The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Reformed Orthodoxy

Richard Muller traces the arc of “Reformed Orthodoxy” through three periods (early, high, and late orthodoxy), and William J. van Asselt spends a great deal of his work (“Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism”, Reformation Heritage Books) looking at these three periods as well.

The post-Reformation development of Protestantism can be divided, for the sake of convenience, into three periods: early, high, and late orthodoxy.

Early orthodoxy, in two fairly distinct phases (ca. 1565–1618–1640) extends roughly from the time of the deaths of a large number of major second generation codifiers of the Reformation and the promulgation of the great national confessions of the Reformed churches (1559–1566) to a transition in generations and approach that occurred following the Synod of Dort and the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (1618–19), to the closing phases of the war and the deaths of the major figures who formulated the confessional solutions of the beginning of the seventeenth century.

It was the era of the confessional solidification of Protestantism. Specifically, as of 1565, many of the important second-generation codifiers of the Reformed faith (John Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Andreas Hyperius) had passed away—the single eminent exception being Heinrich Bullinger, who lived until 1575. Reformed theology passed, in the first phase of early orthodoxy, into the hands of Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, Jerome Zanchi, Lambert Daneau, Theodore Beza, Francis Junius, William Perkins, and Amandus Polanus.

The theologians who sat at Dort and perpetuated its carefully outlined confessionalism in the early seventeenth century—among them, Antonius Walaeus, Johann Polyander, Sibrandus Lubbertus, Franciscus Gomarus, Johannes Maccovius, John Davenant—together with writers like William Ames and J. H. Alsted belong to the second phase of the early orthodox period.

Here also are found the seeds of developments and debates that would occupy the thinkers of the high orthodox era: covenant theology begins to elaborate in the works of Cameron, Ball, and Cloppenburg; worries concerning the universal promise of the gospel not addressed to the satisfaction of all at Dort reached initial formulation in the writings of Davenant and Amyraut; and the first salvos of the debate over the origin of the vowel-points were heard in the writings of Buxtorf and Cappel.

High orthodoxy (ca. 1640–1685–1725) spans the greater part of the seventeenth and the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Like early orthodoxy, it needs to be divided into two phases. It represents a still broader theological synthesis than early orthodoxy: it rests upon a confessional summation of the faith, has a somewhat sharper and more codified polemic against its doctrinal adversaries, and possesses a broader and more explicit grasp of the tradition, particularly of the contribution of the Middle Ages. Characteristic of the initial phase of this era are internal or intraconfessional controversies, such as the broader Amyraldian controversy and the debate over Cocceian federal theology as well as the vast expansion of debate with the Socinians over the doctrine of the Trinity.

In this phase of the high orthodox period are found such authors as Johannes Cocceius, Samuel Maresius, Andreas Essenius, Gisbertus Voetius, Friedrich Spanheim the elder, Marcus Friedrich Wendelin, Franz Burman, Francis Turretin, Edward Leigh, Matthew Poole, John Owen, and Stephen Charnock.

Following 1685, the tenor of orthodoxy changed, although the confessional boundaries continued to remain relatively in place. Given the difficulty of periodization and the presence, in the late seventeenth century, of various forces and pressures that would bring on the Enlightenment, some writers have further divided the chronology of orthodoxy by identifying a “transitional phase” and even a “transition theology” from ca. 1685 to ca. 1725.

Certainly, after 1685, the theology represented by the more traditional writers ceased to be as dominant an intellectual pattern in the church and in the theological faculties of the great Protestant universities as it had been in the mid-seventeenth century, although the theology and the ethos of orthodoxy was carried forward by a significant number of theologians. The changes that took place included an increased pressure on the precritical textual, exegetical, and hermeneutical model of orthodoxy, an alteration of the philosophical model used by theologians from the older Christian Aristotelian approach to either a variant of the newer rationalism or a virtually a-philosophical version of dogmatics. This is also the era of the beginning of internal divisions in the Reformed confessions over the issues raised by the piety of the Second Reformation or Nadere Reformatie and by the dispossessed status of Reformed Protestants in England and France.

By 1725, a fairly uniform and unified confessional subscription had faded both in England and in Switzerland. In this latter, transitional phase of high orthodoxy, reaching into the eighteenth century, the significant theologians included such writers as Benedict Pictet, Wilhelmus à Brakel, Louis Tronchin, Leonhardus Rijssenius, Petrus van Mastricht, Herman Witsius, Salomon van Til, Johannes Marckius, John Edwards, Thomas Ridgley, Thomas Boston, Campegius Vitringa, Johannes van der Kemp, and J. A. Turretin.

Theology after 1725, in what can be called “late orthodoxy,” is less secure in its philosophical foundations, indeed, searching for different philosophical models, less certain of its grasp of the biblical standard, and often (though hardly always) less willing to draw out its polemic against other “orthodox” forms of Christianity, less bound by the confessional norms of the Reformation, and given to internecine polemics.

One can even speak here of a “deconfessionalization” in the late orthodox era that reverses the process of “confessionalization” that took place in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Nonetheless, even in this altered climate, a more or less traditional Reformed theology continued to be produced by such late orthodox writers as Daniel Wyttenbach, Johann Friedrich Stapfer, Herman Venema, John Gill, Alexander Comrie, John Brown of Haddington, and Bernhardus de Moor.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 30–32). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

After this period, Herman Bavinck talks about the decline and even “decay” of Reformed theology after about 1750 – a phenomenon that was fairly widespread:

Around 1750 Reformed theology everywhere fell into decay. The elements responsible for this decomposition, already present in the previous century, continued to have their effect, undermining dogmatics. After Coceianism in the Netherlands had emerged victorious came the Era of Toleration (1740-70). The power of truth was denied; people retreated from the church’s confessions to Scripture and abandoned doctrines characteristic for the Reformed faith, such as original sin, the covenant of works, limited atonement, etc. In beautiful dress and the name of being biblical, a variety of Remonstrant and Socinian errors rose to the surface. At best, those who professed the Reformed religion accepted the theology they had “in stock,” but they no longer had their hearts in it, nor did they any longer speak out of its content. The old dogmatics [simply] became an object of historical study (Bavinck, “Reformed Dogmatics”, Volume 1: Prolegomena, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, pg 189).

Bavinck cites a number of other phenomena that helped to precipitate this “decay”, including “English deism, French unbelief, and German rationalism”. “The same thing occurred in other countries,” he said (pg. 190).

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2 Responses to The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Reformed Orthodoxy

  1. Jack Miller says:

    Thanks, John. Good stuff here…


  2. John Bugay says:

    Hi Jack, I appreciate it :-)


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