Tag Archives: Scholasticism

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.

(to be continued…)


Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism

I want to make a few comments on this book, but not a full-fledged review.  This is an excellent doorway into the world of post-Reformation Reformed theologians.  It condenses the best in some of the most recent scholarship, particularly from the Netherlands.  It continues the program of deflating anti-scholastic biases.  For example, the authors illustrate in a number of places ways in which John Calvin employed scholastic methods in his writing and teaching.  Calvin’s issue was never with scholasticism as a method in general, but with the specific theologians of the Sorbonne.  The authors demonstrate how the high orthodox period was not, as is often portrayed, rationalistic, nor did it contain the seeds of the Enlightenment.

One of the important contributions of this volume is to the history of apologetics in this period.  It includes a translation of a disputation from Gisbertus Voetius on “The Use of Reason in Matters of Faith.”  There is also a reading guide to assist the novice in understanding his approach.  Elsewhere Van Asselt briefly surveys the development of “physico-theology,” a form of theology based on the study of nature, developed in response to the pressures of Enlightenment skepticism and atheism.  Fascinating stuff, this.

Richard Muller is usually touted as the go-to man for getting to know the post-Reformation.  Rightly so.  However, novices to this field can sometimes find him difficult to access.  Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism is now the best place to start.  Albert Gootjes deserves our thanks for translating it and Reformation Heritage Books for publishing it.  I’m going to be turning to it often.


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.”


Trueman: Was Scholasticism Rationalistic?

I’m reading Carl Trueman’s Minority Report.  The first chapter is his inaugural lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary.  It’s an entertaining and insightful read.  He spends a lot of time interacting with faulty historiography, particularly that of Stanley Grenz and John Franke.  In Beyond Foundationalism, they claimed that Protestant Scholasticism was rationalistic.  Here’s Trueman’s evaluation of that claim:

…the authors of such works have failed to engage either with the range and complexity of the seventeenth-century sources of Reformed Orthodoxy, or with the problem of historical development, or with the relevant secondary scholarship in the field.  Had they done so, they would have realized that, for example, their definition of scholasticism as essentially rationalist is historically untenable.  Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Jacob Arminius, Francisco Suarez, John Owen, Johannes Cocceius, Thomas Barlow, Francis Turretin: all were scholastics, yet represent a diverse and, in some cases, mutually exclusive range of epistemologies, philosophies, and theologies.  Scholastic method does not demand a particular doctrinal or philosophical position; it is simply a basic way of arranging, investigating, and describing objects of study, which was developed in the schools (hence it is scholastic), and which demands no single philosophical or theological conviction. (27-28)

Trueman goes on to note how the categorical distinction (archetypal/ectypal theology) demonstrates that Reformed scholastics and their progeny rooted their theological reflections “not in any true rationalism but in the free, condescending revelatory acts of God himself.”  This is, therefore, “not rationalism in any recognizable Enlightenment sense” (29).  He argues that the Arminian rejection of this distinction “left the theology of the Remonstrants peculiarly vulnerable to incursions of rationalism in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (30).  There may have been rationalistic elements in Reformed scholasticism, especially in the late period, but to paint scholasticism as a whole as rationalistic is facile.  Yet people keep on doing it.


Niet Gereformeerde

Rev. Jim Witteveen has some helpful reflections on the developments at Reformed Academic over the last week or so. I would add that I find it curious that some seem to think our tradition begins with Calvin and then skips over to Bavinck, as if nothing good happened in Reformed theology during the intervening period.  I find it even more curious that somebody like Cornelius VanTil, who had solid Afscheiding (Secession) credentials, fails to meet the criteria for being part of our tradition, especially since he was so indebted to Bavinck (as was Louis Berkhof).