Protestant Scholasticism is the Historical Link that Binds Us to the Reformation

Protestant Scholasticism is the Historical Link that Binds Us to the Reformation

Written by Richard A. Muller |
Friday, May 19, 2023

Without detracting at all from the achievement of the great Reformers and the earliest codifiers of the doctrines of the Reformation – writers like Melanchthon, Calvin, and Bullinger – we need to recognize that not they, but rather, subsequent generations of “orthodox” or “scholastic” Protestants are responsible for the final form of such doctrinal issues as the definition of theology and the enunciation of its fundamental principles, the fully developed Protestant forms of the doctrine of the Trinity, the crucial christological concept of the two states of Christ, penal substitutionary atonement, and the theme of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

As the seventeenth-century documents themselves reveal, the Reformed orthodox were well aware of differences between their “scholasticism” and the several phases of medieval scholasticism: indeed, they typically identified an earlier twelfth and thirteenth-century scholastic model as distinct from and less problematic than the scholasticism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – and they identified differences in method and in the balance of authorities between their scholastic method and the methods of the Middle Ages in general. Thus, when Protestant scholasticism is approached by way of the documents and materials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and an assessment of its style, methods, and contents is based directly on the definitions and the methods evidenced in the seventeenth-century systems, the result explicitly opposes the view of several recent scholars according to which “scholasticism” can be identified specifically with a use of Aristotelian philosophy, a pronounced metaphysical interest, and the use of predestination as an organizing principle in theological system.

In this theologically and philosophically broad but methodologically closely defined sense, the term “scholasticism” can be applied to a theology that is not a duplication of medieval scholastic teaching and method, that is distinctly Protestant, and that is not nearly as concerned to draw philosophy into dialogue with theology as the great synthetic works of the thirteenth century. Scholasticism, then, indicates the technical and logical approach to theology as a discipline characteristic of theological system from the late twelfth through the seventeenth century.

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