For quite a while it was customary for historians, theologians, and preachers to bewail the post-Reformation as a sort of regrettable appendix to the glory-days of Calvin and Luther. I certainly encountered this way of thinking in my theological training. I was taught that the Reformation was a glorious return to the Word of God, but immediately after the Reformation “scholasticism” negated many of its great gains. Moreover, it was alleged that many of the problems in Reformed theology in the last 200 years can be traced back to this scoundrel, “scholasticism.” It ruined almost everything. “Scholastic” thus became a loaded, pejorative term. If you heard a Reformed minister or theologian describing someone as “scholastic,” you knew that they were one of the bad guys in theology.
All this came to mind again as I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004). I have much appreciation for the book’s overall argument. Pearcey believes we need to recover the idea of a Christian worldview and I fully agree. However, I do take issue with some of her historical analysis.
In chapter 2 she describes how medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas formulated a view of creation that involved a nature-grace dualism. It is a two-storied view of reality. The Reformation, however, overcame it. Writes Pearcey, “The Reformers sought a return to a unified field of knowledge, where divine revelation is the light illuminating all areas of study” (page 81). Thus, away with dividing life into secular vs. sacred. All of life is one before the face of God. We are called into this world to live all of life according to Scripture.
A major historical problem appears when Pearcey posits this Reformation perspective against that of the post-Reformation. This paragraph illustrates the issue:
Despite all this, the Reformers’ emphatic rejection of the nature/grace dualism was not enough to overcome an age-old pattern of thought. The problem was that they failed to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights. Thus they did not give their followers any tools to defend those insights against philosophical attack — or to create an alternative to the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism. As a result, the successors of Luther and Calvin went right back to teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities, using Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems — and thus dualistic thinking continued to affect all the Christian traditions. (page 82)
Where to begin in discussing this? First I wonder: why would it have been necessary for the “Reformers” (this is a broad term) to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights? From my reading of Calvin, to take but one Reformer, he was quite able to adapt the existing theological/philosophical vocabulary of his day in order to express himself. For example, in his discussion on providence in the Institutes (1.16.9) he writes about absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and consequent necessity (necessitas consequentiae). Why would there be a need to create a new vocabulary? The existing vocabulary was already quite rich. Why would a new vocabulary have to be crafted to repel philosophical attacks or to create an alternative to dualistic philosophy? I fail to see how all this follows. My non sequitur alarm bells are ringing.
But more significantly, note Pearcey’s own vocabulary: “the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism” and “teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities.” She assumes that scholasticism is something with a definite content, including Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as its basis. Scholasticism was taught in universities, she says. But nowhere does she precisely outline the content of this “scholasticism.” She does not indicate whether she’s speaking of theology, philosophy, or any another field of study. Moreover, nowhere does she indicate whether or if this post-Reformation scholasticism differed from pre-Reformation scholasticism in any way. But she is quite sure that it was a bad development because it ensured that dualistic thinking would be harboured in Protestantism for some time to come. The broad generalizations here raise these and more questions.
Here’s the nub of the problem: scholasticism was a method of teaching. As a teaching method, it was especially marked by the use of careful definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques. It was a method used across the spectrum to convey different systems with widely differing theological content. There were Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, as well as Lutherans and Reformed. The scholastic teaching method was used both in the classroom and in writing. However, there are examples of theologians often identified as scholastic writing books that are not at all scholastic. Some of the best post-Reformation works on Christian piety and experience come from men who spent much of their time in the academy using the scholastic method. A friend (an expert in this area) pointed me to Antoine de Chandieu. This Huguenot theologian used the scholastic method in various works, but he also wrote a collection of meditations on Psalm 32. I might point out too, that though it sometimes happened, it was considered bad form to take the scholastic method into the pulpit. It was meant for the university context, not the church. Readers wanting to look into this more should have a look at this book.
Pearcey also argues that post-Reformation scholasticism used “Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems.” This raises questions too. Are we talking about theology? What do you mean by “basis”? What do you mean by “system”? What time period are we discussing exactly? Let’s say we’re talking theology, so systems of theology. Let’s say by “basis,” Pearcey means the foundations, what it’s based on. To be even more specific, let’s say we’re talking about the period of early orthodoxy (1565-1640). Let’s then take one of the preeminent handbooks of Reformed theology from this period, the 1625 Leiden Synopsis. What was the basis of the Leiden Synopsis? “We shall commence our disputations with Scripture, since it, being divinely inspired, is the principle for the most sacred Theology, its source of proof, and its means of instruction.” Scripture is the principle, the basis (or to use the technical term, principium cognoscendi). Nothing about Aristotle. From my reading of post-Reformation Reformed theology, this is typical not exceptional.
Contrary to what Pearcey and others have argued, the post-Reformation did not negate the gains of the Reformation — it built on them. Or to put it in other terms, there is more continuity between the Reformation and post-Reformation than has sometimes been recognized. So where does that leave Pearcey’s attempt to explain the continuing prevalence of dualistic philosophy? I reckon she has to find another explanation. Perhaps the cause has more to do with something as simple as the innate human proclivity to double-mindedness.