Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism in Early Reformed Orthodoxy

I am often asked, “at a time when there is a flood of people leaving Roman Catholicism, why does it seem that so many intellectuals seem to be moving in the opposite direction?”

There are a number of reasons for this – some Anglicans are converting because of the rampant liberalism and decline in morality in their own denomination. R.R. Reno (editor of First Things) is in this category.

And you have the “wannabe” category –as in, “Jason Stellman wannabe smart like Bryan Cross”.

But another reason seems to be that there is some level of philosophical sophistication in Roman Catholicism. Alvin Plantinga’s own personal prestige as a philosopher seems to have rubbed off on Catholicism while he was at Notre Dame (1982-2010).

And Michael Rea and Thomas P. Flint, in their Introduction to the work they co-edited (“The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology”), recently wrote of the philosophical traditions in Roman Catholic institutions (which nevertheless are known for their theologically liberal slants):

But many philosophers were united in thinking, for different reasons, that the methods of philosophy are incapable of putting us in touch with theoretically interesting truths about God. Bo be sure, doubts of this sort never gained a sure foothold in Catholic universities, which maintained the theological focus evident from their founding. But, for a variety of reasons, the scholasticism practiced in these institutions went on in virtual isolation from the philosophical trends dominant at the great secular universities of Europe and America (Flint and Rea, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press © 2009, pg 1).

Now, talk with “conservative” Catholic apologists, and “Catholic” universities like Notre Dame, which are known for their philosophy departments, are decidedly NOT famous for their adherence to Roman Catholic orthodoxy (think Richard McBrien).

But they’ve got to take the victories where they can find them, and so [tongue-in-cheek] yes, Roman Catholic Universities in the United States REALLY ARE bastions of historical Roman Catholic Orthodoxy (especially the Jesuit universities!) [/tongue-in-cheek].

* * *

With that having been said, Richard Muller does a good job of locating “the rise of Reformed Orthodoxy” within the broader context of the philosophical and scientific thinking of Post-Reformation period. Note the efforts of the Reformed Orthodox to maintain both faithfulness to Scripture and philosophical integrity:

Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century.

For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Suárez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk.

The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy.

Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century.

Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology.

Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon.

The gradual production of philosophical textbooks by Protestants does not indicate a period during which the philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy.

Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’ Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or his Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622).

The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves.

The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed.… the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought—Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna—and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 71–73). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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