Few words in Christian circles conjure up as much misunderstanding as “scholasticism.” Rigid, rationalistic Aristotelian philosophizing, also known as “scholasticism,” entered the church at various point in church history (i.e., the Medievals and Post-Reformation Reformed), and the pure biblical perspicuity of the Church Fathers and Reformers was eclipsed. If Calvin was helpful in setting the church free from the shackles of Medieval scholasticism – that of Lombard, Aquinas, Scotus, etc. – then Beza and others after Calvin only undid all of the good work accomplished by Calvin and the earlier Reformers. That would be a crass, though somewhat accurate, understanding of how the old story goes. Such thought was behind the old “Calvin versus the Calvinists” historiography that has now been definitively silenced by scholars for the past three decades or so.
Recent research suggests, however, that “scholasticism,” when defined properly, with all of its historical and contextual nuances, was very much part and parcel of both the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras leading up to the mid-eighteenth century when it began to lose its place in theology – even Reformed theology. Its influence and place in the Reformation and beyond could hardly be otherwise once we consider the centers of learning available to the Reformers and their heirs.
In short, Reformed theology is not just Reformed catholic theology or Reformed confessional theology, but also Reformed scholastic theology. Even those in the Reformed tradition today who wish to eschew the “scholastic” label are likely unaware of how indebted they are to scholasticism and also how (perhaps unwittingly) scholastic their theology remains.
Scholasticus (meaning “scholar” in Roman culture), meant a “learned person” in the Medieval church. But the word “scholastic” and its cognates take on all sorts of meanings by the time of the Reformation. Usually context helps in discerning the intent of the author when he refers to a “scholastic.”
Often people have understood scholasticism to refer to content, but this is considerably wide of the mark. In the main, scholasticism refers to a particular method. There may be a little truth to the fact that method impacts content, but generally method does not affect content, otherwise Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed theologians would all come to the same conclusions since they basically adopted the same method in their scholastic theology in the mid-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
L.M. de Rijk understands scholasticism as a “method applied in theology and philosophy characterized by the use (for both instruction and research) of a constantly recurrent system of concepts, distinctions, definitions, propositional analysis, techniques of reasoning and disputation.” 1 On the micro-level, scholasticism includes the “concepts, distinctions, and methods of reasoning used to treat a particular subject.” 2 So, making use of Aristotelian concepts, scholastics made use of distinctions such as potency and act. They also made use of logic, including the famous use of the syllogism. Terms from the patristic era and Middle Ages were handed down to the Reformers and Protestant scholastics. These terms were “standard currency” in theological discussion and debate, though certainly not written in stone. As the dynamics of theological debate changed during the sixteenth century, it is fair to say that that scholastic theology became more dominant as a result of phenomena like the counter-Reformation led by the Roman Catholic Cardinal, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) and the rising influence of Socinianism and other errors or heresies.
As Willem van Asselt notes, “Almost every Reformed theologian of note wrote a refutation of Bellarmine, of which William Ames’s Bellarmine Rendered Powerless (Bellarminus enervates, 1626) became the most renowned. Bellarmine’s attack was scholastic in nature, and to counter him and other Roman Catholic polemical theologians, it was necessary to make use of the same scholastic apparatus.” 3 Of course, the Reformed could have adopted a rather simplistic Biblicism – crying, “we are just letting the Bible speak for itself” – but that would have convinced no one, though perhaps the Socinians would have been impressed to have such allies in method!
Reformed scholasticism refers to the period of orthodoxy from ca. 1560–1750. Within this period we have: 1) Early Orthodoxy (ca. 1560–1620); 2) High Orthodoxy (ca. 1620–1700); and 3) Late Orthodoxy (ca. 1700–1750). These dates are, of course, hardly to be pressed so that no wiggle room is left. But they do give us eras that reflect the changing climate of theological discourse due to the incredible events precipitated by the Reformation.
In the period of Early Orthodoxy the Reformed were generally in a period of confessionalization and codification. Unity was uppermost in the minds of the Reformers and their successors. Confessional documents were one way to establish unity as Protestant churches were built. Reformed theologians commented upon ecumenical creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed, thus attempting to prove their catholicity. Confessional documents such as the Gallican Confession (1559), Belgic Confession (1561), and Heidelberg Catechism (1563) were just a few of dozens and dozens of confessions being written in the period of Early Orthodoxy.
Roman Catholic attacks upon the claims of the Reformers were pressing against the Protestant churches, which means responses by the Reformed had to be done well. As a result, the Reformed scholastics proved in their writings that they had mastered the Early Church Fathers, had an encyclopedic knowledge of Medieval theology, and could exegete the Scriptures according to sound principles of interpretation. Calvin certainly had a formidable memory, but even he could misquote the Fathers from time to time. The insights of the Reformers were not rejected or replaced in any way, but the Reformed scholastics developed their theology with more precision by adopting the philosophical vocabulary of their predecessors from the Early Church onwards. The confessions of this era are catholic confessions, but distinctively Reformed insofar as they reveal the ever-widening gulf not only between the Church of Rome, but also between the Reformed and Lutherans. This was something Calvin had spent time trying to avoid, but eventually the impasse was never going to be bridged between these two major Protestant groups.
High Orthodoxy occurs around the time of the Synod of Dort (1618–19). Dort is the first and only truly International synod. This confessional document also highlights another gap within Protestantism: the emerging differences between the Remonstrants (“Arminians”) and Reformed orthodox theologians, known as the counter-Remonstrants (or contra-Remonstrants) in this context. After Dort, instead of a continuing flurry of Confessional documents – though, note the British context involving the Westminster divines in the 1640s – we see a rising number of comprehensive dogmatic works, “in which the results of exegesis, dogmatic formulations, polemical elements, and expositions of the practical implications of doctrine were combined into an imposing whole. The scholasticism of high orthodoxy was thus characterized by increasing precision in its theological apparatus.” 4
Dort rejected the Remonstrant points of contention, but the controversy was far from over. The confessional position of Dort had to be defended amidst the continued “Arminian” onslaught as well as the rising prominence of their close cousins, the Socinians. Thus the intricate and elaborately defended Reformed positions were taken up by Francis Turretin, Petrus van Mastricht, and Gisbertus Voetius, among others. Following in the footsteps of Amandus Polanus, who wrote his justly famous Syntagma theologiae christianae (1609), these theologians wrote systems of divinity that would have continued to influence Reformed theologians even to this day. Their method was that scholastic method, which means we today are highly indebted to these Reformed scholastics for their work in the period of high orthodoxy. Any English reader who possesses the work of Charles Hodge or Louis Berkhof has in their possession a Reformed scholastic text, even if both Hodge and Berkhof’s treatments are considerably less learned than the theologians mentioned above.
Late orthodoxy saw the unraveling of much good work that had been accomplished by Reformed theologians. Why is that? In part, the method of Scholasticism, which we will discuss in more detail below, fell by the wayside; but also a number of philosophical views (Cartesianism, Leibnizian thinking, Wolffianism, and Englightenment thought) were wedded together with Reformed thought. Academies of learning also saw a shift in their approach to theology. The Enlightenment brought with it changing currents in theological and philosophical trends, and bastions of Reformed orthodoxy were quickly becoming bastions of heresy.
Reformed theology owes a lot of the centers of education that were responsible for training theologians. As Muller notes, “much of the reason for the development of Reformed scholastic orthodoxy must be found in the intellectual culture of the successful Protestant academies and universities.” 5 In this educational context we find a complementary, not opposing, historical phenomenon: humanism. As Dolf Te Velde explains, “the seemingly opposed movements labeled ‘humanism’ and ‘scholasticism’ drew on the same resources and faced the same methodological and substantial questions, giving them much common ground.” 6
If the term “scholasticism” has a range of meanings, “humanism” also betrays a neat definition. Location and time are hugely determinative of the type of “humanism” that emerged in certain parts of Europe. The term “humanist” emerged in the fifteenth century, describing one who practiced the humanities (umanista). Such a person studied grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and ethics. Humanist training included the rigorous study of Latin and often classical Greek. Latin is the language of the educated, not the “barbarian.” The knowledge of Latin opens up a whole world of theology that most Reformed pastors today know nothing of. The ease with which some degrees are awarded today would be an obscenity in the seventeenth century.
The humanism that influenced the Reformers, such as Calvin, was North European humanism. According to van Asselt, “Northern European humanism first went hand-in-hand with the early Reformation and, in giving attention to the writers of classical antiquity, attempted to establish a connection between the study of the classics and the Bible.” 7
Scholars in the past have tried to make scholasticism and humanism enemies, not friends: Calvin the humanist versus Beza the scholastic. However, Christian humanism is not at all an enemy of Medieval scholastic methods. They peacefully co-existed in many universities during the era of the Reformation. Certainly the ability to use language (i.e., Latin & classical Greek) well would only prove to help the Reformed scholastics, some of whom would meet (over coffee!) to discuss theology in classical Greek rather than their native tongue (e.g., Dutch) or in Latin (their second tongue).
Not only universities but also Reformed academies, connected to the churches, were breeding grounds for Reformed scholastics. Students often travelled to find the best professors at these academies. Perhaps the most famous academy was in Geneva where Beza taught. Caspar Olevianus, Franciscus Junius, and Jacob Arminius all attended the academy in Geneva and received a thoroughgoing Reformed scholastic education. The latter two ended up at Leiden University, with Arminius satisfying his Reformed examiners on topics like the pactum salutis. By the time of Calvin’s death, over three hundred students were registered at the academy in Geneva, with eighty percent of them from outside of Geneva. 8 Reformed academies were set up in Germany, England, Scotland, France, and the Netherlands. Because almost all of the major theological works of the time were written in Latin, we are today largely ignorant of the impressive learning that came out of these academies.
As Reformed theology developed, increasing attention was given to method. In order to do theology well and clearly, a certain methodology was used to give coherence to Reformed distinctives. Naturally, there is an eclecticism of method among Reformed theologians. All Reformed theologians, in their quest for truth, developed their theology based upon the Scriptures. But they were not shy about accepting elements from the larger Christian and non-Christian philosophical tradition if such philosophical tools could help them better state and argue the truth.
Melanchthon’s last edition of his Loci Communes offers us a look into the methodology that would be used by the Reformed scholastics in their extensive works on the whole of theology. The ordering according to the locus method was embraced by most Reformed theologians who would often move from Scripture to God to the Trinity, etc. Under each loci the author would frequently argue against his opponents (e.g., Anabaptists, Roman Catholics, Socinians) in order to set forth the truth.
Besides the loci method, Reformed scholastics also made use of the disputation. But even the disputations were often arranged much like the various loci. Students would dispute theology according to a set of theses, often arranged by the professor for a student to defend from the attacks of his opponents. Aristotelian-like topical questions are frequently used to order the disputation (the quaestio technique). Thus these are the types of questions that structure the various theological disputes:
1. What does the term mean?
2. Does the object exist?
3. What is it?
4. What are its parts?
5. What specific aspects can be discerned?
6. What are the causes of the object?
7. What effects or consequences follow from it?
8. To what other entities is it related?
9. What things are the opposite or contradictory to it? 9
Both the loci method and the disputation method incorporate these types of questions listed above. As Dolf Te Velde makes clear in his Introduction to the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae (Synopsis of a Purer Theology),
“These genres share important features: a clear demarcation of the topic under discussion; a keen interest in definitions; a comprehensive treatment of relevant aspects by means of a topical structure; frequent usage of distinctions, partly to anticipate a treatment of the subject’s various elements, partly to solve difficulties that are implied in the initial, undifferentiated statement; explicit statements of proofs and arguments supporting one’s own position, and a corresponding refutation of counter-arguments.” 10
Additionally, the four “causes” (borrowed from Aristotle) were an integral part to clarifying many thorny theological questions. The efficient, formal, material, and final causes help explain, for example, how and why God does what he does.
A hallmark of Reformed scholasticism is the use of distinctions. The Reformed inherited this method of doing theology from the Medievals. Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Remonstrant theologians also used distinctions to set forth their own theology. Ambiguous words and terms are often found in theological discourse, which necessitates the use of distinctions to help clarify precisely what is meant.
Sinclair Ferguson makes a good point in his book, The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen (p. 47), regarding the helpfulness of distinctions:
“Scholastic is often used as a theological slur intended to introduce a bad odor. Yet the people who use it thus are sometimes the very people who become hot under the collar if strangers refer to a fastball as a ‘slider’ (in baseball) or confuse and eagle with a double bogey (in golf) or, for that matter, describe someone living in the Carolinas as a ‘Yankee’ or a Scott as ‘English’! Aren’t these merely ‘scholastic’ distinctions? To ask the question is to answer it. Right understanding always involves making careful distinctions.”
During the Early Modern period, theological students were trained to make good and proper distinctions. Ideally, the distinctions should help, not hinder, exegesis. So, for example, consider the distinction between God’s absolute power (de potentia absoluta Dei) and God’s ordained power (de potentia ordinata Dei). God’s absolute power is that power to do that which he will not necessarily effect (i.e., turning a stone into bread). His ordained power involves his decree to do that which he has ordained to effect. Very simply, what God is able to do is not synonymous with what God has chosen to do.
This distinction seems to have strong biblical support. Here is an example of God’s absolute power: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matt. 3:9).
In another place, Christ brings together the absolute power of God with his ordained power: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matt. 26:53-54).
God could have sent more than twelve legions of angels to rescue Christ from his passion, but, according to his ordained power, he did not.
A hint of this doctrine may even be found in Christ’s temptation. Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread to prove he was the Son of God. But Jesus (who could have done so according to his power) did not do so because the Scriptures were his rule of life, not the devil, or even what Jesus himself could have done (Matt. 4:3-4).
In the realm of justification, one must know the formal cause, material cause, and instrumental cause. 11
One must know the difference between an “aestimatio” and “secundum veritatem” – for it was at the heart of the debate between the Remonstrants and the Reformed concerning the doctrine of justification by faith. Arminius made us of a concept, known as acceptilatio. Imperfect faith is accepted (by God’s gracious estimation) as righteousness. Or, to put it another way, the human act of faith is by grace counted as evangelical righteousness, as if it were the complete fulfillment of the whole law. This genuine human act comes forth from the ability to choose (liberum arbitrium). God has a “new law” in the evangelical covenant, whereby faith answers to the demands of the covenant. On the so-called “formal cause” there was an important difference between the two camps. As noted, for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio – God considers our righteousness (i.e., act of faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem – God considers Christ’s righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ, but only through imputation. This debate shows that both sides could use scholastic categories, but ultimately it was exegesis that led to different positions.
In the seventeenth century, many Reformed divines were using the distinction between the right versus the possession of life to explain the necessity of good works for salvation while also protecting the graciousness of salvation through Christ alone. Petrus van Mastricht uses this distinction in the following manner: “in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.” 12
Awareness of these distinctions – something lost to the Reformed church in the twentieth century – could have solved a lot of problems that arose because of imprecision in doctrinal formulations on the matter of justification. 13 Scholasticism was not the problem, but it could very well have been the solution.
In terms of the atonement, besides understanding the efficiency-sufficiency distinction, a theological student should ideally know the difference between “acceptatio” and “acceptilatio” and the difference between the means of procurement (medium impetrationis) and the means of application (medium applicationis).
Christ’s death was a work of impetration that could be understood either as a physical cause or a moral cause. According to John Owen: “physical causes produce their effects immediately,” and the subject must exist in order to be acted upon. Moral causes “never immediately actuate their own effects.” 14 Christ’s death was a moral cause, not a physical cause. Thus, those for whom he died do not need to be alive at the time of his death in order to receive the benefits of his vicarious sacrifice. Physical causes do not require human acts, but moral causes do. Incidentally, the distinction used by Owen was not his own, but was in fact mentioned earlier by the Jesuit, Suarez (1548–1617). 15
Theological distinctions also help us in our doctrine of sin. So Maccovius argues:
1. Sin is either original sin or actual sin.
Original sin, springing from Adam, is the sin in which and with which we are born and which begins at the moment that we become human beings.
2. Original sin is either imputed or inherent sin.
Imputed to us as if we ourselves had committed it.
Inherent sin is a depravation of our nature, and thus an inclination to all bad.
3. Imputation is a moral act, not a physical act.
It is not required that person is in existence, but only that the person will be in existence.
Moreover, a distinction may be made between sin committed out of weakness and sin committed out of full desire. Only those who are Christians can sin out of weakness.
True believers sin more seriously than unbelievers.
A) Because we have greater knowledge
B) Because we have powers to resist.
Unbelievers sin more seriously than believers.
A) Because they rush into sin with great desire; but believers with a broken will.
B) The faithful feel sadness (repentance) about their committed sins, but unbelievers do not (only the consequences). 16
Reformed scholastics like Maccovius are clearly indebted to the Thomistic tradition. But they are also not afraid to critique Medieval distinctions as they seek to establish Reformed doctrine. Sometimes, as in the case of Maccovius, he will simply call a certain distinction “completely useless.” This eclectic construction shows that Reformed theologians must critically interact with the tradition, even if they are heavily dependent upon it. Even Calvin comes in for criticism in the writings of the later Reformed orthodox scholastics, though there is often a tone of reverence/respect for him while they explain why and how he was wrong or imprecise.
Reformed Scholasticism has been a great gift to the church that has been largely underappreciated or ignored in our present-day context. Those wishing to embrace Reformed theology need to know something of our Reformed history. Reading Calvin’s Institutes is a good start, but it is just that: a start. But a cursory knowledge of scholasticism, which this chapter merely aims to do in summary fashion, cannot but help us to avoid making wrong assumptions about Reformed scholasticism.
Karl Barth once remarked, somewhat ironically, “The fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet” (Church Dogmatics I/1. 279). Indeed. At least the fear of scholasticism might suggest some acquaintance with it; but ignorance is even worse, especially when it forms such a large part of our Reformed heritage.
One should be comfortable knowing the following phrases:
The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Jones is the author of several books, including his most recent, Knowing Christ.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.