Don’t Underestimate the Scholastics (Or, Gleanings from Richard Muller’s PRRD)

MullerThis last year I embarked on a journey of reading through Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, much as I did with Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics last year. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve slowed down posting Turretin of late, though. There’s a few of reasons for that. First, I simply hit a wall. Turretin’s good, but dense. Sometimes you have to put a book down to pick it up again. Second, I’ve been prepping for Ph.D. work and other reading and studying has gotten in the way. Finally, though, I also sort of got distracted from Turretin when I acquired the four volumes of Richard Muller’s magisterial series Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. 

The title describes the project clearly enough. While Muller is not canvassing all of the theology of that period, he does aim to set the record straight about the Reformed school theologians following the age of the Reformers on issues like theological method, Scripture, and the doctrine of God (Attributes, Trinity). He does so by an extensive review of primary sources, as well as setting them against their context of the prior medieval tradition, the Reformation, and the intellectual currents of their own day.

If I could sum up my gleanings from Muller’s volumes in one sentence, it would be: “Don’t underestimate the scholastics.” Which is something people have apparently done all too often. According to many theologians in the late 19th and 20th Century, especially under the later influence of Barth and the Neo-Orthodox, this was allegedly a period of relative darkness, where theology fell into “causal”, “rationalist” metaphysics and philosophical obscurity, after a brief period of pure gospel light shining from the pens of Calvin and Luther. According to Muller, that’s a rather neat “just-so” story that crumbles upon inspection of the actual sources. The Reformed Orthodox scholastics actually had a bit more going for them than that.

While I haven’t finished the four volumes (I’ve got about a third of volume 3 left and volume 4 to go), and it would be ridiculous to try to summarize even one, I figured I could list a few Mullerian points to keep in mind when encountering the scholastics themselves, or critical historiography on them. I’ll proceed in no particular order.

“Scholasticism.” The first point that Muller beats into your head is that “scholasticism” is a method of study and organization, not a theology on its own. Quite often you’ll see general references to the teaching of “scholastic” theology of the Reformed, Lutherans, or whoever as if simply in virtue of being scholastics they’re all saying the same thing. That’s not the case. To put it crudely, scholastic theology was “school” theology or theology done according to the methods of organization and argumentation and logic that was prevalent in the academies of the time.

That said, scholastic methodology was practiced by the Reformed, the Lutherans, the Roman Catholics, and even some of the Radical theologians of the time. But while they may have all used the same form of syllogistic argument, the quaestio form, or so forth, they often came to radically different conclusions on theological judgments about Scripture, justification, the will and knowledge of God, and any number of other issues. So, again, when someone talks about “scholasticism”, it makes sense to ask, “Whose scholasticism?”

Method/Genre Matters. There are a lot of different issues that could be shoved under the question of method and genre, but one is the way it shapes how we think of the piety and spirituality of the period. The theology of the Orthodox period has been accused of being “dry”, “arid”, and devoid of the vitality of earlier Reformation preaching. This is allegedly a result of its rationalism and divorce from the earlier spiritual concerns of its forebears. Muller points out that much of this is, in fact, an issue of style.

First off, much of the actual material is not dry and is quite concerned with the life of piety. Even in the most technical works, you’ll usually get a section on the pastoral “use” of even the most abstruse doctrines. All the same, in their systems, the Orthodox were often writing for the academy, in an institutional setting for the training of students, and so their systems are not always reflective of their popular works or preaching. Even today textbooks are very often more technical and boring than sermons.

Reading Turretin and Thomas Watson this year has been instructive for me in this regard. Watson’s work a Body of Practical Divinity is a work of “homiletical” theology, sermons commenting on the catechism. Turretin’s is an apologetic, technical work. While I’d be hard-pressed to find major theological differences between them–indeed, Watson’s distinctions can be quite scholastic–their styles can seem far apart. Watson sings and Turretin, with a few exceptions, lectures. One lively and pietistic, the other dry and academic, but the difference here is one of method and genre, not theology.

Exegetically-Focused. One of the major criticisms of the Scholastics is that much of their theology is just Aristotle or some other metaphysician baptized. It’s the “Greek” charge in a lot of ways, simply applied a thousand years later. Instead of the “biblical” theology of Calvin and Luther, the scholastics abandoned their principled, textual basis and returned to abstract speculation to construct their doctrines of God and the decree. The problem with that is the actual texts of the scholastics. While it’s true that many did return to retrieve certain categories from the medievals in order to sharpen up some doctrines that the Reformers didn’t do as much work with, it’s hardly the case that we’ve got just a bunch of metaphysical logic-chopping.

As Muller points out, before they wrote their systems, most of the Reformed scholastics taught Scripture, wrote commentaries, preached, and trained heavily in the humanistic study of languages and rhetoric. Read one of Turretin’s questions and you’ll see references to texts in their historic contexts, typology, Rabbinic exegesis, and knotty linguistic issues. Or on the issue of God’s attributes, it is true that there are a number that can be treated by some theologians in a more philosophical mode, but many are packed to the gills with careful discussions of Scripture references. Beyond that, most systems began with a discussion of the biblical “names” of God as the source of reflection on God’s nature before they even touched the more abstract “attributes.”

Philosophically-Eclectic. Muller has pointed out that while there was a generalized sort of “Aristotelianism” in the intellectual air at the time, that hardly means that the Reformed scholastics were a monolith in this area. In fact, it seems that the Reformed were “eclectic” in philosophical matters. This is true on a number of levels. Some, for instance, were far more skeptical than others of the place that philosophy could play in the formulation of Christian doctrine in subordination to Scripture.

On another level, different types of Reformed theologians drew on different theo-philosophical streams for their reflections. Some drew on Thomas, while others reflected certain emphases found in Duns Scotus or Ockham, and even later, some flirted with Cartesian philosophy. And it was hardly ever a matter of simply taking over distinctions uncritically, but adopting them and adapting them in line with their own reading of Scripture in order to expound the truth of the Scriptures.

Continuity and Discontinuity. Finally, there’s the big issue Muller is concerned to discuss, which is whether or not the Reformed Orthodox systems represented a radical break with the early Reformers or stand in essential continuity, and why that did or didn’t happen.  There are a number of factors that go into answering this question but the answer, in a nutshell, is yes and no.

First, we need to grapple with getting the past right. You have to get it clear in your head that Calvin isn’t the sole benchmark for pure, Reformation theology. He had plenty of colleagues like Musculus, Vermigli, Hyperius, Bucer, Viret, and others, who were also respected, Reformed theologians who played a role in laying the foundation for the Reformed tradition. So continuity can’t just be measured by “What did Calvin say? And did they say the same, exact thing in the same, exact style?” You need to take into account the broader, Reformed context.

Also, it helps to know where and how the Reformers themselves actually differed or didn’t differ from their Medieval forebears. On many questions, there’s a lot of overlap between the two, so they simply don’t address the issue at length. Then the Reformed Scholastics come along and say something that sounds kind of like the Medievals and they get accused of diverging from the Reformers, when it’s more simply a matter of saying louder when the Reformers had basically assumed.

Second, we need to take into account that history happens and new situations call for new responses that aren’t necessarily in opposition to what came before, but may represent a legitimate development. So, when Calvin and Luther were writing, you had the challenges of a new movement fighting for its life with all the vitality, fire, and eclecticism that goes with that. With the Post-Reformation period came the phase of institutionalization needed to preserve and protect the gains made in the Reformation. Hence the rise of the schools and the appropriateness of scholastic development of Reformation theology.

Not only that, many of the arguments shifted over time. In the Post-Reformation period you get a lot more distinctions in certain areas of theology that weren’t treated by the Reformers, mostly because they weren’t up for grabs. So when the Socinian heretics come along and start arguing for a finite God, limited knowledge, rationalist metaphysics and epistemology, and so forth, the Reformed scholastics find themselves with new challenges to be treated. The same thing is true with the growing sophistication of Roman Catholic counter-arguments, as well as certain areas of dispute with the Lutherans such as the sacraments. Things got more complicated, so the theology expanded to match it.

There’s more to get into here, but time and again Muller shows that in the early and high periods of Post-Reformation Orthodoxy the scholastics developed the theology of the Reformers in a new context in ways that are both continuous and discontinuous with what came before. Along the way, he shows that there are riches to be mined in the mountains of those dusty, old tomes. Over and over again, I keep thinking to myself that certain contemporary “advances” are only beginning to catch up to the clarity and sophistication of the old masters.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 thoughts on “Don’t Underestimate the Scholastics (Or, Gleanings from Richard Muller’s PRRD)

  1. especially under the later influence of Barth and the Neo-Orthodox

    True, but I would separate Barth proper (i.e., Barth himself) from neo-orthodoxy and those who identified with Barth’s project (i.e., Barthians). As I’ve belabored elsewhere, anyone who reads Barth’s CD, especially II.1 (the doctrine of God’s perfections), knows that Barth was an informed and appreciative reader of the Protestant scholastics. Unlike his Göttingen dogmatics (1920’s), where Barth relied upon Heppe’s compendium, Barth is now engaging directly with Polanus, Quenstedt, et al. He relies upon them significantly, even as he offers criticisms. Also, it is important to recognize that Barth was a rather lone wolf, in the German-speaking academy, for his resourcing of the Protestant scholastics — and it was something that his former dialectical buddies (e.g., Brunner) did not understand and criticized. I do not know a single dogmatician in Barth’s day who was reading Polanus as seriously as Barth was.

    • Ya, I’m sure he’s more careful than others. But there are a number of places Muller tags him for misreading Polanus and others, accusing them of an immobile God, and so forth, while eventually ending up articulating a conception of God’s unchangeableness that was quite close to the Orthodox. Brunner and others come in for sharper criticism at certain points.

      Thanks for chiming in!

      • Yeah, the immobility thing is interesting. Barth is very specific about the formulations in Polanus’ Syntagma that cause him concern, but then he will note “happy inconsistencies,” as he likes to say. I see Barth as attempting to bring Dorner’s thesis on immutability, with its concern for a “lively” God, into constructive dialog with the Protestant scholastics. I have several pages of rather detailed notes on II.1, but they are stored away right now — otherwise, I would be happy to give you some examples.

        Just to be clear, I respect Muller a lot. But I am a little wary at how everybody cites him as the definitive, final authority — which is typically the case with any revisionist thesis. I think we need to be more cautious in this regard.

  2. I actually had a very similar thought – Barth interacts with the Protestant scholastics pretty seriously – critically, constructively, etc. When it comes to predestine, be spends a huge amount of space tracing the history of the doctrine (from primary sources) through the scholastics to come to his conclusions. Perhaps it’s a bit of a ‘just-so’ story itself that Barth led the charge on consigning the scholastics to a dark period of causal metaphysics. Torrance does tend to play that song loudly, though.

  3. Derek,

    If you haven’t read the book Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt you might like to do that to fill out some of the stuff that you are getting from Muller in your reading of his PRRD; in other words you will get some critical push back through some of the essays in this volume to some of Muller’s claims, particularly in re to Barth. On that front what is most pertinent (at leas in reference to the direction some of this thread has taken) there is an essay in there by Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer entitled: SCHOLASTICISM AND MODERN SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
    Understanding and Misunderstanding in the Conversation of Karl Barth with Amandus Polanus. The Main Characteristic of the homo viator in his Ectypal Theology
    that not only elucidates further Barth’s engagement with Polanus, but challenges Muller’s claims about Barth’s misreading and thus misappropriation of Polanus.

    Furthermore, on the same topic, Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer has a published work dedicated to this question (of Barth’s relationship to Post Reformed Orthodoxy) entitled: Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (I haven’t read this work yet, but can only imagine that it is a fuller elaboration and developing of some of the things he hits upon in that essay from the Asselt volume). Here is the link to that (of interest is his chapter on Polanus and Barth starting on page 35) from Google Books:

    On a more broad note (and this dovetails with some of Brouwer’s critique of Muller) Muller often presents himself as if he is just doing pure historical work and sometimes theology. But the reality is, of course, Muller is doing his historical work from a commitment to a particular form of scholasticism Reformed, and as such his judgments of Barth and others are not as “objective” as he would have many of us believe; they are colored by a desire to offer a Post-Reformation Orthodoxy sanitized of any real constructive theological engagement from the ‘older theologians’ such as Barth, Bitzer, Torrance and others.

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