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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.