Trueman: Was Scholasticism Rationalistic?

2 March 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

I’m reading Carl Trueman’s Minority Report.  The first chapter is his inaugural lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary.  It’s an entertaining and insightful read.  He spends a lot of time interacting with faulty historiography, particularly that of Stanley Grenz and John Franke.  In Beyond Foundationalism, they claimed that Protestant Scholasticism was rationalistic.  Here’s Trueman’s evaluation of that claim:

…the authors of such works have failed to engage either with the range and complexity of the seventeenth-century sources of Reformed Orthodoxy, or with the problem of historical development, or with the relevant secondary scholarship in the field.  Had they done so, they would have realized that, for example, their definition of scholasticism as essentially rationalist is historically untenable.  Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Jacob Arminius, Francisco Suarez, John Owen, Johannes Cocceius, Thomas Barlow, Francis Turretin: all were scholastics, yet represent a diverse and, in some cases, mutually exclusive range of epistemologies, philosophies, and theologies.  Scholastic method does not demand a particular doctrinal or philosophical position; it is simply a basic way of arranging, investigating, and describing objects of study, which was developed in the schools (hence it is scholastic), and which demands no single philosophical or theological conviction. (27-28)

Trueman goes on to note how the categorical distinction (archetypal/ectypal theology) demonstrates that Reformed scholastics and their progeny rooted their theological reflections “not in any true rationalism but in the free, condescending revelatory acts of God himself.”  This is, therefore, “not rationalism in any recognizable Enlightenment sense” (29).  He argues that the Arminian rejection of this distinction “left the theology of the Remonstrants peculiarly vulnerable to incursions of rationalism in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (30).  There may have been rationalistic elements in Reformed scholasticism, especially in the late period, but to paint scholasticism as a whole as rationalistic is facile.  Yet people keep on doing it.

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