Tag Archives: Reformed scholasticism

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.


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.