The Rise of Post-Reformation Systematics

I’ve been working through Richard Muller’s “Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics”. Some time ago, Muller was discussing the rise of “a revised scholasticism”, “as a result, not of doctrinal change, but of the participation of [Protestant] theological faculties in the academic culture of the age”, and as “a more suitable systematic vehicle in and through which to surmount objections leveled by Roman Catholic polemicists.”

This movement toward a lucid schema of doctrine was accompanied by a response to a still more sophisticated Roman polemic—principally in the writings of Robert Bellarmine. As a result we see a tendency to produce complete formulations of doctrine on points left vague or unfinished by theologians of the Reformation. In addition, the sophistication of the polemic led these early orthodox to adapt for their own use many of the distinctions used by the medieval scholastics.

Now, more than in earlier times, Protestantism began to develop a self-conscious “church dogmatics” formulated in continuity with the tradition of Christian systematic theology and aware of the need for philosophical as well as theological consistency.

This drive toward system may be regarded as one of the causes of the debate with Arminius and the confessional determination of that debate at Dort. There was no room left within the system for variance such as that of the Remonstrants which now stood out so clearly against the background of a more closely defined system identified as the particular theology of the Reformed churches.

On the second point, it must be admitted that, despite the level of rancor and invective reached in the doctrinal debates of the seventeenth century, the Protestant scholastics seldom misunderstood or misrepresented the doctrinal statements of their opponents.

We may find excessive the claim made by the Lutherans and the Reformed against each other that their respective Christologies, if followed to their logical conclusions, would mean the destruction of the doctrine of the Person of Christ and the eventual loss of faith in the incarnation.

Nonetheless, the actual statement of Reformed doctrine by Lutherans and of Lutheran doctrine by the Reformed for the sake of confutation were generally accurate, as were the Reformed and Lutheran representations of the views of their mutual adversaries, like the Roman Catholics and the Socinians. The primary purpose of polemics was the assault on and demolition of error. That purpose was best served by the accurate statement of an opponent’s position.

In addition to these doctrinal and institutional pressures, both positive and polemical, early orthodoxy was faced by the intellectual and academic pressure of establishing a new dialogue, suitable to the Protestant context, between theology and philosophy.

As Lewalter has argued, the nominally metaphysical issues necessarily addressed by fully developed theological system could only be dealt with adequately by the adoption (or adaptation) of a philosophical metaphysic congenial to that system.

The Protestant orthodox looked both to the precedents provided for a synthesis of philosophy and theology, reason and revelation, by the scholastics of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries and, as emphasized by Lewalter, to the revived Aristotelianism of Zabarella and Suárez.

The theology of the Reformation manifests a certain degree of continuity with the critical theology of the later Middle Ages, specifically with the Scotist and Nominalist emphasis on the diastasis [division] of revelation and reason and on the need for reliance on authority in the construction of a body of Christian doctrine.

Even so, the theology of Protestant orthodoxy, when it seeks medieval models, manifests an affinity with the more critical perspective of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries rather than the more optimistic approach of the thirteenth-century Dominicans and their views on the relationship of revelation and reason.

Where the Thomistic line of thought continues into the Reformation—for example, in the writings of Vermigli, Zanchi, and, to a certain extent, Keckermann—it is modified by a more negative assessment of the powers of reason and by a sense of diastasis between the ways of God and the ways of man that virtually cancels a Thomistic use of the analogia entis in theology.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 63–65). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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