Friday, May 06, 2011

Reformed Scholasticism - a book and a question or two

I just finished reading a new book by Willem J. Van Asselt, called Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. It is just coming out and has been highly touted by many around the blogosphere including some good friends whom I respect. However, upon reading the book I was highly disappointed.

First, the book does not adequately explain what is not Scholasticism. He defines scholasticism, but never lets us know of anything that is not scholasticism. He does give a few brief titles, but no definitions and not drawing distinctions between the two (or more positions). By not doing so, I felt I did not have a good introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. This is highly ironic when one understands Scholasticism as a method of using dialectics and presenting objections and answering them.

Second, part of the book tried to give a historical progression, but fails in this. He gives examples from each of his three eras. But since he never talked about dissent or the state of scholasticism, one cannot trace any movement or growth in Scholasticism. Disappointing.

I do feel I know more about Reformed Scholasticism than I did going into the book, but I was hoping for a lot more.

What I would rather talk about though is the seeming acceptance of Reformed Scholasticism almost uncritically. It is almost as if Reformed Scholasticism is having a bit of a revival right now. Now, I can agree it was tarred and feathered for too long and unjustly, but that does not mean it is great, or even good or even desirable.

Van Asselt admits up front in the book he holds Reformed Scholasticism in a positive light. His historical treatment begins in 1560, which is late second generation reformation. It is true that in many ways the Reformation was an outright rejection of Scholasticism. The vast majority of the First Reformers were humanists and deliberately rejected Scholasticism. Indeed they were committed humanists and went to the Scripture for their theology. They focused on grammar and linguistic issues as they developed the theology of the Protestant Reformation eschewing the Scholastic argumentation and teaching. Zwingli and the Zurich bunch were humanists and hated Scholasticism, and not just the excess and the theology. They did not use the methodology either. Nor did Oecolampadius in Basel, nor Haller in Bern. Calvin's Institutes looks nothing like the Institutes of Turretin. Because Calvin did use the Scholastic method. Why are we not wondering and looking more closely at the rejection of Scholasticism by the fathers of the Reformation?

Even if we grant that Reformed Scholasticism changed from Romanist Scholasticism so that it was in service to the text of Scripture as Burnett convincingly argues, it does not remove all concern. Does not method affect content?

Let me illustrate. The Heidelberg Catechism (non-Scholastic document. Van Asselt calls it a Synthetic) is vastly different from the Westminster Catechism (more of a Scholastic influenced document). One of the complaints of Reformers about Scholasticism is that it was speculative, and not practical. The Heidelberg starts off by pointing out the end. It starts where it plans to finish, with Christ and him crucified as our only comfort and hope. You can see that point running throughout the document. You will not find discussions of God's nature or man's chief end in the non-scholastic Heidelberg. The Westminster is going to be a much more thorough theologically, touching the points that the Heidelberg just ignores. Is any of that related to the Scholastic influence of many of the Puritans?

Another example this one from Basel. Oecolampadius was the first reformer there. He was a humanist. He wrote a commentary on Daniel where commenting on 3:24-25 (The three in the furnace), he unashamedly claims the fourth figure is Christ himself. This seems to be the point of the text for Oecolampadius although he does mention that the miracle is done by the true God as opposed to false gods of Babylon. Even the application is Christ centered.
John Jacob Grynaeus, a late 1570's head pastor of Basel who brought the town back from Lutheranism, also wrote on Daniel. Grynaeus was much more scholastic in methodology. He rejects the fourth figure as Christ and spends time discussing efficient, secondary, and final causes of the miracle (Aristotle), and unbelievers. Next is Polanus, who was 1599 and thoroughly Scholastic. His discussion on Daniel included long theological discussions of angels, for he too rejected the figure as Christ, broke things into points and sub point on miracles and angels and the like. A trip into what early reformers might have called speculative theology.

I am not saying I am out right against Reformed Scholasticism, but that just maybe we ought to stop and look at this thing a little bit more


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