Westminster Seminary California
An Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism: Francis Turretin
J. V. Fesko
An Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism: Francis Turretin

Francis Turretin, born 17 October 1623, studied at Geneva, Leiden, Utrecht, Paris, Samur, Montauban, and Nimes. After his studies he was called to be the pastor of the Italian congregation in Geneva in 1648 and later followed in the footsteps of John Calvin (1509-64), Theodore Beza (1519-1605), and his father, Benedict Turretin (1588-1631) and was appointed a professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva in 1653. He continued as both a pastor and professor of theology in Geneva until his death in 1687. The theological work that Turretin is best known for is his Institutes of Elenctic Theology. He titled his work as an Institute as Calvin did before him, a common title for works that served the purpose of instruction in theology. He also titled his work with the word Elenctic, which is derived from the Greek word for that which uncovers error. Hence, the overall thrust of his work is to state positively theological truth and also to refute theological errors. Turretin accomplishes his theological goal by use of the scholastic method.

As we saw with our definition of Scholasticism and with the example from Aquinas’ Summa Theologia Turretin follows the same pattern. For example, in his discussion on predestination Turretin asks the following question: “Is election made from the foresight of faith, or works; or from the grace of God alone? The former we deny; the latter we affirm.” Turretin then goes on to clarify the nature of the question, or identifies the “state of the question,” and then identifies the theologians with whom he disagrees. He identifies some of the “more ancient Scholastics,” semi-Pelagian Roman Catholic theologians, Lutherans, and Arminians as those with whom he disagrees. In this process of identifying his opponents, he also quotes from many of their works to illustrate their disagreement with his own position. For example, he quotes the following statement from the Arminians: “It is absurd to place the absolute will of God in the decree of election as the first cause, going before the remaining causes, to wit, Christ, faith, and all the other.” Now, with his question clarified and his opponents identified, Turretin then gives his own positive answer to the question.

Turretin cites numerous passages of Scripture to support his position. Keep in mind, when he cites Scripture he does not merely place the reference in parentheses at the end of a sentence as is common with some theological works. On the contrary, Turretin often exegetes passages to demonstrate how they support his position. For example, regarding Romans 9.11-12 Turretin writes:

1. It treats of twins who had done nothing good or bad by which they might be distinguished from each other.

2. Election is said expressly to be of him that calleth, not of works.

3. In verses 15 and 16, it is wholly ascribed to the mercy of God alone . . .

4. If foresight were granted, there would be no place for the objections of scruples proposed by Paul (Rom. 9.14) . . .

Hence, Turretin relies heavily upon the exegesis of Scripture as a source for his doctrine. In addition to Scripture, Turretin also turns to both historical and contemporary theologians to support his explanation. He turns to works such as Luther’s Bondage of the Will, The Canons of Dort, Saint Augustine’s On the Predestination of the Saints, and two of his own contemporaries Louis Capellus (1585-1658) and Paul Testard (d. 1660). All of this points to the fact that the scholastic method in the hands of a Reformed theologian produces a very thorough exposition of theology—no rock goes unturned. We can also see yet another aspect of scholastic theology in Turretin’s work with his use of theological distinctions.

Contemporary theological works often lack the precision and circumspect doctrinal expositions that are found in works like Turretin’s Institutes. For example, note how one theologian explains the idea of the love of God: “The Scriptures know of only one grace of God and one love of God, His grace and love in Jesus Christ. This is the grace and this is the love revealed in the gospel.” Turretin, on the other hand, is very precise in his theological statements and especially in his use of theological terminology. For example, note how Turretin carefully demarcates between different nuances when explaining the love of God: 

From goodness flows love by which he communicates himself to the creature and (as it were) wills to unite himself with and do good to it, but in diverse ways and degrees according to the diversity of the objects. Hence is usually made a threefold distinction in the divine love: the first, that by which he follows creatures, called ‘love of the creature’ (philoktisia); the second, that by which he embraces men, called ‘love of man’ (philoanthropia); the third, which is specially exercised towards the elect and is called ‘the love of the elect’ (eklektophilia).”

Turretin then goes on to subdivide the love of God into three more types of love:

A threefold love of God is commonly held; or rather there are three degrees of one and the same love. First, there is the love of benevolence by which God willed good to the creature from eternity; second, the love of beneficence by which he does good to the creature in time according to his good will; third, the love of complacency by which he delights himself in the creature on account of the rays of his image seen in them. . . . Jn. 3.13 refers to the first; Eph. 5.25 and Rev. 1.5 to the second; Is. 62.3 and Heb. 11.6 to the third.

Now, when Turretin’s explanations of the love of God are compared with the first example we see a massive difference: in the former a broad sweeping statement whereas Turretin’s statements are precise and thorough. With Turretin’s statements we can distinguish how God can love the creation, mankind in general, and how the elect are the recipients of God’s special love. Some might think that Turretin borders on being excessively pedantic but this is not the case especially in the light of Scripture. For example, we see God the Father’s special love for His Son (John 3.35, 5.20), His providential love for the creation (Matt. 6), His salvific stance toward the fallen world (John 3.16), and God’s particular love for the elect (Eph. 5.25). Distinctions like those of Turretin, therefore, are quite necessary when refuting theological errors; the opponent, or reader, knows exactly what Turretin is saying.