Tag Archives: Reformation

The Reformation versus the Post-Reformation?

For quite a while it was customary for historians, theologians, and preachers to bewail the post-Reformation as a sort of regrettable appendix to the glory-days of Calvin and Luther.  I certainly encountered this way of thinking in my theological training.  I was taught that the Reformation was a glorious return to the Word of God, but immediately after the Reformation “scholasticism” negated many of its great gains.  Moreover, it was alleged that many of the problems in Reformed theology in the last 200 years can be traced back to this scoundrel, “scholasticism.”  It ruined almost everything.  “Scholastic” thus became a loaded, pejorative term.  If you heard a Reformed minister or theologian describing someone as “scholastic,” you knew that they were one of the bad guys in theology.

All this came to mind again as I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004).  I have much appreciation for the book’s overall argument.  Pearcey believes we need to recover the idea of a Christian worldview and I fully agree.  However, I do take issue with some of her historical analysis.

In chapter 2 she describes how medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas formulated a view of creation that involved a nature-grace dualism.  It is a two-storied view of reality.  The Reformation, however, overcame it.  Writes Pearcey, “The Reformers sought a return to a unified field of knowledge, where divine revelation is the light illuminating all areas of study” (page 81).  Thus, away with dividing life into secular vs. sacred.  All of life is one before the face of God.  We are called into this world to live all of life according to Scripture.

A major historical problem appears when Pearcey posits this Reformation perspective against that of the post-Reformation.  This paragraph illustrates the issue:

Despite all this, the Reformers’ emphatic rejection of the nature/grace dualism was not enough to overcome an age-old pattern of thought.  The problem was that they failed to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights.  Thus they did not give their followers any tools to defend those insights against philosophical attack — or to create an alternative to the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism.  As a result, the successors of Luther and Calvin went right back to teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities, using Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems — and thus dualistic thinking continued to affect all the Christian traditions. (page 82)

Where to begin in discussing this?  First I wonder: why would it have been necessary for the “Reformers” (this is a broad term) to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights?  From my reading of Calvin, to take but one Reformer, he was quite able to adapt the existing theological/philosophical vocabulary of his day in order to express himself.  For example, in his discussion on providence in the Institutes (1.16.9) he writes about absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and consequent necessity (necessitas consequentiae).  Why would there be a need to create a new vocabulary?  The existing vocabulary was already quite rich.  Why would a new vocabulary have to be crafted to repel philosophical attacks or to create an alternative to dualistic philosophy?  I fail to see how all this follows.  My non sequitur alarm bells are ringing.

But more significantly, note Pearcey’s own vocabulary:  “the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism” and “teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities.”  She assumes that scholasticism is something with a definite content, including Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as its basis.  Scholasticism was taught in universities, she says.  But nowhere does she precisely outline the content of this “scholasticism.”  She does not indicate whether she’s speaking of theology, philosophy, or any another field of study.  Moreover, nowhere does she indicate whether or if this post-Reformation scholasticism differed from pre-Reformation scholasticism in any way.  But she is quite sure that it was a bad development because it ensured that dualistic thinking would be harboured in Protestantism for some time to come.  The broad generalizations here raise these and more questions.

Here’s the nub of the problem:  scholasticism was a method of teaching.  As a teaching method, it was especially marked by the use of careful definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques.  It was a method used across the spectrum to convey different systems with widely differing theological content.  There were Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, as well as Lutherans and Reformed.  The scholastic teaching method was used both in the classroom and in writing.  However, there are examples of theologians often identified as scholastic writing books that are not at all scholastic.  Some of the best post-Reformation works on Christian piety and experience come from men who spent much of their time in the academy using the scholastic method.   A friend (an expert in this area) pointed me to Antoine de Chandieu.  This Huguenot theologian used the scholastic method in various works, but he also wrote a collection of meditations on Psalm 32.  I might point out too, that though it sometimes happened, it was considered bad form to take the scholastic method into the pulpit.  It was meant for the university context, not the church.  Readers wanting to look into this more should have a look at this book.

Pearcey also argues that post-Reformation scholasticism used “Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems.”  This raises questions too.  Are we talking about theology?  What do you mean by “basis”?  What do you mean by “system”?  What time period are we discussing exactly?  Let’s say we’re talking theology, so systems of theology.  Let’s say by “basis,” Pearcey means the foundations, what it’s based on.  To be even more specific, let’s say we’re talking about the period of early orthodoxy (1565-1640).  Let’s then take one of the preeminent handbooks of Reformed theology from this period, the 1625 Leiden Synopsis.  What was the basis of the Leiden Synopsis?  “We shall commence our disputations with Scripture, since it, being divinely inspired, is the principle for the most sacred Theology, its source of proof, and its means of instruction.”  Scripture is the principle, the basis (or to use the technical term, principium cognoscendi).  Nothing about Aristotle.  From my reading of post-Reformation Reformed theology, this is typical not exceptional.

Contrary to what Pearcey and others have argued, the post-Reformation did not negate the gains of the Reformation — it built on them.  Or to put it in other terms, there is more continuity between the Reformation and post-Reformation than has sometimes been recognized.  So where does that leave Pearcey’s attempt to explain the continuing prevalence of dualistic philosophy?  I reckon she has to find another explanation.  Perhaps the cause has more to do with something as simple as the innate human proclivity to double-mindedness.


Reformation Round-Up — Week 2

We’re celebrating what God did 500 years ago in the Protestant Reformation!  To celebrate, each day on Facebook and Twitter I’m sharing something I’ve written on it.  Here are this week’s featured posts:

The Eve of the Reformation: Staupitz

“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation in the Netherlands

De Brès vs. Richardot: A Reformation Debate

John Calvin and Michael Servetus

De Brès vs. Richardot: A Reformation Debate

If there’s one Reformation figure who deserves more attention, I would argue that it’s Guido de Brès.  Since I wrote my dissertation on the Belgic Confession (later published as For the Cause of the Son of God) in 2010, I’ve invested more effort in researching and writing about its author and his work for the gospel.  A few years ago, one of my projects was to translate and annotate one of the debates that de Brès had while he was in prison awaiting execution.  This was published in the 2010 issue of The Confessional Presbyterian.  Today, in commemoration of the 500th birthday of the Reformation, I’m pleased to offer you the full text of the debate, along with my introduction and notes: “De Brès versus Richardot: A Sixteenth-Century Debate Regarding the Lord’s Supper.”


Book Review of James R. Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong

I’ve just posted my (longish) review of James Payton’s new book, Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some MisunderstandingsYou can find it here.  This is my concluding paragraph:

“There are many more things in this volume on which I could comment, both good and bad.  I wish that I could recommend it; after all, we need more solid and accessible Reformation literature.  As noted above, there are some good chapters and some excellent insights scattered throughout.  On the whole, however, the book is evidence that old ways of writing Reformation and post-Reformation history die hard.  Using this volume as a guide, many will continue to get the Reformation wrong on some key points.”

A Reformation Conversation

Today is the day when Protestants all over the world commemorate the Reformation.  For my contribution, I’d like to share a brief part of a conversation between Guido (Guy) de Bres and Richardot, bishop of Arras.  The dispute was held on May 22, 1567 at the prison in Valenciennes where de Bres was being held prior to his martyrdom on May 31.  De Bres tells us what happened:


About eight o’clock in the morning of May 22, the bishop of Arras came to me for the second time, accompanied by a great number of priests, churchmen, and others.  After every one greeted one another, the Bishop approached me at the table and I was seated face to face with him and all the others were seated around the room.  They had much to say on the topic of the Mass and the Supper.  Their strategy was to put all this before my eyes so that I would approve their doctrine and then after their triumph they would use that to destabilize the weak in the faith, to have them abandon the true and ancient doctrine which I preached to them.  At least that’s what they hoped to do.

The Bishop:  Well, Guy, since we last talked together, how have you been?  Are you in the same situation and holding the same opinion?  Have you thought about our last talk together?

Guy:  Sir, I praise my God and Father that it pleases him to bestow his fatherly mercy on me, consoling me and fortifying me in a marvelous way in my bonds and afflictions.  I see and feel the strength and faithfulness of his promises for which I thank him with all my heart, praying to him to continue until the end of my life.  As for the rest, I still feel the same and my situation is the same.

The Bishop:  What?  I hoped to find you completely changed, according to the hope which I expressed last time.  Don’t you want to draw near and embrace an encounter with the truth?  O Guy, my brother and friend, I beg you not to be stubborn in your sentiments and not to prefer your judgment to the judgment of the whole church and of many learned persons who were before us.

Last time we dealt with the sacrifice of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Mass, which the fathers have said was in use in the time of the Apostles, saying often, “We offer,” speaking of the Eucharist.  It is a wonder how you like better to believe a doctrine which began about forty years ago, produced and set forth by Oecolampadius and Karlstadt, who were its first authors.  It seems better to me to believe the fathers who say the Eucharist is a sacrifice, than these others who say something to the contrary.  I know well how you will respond to me.  You’ll say that St. Paul said to the Hebrews that Christ offered himself only once.  But my response is that in the Mass we do not make another sacrifice than the one he has already made.  We do not make one today and tomorrow another.  It is always the same one which we offer, not as he offered himself on the cross, for there he offered himself by presentation of merit, but we offer as ministers and executors of his Will by application of that merit.  I am surprised how you find that so strange.  We say that we offer Jesus Christ to God the Father for our sins.  In your Supper, do you not present Jesus Christ to God for your sins?  Do you pray that he will apply to you the merits of the death and suffering of his Son?  Guy, my brother and friend, I beg you not to embrace your opinion.  I am looking out for your salvation and your well-being.  I desire everything good for you.  I’m certainly not blood-thirsty, but one who wants to deal with you in all gentleness and moderation.

Guy:  Sir, I do not know what hope you conceived for me last time.  If you have hoped to win me over to your religion, I cannot help that.  At any rate, I do not think that you have been given occasion for that hope.  It’s not like you think.  As I’ve said before and say it again, I have never been stubborn and close-minded against clear thinking and reason.  But if anyone can show me from the Word of God that I have been in error, I am completely ready to give up.  Up to the present there has been nothing of all that I have heard that would make me leave the certain for the uncertain.  I still hold the same position that I did at the time when by quick testimony from the Word of God, you made me appear to be contrary.  As I have said, I am not stubborn, and do not prefer my judgment to the judgment of the Church.  But I do certainly prefer with clear thinking and just cause the ancient and early Church in which the Apostles set up all things according to the ordinance of Christ.  I prefer that to the church of our time which is loaded with a vast number of human traditions, and which has degenerated itself in a remarkable way from the early Church.  With good reason, I say, I hold to that which the Apostles first received.  For Jesus Christ, in Revelation 2, says to those in Thyatira that they should beware of the profound trickeries of Satan, to beware of false doctrine.  He says, “I will put on you no other burden, only that which you have already, hold fast to this until I come.”  He would not have spoken thus if it would have been necessary to receive all the novelties which the Roman church has fabricated and daily put forth as a divine commission.  Indeed, I honor greatly the learned and holy persons who have preceded us, but especially the Apostles and Prophets, and their testimony is certain and indubitable.


The conversation goes on for many more pages, mostly dealing with the mass.  But here in this excerpt you can see de Bres taking his own stand on the Word of God, just as Martin Luther did many years earlier.  Also noteworthy is de Bres’ appeal to the early church — it was always his contention that the Reformed were the ones who were truly in the line of the early church.  He makes this case more fully in his book dealing with Romanism, Le baston de la foy Chrestienne.  Today we may give thanks for what God did through de Bres and the other Reformers.