Anti-Scholasticism, Revival(ism), Pietism, Or The Reformed Theology, Piety, And Practice? (1)

Recovering the Reformed ConfessionIn recent weeks there has been a remarkable confluence of articles that, in their own way, are right on time. Let us start chronologically. In November John Frame reviewed James Dolezal’s excellent book, All That Is In God. In the course of his review, Frame criticized Reformed scholasticism in the very way that Charles Augustus Briggs (1841–1913) did, in the same way that the Barthians have since the 1930s, and in the way that some Amyraldians and others have since the 1960s and 70s. Re-stating those criticisms might be well and good had there been no response, no re-assessment, or no revisionist scholarship but, of course, there has developed a considerable body of literature re-assessing the phenomenon of Protestant Scholasticism generally and Reformed scholasticism and orthodoxy more specifically. The revision and re-assessment of Lutheran orthodoxy (and Protestant orthodoxy more generally) began in 1957 with the publication of Robert Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture: A Study of the Theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957). In the 1970s he surveyed Lutheran orthodoxy more broadly in The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1970–72). The revision of the received story about Reformed theology might be said to have begun in 1972 with the publication of Jill Raitt’s dissertation on Theodore Beza’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, The Eucharistic Theology of Theodore Beza: Development of the Reformed Doctrine (Chambersburg, Pa: American Academy of Religion, 1972). Bob Godfrey’s 1974 Stanford PhD dissertation on the Synod of Dort advanced the discussion and remains a valuable resource for understanding the dynamics within early Reformed orthodoxy. The tide began to turn, however, in 1978 when Richard Muller began what was, for many years, a one-man assault on the received story about Reformed scholasticism and orthodoxy, that it was a departure from the “genius” and “spirit” and even theology of the Reformation, that it marked a turn back to medieval “rationalism” and spiritually stultifying movement that more or less wrecked the Reformed churches and paved the way for the ascendancy of liberalism. The reader should start with his Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1986) but he has been summarizing his research for more than two decades years in the series, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, presently available only through He has also summarized his work in, e.g., After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and most recently in Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (2017). About 20 years into Muller’s project Carl Trueman and I published, Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (1999) which included essays from Muller, David Steinmetz, David Bagchi, Godfrey among others  calling attention to the state of the art. Since, that time, however (itself now almost 20 years old) a virtual industry has developed applying the methods pioneered by Heiko Oberman (1930–2001) and his student David Steinmetz (1936–2015) to the study of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Thus, in light of this impressive body of research and given the time that one has had to read and digest it, Frame’s repetition of the old caricatures of Reformed scholasticism is astonishing to say the least. Nevertheless, he is not alone. Muller’s work is often cited but my experience is that writers are more likely to cite his work than actually to read it. ‘Tis a pity.

As one who studies, writes on, and teaches courses on the sources of the Reformed tradition, I am impressed again how important it is not only to keep up with the literature in those fields but also how much more important it is to read sources. One of the greatest faults of the older approach to Reformed scholasticism, as represented by Frame’s review of Dolezal, is that it cannot be squared with the sources read in any reasonably historical way. In our survey of Reformed scholasticism/orthodoxy I begin with an orientation in which I merely quote from the older secondary literature and outline the way Reformed scholasticism came to be viewed in the 19th and 20th centuries, prior to 1972. Then I more or less send them off to read the sources and then we gather together to discuss them. In the 20 years (or so) that I have been doing this the students consistently report that what they find in the sources is not what the older secondary literature described. What they typically find is a tradition that was remarkably coherent and consistent. This is not to say that there was no diversity within Reformed orthodoxy—there was—but it is to claim that there was a coherent theology, piety, and practice that emerged from the various quarters of the Reformed world, which came to expression ecclesiastically in the Reformed confessions. My students report that they find writers who loved the Lord, who loved his Word, who trusted his Word implicitly, who sought above all to follow the Word, who placed that Word above human reason and religious experience, who received the ecumenical faith as summarized in the ancient Christian creeds, who loved his church, who loved the lost, and who sought to articulate the Reformed faith in a way that was appropriate to the audience (e.g., unbelievers, the academy, or the church) to which they were writing at the moment. Most of my students find that when we are willing to abandon our assumptions about what must (a priori) have been the case and consider the growing body of primary sources now available in English, the older story simply does not stand up to scrutiny. To this end I have been editing a series of English translations of primary sources in the series Classic Reformed Theology published by Reformation Heritage Books. So far we have published Caspar Olevianus, William Ames, and Johannes Cocceius. We hope to publish a first-ever English translation of J. H. Heidegger later this year. We have multiple volumes waiting to be edited and published. In the last few years alone multiple translations have been published, including Beza on the Supper and Junius on what I called in RRC the categorical distinction in theology.

The reality is, however, that most evangelicals who identify with aspects of Reformed theology and the Reformed themselves have not yet read the sources nor the modern academic literature on the development of Reformed theology. This reality was one of the motivations behind Recovering the Reformed Confession. My intent was to help those within the Reformed world (particularly NAPARC) and those whom my friend Brad Isbell calls the “Presby-curious” to find a pathway into (or back into) the riches of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Since this is 2018 and the 10th anniversary of its publication and in light of the recent articles re-stating the older view and articles in recent days advocating renewed appreciation for revival (or revivalism) and pietism, two issues with which RRC was much engaged, this seems a good time to look at those these movements and to contrast them again with the Reformed confession.

Lord permitting, we will address the renewed calls to appreciate and incorporate both revival(ism) and Pietism into our theology, piety and practice in the next part.

from The Heidelblog


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