Let’s consider two key points. The study of the writings of their predecessors were important for two reasons—it established right and wrong doctrine and practice:
1. Archetypal theology and practice. How does one establish orthodoxy and orthopraxy? By building from scratch? No. Rather it is by recognizing the work of the Spirit in the church as he leads it through controversies to truth.Richard Muller helps us here:
It is worth recognizing . . . that the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration. (The Unaccommodated Calvin, 39).
This point is very important. The Reformation was not a Copernican revolution in theology; rather, it was, in the minds of its adherents, an adjustment and recovery to the received tradition. This point belongs to both of our topics—the fathers and the medievals. Where there was agreement there was no need for adjustment; in fact where there was agreement, even the most notorious of their predecessors might be used in support of their views.
A. Theology and Polemic: Take Owen’s use of Augustine’s Confessions as an example. When Owen seeks to illustrate the nature of true conversion as over against specious varieties, he turns to perhaps the most important western father, and uses him as the paradigm for his own theological view. Now whether or not Augustine intended exactly the thing Owen makes of him is irrelevant to our point. What is important that here, on the crucial issue of the nature of saving faith and its experience, the great puritan used the great father. Beyond the obvious surface fact that Augustine’s writing describes Owen’s point, what other agenda might Owen have had in employing such a writer? Perhaps the value in Augustine’s identity; perhaps the recognized authority ascribed to the ‘doctor of the church.’ If Owen can subvert the Roman use of Augustine with his own presentation, he makes a very powerful point.
To think about this another way, one must consider the role of the ancient creeds of the church. It is very simple to find Protestant and Puritan (no distinction intended) expositions of the Apostle’s Creed; one will not have to look very far for expressions of their appreciation for the other two great creeds either: Nicene and Athanasian. The simplest means by which to demonstrate this is to take out your copy of any of the most important general confessions of the English Puritans: WCF of 1647/48; Savoy of 1658, 2LCF of 1677. You will find that their statements on trinitarianism reflect the exact emphases of these (and Chalcedon also of course), often employing the English technical equivalents of the original terms. Similarly, if you read any of the major puritan treatises on these topics, you will find them constantly referring back to these statements. In this sense, there was an honest effort to claim the name ‘catholic’ for themselves. These creeds indeed define the church everywhere, always and by all.
B. Exegesis: Another factor involved here has to do with exegesis. The Puritan era is better known for theological treatises than Biblical exposition, but this is, at least to some degree, more an historical lacuna than a reality. Living in an era of increased sophistication of Greek and Semitic languages, together with burgeoning manuscript resources, many puritans were in fact distinguished expositors. And there is something about their exegetical method that must be kept in mind. Carl Trueman makes this point well in his recorded lectures—let me reinforce his point here. He asserts that the puritan authors must not be accused of ‘proof-texting’ in the modern sense of that word. They did not simply look for a text in isolation from its surroundings in order to give some level of Biblical support to their case. Rather, he argues, their use of texts must be understood to serve as pointers to an interpretive tradition; i.e. that they expected their readers (remembering that in many cases they were writing for their peers) to recognize that their use of a text was within a well-established tradition. The use of any particular text said, ‘go to the commentaries and see how this text has been interpreted, understood or applied in the church.’ Even this is a demonstration of their sense of continuity.
They didn’t expect the Spirit to teach them new things—in fact new ideas were probably incorrect. They expected the Spirit to guide them to the truth long believed and practiced in the church. This consensus provided a kind of archetypal theology and exegesis—it was the touchstone by which the church might know what to think and do. I hope you see the point—protestant orthodoxy was not a novelty, but a continuation of an ancient tradition.