An Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism: The Benefits for the Church
J. V. Fesko
We do not simply want to admire Reformed Scholasticism and then return it to the dusty library shelf. On the contrary, Reformed Scholastic works can be quite helpful to the church for several reasons. First, the church can benefit from the precision of Reformed scholasticism and use the scholastic method in new theological works. It was Karl Barth (1886-1968), no champion of traditional orthodoxy, who recognized this insight some sixty-five years ago:
I had come to be amazed at the long, peaceful breathing, the sterling quality, the relevant strictness, the superior style, the methods confident at least themselves, with which this ‘orthodoxy’ had wrought. I had cause for astonishment at its wealth of problems and sheer beauty of its trains of thought. In these old fellows I saw that it can be worth while to reflect upon the tiniest point with the greatest force of Christian presupposition, and, for the sake of much appealed-to ‘life,’ to be quite serious about the question of truth all along the line. In other words I saw that Protestant dogmatics was once a careful, orderly business, and I conceived the hope that it might perhaps become so again, if it could reacquire its obviously wandered nerves and return to a strict, Church and scientific outlook.
Within the last fifty years there are very few works on systematic theology that scratch the theological surface. Introductions to systematic theology abound. Where are the systematic theologies that wrestle with doctrine with the degree of precision and research that mark Reformed Scholastic works?
Second, the church can benefit from the thorough nature of Reformed Scholastic works. It was Paul Tillich (1886-1965), another unorthodox theologian, who recognized this benefit:
It is a pity that very often orthodoxy and fundamentalism are confused. One of the great achievements of classical orthodoxy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the fact that it remained in continual discussion with all the centuries of Christian thought . . . These orthodox theologians knew the history of philosophy as well as the theology of the Reformation. The fact that they were in the tradition of the Reformers did not prevent them from knowing thoroughly scholastic theology, from discussing and refuting it, or even accepting it when possible. All this makes classical orthodoxy one of the great events in the history of Christian thought.
As we saw with Turretin’s explanation of predestination, Reformed Scholastic theologians paid careful attention to the history of a doctrine. They were conversant with the theology from every age of the church. This type of thoroughness is something that Reformed theology currently lacks. While many in Reformed circles are familiar with the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, there is an ignorance of Patristic and Medieval theology. Why should we be aware of Patristic and Medieval theology? There are several reasons:
1. The Reformation has been called a revival of the theology of Saint Augustine, the Patristic era’s greatest theologian. Moreover, many Reformers such as Calvin, esteemed the theology of the Patristic age.
2. Reformed Scholastic theologians used the insights of Medieval theology in writing their own doctrinal works. Turretin’s use of the scholastic method is certainly evidence of an appreciation for Medieval theology.
3. If we believe that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1.9; NAS) then we can learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure that we do not repeat them. This can only be done by a study of historical theology from every age of the church.
4. If we believe that Holy Spirit blows as the wind (John 3.8) then we must acknowledge the fact that God has saved people in every age. This means that there are saints from the Patristic and Middle Ages that we can read and profit from.
These are all facts that Reformed Scholastic theologians such as Turretin recognized.
Third, we can benefit from the piety and devotion of the Reformed Scholastics. True, while many of the works of Reformed Scholastic theologians are highly technical and geared for academic debate, there are still those works that have a good blend of scholastic precision and warm piety such as Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service. These three points are certainly things that the church can benefit from in reading and studying the works of Reformed Scholastic theologians. Now, while the scholastic method has many benefits, we should not think that it is the end-all cure for all theological problems. No theological method will prevent heterodoxy from rearing its ugly head.
Just because a theologian uses the scholastic method is no insurance policy against error. It was Richard Baxter (1615-91), for example, who was one of the most knowledgeable Reformed Scholastic theologians of the seventeenth century. Yet, this did not prevent him from allowing the philosophy of Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), an Italian philosopher who was critical of Aristoteliansim, to influence his theology. More specifically, Baxter argued that the doctrine of the Trinity could be seen in the creation. This was a radical break with traditional Reformed theology that had made the doctrine of the Trinity the exclusive property of special revelation. In similar manner, Jean-Alphonse Turretin (1671-1737), the son of Francis Turretin, gave a greater place to natural reason in his theology. Although he “did not replace revelation with natural religion, he gave rational arguments an equal footing with biblical revelation.” This was a distinct break from his father’s opinions on the subject. It was these types of subtle theological shifts that eventually imploded Reformed theology in Europe. By the mid-eighteenth century professors at Calvin’s Academy were denying doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation because they did not square with human reason. This demise of Reformed theology should not be attributed to the scholastic method but rather the users of the method. Any time human reason is relied upon to excess, heterodoxy is bound to ensue. The Church, however, can use the scholastic method with great profit so long as they do so with the heart of a Berean (Acts 17.10-11) and, as Francis Turretin would argue, with reason held in check by the authority of Scripture.