Philosophies that didn’t help: Philosophical Issues and Developments in the Post-Reformation Era 2

Man is created for worship. And if he will not worship the one true God, he will find something else to worship. “Atheists”, “deists”, “practical atheists”, even followers of ancient Hermes all found something to hold onto with the resurgence of the various “reappropriations” of classical philosophies. In some respects, it was the second century all over again.

There was also, accordingly, a highly negative interaction between developing Reformed theology and the philosophical models available in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Without question, both the Reformers and their early orthodox successors reacted against aspects of medieval Aristotelianism and, given the indebtedness of pre-Reformation scholastic theology to aspects of Aristotelian philosophy, the declamation against Aristotle was, probably, the loudest of the diatribes of the age against classical philosophy.

Nonetheless, the more profound antagonisms were between the Reformed theology and other Renaissance reappropriations of classical thought, such as the Epicurean notion of a distant and uninvolved deity or the Stoic conceptions of a fatalistic determinism or the soul’s materiality.

So too are deviant notions of God, variously labeled as “atheist” and “deist,” attacked vehemently, particularly insofar as they involved skeptical assumptions concerning the certainty of the authority of Scripture and its revelation of God.

In 1564, Viret addressed the problem in a prefatory letter to the second part of his Instruction chrestienne, referring to a group calling itself “deists” and distinguishing themselves from “atheists”: they confess belief in God, recognizing a creator of the world, but deny Christ and “his teaching.”

Some of them have views (presumably negative) on the immortality of the soul and others deny providence after the manner of the Epicureans. From Viret’s perspective, such persons are in fact “atheists” in the sense that the Apostle intends in Ephesians—pagans who know not the true God.

The identity of these “deists” is unclear. One hypothesis is that they were antitrinitarians, more likely, however, they were advocates of a cultured paganism, admirers of the classical philosophical tradition as a form of theism in its own right and not merely as a preparation for or ancilla to Christian theology.

This reading is supported by Viret’s somewhat earlier comments concerning “philosophical” minds, “learned in languages and in human philosophy” who diminish the value of Scripture in contrast with “heathenish volumes,” and by the parallels between Viret’s comments concerning the soul, providence, and the Epicureans with Calvin’s similar polemic in the Institutes.

Nearly identical worries also appear within a decade in Ascham’s Scholemaster, directed specifically at Italian humanists.

Such issues had a direct impact, of course, on Reformed apologetics—but they had, also, an indirect but nonetheless significant impact on a series of issues identified by the Reformed in their prolegomena and discussions of theological principia.

Skepticism and the forms of philosophical belief identified as deism and atheism related as closely to the identification of fundamental articles of belief as did the claims of alternative Christian orthodoxies, namely, the Arminian, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic or the teachings of the various heresies of the day, notably, Socinianism.

So too does the early problem of deists and skeptics relate directly to the identification of Scripture and God as principia—foundations that stand as authoritative, prior to demonstration and to debate over opinion.

(It is noteworthy here that Descartes’ antidote to skepticism involved the radical doubting of “opinion” and the identification of self-evident and indubitable principia.) The pattern of argument in the Reformed orthodox presentation of proofs of God’s existence, moreover, is directed against atheists—often, specifically, against “practical atheists,” who do not disbelieve in God per se, but who do not support the fundamental beliefs and practices of Christianity, individuals similar in assumptions to Viret’s “deists.”

Beyond this, the understanding of the relationship of philosophy to theology propounded in the Reformed prolegomena and in various apologetic works of the era of orthodoxy assumes a view of philosophy as ancilla and subordinate both in a purely hierarchical sense among the forms of knowing and in a historical sense, regarding it as a derivative form of knowing.

The derivation of philosophy, argued at length by seventeenth century apologists like Du Moulin, Grotius, and Gale, echoing the arguments of the Christian apologists of the second century, placed the ancient Pentateuchal or Mosaic revelation prior to the rise of Greek philosophy and grounded ancient pagan wisdom in patterns of borrowing from the primordial truths known to the patriarchs and written down by Moses.

This case of an ancient argument (namely, an argument found in the work of the second century Apologists) resurfacing in a new context points toward the alternative view, the ancient philosophy understood as the equal or even the substitute for a Christian theological and philosophical orthodoxy.

In the sixteenth century this kind of argumentation was even used to interpret the Corpus Hermeticum as a source of ancient wisdom—on the ground that Hermes Trismegistus was the originator of writing and of theology, a pre-Mosaic Egyptian sage, identified by some with the biblical Enoch.

For various Renaissance philosophers, the ancient Hermes served to ground an antithesis to scholastic theology and philosophy, assimilated to Neoplatonism, while in the works of various theologians of the era, the historical argument allowed the assimilation of a platonized Hermetic literature, often in the interest of identifying pre-Christian adumbrations of the Trinity.

In the seventeenth century, the Hermetica were addressed differently by those who accepted Casaubon’s post-New Testament dating of the Corpus.

In addition, the seventeenth century saw both the attempt to draw the prisca theologia of Plato and the Hermetic literature into alliance with Christian orthodoxy and the argument that the ancient theology offered an alternative to the orthodoxy of the era—heretical in the views of some, quite legitimate in the views of others.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 68–71). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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