Friday, January 1, 2016

Richard Muller on Protestant Scholasticism

"The theology of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism has never been accorded the degree of interest bestowed upon the theology of the great Reformers and has seldom been given the attention it deserves both theologically and historically. Codifiers and perpetuators, like the theologians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, simply do not receive the adulation given to the inaugurators of the movement. Nor do codifiers need to be defended as zealously as inaugurators—if only because the codifiers themselves have provided the first line of that defense. If, however, these codifiers and perpetuators have been neglected in favor of the Reformers themselves, the neglect is clearly unjustified: what the Reformation began in less than half a century, orthodox Protestantism defended, clarified and codified over the course of a century and a half. The Reformation is incomplete without its confessional and doctrinal codification. What is more, Protestantism could hardly have survived if it had not developed, in the era of orthodoxy, a normative and defensible body of doctrine consisting of a confessional foundation and systematic elaboration.

The contribution of the orthodox or scholastic theologians to the history of Protestantism, then, was the creation of an institutional theology, confessionally in continuity with the Reformation and doctrinally, in the sense of the larger system of doctrine, in continuity with the great tradition of the church. The Reformers had developed, on the basis of their exegesis of Scripture, a series of doctrinal issues that were embodied, as the distinctive concerns of Protestantism, in the early confessions of the Reformation. In developing these insights, however, the Reformers identified themselves and their theology with the cause of catholic or universal Christian truth. The Protestant orthodox held fast to these Reformation insights and to the confessional norms of Protestantism and, at the same time, moved toward the establishment of an entire body of “right teaching” in continuity both with the Reformation and with the truths embodied in the whole tradition of Christian doctrine. They recognized that the claim of Protestantism to represent the church could be maintained only if the witness of the Reformation proved to be the key not only to the reform of a series of ecclesiastical abuses but also to the reformulation of the body of Christian doctrine. The selectivity of the Reformation in its polemic had to be transcended in the direction of a reformed catholicity.

Two historical or contextual features of this orthodox theology emerge immediately on examination even of the few figures just noted: Reformed orthodoxy was a varied movement both intellectually and geographically or internationally. On the one hand, just as the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent not a monolithic Reformed doctrine but a limited spectrum of teaching characteristic of the various national and regional Reformed churches, so also is the doctrinal and exegetical theology of Reformed orthodoxy varied: within a confessional spectrum, the scholastic dogmatics of the era and the biblical exegesis evidence differing forms of definition and result. On the other hand, this Reformed orthodoxy is an international phenomenon—Dutch, Swiss, German, French, English, and Scottish Reformed theologians all contributed to the development of Reformed orthodoxy and consistently dialogued with each other across national and geographical boundaries. Thus, for example, the intellectual context for understanding the theology of a John Owen or a Richard Baxter is not merely England: their reading, their dialogue, and their debates were conducted on a broad, international scale—and, because of the agency of various proponents of the older Reformed piety and translators (both roles are seen in Alexander Comrie), the doctrine and piety of these writers remained a lively force in religion throughout late orthodoxy.

When this orthodox or scholastic Protestantism is examined in some depth and viewed as a form of Protestant theology in its own right rather than as merely a duplication or reflection of the theology of the Reformation, it is clearly a theology both like and unlike that of the Reformation, standing in continuity with the great theological insights of the Reformers but developing in a systematic and scholastic fashion different from the patterns of the Reformation and frequently reliant on the forms and methods of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. This double continuity ought not to be either surprising or disconcerting. Instead, it ought to be understood as one example among many of the way in which the church both moves forward in history, adapting to new situations and insights, and at the same time retains its original identity as the community of faith. It ought to be understood as one example of the way in which the Christian intellectual tradition maintains useful forms, methods, and doctrinal ideas while at the same time incorporating the advances of exegetical and theological investigation.

The contemporary relevance of Protestant orthodox theology arises from the fact that it remains the basis for normative Protestant theology in the present. With little formal and virtually no substantial dogmatic alteration, orthodox or scholastic Reformed theology appears in the works of Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Even when major changes in perspective are evident—as in the theology of Emil Brunner, Karl Barth and Otto Weber—the impact of Protestant orthodoxy remains clear both in terms of the overarching structure of theological system and in terms of its basic definitions. Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology draws heavily on Francis Turretin’s Institutio theologiae elencticae and represents, particularly in its prolegomena, an attempt to recast the systematic insights of orthodoxy in a nineteenth-century mold. Of the other writers, Karl Barth most clearly shows his indebtedness to the orthodox prolegomena—not always in terms of direct appropriation of doctrine, but rather in terms of sensitivity both to the importance of prolegomena and to the issues traditionally raised at this preliminary point in dogmatics.

Similar statements can be made with reference to the two principia or foundations of theology, the doctrines of God and Scripture, and indeed, with reference to the whole of the Protestant orthodox system. Just as the orthodox prolegomena represent the Protestant appropriation of basic theological presuppositions and, as such, still affect our view of theology today, so also the orthodox doctrine of God and Scripture represents the fundamental statement of these underlying principia for Protestantism. We continue to be influenced by the orthodox language of an immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, but nonetheless historically active, God—and we continue to wrestle, particularly in conservative or evangelical circles, with the implications of the traditional doctrine of Scripture, given its place of final doctrinal authority by the Reformers, but codified and stated for us by the Protestant orthodox. The impact of scholastic Protestantism remains. This theology and its relationship to earlier ages—specifically, the Middle Ages and the Reformation—must be understood if contemporary Protestantism is to come to terms with its own relationship both to the Reformation and to the Christian tradition as a whole."

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 1: Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 27–29.