Posts Tagged ‘Reformed Scholasticism’

It is important before entering upon any discussion or debate that one proposes clear and concise definitions of terms. Failure in this area, however, seems quite common today. One wonders whether many of the current debates facing Reformed circles are not precipitated by this very kind of imprecision.  And yet this is merely another area where we can learn from the Scholasticism of the orthodox period.

But, What is scholastic orthodoxy? That is a very pertinent question today, and so we must be precise. Richard Muller has written that there are “necessary distinctions between scholasticism and orthodoxy, method and content, lack of attention to which has plagued the older scholarship.” He writes,

Scholasticism refers primarily to the method used by early modern as well as medieval thinkers when engaged in academic discourse, and, although it would be highly incorrect to assume that this definition of the phenomenon denies that method can and does affect content, it remains the case that scholasticism provided the form and structure for a series of academic disciplines, including philosophy and medicine; was not tied to a particular content; and was designed to facilitate rather than impede conclusions. As a method it was employed equally by Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers, often to deploy rather different assumptions and content and to draw very different conclusions.
– From the forward to William Van Asselt’s Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, Reformation Heritage Books,2011), x.

“Orthodoxy” on the other hand, as William Van Asselt and Pieter Rouwendal point out, can “refer to a certain period in the history of Protestantism after the Reformation” and can pertain to “both Lutheran and Reformed developments” (Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, p. 5). More narrowly, however, “the word [orthodoxy] points to a certain content that must be defended in opposition to erroneous views.”

As a result, the word orthodoxy also has a normative meaning in which a close connection is established with the teaching of the church throughout the ages. The term orthodoxy can also establish a close connection between systematic theology and the church’s confessional documents. The term orthodoxy differs from scholasticism, in that the former pertains to correct content, while the latter has to do with an academic method. The meanings of these terms thus do not coincide (pp. 5-6).

Similarly, Lambertus M. De Rijk has helpfully defined Scholasticism as “a method which is characterized, both on the level of research and on the level of teaching, by the use of an ever recurring system of concepts, distinctions, definitions, propositional analyses, argumentational techniques and disputational methods” (cited in Van Asselt, p. 7).

Thus, “scholasticism” should be understood primarily in terms of method (mainly academic), while “orthodoxy” should be understood in terms of the content and/or doctrine of a certain period (namely the Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic theologies of the 16th-18th centuries).


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Why are we scared of Scholasticism? It seems few things are more difficult today than getting ostensibly Reformed people (seminarians in view) to read the Reformed Scholastics. And yet nothing could probably be more important.

Let us ask: Is it important that we as Reformed Christians know our tradition? Is it important that potential ministers (more specifically) understand and really grasp classical Protestant Orthodoxy as it is found in the historic, ecclesiastic, and dogmatic expressions of the Reformed Scholastics from the 16th and 17th centuries? These are the sources (founts) from which we have received the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Can we abandon our wells? Can we ignore church history? Can we scorn our mother who bore us? Or must we listen patiently (often painstakingly, and painfully!) to her instructions (Prov. 1:8)? The Reformed understood theology not merely as knowledge (scientia) but even more as wisdom (sapientia). The question before us is whether we will discipline ourselves to learn wisdom (Prov. 1).

Can we remain ignorant of classical Protestant Orthodoxy and still maintain Protestantism? I’m becoming more convinced the answer is, No.

Paul Tillich observed this when he commented:

Orthodoxy is great and more serious than what is called fundamentalism in America. Fundamentalism is the product of a reaction in the nineteenth century, and is a primitivized form of classical Orthodoxy. Classical Orthodoxy had a great theology. We could also call it Protestant scholasticism, with all the refinements and methods which the word “scholastic” includes. Thus, when I speak of Orthodoxy, I refer to the way in which the Reformation established itself as an ecclesiastical form of life and thought after the dynamic movement of the Reformation came to an end. It is the systematization and consolidation of the ideas of the Reformation… Hence, we should deal with this period in a much more serious way than is usually done in America. In Germany, and generally in European theological faculties—France, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.—every student of theology was supposed to learn by heart the doctrines of at least one classical theologian of the post-Reformation period of Orthodoxy, be it Lutheran or Calvinist, and in Latin at that. Even if we should forget about the Latin today, we should know these doctrines, because they form the classical system of Protestant thought. It is an unheard-of state of things when Protestant churches of today do not even know the classical expression of their own foundations in the dogmatics of Orthodoxy… All theology of today is dependent in some way on the classical systems of Orthodoxy. – “A History of Christian Thought” (pp. 276-77), cited in Michael Horton, “Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama,” (pp. 2-3). 

We cannot afford to remain ignorant of Reformed Scholasticism and hope for Protestantism to stay alive. That is, unless we plan on planting our theological feet firmly and confidently in mid-air… Clearly, an impossible and irrational supposition.

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