Archive Authors Jordan Ballor Nota Bene

The Reformation’s Reboot of Scholasticism

One helpful way of viewing the Reformation’s relationship to the phenomenon of scholasticism is to consider it to be, in modern terms, a kind of “reboot.” Various accounts of decline were in circulation among the reformers, but there was common agreement that something had gone wrong by the end of the fifteenth century. There needed to be a re-emphasis on reliable sources, primarily scripture, but also older patristic and medieval sources that represented a purer or more reliable expression of theology.

Thus we find a reset of sorts in terms of the level of discourse and positive engagement of sources among the early generations of reformers. As the Reformed movement develops and institutionalizes, this chastening (without complete rejection) of scholastic discourse matures into a distinct theological tradition operating in parallel and in dialogue with both medieval and contemporary scholastic discourse.

Richard Muller characterizes the relationship between the earlier and later generations of Reformed theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in a way that highlights this dynamic:

Where the Reformers painted with a broad brush, their orthodox and scholastic successors strove to fill in the details of the picture. Whereas the Reformers were intent upon distancing themselves and their theology from problematic elements in medieval thought and, at the same time, remaining catholic in the broadest sense of that term, the Protestant orthodox were intent upon establishing systematically the normative, catholic character of institutionalized Protestantism, at times through the explicit use of those elements in patristic and medieval theology not at odds with the teachings of the Reformation. (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, p. 37)

Given the generational realities, there is, in this way and apart from other contextual factors, a difference in the level of technicality, detail, and argument one would expect to find between the work of someone like Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563) and Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), even in comparable genre of discourse and where there is doctrinal agreement at a fundamental level.

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.