In many respects, the issues in the current “Auburn Avenue” debate are not at all new to the Reformed world. There have been differences concerning sacramental efficacy, apostasy, antinomian/neonomianism, and other related issues. What reasons do we have to hope that this time things will be more fully resolved this time around? The main one I see is this: The Auburn Avenue debate comes at a time of larger cultural transition. However much postmodernism is in continuity with modernism (and it is in some important respects), there is little doubt that there is also something new going on, and if we look at the larger geopolitical, technological, and scientific realities it is even more evident that we are in a moment of large-scale transition. The Auburn Avenue debate is not about all those things, but in some respects there is overlap. Those allied with Auburn Avenue, for example, are in many cases more sympathetic to certain moves in postmodernism than the opponents of Auburn Avenue. Making a case for a heightened view of sacramental efficacy is easier, for example, in an age of spiritism and New Ageism than it is in an age of big machines and scientific method. To take another example: Given the intense attention to the philosophy of language in the last century, we have more resources for distinguishing between biblical and systematic uses of terms than Charles Hodge had. Or, to take another example: those associated with Auburn Avenue are more likely to borrow insights from non-Reformed theology than their opponents, and this too links up with the massive practical ecumenism that has been evident in recent decades in the US and is evident on an even greater scale in the Southern Hemisphere. If that’s the case, then the theological shifts that are represented by Auburn Avenue will have a certain cultural “traction” that similar positions in the past did not have.
This is not to say that Auburn Avenue is simply reflecting cultural trends. I don’t believe that is the case. But it means that the Auburn Avenue type of theology looks more like the theology of the present and the future than the theology of Auburn Avenue’s opponents, which looks a lot like a fossilized theology locked in the past.
We can observe this same symmetry between theological change and larger cultural change at the time of the Reformation. Copernicus, Columbus, the fall of Constantinople, the “ad fontes” of the Renaissance, and lots of other cultural changes prepared ground where the Reformation could sprout and grow. Luther wasn’t simply following the trends of the times. God’s Spirit guided Luther to his insights. But the same Spirit was working more broadly to ensure that Luther’s insights would not perish.