[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Protestant Scholasticism

J. Todd Billings on October 2nd, 2014. Tagged under ,,,,.

J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary. He has an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary and ThD from Harvard Divinity School. He has written for Modern Theology, Christian Century, and Christianity Today.

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Many people who think that they despise the theology of John Calvin change their mind once they actually take time to read his writings. I’ve seen it again and again in the classroom—both as a student, and as a teacher.

When this has happened, however, I’ve often heard a warning: Calvin may be biblical, dynamic, and Christ-centered, but steer clear of those seventeenth century “Calvinists.” Rather than going straight to the Bible, they got distracted by the medieval scholastics; rather than being pastoral and Christ-centered, the Reformed Scholastics were rationalists whose writings don’t edify the church.

Twenty years after hearing these warnings in college, I can say that they reveal more about those giving the warnings than the Protestant Scholastics themselves.

There has been a sea change in scholarship on Protestant Scholasticism, and its implications reach far beyond those whose confessions hail from Westminster or Augsburg. On the whole, this movement in scholarship has not been generated by systematic theologians trying to defend or counter Protestant Scholasticism. It has come from historians, giving contextual assessments of both the continuities and discontinuities within movements of medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology. Particularly significant has been the work of David Steinmetz, the meticulous historical work of his former doctoral students (including Richard Muller, John L. Thompson, and Timothy Wengert) as well as the scholarship of Willem Van Asselt and Carl Trueman. Probably the most influential works are by Muller, with his magisterial four-volume work on Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, and his books and articles that dismantle the “Calvin versus the Calvinist” thesis.

The fruit of this historical work is just starting to be harvested by theologians, and it has implications across the theological spectrum: whether Reformed or Arminian, Protestant or Roman Catholic, etc. Here are two characteristics of this scholarship that are particularly important for contemporary theologians to recognize:

  1. Recent scholarship has a renewed appreciation of the catholicity of the Reformation—the way in which the Reformers and the Protestant Scholastics both drew critically upon the early patristic and medieval catholic tradition in method and practice. In other words, sola scriptura did not involve spurning the church’s exegetical and doctrinal traditions, but reassessing them in light of scriptural exegesis. This Reformation-era catholicity stands in contrast to contemporary trends such as some “new Calvinists” who want to define the Reformed tradition by the TULIP. But it is also in contrast to scholars operating with a Barthian historiography, downplaying areas of continuity between the Reformation traditions and earlier catholic notions, such as general revelation and natural theology.
  2. Recent scholarship re-emphasizes the centrality of scripture and biblical exegesis, not only for the Reformers but for Protestant Scholasticism as well. Neither the Reformers nor the Protestant Scholastics started with a central doctrine (such as providence or election or justification by faith), and then deduced their other doctrines from that starting point. Instead, each topic of doctrine was exegetically derived from scripture and gathered into topics as common places (loci communes) of the Christian tradition. Contemporary systematic theologians have tended to (mis)interpret these earlier theologies as deductive systems, and have unduly neglected the significance of biblical commentaries for Reformation and post-Reformation theologians.

It is important to note that the change in historical scholarship is a descriptive one, not a prescriptive one. Muller, Steinmetz, and others have made contextual and textual arguments that historians have found persuasive regardless of their own confessional affiliation. The question is: what implications does this innovative historical work have for theologians today?

Elsewhere I present a possible vision of how this scholarship can help to enliven contemporary Reformed theology. But here are a few brief suggestions for theologians in general:

  1. Rediscover the Centrality of Biblical Exegesis—The loci communes approach to theology models a compelling way to make scriptural exegesis a central task for the theologian. In addition, the Reformation and Post-Reformation theologians offer examples of scriptural exegesis that illuminate both in their debates and in their areas of agreement.
  2. Rediscover Catholicity—Read the Reformers and the Protestant Scholastics together with the patristic and medieval writers who influenced them (e.g., the influence of Thomas Aquinas upon John Owen).  This provides an opportunity for a doctrinal feast that is deeply traditional, philosophically nuanced, and widely ecumenical.
  3. Deepen and Widen Traditions—Explore the breadth and diversity of Protestant traditions which are often narrowed, caricatured, and constricted in their contemporary forms. The Reformed Scholastics, for example, had surprising things to say about the freedom of the will; a contextual account of Melanchthon defies stereotypes about Lutherans and the three uses of the law; and surprisingly, variations of seventeenth-century “hypothetical universalism” are actually part of the broad Reformed tradition, if one takes the Synod of Dort as exemplative.

All theologians tell stories about the history of theology. However, the stories of many theologians today—e.g. that Calvin had a “biblical” method in contrast to the “deductive rationalism” of the Reformed Scholastics—are not historically plausible. For theologians willing to change their stories about the Reformation and scholasticism, there is an opportunity to rediscover the deeply biblical, catholic, and expansive theological traditions of Reformation and Post-Reformation theology.

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J. Todd Billings (ThD, Harvard University) is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. He is author of several books, including the award-winning Calvin, Participation, and the Gift (Oxford, 2007) and Union with Christ (Baker Academic, 2011). He has lectured internationally, and has published articles in a variety of journals, including Modern Theology, Harvard Theological Review, Missiology, and International Journal of Systematic Theology, as well as popular periodicals such as Christianity Today, The Christian Century, and Sojourners.

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Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read column introduction here.

Our first series, The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval, explores positive developments in theology over the past twenty-five or so years, considering some of the ways in which the recovery of theological tradition has proven to be a stimulating resource for constructive systematic theology.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places

(Image: The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: ReformationsdenkmalGenf1 by Paul Landowski – Roland Zumbühl. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

UPDATE 10/4/14: The editors of ZA Blog wish to thank to Jim West for pointing out several errors in the image citation of the Reformation Wall. I (Adam Forrest) have since corrected the citation, and I apologize for any confusion my error may have caused.