Monday, February 15, 2016

Why We Regularly Get 16th and 17th-Century Protestantism So Wrong

Richard Muller, who spent the better part of his academic career studying 16th and 17th-century Protestantism, drills down on why contemporary scholarship often so badly bungles the assessment of this period: it is actually vastly understudied and moreover contemporary scholars work in an entirely different philosophical milieu.

To appreciate this, consider the following material from the preface of Muller's Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 3:
I come to the formal completion of a project that has, in varying degrees of concentration, occupied me since 1978. In that time, I have written on other subjects, but the analysis of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed understandings of prolegomena and principia has remained a primary interest and focus of my research. Completion of the project comes, however, with the recognition that the investigation has barely scratched the surface of the subject. Even though the last twenty-five years have seen an increase of scholarly interest in the intellectual history of Protestantism in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, a host of issues contributing to the course of Protestant orthodoxy and a vast mass of documents belonging to its history remain either superficially examined or utterly unexamined. The very fact that only prolegomena and the doctrines of Scripture and God have been studied here indicates an enormous amount of work to be done, on a scale similar to that undertaken in the present work, but with other historical and doctrinal emphases, before we can begin to have a comprehensive picture of Reformed orthodoxy. Further study of the history of exegesis, the piety, and the homiletics of the era, with attention to the contexts of theological discourse and the interrelationships of academic study and popular religion, is required before we have full closure to the discussion. In addition, despite the length of the present study, I am more aware than ever of the need for the study of individual thinkers, of the varieties of doctrinal formulation among the Reformed orthodox, and of the issues debated between the Reformed orthodox and their various opponents. Often essays and monographs are needed on points that occupy barely a paragraph or two in the present study. Many of the topical sections in each of the four volumes survey issues that were the subject of vast treatises in the seventeenth century. 
Just stating the needs of scholarship in this way offers an indication of why the older nineteenth- and twentieth-century dogmatic scholarship, given both its phobia for and misdefinition of scholasticism and its attachment to variations of the central dogma theory, was so egregiously wrong in its assessment of the late sixteenth- and the seventeenth-century materials. Beyond and underlying this basic historiographical problem, moreover, is the fact that the theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth    centuries wrote in a context that was largely cut off from the orthodox and scholastic dogmatics of Protestantism—and that, even when they examined its materials, they typically did so by way of less-than-representative compendia, like Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics, and in the context of modern philosophical perspectives that hardly coincided with the philosophical perspectives, not to mention the shifting world-view of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Modern theological critics of this older Protestant theology typically misunderstand the ideas and formulae that they attack—sometimes because the misunderstanding is shared by the modern “defenders” of orthodoxy. The point is perhaps best illustrated by the discussion of divine simplicity in the present volume: many of the defenders as well as detractors of the doctrine assume (incorrectly) that it permitted no distinctions in the Godhead. The greatest difficulty that confronts the modern writer in dealing with this material is, thus, learning its vocabulary and, via its vocabulary, its meaning.

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 15–16.