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Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy

Reformational Eclecticism

Last week, I posted a couple of excerpts from Richard Muller’s discussion of method among the Protestant orthodox or “scholastics” and their Reformational predecessors.

Later in the same volume, he includes a useful summation of their basic philosophical stance. Though “Christian Aristotelianism” remains the dominant stream into the seventeenth century, one must be careful not to misinterpret this phrase as denoting some kind of rigid or doctrinaire philosophical orthodoxy. Instead, the most fruitful way to understand their posture is as an eclectic one (a term that can also be usefully applied to Cicero who, though maintaining a steadfast allegiance to the Academy, drew on a variety of philosophical traditions).

As Muller puts it:

The Reformation, broadly understood, was not at all a philosophical movement–nor was the early orthodox extension of Protestant theology a fundamentally philosophical development marked by commitment to a particular philosophical perspective. The simplest and best description of the philosophical perspective (or perspectives) found among the Reformed thinkers of both the Reformation and the early orthodox eras is ‘eclectic.’ Still, there remains a significant philosophical background to the Reformation, a background that is not exhausted by medieval patterns but that also follows out patterns in the Renaissance. The eclecticism of the Reformers and their successors, moreover, ought not to be understood as an incoherent philosophy, but rather as a philosophy drawn out of a multitude of sources both classical and medieval, modified by a Renaissance reading of texts, and guided by the desire to develop a pattern of rational argument that could serve theology in an ancillary position. This pattern or ethos of reception in turn determined the relationship of various Reformed thinkers to the varied philosophical options of the era–from one perspective, much of the philosophy of the age can be describe[d] as a modified Aristotelianism, but, if the question of antecedents is raised in detail, there are Stoic and Platonic or Neoplatonic elements in the Reformed thought of the era and there is an interest in the ancient truths found in the Hermetic writings, viewed by the thinkers of the sixteenth century as dating from the time of Moses and, at the same time (ahistorically!) as fundamentally Platonic in implication. This use of philosophy, including the interest in the Hermetic literature, indicates, moreover, a continuity of discussion throughout the late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation eras. (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, 67-8)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.