Some Questions Inspired by Richard Muller on Protestant Scholasticism

I’m reading an essay by Richard Muller on Protestant scholasticism. Here are some quotes, and some of my questions / comments that they have inspired.

…The entire notion of “central dogmas” belongs to the nineteenth century. Not only did various nineteenth-century theologians assume that an entire system of Christian doctrine not only could but ought to be constructed around a single principle (viz., a “central dogma” or a “material principle”), these same writers also typically concluded that every age of the church, even those ages that did not write theological systems, constructed their doctrines around a distinct central dogma…

It is…understandably difficult to find any theologian who developed his system on the basis of an explicit central dogma or deductive principle before the nineteenth century. ["The Problem of Protestant Scholasticism: A Review and Definition", in Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise, ed. Willem J. van Asselt and Eef Decker (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), pp. 48-49]

I might be making more out of this than Muller intends, but I wonder if this has applicability to the fact that many non-Reformeds commonly view Reformed theology as being basically a “one-note” program, with everything in the world revolving around “soteriology”. Obviously the non-Reformed don’t simply invent that perception wholecloth; there are way too many Reformed forums on the Internet, especially, where you can go and rarely hear anything discussed except the glories of the TULIP, the Ultimate Centrality of a couple or three propositions about sola fide, and shrill polemics against “synergists”. All of this surely tends to create the impression that the Reformed worldview isn’t about much more than a system where everything ruthlessly orbits “central dogma(s)” about a very narrow set of issues cordoned off from everything else and labelled in contradistinction to everything else as “soteriology”. I don’t have a hard time believing Muller’s assertion that this “central dogma” mentality comes from the nineteenth century, especially given the enormous Protestant capitulation in that century to what Mark Noll has called “the didactic Enlightenment”.

But Muller’s words also make me wonder about the origin of our commonplace Reformed constructs of “the formal principle” and “material principle” of the Reformation itself. Can anyone shed any light on the origin and / or development of this “dualistic”, and it seems to me, “reductionistic”, way of scientifically analyzing (!) the Reformation?

So too did the Reformed scholastics offer detailed discussions of their theological principia and axiomata. Suffice it to say, in the first place, that these discussions do not identify predestination or the divine decrees either as a principium or as fundamental axiom of theology. Nor, when the Reformed scholastics discuss the topic of “fundamental doctrines” do they depart from the topics of the creed in order to identify predestination as a “fundamental.” Principia were defined, in the Protestant scholastic systems of the seventeenth century, either as the ultimate essential and cognitive foundations of theology or as the basic axiomata or aphorismi of argument from which conclusions might be drawn.

In the former sense of the term, the principia of theology were identified as God, the principium essendi or essential foundation, and Scripture, the principium cognoscendi or cognitive foundation of theology. Neither of these principia were understood as propositions or axioms from which doctrine could be deduced. Rather, each in its own way is a sine qua non of Christian theology: Christian theology could not exist without God, its essential foundation, and it could not be known apart from the special revelation provided in Holy Scripture, its cognitive foundation. Now, of course, the Protestant scholastics did develop doctrinal expositions of these two principia and place them at the beginning of their theological systems, usually placing the locus de Scriptura sacra second in order after a prolegomenon and the locus de Deo third. Neither of these doctrinal loci was, moreover, deduced from a single principle; rather both were composed on the basis of analysis of biblical texts in what might be called the context of a fairly traditional churchly exegesis and of an equally traditional Christian philosophical background. [Ibid., pp. 56-57]

This is an amazingly nuanced presentation of the aims and methodology of Reformed Protestantism so soon after the Reformation itself. I daresay such nuancing is hard to find in contemporary Reformed presentations–which are almost ubiquitously afraid of even the mention of “philosophy” and “traditional churchly exegesis” unless those terms are allowed to mean, respectively, “nothing-but-the-face-value-meaning-of-Scripture” and “the-accumulated-wisdom-of-only-the-Reformational-churches”.

What I have seen of the Reformed scholastics (mostly from readings in Turretin and Whitaker) is a far more careful, far more historically-concerned and responsible approach to doing theology, and also to opposing Rome. It’s almost enough for me to sing the high praises of the Reformed scholastics that a certain Reformed Baptist polemicist once opined on his radio show that one of the basic problems with the Reformed scholastics was that they “took Bellarmine too seriously”. This dictum could be rhetorically reversed and made to serve the more constructive (and far more reformational) view that the Protestant reformation was more of a “Medieval” phenomenon than a “Modern” one, more an effort to conserve and rebuild than to raze and innovate.

And if the Reformed scholastics, a critical link between the Reformers themselves and we who try to be faithful to the Reformation today, placed the locus de Scriptura sacra second in their works, that is, after a “prolegomena”, that tells me that there’s nothing inherently anti-Reformational about me doing that. Prolegomena is where you deal with important questions of method and lay out your own assumptions and try to pre-empt obvious objections from other viewpoints. By contrast, in my experience anyway, it seems that many Protestants today want to just skip prolegomena and go straight to “what’s really important”. That is, they act as if our principia, particularly the solas, are simply brute givens bearing “face value meanings”, and that “compromises” of them are as easy to spot as just running someone’s views through The Acme Deluxe Objective Exegesis and Literal Interpretation Bowdlerizer.

So, to take a question oft asked of me by certain opponents (including some Presbyterian ones who really ought to know better!), why don’t I fill my blog entries with “biblical exegesis”, especially a kind driven by a pretended “no philosophy in my sola Scriptura” methodology? Well, simple. It’s not the tradition of the Protestant Reformation to do so.

I may have more later as I keep reading Muller.

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