philosophy Isaiah Berlin observed that Romantic philosophers of the eighteenth century shaped modern culture in ways that many people forget or are unaware of. Were we able to transport ourselves back to the sixteenth century and ask a Roman Catholic, “Factoring your disagreement with your Protestant foes, don’t you admire Protestants for their zeal, skill, and intellectual rigor with which they have carried out their program of reformation?” The Roman Catholic would respond, “No! They’re schismatics!” Berlin makes the point that admiring the way someone does something while ignoring what they’re doing is from the influence of Romanticism. In other words, how you do something is more important than what you do, according to Romanticism. This illustrates its nature, a philosophical movement that encouraged people to prioritize feelings over intellect. One of the thrusts of Romantic philosophy was the creation of the idea of the genius. Under the sway of emotion, French philosophe Denis Diderot claimed that the genius was an artist, a rule breaker, one who transcends the bounds of civilized man to blaze his own path. In his nineteenth-century Essay on Original Genius, Scottish Presbyterian William Duff argued that the indispensable characteristic of genius is an unrestrained imagination because this is what makes the genius unique and creative. This sets the stage for the Romantic influence on evangelicalism and the genius theologian.

The multi-branched tree of evangelicalism has no root in a single theological confession but in a coterie of theologians. Evangelicals typically look to big names as the lodestars for their understanding of the Christian faith. People are drawn to the genius and creativity of a theologian or pastor based upon their own interests. Are you interested in Christian Hedonism? Then you turn to John Piper. Are you trying to live your best life now? Then Joel Osteen is your genius. Do you believe that all theology is eschatology?

Read More

Scroll to top