“The gift of the Westminster Standards to the world”

Aside

[I]f I were to essay to express in one word what it is in [the Westminster Standards] which has proved so perennial a source of strength to generation after generation of Christian men, and which causes us still to cling to them with a devotion no less intelligent than passionate, I think I should but voice your own conviction were I to say that it is because these precious documents appeal to us as but the embodiment in fitly chosen language of the pure gospel of the grace of God.

—Benjamin B. Warfield, The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed: An Address Delivered before the Presbytery of New York, November 8, 1897, on the occasion of the celebration of the Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Completion of the Westminster Standards (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 1, 2.

On the reading of scholastic theology with charity

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The flatterers of Dionysius were so grosse, that they would licke up the spittle of Dionysius, professing that it was sweeter than nectar; we must not so doate upon them [i.e., the scholastic doctors], as to lick up their excrements, but onlely follow them in so farre as they follow Christ.

John Weemes (c.1579–1636), “Advertisement,”
in The Portraiture of the Image of God in Man (1632), a3r.

Origen on Psalm 36:9

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For what other light of God can be named, in which any one sees light, save an influence of God, by which a man, being enlightened, either thoroughly sees the truth of all things, or comes to know God Himself, who is called the truth? Such is the meaning of the expression, In Your light we shall see light; i.e., in Your word and wisdom which is Your Son, in Himself we shall see You the Father.

—Origen, De Principiis, 1.1.1.

Does the Trinity matter for true worship?

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I testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father. For none “can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 12:3), and “No man has seen God at any time, but the only begotten God which is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him” (1 John 1:18).

— Basil of Caesarea, De Spiritu Sancto, § 27.

The craftsmanship of true theology

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The acquisition of true religion is just like that of crafts; both grow bit by bit; apprentices must despise nothing. If a man despise the first elements as small and insignificant, he will never reach the perfection of wisdom.

— Basil of Caesarea, De Spiritu Sancto§ 2.

Review of Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism by Willem J. van Asselt

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Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism by Willem J. van Asselt with contributions by T. Theo J. Pleizier, Pieter L. Rouwendal, and Maarten Wisse. Translated by Albert Gootjes. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011. Pp. xiv + 263. $25.00 paper.

Preview the contents, Richard Muller’s forward, and the opening essay by Willem J. van Asselt and Pieter L. Rouwendal: “What is Reformed Scholasticism?”

The Reformed pastor or seminarian interested in studying a figure or a doctrinal formulation from the mid-sixteenth- to late-seventeenth-century period of Reformed doctrinal florescence faces a daunting journey into an area that is largely terra incognita in the standard seminary curriculum—Reformed scholasticism. For starters, the historical scope is huge: from eleventh-century Scholasticism to eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Additionally, the field is not anglophone-friendly: the primary sources (very few of which have been translated into English) are in Latin, and, until recently, many of the most important secondary sources are in Dutch, French, German, or Italian. What is more, engagement with the sources requires, at a minimum, familiarity with Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. The propaedeutic path appears almost impassible for mere mortals.

Yet, all hope is not lost; for, as the ancient Chinese proverb teaches, the journey of a million miles begins with a small step. But, to continue the metaphor, if one is to begin the million-mile journey into the field of Reformed scholasticism, one certainly needs a good map. The new English translation of Willem J. van Asselt’s Inleiding in de gereformeerde scholastiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1998) (Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism) is therefore most welcome; for, by mapping the field of study and providing a guidebook for further research, this book both fills a void in anglophone scholarship and gives hope to newcomers that the path, despite its daunting appearance, is not altogether impassible.

The authors describe their purpose as follows: “This textbook reveals the roots, developments, and main topics of this theology [Reformed scholasticism] in their historical context and is meant as a stimulus for further study” (xiv). Specifically, readers will find: clear definitions of “orthodoxy,” “scholasticism,” and “Reformed scholasticism”; a historical survey of the entire era of scholasticism; introductions to the most important figures and schools of thought throughout the three periods of Reformed orthodoxy; a state of the question on key issues along with significant bibliographies appended to each chapter; a reader’s guide that details how to approach a scholastic text and applies the method to Gisbertus Voetius’ disputation on “The Use of Reason in Matters of Faith.” Thus, to quote from Richard A. Muller’s forward, this book “is not merely an introductory survey. It is a significant guide for the further study of the era” (x).

Compared to the Dutch original, chapters 4, 5, and 9 have been updated (with mostly formal changes), and an entirely new chapter on the implications of Reformed scholasticism for today has been added (ch. 11).

The book is arranged into two parts, the first of which treats the scholastic method in post-Reformation Reformed theology. Notably, in chapter 1, van Asselt and Pieter L. Rouwendall explicitly locate the book in what might be termed a revisionist line of historiography on Reformed scholasticism. This means that they disagree with the traditional answer given to the key question that undergirds the entire field of study: what is the nature of the historical relation between Medieval scholasticism, Reformation theology, and post-Reformation scholasticism? At the risk of generalization, the traditional answer is that, after the Reformation (which supposedly was a time of warm, simple, biblical theology), Protestant theology reverted to the cold, dry, rationalistic scholasticism that the Reformers sought to leave behind. This answer is largely based upon the assumption that the new scholastic form of post-Reformation theology (which, according to both sides, is an indisputable development) entails a change in content of that theology.

The revisionists dispute the latter. They counter that Reformed scholasticism is primarily a change in method rather than content: “The most important thesis we will defend in this work is that the term scholastic refers above all to method, without direct implications for content. It pertains to methods of disputation and reasoning which characterize scholasticism in contrast to other ways of doing theology” (8). Accordingly, they point out that, during this period, the scholastic method was used not only for theological content but also for jurisprudence and medicine. Also, they note that scholasticism was the universal method employed by Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran theologians alike. Therefore, since the scholastic method was employed to propagate a wide variety of content in multiple academic fields and a wide array of conflicting theologies, the revisionists view the older assessment to be untenable.

Starting with Schleirmacher and Hegel, in chapter 2, van Asselt and Rouwendal survey nineteenth-century approaches to the underlying historical question along with twentieth- and twenty-first-century reactions and developments. Against this backdrop they present their revisionist case for seeing a much larger measure of positive continuity between the theological content of Medieval scholasticism, Reformation theology, and Reformed scholasticism.

In chapter 3, T. Theo J. Pleizier and Maarten Wisse introduce Aristotle’s signal methodological role in Reformed scholasticism. Contrary to the common caricature of Reformed scholastics as naïve synthesizers of Aristotle’s pagan philosophy and the Holy Bible, the authors argue that the Reformed scholastics did not appropriate from Aristotle uncritically. Rather, they gave many terms new meanings, and they rejected several aspects of Aristotelian philosophy outright. The authors also present a basic survey of Aristotle’s corpus and introduce key concepts from his metaphysical formulations that appear in Reformed polemics with Socinians, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics.

In chapter 4, Wisse presents Augustine’s significant material role in Reformed scholasticism. He avers that, just as Aristotle is the methodological fount of Reformed scholasticism, so Augustine is its didactic and polemical fount especially regarding prolegomena, the doctrines of God and the Holy Trinity, and the doctrine of predestination.

Rouwendal surveys Medieval scholasticism in chapter 5. He explains how specific features of the scholastic method work such as the several steps of the quaestio method. He also introduces the most important Medieval theologians and texts. Thus he illuminates the Medieval methodological tools and theological sources that the Reformed scholastics critically appropriated in order to formulate their theological positions.

In chapter 6, van Asselt introduces a significant historical question that is a derivative of the larger continuity-discontinuity question that underlies the study of Reformed scholasticism, namely, how the Renaissance relates to the Reformation and hence how humanism relates to scholasticism. Building on the work of Paul Kristeller, he suggests that scholars of Reformed scholasticism need to broaden their horizon in order to take humanism into account insofar as a humanist line and a scholastic line coexist both in the Renaissance and the Reformation periods.

Van Asselt and Rouwendal trace the development of Reformed theological method in chapter 7. Beginning with early Reformation-era guides to Bible reading such as are found in Erasmus, Melanchthon, and Calvin, the authors illuminate the origins and growth of the loci method, the rise of Ramism, the distinction between the analytic and synthetic methods, and the discussions on whether theology is a theoretical or practical science.

Part 2, authored in whole by van Asselt, is comprised of three chapter-length surveys of the periods of early, high, and late Reformed orthodoxy (chs. 8–10). Van Asselt explicates each period’s historical context, main theological debates, and eminent centers of Reformed theology (mostly Reformed academies and universities along with their attending theologians). He also provides theological samplings from representative theologians of each era: Franciscus Junius’s formulation of the theologia archetypa-ectypa distinction, Francis Turretin’s quaestio on the freedom of the will, and Benedict Pictet’s view of the relation between reason and revelation respectively.

In chapter 11, van Asselt rehearses several historical correctives from the revisionist line of Reformed scholasticism studies and suggests several ways in which the field can be further developed. He also returns to the question with which the book began: does Reformed scholasticism have any relevance for theology today? He answers in the affirmative regarding three areas: (1) ignorance of Reformed scholasticism leads to superficiality and vagueness in theological formulations; (2) the all-encompassing breadth with which the Reformed scholastics sought to bring to bear in their explanations of God’s agency in the world is worth emulating; (3) the intent of the quaestio method—to attain clarity through critical analysis of ones’ own and another’s ideas and to theologize in light of the great stream of catholic orthodoxy—is a pressing need in contemporary Protestant theology.

To these benefits, three more can be added specifically for those of us within the American Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. First, this book challenges the overtly negative attitude toward Reformed scholasticism that arose in early twentieth-century Reformed philosophy at the Free University in Amsterdam under Herman Dooyeweerd, which attitude was then imported to American Reformed theology via Cornelius Van Til. It is time for a reassessment of this attitude based upon actual interaction with the primary sources of Reformed scholasticism, a feature that is lacking in this earlier scholarship. Second, for those of us who are not expert Latinists, this book still provides an invaluable orientation to the Reformed scholastic texts that are available in English such as Edward Leigh’s Body of Divinity, John Owen’s Works, Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, and even Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. Third, insofar as this book highlights the international scope and vast breadth and depth of Reformed theology in its period of florescence, it challenges contemporary Reformed theologians to avoid reductionistic tendencies such as thinking that one’s pet theologian is the sole paragon of Reformed theology.

This first-class guidebook is highly recommended to anyone interested in a basic orientation to the study of Reformed scholasticism.

This review is published as Laurence R. O’Donnell III, review of Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism by Willem J. van Asselt with contributions by T. Theo J. Pleizier, Pieter L. Rouwendal, and Maarten Wisse, Puritan Reformed Journal 4, no. 1 (2012): 343–47.

“Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice” by Richard A. Muller

I noted earlier that the audio recording of Richard A. Muller’s lecture, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice: A Parting of Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” is freely available thanks to the Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS (MP3; 66 MB):



The lecture is now available in the inaugural issue of Jonathan Edwards Studies, an online journal sponsored by the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University:

Richard A. Muller, “Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice: A Parting of Ways in the Reformed Tradition,” Jonathan Edwards Studies 1, no. 1 (2011): 3–22.

Access to the article is free, but you must register an account in order to view it. The abstract is as follows:

Jonathan Edwards, frequently identified in modern discussions of his thought as the “greatest American theologian” and often regarded as an epitome of Calvinism for his teaching on the freedom of will, was, in his own time and for a century after his death, a much-debated thinker whose views had a polarizing effect in Reformed circles. Scholars have examined the reception of his ideas in America and have noted a rather pointed opposition both in New England and in the American South. The reception of Edwards’ thought in Britain, however, has received far less attention, even though it offers a rather significant perspective on Edwards’ place in the Reformed tradition.

Sermons of Rutherford, Gillespie, Baillie and Henderson — Smyth sewn, hardback reprint

Aside

Chris Coldwell and his Naphtali Press are up to it again: reprinting classic Presbyterian literature in a suitable and long-lasting style. This time it is the Sermons of Rutherford, Gillespie, Baillie and Henderson.

Long live the Smyth sewn book. Long live the truth.

Review of Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy by Paul C. Gutjahr

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Charles Hodge’s (1797—1878) long, colorful, and sophisticated career as Princeton Seminary’s third professor and grandfather of American systematic theology deserves a thorough, wide-ranging, and intelligent analysis. Paul Gutjahr ably provides such an analysis in his new biography: Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy.

Lengthy, yet not prolix

With short chapters averaging between five to seven pages, this 385-page biography reads more like a novel than non-fiction. And thanks to Gutjahr’s organizational accumen, narrative skill, and mastery of Hodge’s massive corpus, the book reads quickly without sacrificing depth. He carefully prepares the narrative canvas early on with Hodge’s key intellectual themes and personality traits so that, as the chronologically-arranged narrative unfolds, issues in the foreground of each chapter sit comfortably against a proportionate background. Upon completing the book, the reader leaves with the satisfying sense that he or she has just spent several enjoyable afternoons in Hodge’s famous study listening to him narrate his life and times to his closest colleagues. This is American religious social history par excellence.

Colorful, yet not caricatural

Gutjahr weaves together the threads of Hodge’s non-theological passions and hobbys (farming, anatomy, medicine, politics, and modern science in general) with the threads of his theological pursuits in order to display the coat of many colors that is Hodge’s intellectual life. At the same time, he spends much effort in illuminating Hodge’s socio-political context in order to demonstrate how various times and events—especially the Civil War—profoundly shaped Hodge’s theological formulations and political views. Thus he shows Hodge to be a colorful intellectual who is both too complex for simplistic, ahistorical theological dismissals and too much man of his nineteenth-century times to allow for ahistorical repristinations of his theology straight into the twenty-first century.

Sophisticated, but one-sided at points

Even though Gutjahr employs the socio-historical method in exemplary fashion and illuminates Hodge’s thought in many useful ways, his method nevertheless invites shallowness in some of his theological assessments. Throughout the book the reader is given the tacit impression that Hodge’s theological views are almost exclusively the results of his stubborn disposition plus his educational background plus his philosophical context plus this or that. While no one would dispute that all of these sociological factors certainly make the man, a very important and foundational aspect of Hodge’s life is too often swallowed up by overemphasizing socio-historical analysis, namely, that he actually believed that the Bible is truly God’s Word and that the Westminster Standards provide the best summary of the Bible’s doctrine.

By reversing, albeit tacitly, the relationship between doctrine and life, text and context, belief and action, Gutjahr risks skewing one of the most basic facts of Hodge’s life: he lived, learned, led, and loved as a Presbyterian. However, if Hodge is not allowed to be a free-thinking Christian who built his life upon true doctrine rather than vice versa, then he has become a puppet, a mere product of the nineteenth-century rather than an actor in it. Thankfully, this sentiment only rears its head here and there throughout the book, and only implicitly. But, it is a methodological danger nonetheless.

A few unsubstantiated, albeit mostly minor, assessments are difficult to pass by without comment such as that Hodge differed significantly with Calvin regarding the nature of the sacraments or that Hodge waffled between reliance upon the Holy Spirit and reliance upon philosophical realism. Also, given that Gutjahr brings up the topic of Scottish Common Sense Realism time and again as a cornerstone of Hodge’s theological method (second only to the Westminster Confession of Faith), it was disappointing to find that the chapter devoted to this topic is based primarily on secondary sources and lacks the broad and deep perspective that Gutjahr normally and ably brings to bear upon most other aspects of Hodge’s thought.

Despite these small criticisms, Gutjahr’s biography is excellent and a delight to read. American Presbyterians will rejoice that Hodge has received the thorough and skillful treatment that his life and work deserve.

Zuidema on Kuyper and common grace

Unlike some anglophone scholarship on Kuyper (which seems to have no qualms about offering sweeping judgments about the man’s thought without engaging his primary sources), the following translation of S. U. Zuidema’s “Common Grace and Christian Action in Abraham Kuyper” is well worth reading. (Translated by Harry Van Dyke presumably for Communication and confrontation; a philosophical appraisal and critique of modern society and contemporary thought; originally published in Anti-Revolutionaire Staatkunde 24 (1954): 1–19, 49–73.)

Reading this piece should at least cause the thoughtful Reformed anglophone to think twice before dismissing Kuyper as a “transformationalist,” as has become quite fashionable in some American Reformed circles.