Tag Archives: Amandus Polanus

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (2)


In the first part (see here), I began to make the case that Reformed scholasticism should not be dismissed out of hand.  In recent years, there has been a renewed appreciation for this method and the theology which it produced.  Last time, I mentioned five things where I’ve personally appreciated Reformed scholasticism:

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis
  2. History Matters
  3. System Matters
  4. Asking Good Questions
  5. Using Precise Definitions

Today I’ll conclude with the last five things:

6. Making Distinctions

Distinguishing between different doctrines and their elements is a key marker of faithful theology.  Scripture teaches us to distinguish.  Moreover, the Christian Church has long recognized that he who would teach well must distinguish well.  Reformed scholasticism excelled at the science of theological distinctions.  Reformed scholastic theologians made good distinctions at the broadest levels.  For example, Ursinus wrote in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, “The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.”  But they also made far finer distinctions.  Benedict Pictet, for instance, wrote about the ways in which ought to think of God’s love.  God’s love can be distinguished into the love amongst the persons of the Trinity (ad intra), and then his love towards creatures (ad extra).  With regard to his love for his creatures, that is further distinguished:  “1) God’s universal love for all things, 2) God’s love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and 3) God’s special love for his people.” (Mark Jones, Antinomianism, 83).  Backed up by scriptural teaching, such distinctions can be quite useful for clear and unmuddled theology.

7. The Value of Logic and Analytical Rigour

Good theologians use logic to advance the truth claims of God’s Word.  Our Reformed confessions do the same.  However, we find this tool used most effectively by Reformed scholastics.  A classic example is found with John Owen’s argument regarding the intent of Christ’s atonement.  Using a powerful syllogism informed by biblical exegesis, Owen made an airtight case for definite atonement, i.e. the biblical position that Christ died only for the elect.  Closely related to the use of logic is rigorous analysis.  Reformed scholastics understood how to get at every angle of a particular topic.  In his Syntagma, Amandus Polanus illustrated this when he discussed the doctrine of creation.  Using the biblical data, he discussed the efficient, material and formal causes of creation, as well as the purpose and effects of creation.  At the end of the discussion, you get the impression that every conceivable aspect has been covered thoroughly.

8. The Need for Polemical Engagement

As in our day, Reformed scholastics encountered challenges to the faith.  Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Socinians, Arminians (Remonstrants), and others needed to be addressed.  It was not enough simply to make positive statements of the faith – errors also needed to be soundly addressed.  Therefore, in most scholastic works, you will find polemical engagement to varying degrees.  Many works from this period are exclusively devoted to polemics.  For instance, Samuel Maresius took up his pen against Isaac La Peyrère and his arguments for pre-Adamites.  Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology was written with the idea that theology is best learned in the context of polemics – “Elenctic” in the title is derived from a Greek word which means “reprove or correct.”  The Reformed scholastics were not afraid to not only defend the faith, but also go on the offensive for it.  Many in our tender age might learn something from them!

9. Room for Theological Diversity (Within Confessional Bounds)

No one should have the impression that Reformed scholasticism was a monolithic movement.  Yes, it may be fairly argued that there were many key doctrines on which there was a broad consensus.  That consensus was defined primarily by the Reformed confessions.  However, within those bounds, one can certainly find a significant amount of diversity.  For example, there is the question of whether every individual believer has a guardian angel.  This question is not addressed in the Three Forms of Unity.  A Reformed scholastic like Gisbertus Voetius followed the lead of John Calvin and others in regarding guardian angels as, at best, uncertain.  However, Voetius also mentioned that other Reformed scholastic theologians such as Zanchius, Alsted, and Chamier affirmed the ancient position on guardian angels.  Can both views co-exist amongst Reformed theologians?  Why not?

10. There is a Time and Place for Scholarship

The best Reformed scholastics understood one of the most important distinctions:  between the pulpit and the lectern, or between the book written for the average church-goer and the book written for theology students or fellow theologians.  Put more technically, they knew the difference between popular and academic.  To be sure, not all Reformed scholastics did understand or employ this distinction, but the best did.  Consider Gisbertus Voetius again.  He was one of the most accomplished of the Reformed scholastics.  His academic writings reflect his great learning, breadth of study, and scholarly abilities.  Yet, this same Voetius wrote a warmly pastoral book entitled (in the English translation) Spiritual Desertion.  Before serving as a theology professor, Voetius had been a pastor and he understood that there was a time and place for the scholastic method.  The pulpit was not that place and neither was a book written in Dutch for ordinary church members.  To communicate effectively at the level of the regular person while at the same time being able to theologize with the best theologians – this is something that most Reformed scholastics strived to attain.  It’s something to aim for today as well.

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.


Synopsis of Polanus’ Syntagma (10)

Wow, this is getting quite technical now.  The linguistic resources that I have at my disposal aren’t helping me much with some of the key vocabulary.  I have Muller’s dictionary of Latin and Greek theological terms on order, but haven’t received it yet.  I think that would probably help a lot.  Some of this I’m just guessing at and so I think here’s where I throw in the towel and admit that this is getting way over my ability.  Anyway, here’s the next part of Book V and if anyone has any suggestions on improving the translation, please let me know.


The efficient cause of humanity can be considered thus:  whether you look at the first humans, or at their posterity.

The efficient cause of humanity is first the primitive (principalis), and then the handmaid (administra).

The handmaid, if you look at the body, is first remote, then near, then in the middle.

The material of humanity is first remote, then near.

The near materials are the parts of the body, the humors, and the spirit.

The internal and substantial form of a human being is his soul.

The soul of a human is to be observed thus:  definition, origin, purpose, power, and so on.

The origin of the soul includes the efficient cause of the soul, material, time, and place.

The purpose (finis) of the human soul is either natural or supernatural.

The powers of the human soul are three:  quickening, sensitizing, and intellectual.

The sensitizing powers are two:  apprehensions and motives.

The force of apprehensions includes external senses and then internal senses.

The external senses are: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

The internal senses are:  common sense, imagination, and memory.

The different frames of mind are:  wakefulness, sleep, and dreaming.

Dreams are either natural (physica) or supernatural (hyperphysica).

The force of motives of the sensitivities is threefold:  vital, enjoining, and accompanying.

The force of the vital is distinguished in pulsatricem & respiratricem (?).

The force of the enjoining motives is two-fold:  sensitized longings and states of mind (affectus).

The sensitized longings are of two parts:  desires and irascibility.

All of the states of mind are under two heads:  enjoyment and pain.

The intellectual powers are two-fold:  driving (agens) and bearing (patiens).

The driving intellect is two-fold:  theoretical and practical.

Again, the intellect is either simple or composite.

The composite is either noetic or dianoetic.

The intellect which has been placed in the human by God is right reason and conscience.

The standard natural principles of right reason are two-fold:  theoretical and practical.

Thus far regarding the intellect.

Synopsis of Polanus’ Syntagma (9)

We’re continuing here with Book V and the doctrine of creation:


The internal principles of natural visible bodies are either of their establishment or of their change.

The principles of establishment are two:  material and formal.

The principle of change is privation.

The properties of natural bodies are:  space and time, limits and motion.

The elements are four-fold:  fire, air, water, earth.

The work of the second day is expansion, distinguishing the greater waters from the lesser waters.

The works of the the third day are:  separating the lesser waters from the earth, and the creation of plants of all types.

The works of the fourth day are:  the stars or luminaries.

The luminaries of heaven are first either the major ones or the minor ones.

The major luminaries are the sun and the moon.

Then the [minor] luminaries of heaven are either planets or stars.

The works of the fifth day are swimming and flying animals.

The swimming animals are first the fish and then the zoophytes.

The flying animals are first the birds and then the winged insects.

The works of the sixth day are the terrestrial animals and man.

The terrestrial animals are the cattle, reptiles and wild beasts.

Human beings are to be considered with regards to:  name, efficient cause, material, form, purpose, the things added, and so on.

Synopsis of Polanus’ Syntagma (8)

Somebody reminded me the other day that 2010 is the 400th anniversary of the death of Amandus Polanus.  Too bad nobody seems to be planning a Polanus-palooza.  All the world’s Polanus scholars could gather together in Basel and have a great time, all two or three of them.  But seriously, I do think Polanus deserves more attention.  I’m doing my part by continuing this translation of the synopsis of his Syntagma.   We’re at Book V and this is a long one.  Thankfully, he does divide it up into more manageable chunks.  Today’s part deals with creation in general and the angels in particular.

Polanus speaks of the image of God in the angels.  I have not read his full discussion of this in the book — I imagine that he works this out in considerable depth there.  Last week, I mentioned Herman Bavinck and his interactions with Polanus in his Reformed Dogmatics.  Bavinck also discusses this point and cites Polanus.  He does so in a footnote to this statement:  “But Lutheran and Reformed theologians also often have lost sight of this distinction between humans and angels, and called the angels ‘image-bearers of God.'”  Bavinck goes on:

Only a handful, such as Theodoret, Macarius, Methodius, Tertullian (et al.) opposed this confusion.  Augustine expressly states, “God gave to no other creature than man the privilege of being after his own image.”

However great the resemblance between humans and angels may be, the difference is no less great.  Indeed, various traits belonging to the image of God do exist in angels, but humanity alone is the image of God.  (Vol. 2, 461)


Book V

The external works of God are two:  Creation and Providence.

Creation is considered in the following ways:  efficient cause, material, formal, purpose, effects, etc.

The efficient cause of creation is God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The material cause of creation is found with the Will, the Goodness, the Wisdom, and the Power of God.

The form of creation is either with regards to the things all creatures have in common, or those things which are proper [or unique] to them.

The proper is either worked from nothing, or formed [from existing matter].

The formation is either making (factura) or forming (figuratio).

The purpose of creation is two-fold:  the ultimate and penultimate.

The penultimate end is in our use in teaching, rebuking, censuring, instructing and comforting.

The effects of creation on the creature are considered either jointly or in its parts.

Jointly, the creation is comprehended in the name ‘world.’  It is considered with regards to efficient cause, material, formation, end, and the things added.

The material of the world is either that from which it was created, or from which it was constituted after creation.

The form of the world is sometimes the world taken together, other times separately.

The form of the world taken together is first internal, then external.

The purpose or goal (finis) of the world is either universal or particular.

The creation considered in its parts is distinguished by way of the days on which they were produced.

The works of the first day were:  heaven and the angels; the internal principles of natural bodies, with their inseparable appearances (accidentibus), space, time, finity, motion; the primal light, and thus the element of fire separated from the other elements; night and day.

Heaven is both the highest and then the starry sort.

The angels are considered either in general or individually.

Generally, the angels are considered in the following way:  1. They are.  2.  They are substantial beings.  3.  Spirit.  4.  Created.  5.  Created in the image of God.  6.  Incommunicable.  6.  Some did not remain upright.  8.  They are not parts of one another.

The image of God in the angels is of two parts:  first it is in the very incorporeal substance of angels.  Second, it is in their excellent properties.

Their properties are:  life & immortality, blessedness & glory.

The life of the angels is either natural or supernatural.

The immortality of the angels is either natural or supernatural.

The blessedness of the angels consists in their wisdom & will, power & freedom.

The wisdom of the angels is observed in their submission, manners, and variety.

The angels individually considered are either good or evil.

In good angels, the name and the substance are to be considered.

The names of the angels are general and proper.

The good angels have a two fold office:  either the works for God or the works for human beings.

The works for human beings are again two-fold:  either dispensing the favour of God and ministering to those who have been chosen to eternal life; or carrying out the judgments of God on human beings.

The judgments of God are carried both in this life and after this life.

The things to be noted of the evil angels:  malice, intelligence, free-will, power, rank.

Thus far with regards to the angels.  What follows concerns the internal principles of natural bodies.