Method and System in Early Reformed Orthodoxy

Much of what follows is merely background material, but I find it fascinating to understand what things needed to be emphasized by the early Orthodox writers. Here (as with other entries from this series), I’ve added both paragraph breaks and bold emphasis for easier reading and digestion:

Early orthodoxy is also the period of Ramism. If the Heidelberg theology, particularly in the works of Zanchi, tended toward the treatment of loci on a massive expository scale, the theology and dialectic of Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) had an opposite effect. In his attack on aspects of the Aristotelianism of his day, Ramus produced a method of logical discourse by means of partition or dichotomy which gave to Reformed theology an extreme clarity and conciseness of approach. This clarity and conciseness appears in the writings of Perkins, Polanus, Ames, Yates, Scharpius, and to a lesser extent, Walaeus and Maccovius. If not universally accepted—indeed, opposed bitterly by Beza and Olevianus—Ramism is characteristic of the striving of early orthodoxy toward a careful and viable enunciation of theological method.

The early orthodox, whether Ramist or anti-Ramist, shared the desire to create a theological system suited to the successful establishment of Protestantism as a church in its own right, catholic in its teaching, capable of being sustained intellectually against its adversaries, and sufficiently technical and methodologically consistent to stand among the other disciplines in the university.

This concern for method and structure marks a point of genuine distinction between the theological approach of the Reformers and that of the early orthodox. Method, although a concern of Reformation writers like Melanchthon and Hyperius, was not a dominant theme. The gradual expansion of Calvin’s Institutes manifests virtually no concern for approach, method, or overarching unity until the final edition of 1559, when Calvin reorganized the whole of the Institutes on the pattern of the creed. Even in this final edition, the issue addressed by Calvin was the arrangement of all his chapters—including noncreedal topics—under the creedal form and not the development of a consistent approach, either synthetic or analytic, to the organization of doctrine. The early orthodox era, drawing on Hyperius and given direction by Ursinus, Zanchi, and the Ramists, strove toward cohesive method and arrangement of doctrine as well as toward precise definition.

Typical of the era is a concern to distinguish between a theoretical, somewhat deductive and teleological approach to system, usually called “synthetic,” and a more practical, somewhat inductive approach usually called “analytic.” The synthetic model, which became the dominant pattern for system, begins with prolegomena and the doctrine of Scripture and moves from the doctrine of God, via the historical path of sin and redemption, to the last things. Analytic patterns can, for example, begin with the problem of sin and move, via the work of redemption, to faith and the articles of the faith.

Intimately bound up with the early orthodox concern for method is the role of early orthodoxy in the positive development of Protestant theology in the form of system. Several of the earlier historians of Protestant orthodoxy, particularly those enmeshed in the theological problems of the nineteenth century, have spoken of this positive systematic development as the working out of an inner logic of Protestant doctrine. Most notable here are the writings of Alexander Schweizer, Wilhelm Gass, and Ernst Troeltsch. The two former writers argue for a metaphysical and predestinarian systematization, while Troeltsch, more on the Lutheran side of orthodoxy, tended to emphasize the inner logic of system.

While we will take issue, below, with the notion of a predestinarian metaphysic in the Reformed systems, we need to recognize here the fact of the positive, synthesizing drive evident alongside of the polemics in the early orthodox systems.

Rather than view this drive as arising from the inner logic of certain central dogmas, we ought to view it, more simply, as the result of a process of self-definition and institutionalization (or, as social historians have called it, “confessionalization”) witnessed both in the Protestant confessions and in the larger theological context of the catholic or universal churchly tradition of which the Reformers and their successors strove to be a part.

Thus the Protestant orthodox systems increasingly adopt a confessional structure and include all the doctrinal points noted in earlier theological system, specifically in the sentence commentaries and theological summas of the later Middle Ages. They also adopted a method suitable to the institutionalized educational context of the university and the theological faculty—namely, scholastic method. The methodological development, moreover, as illustrated by the work of Protestant Ramus and the Roman Catholic Zabarella, was not bound to a particular theological result or, indeed, to theology per se.

Rather, the development and alteration of method in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries belongs to the educational progress of the Renaissance, an educational progress related to the application of new forms of logic and rhetoric to the entire arts curriculum of the university and to the advanced study of such fields as philosophy, theology, and law. The rise of a revised scholasticism, tuned by Renaissance logic and rhetoric and allied to the study of the classical and biblical languages occurred in the theological disciplines as a result, not of doctrinal change, but of the participation of theological faculties in the academic culture of the age.

This positive development, moreover, provided a more suitable systematic vehicle in and through which to surmount objections leveled by Roman Catholic polemicists.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 62–63). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

8 replies on “Method and System in Early Reformed Orthodoxy”

  1. Greetings Gentlemen,
    As a zealously Reformed father & twice PCA Elder you speak the language above I dearly loved for 33+ years. Yet for those of you still willing to dare challenge your presuppositions, allow me to offer the article below…along with other found afterwards, along with several dozen others at the Blog site. You might be surprised what you find? Caution: Let me encourage you to read slowly and in a quiet place. Your temptation (IF like like mine) will be to just quickly skim for gist of things before reading carefully and understanding well. Resist this temptation. It is largely born or pride to refute…before you have really understood. Good reading to all my dear and sincere Reformed brothers.

    david rockett
    or find me on facebook


  2. John, why is that? Did you bother to read the linked article? Are you willing to interact with it or others from the Blog it came from? Or, is your method merely one of smug dismissal or maybe personal ridicule? Perhaps the Orthodox Church has a depth and historicity you’d rather ignore rather than engage? Ad hominems are childish…but others WILL read. Here’s another article from a serious Jewish convert discovering the historic Orthodox history of the making of the cannon of Scripture. Much more there for the serious disciple of Christ our Lord.
    in His tender mercies,
    David Rockett


    1. Hi Stewardman, Did you bother to read anything here, and find out what we’re about? What we’ve lived? Are you willing to interact with it or others from the Blog? Or, is your method merely one of smug dismissal?


  3. Sure…as indicated in my first response…[your] “language is familiar to what I love for over 33 yrs.” I never said “it’s hard to take YOU seriously” as you did me. I’ve had a google link to “Orthodoxy-Reformed” for years and have read much of your stuff. Just thought I’d genuinely try to engage you brother…by revealing some of my personal history. I thought maybe serious christian men who throw the word “Orthodoxy” around…might just be a tad interested in some historic Orthodoxy?
    in His tender mercies,


  4. John,

    Of course, there is danger in assuming one man’s take on the state of…anything is more than just his opinion. Anyone drawing back from converting…to anything is certain to have overly critical self-justifications. This all could easily hide (as I’ve personally seen in another case) basic family unrest, even the threat of excommunication! So like US war hawks seeking to justify their aggressive rush to war, they magnify problems abroad (or with Orthodoxy) to justify their budgets, warmongering …or desertion. Supposed creeping Orthodox Liberalism is a grossly overstated case in point. The tiny minority advocates of Sodomy and women Priest make noise among themselves and have no broad influence in world Orthodoxy – particularly at the conciliary level of Bishop statements. Again, petty accusations of sexual misconduct (if you bother yourself to investigate) are normally false accusations from a disgruntled liberals, are promptly dealt with, and typically proved false. But it all makes for good smearing for the ignorant and naïve Protestant who doesn’t know better.

    Much the same might be said with Jacob’s supposed martyrdom at the hands of that vicious Robert Arakaki, PhD on the Orthodoxy-Reformed Blog! ;-) It is laughable to all who know Mr. Arakaki and the truth. Jacob is my local friend, and was once one of several very sympathetic Orthodox tutors. He has commented dozens of times on Mr. Arakaki’s Blog, both with sympathy and in opposition – as have a host of other knowledgeable Protestant Pastors and laymen many times. It was only when Jacob suddenly became hostile to Orthodoxy and became increasingly snarky and antagonistic that Robert (a most gentle, patient and Godly man of Okinawan & Hawaiian decent) was forced to reluctantly object and disapprove off-topic and tediously snarky posts. One need only read several of the comments section to see it.

    He also must know that he avoids the point of Father Berstine’s article per the Church historically preceding the canon of the New Testament by centuries. It was a testimonial of his discovery, a recognition that the New Testament canon lagged the Liturgical and Sacramental practice & life of the Church by several centuries. Any charitable reader would know this testimony was not intended as a scholarly polemic against a distinctively Reformed view of Sola Scriptura. Jacob is plenty smart enough to charitable notice this – if he were not so ready to score some easy points via derision and sarcasm. Indeed, he knows well that Dr. Arakaki engaged historic sola scriptura in his Four-Part series on Sola & Solo Scriptura. He begins Part one with a long critical review of Dr. Keith Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. This is followed by a blog devoted to The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition here: This is followed by a historic review of The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation as it relates to Scripture here:, the finally Part Four on the fatal flaw in protestant hermeneutics here: contra-sola-scriptura-part-4-of-4/ Again, one only has to read the articles and the comments section to see a lively and open debate with knowledgeable Protestant…Jacob included via various names.

    Will these articles persuade all Protestant immediately? Of course not. Most Protestants, converts or not, usually struggle for months & years through various issues here, nor does Robert pretend they are exhaustive. Yet there is enough here to engage most Protestants per the life, worship and practice of the Church during the first several centuries before the new Testament canon was settled. Using Father Berstine’s testimonial as a straw man foil for his polemic is really an uncharitable cheap shot for a man of Jacob’s ability and the bible’s call to charity.


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