How Reformed Scholasticism differed from Medieval Scholasticism

For the Orthodox Reformed writers working in the generations after the Reformation, “scholasticism” was a method of doing things, not an appropriation of earlier doctrines. These writers and theologians worked with the “broad brush” provided by the Reformers, as they sought to “establish … systematically the normative, catholic character of institutionalized Protestantism.”

The term scholasticism has a narrower reference than the term orthodoxy: it well describes the technical and academic side of this process of the institutionalization and professionalization of Protestant doctrine in the universities of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If the doctrinal intention of this theology was confessional orthodoxy, its academic motivation was certainly intellectual adequacy.

… much of the reason for the development of Reformed scholastic orthodoxy must be found in the intellectual culture of the successful Protestant academies and universities. The theology of the great systems written in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, like the theology of the thirteenth-century teachers, is preeminently a school theology. It is a theology designed to develop [a] system on a highly technical level and in an extremely precise manner by means of the careful identification of topics, division of these topics into their basic parts, definition of the parts, and doctrinal or logical argumentation concerning the divisions and definitions. …

The term “scholasticism,” when applied to these efforts indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well. As Masson has remarked, borrowing Chenu’s definition of medieval scholasticism, this relatively uniform method of exposition, with its clear structure, its patterns of reasoning and standard practices of making distinctions, neatly dividing and subdividing topics, its brief citations of texts, its monotonous use of formulae, and its impersonality of style, serves to hide the variety of its actual contents.

And despite the persistence of a few writers who insist that “scholasticism” brings with it a set of particular theological and philosophical concerns, there is, certainly, a consensus in contemporary scholarship that “scholasticism,” properly understood, indicates a method, capable of presenting and arguing a variety of theological and philosophical conclusions, and not a particular theology or philosophy.

In addition, the school method or scholasticism that belonged to the academic culture of Europe from the twelfth to the seventeenth and even eighteenth century underwent significant changes in the course of its own history. Thus, the scholasticism of the late Renaissance, as appropriated by the Protestant orthodox, is not at all identical to the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas.

Seventeenth-century scholasticism is characterized by a thorough use and technical mastery of the tools of linguistic, philosophical, logical, and traditional thought. The mastery of ancient languages typical of the Protestant scholastic writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, like their use of the locus method and inclusion of elements of rhetorical as distinct from demonstrative argumentation, serves to distinguish this later scholasticism from its medieval ancestor: in each of these characteristics, Protestant scholasticism evidences itself a child of the Renaissance as well as a child of the Middle Ages….

As the seventeenth-century documents themselves reveal, the Reformed orthodox were well aware of differences between their “scholasticism” and the several phases of medieval scholasticism: indeed, they typically identified an earlier twelfth and thirteenth-century scholastic model as distinct from and less problematic than the scholasticism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—and they identified differences in method and in the balance of authorities between their scholastic method and the methods of the Middle Ages in general. Thus, when Protestant scholasticism is approached by way of the documents and materials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and an assessment of its style, methods, and contents is based directly on the definitions and the methods evidenced in the seventeenth-century systems, the result explicitly opposes the view of several recent scholars according to which “scholasticism” can be identified specifically with a use of Aristotelian philosophy, a pronounced metaphysical interest, and the use of predestination as an organizing principle in theological system….

The theology of Protestant orthodoxy, developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a final, dogmatic codification of the Reformation, occupies a position of considerable significance in the history of Protestant thought. Not only is this scholastic or orthodox theology the historical link that binds us to the Reformation, it is also the form of theological system in and through which modern Protestantism has received most of its doctrinal principles and definitions.

Without detracting at all from the achievement of the great Reformers and the earliest codifiers of the doctrines of the Reformation—writers like Melanchthon, Calvin, and Bullinger—we need to recognize that not they, but rather, subsequent generations of “orthodox” or “scholastic” Protestants are responsible for the final form of such doctrinal issues as the definition of theology and the enunciation of its fundamental principles, the fully developed Protestant forms of the doctrine of the Trinity, the crucial christological concept of the two states of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, and the theme of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

If the theology of the Reformation was not the source of the final formulation of these major doctrinal issues, neither was it the source of most of the precise definitions and careful distinctions necessary to the creation of a complete theological system. Where the Reformers painted with a broad brush, their orthodox and scholastic successors strove to fill in the details of the picture.

Whereas the Reformers were intent upon distancing themselves and their theology from problematic elements in medieval thought and, at the same time, remaining catholic in the broadest sense of that term, the Protestant orthodox were intent upon establishing systematically the normative, catholic character of institutionalized Protestantism, at times through the explicit use of those elements in patristic and medieval theology not at odds with the teachings of the Reformation.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 34–37). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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