The Reformation and the Formation of an Orthodoxy

The title here is Muller’s section title. He posits that “the Reformation” and “the formation of an Orthodoxy” are two related, but separate events or eras.

A final element of the thesis or the approach to Reformed orthodoxy found both in this and in the subsequent volumes concerns the nature of a Protestant “orthodoxy” itself. The confessional character and the underlying confessional identification of Reformed orthodoxy has already been noted, with particular emphasis on the intraconfessional nature of the seventeenth-century controversies … and there had been some comment on the nature of the development of the Reformation itself as a movement not from kerygma to dogma but from reform to confessional codification.

Not long ago, I put up a short posting describing, using the “junk drawer” analogy, the kinds of approaches these three groups took, in terms of reviewing the “traditions” of the church, comparing them with Scripture, and deciding which to keep, and which to throw out.

It’s important to note that the Reformers (the Magisterial Reformers, at least – the Lutherans, the Reformed, and the Anglicans) didn’t throw everything out. The Anabaptists threw everything out, but the other Reformers did not. Now, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who wanted to throw out all tradition and start over. The Roman church had become that bad. But there were also useful traditions that formed – I think the second-century development of the episcopal system was one of these – where some (like the Anglicans) found reasons to keep things around.

(I’d never say that we are all bound by “succession” in the way that Rome corrupted 2nd century sense of this term. However, the Anglicans for centuries found a way to continue that practice in ways that were useful in their own context. Just as I would not say “we are bound to succession”, nor would I say “Anglicans are bound to the presbyterial system of church government).

I got the “junk drawer” analogy from a Seminary-level church history course. Fortunately, Muller goes into a great deal more detail about the specifics.

These elements of the description of the movement from Reformation to orthodoxy raise the further point that a claim of discontinuity between Reformation and orthodoxy must overcome at least three fundamental problems standing in the way of validation:

first, the underlying intention of the Reform itself included the reestablishment of catholic orthodoxy;

second, the intra-confessional diversity of the Reformation carried over into the era of orthodoxy; and

third, the seventeenth-century identification of confessional orthodoxy neither stood in the way of doctrinal development nor created a monolithic theology duplicated and reduplicated among a host of thinkers.

The third of these points requires further comment. The picture of Reformed orthodoxy painted by much earlier scholarship, whether intentional or unintentional, has been, by and large, of a unified and static teaching set over against any and all adversaries. Whether from a theological, a methodological, or a philosophical perspective, orthodoxy has been viewed as an accomplished fact as of the Synod of Dort, capable of being described as scholastic, Bezan, Aristotelian, and rigid. In contrast to this picture, the view of Reformed orthodoxy that unfolds in this and subsequent volumes of the study is of a variegated movement in a process of development.

The second point also requires some comment. As noted at the “junk drawer”) link above, the Reformers all started from different starting points, and hence, they ended up at different places. That’s the “diversity” that Muller talked about.

I think that “variegated” is a good, healthy thing. I think that too much ground has been ceded to Roman Catholicism on the topic of “unity”. There were a lot of writers and theologians working from different perspectives. In 1530, Luther and Zwingli agreed on 14 out of 15 points of doctrine. The fact that the Reformed Confessions cohere the way they do, across this period from 1560 to 1647 and beyond (while having been written at different times, in different places, in contexts that were extremely varied)

The variety and development extend, moreover, to the scholastic method, the nominally Aristotelian philosophy, and the doctrinal content—all, of course, within certain confessional bounds. The scholastic method itself varied in the course of the two centuries of Reformation and orthodoxy, and at all periods in the development of Reformed orthodoxy different approaches to scholastic method can be identified.

Nor did the Reformed orthodox follow a single teacher, whether Calvin or Beza—there were a fairly large number of significant early orthodox thinkers who together provided models for the theology of high and later orthodoxy. Similarly, the so-called Christian Aristotelianism of the age was a highly eclectic philosophical model that was transformed by ongoing philosophical debate and that was also variously appropriated by different Reformed thinkers.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 40–41). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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