Tradition and Scripture in the Reformed… Tradition

“Just because one seeks to recover a tradition, one is not necessarily
committed to what we have called an archaeological reconstruction of the tradition. For a Reformed theologian any tradition, the Reformed tradition as well, needs to be measured against Scripture to determine whether it is of value. It is Scripture which has authority and the tradition only has authority when it is based on Scripture. The tradition needs to be evaluated and re-evaluated and those elements in it which are most solid emphasized. In any tradition there are elements which have played a significant role because of the needs of the day, but which in few generations no longer seemed meaningful. In every tradition, there
are the marks of compromises with the culture. There are things the
religious leaders would have liked to have done but which the state would not permit or the people would not support.” -Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship

The Church’s Language: Theology

I’m backing up and hitting some points of theological prolegomena that I missed the first time around. The most basic element of prolegomena is the justification for speaking of the study of the Bible as “theology.”

The Reformation was a recovery of the centrality of Holy Scripture, and the principle that it is the ultimate norm (though, not the only norm) of faith and practice, creeds and deeds. This was not an attempt to re-invent the wheel, but a summons to gather all of our theological formulations before the tribunal of Holy Scripture to see if they are, indeed, Biblical– it was a call to purify by Holy Scripture those teachings which were tainted by error and to dispose of those which were corrupted beyond repair in the Church. The Reformers wanted an orthodox and Bible-based theology.

Yet, even this word, “theology,” was one to quibble over. The word “theology” is not found anywhere in Holy Scripture. Even worse, it has pagan origins! It was used by the poets, the historians, and the philosophers, but not the apostles. This naturally raises the question, should we even bother to use the term “theology” to describe our study of Bible doctrines. The Reformers and their successors answered in the affirmative.

The Protestants had several arguments which they put forward in favor of the Christian appropriation of the term “theology.”

1. Though “theology” is not used in Scripture, we do find similar grammatical constructions to it in the New Testament, “logos tou theou“, and similar phrases (cf. Rom. 3:2). Certainly, these are not very far removed from the word “theology.”

2. There are any number of words which Christians, even the Biblical writers, were willing to ‘share’ with the Gentile world (for example: theosecclesia, elohim, and others).

3. There are some words in the Christian language that do not explicitly arise from the text of Scripture, but are none the less biblical in content  and essential to promoting the truth of Scripture (Trinity, homoousiou, original sin, incarnation, etc.). The “sound” of such words may not be found in Scripture, but the meaning is.

4. The term “theology” has had a long established place in the history of the Church, and has long been regarded as an appropriate description of the study of God’s word. Early on in Church history, manuscripts of the book of Revelation attribute the book to John the “Theologian” — the one who wrote of the Word of God. The term “theologian” was also used in the ancient Church of those who believed and wrote on the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity.

Thus, there is truly a Biblical logic to this non-biblical word.

But if the term is legitimate, what does it mean?

The etymology, itself, points in a promising direction. “Theology” is comprised of the two Greek words “theos” (God) and “logos” (word). Theology is both a “word” about “God,” and a “word” from “God.” It is God’s word about himself (and all things as they stand in relation to him) which he has communicated to us. Thus, the medieval definition of “theology” (which the Protestant Scholastics “Amen-ed”) was that, “theology is taught by God, teaches God, and leads to God.”

And the purpose or “scope” of this study of God is to give us knowledge so as to make us wise and able to live blessed lives to the glory of God.

(This discussion has been drawn principally from Muller’s PRRD Vol. 1 and Francis Turretin’s Institutes Vol. 1)

Richard Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, Chapter 8, “Scholasticism Protestant and Catholic: Francis Turretin on the Object and Principles of Theology”

Muller says that historical scholarship is now more appreciative of how medieval theology influenced Protestantism. This is seen by the facts that 1) it is no longer believed that Protestantism is the result only of medieval nominalism, but that it also reflected the “positive character of late medieval thought” and Thomas Aquinas (and others) and 2) more attention has been given to the scholastic nature of Protestantism, and there has been a steady decline in support of the ‘central dogma’ theory (i.e., that Lutherans deduced everything from justification, Reformed deduced everything from predestination). Rather than the narrowness of a central dogma approach to theology, Protestant Scholasticism was “a technically sophisticated school-theology” that developed the theology of the Reformers.

This appreciation of medieval scholasticism is especially seen in the area of theological prolegomena. Since the Reformers tended to give little attention to prolegomena, the 17th century Reformed went to Aquinas, Scotus, and others. This can be seen quite clearly in Francis Turretin’s theology. Muller argues that Turretin is the prime example of Protestant Scholasticism, and in this essay he intends to discuss the “principles” of Turretin’s theology and their “historical roots.”

Turretin’s view of theology flows out of his understanding of what type of knowledge theology gives: speculative or practical. This involved wrestling with the question of the “genus” or kind of knowledge which theology produced. In Turretin’s view, theology could be classified as a systematic “discipline” or as a subjective “disposition” in the intellect. Knowing which dispositions of the mind were involved were crucial to defining the genus of theology; Turretin believed that the disposition of believing (habitus credendi) was the “proper” disposition in theology, and sought analogical likenesses of it in the dispositions involved in the Aristotelian sciences. Because there was no clear likeness, Turretin argued against the scientific nature of theology (here we see similarities to Scotus).

Instead, Turretin saw a clearer comparison with sapientia (wisdom) than with scientia (science). Theology gives wisdom of the “highest and most eminent things” and “directs” all other kinds of knowledge towards God, the chief end. Because theology is wisdom, it is both speculative and practical (an issue debated by the medievals). It is not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge for action and use in life. Consequently, the object of theology is not God in himself, but God for us in Christ.

Lastly, Muller surveys Turretin’s view of the use of philosophy. We again see Turretin drawing upon both medieval scholasticism and the theology of the Reformers. On the one hand, Turretin affirmed sola scriptura and the corruption to human reason that sin has brought. On the other hand, his scholastic approach to theology demonstrates some appreciation for the use of philosophy. Turretin thus distinguishes between the execessive use of reason and the defective use of reason. While some Church Fathers and many medieval theologians were guilty of an excessive use of reason, the Socinians and Anabaptists were guilty of accepting irrational views of theology because of their disapproval of philosophy and the liberal arts.

Turretin sought a mediating position, and described it allegorically. Theology and philosophy relate in a way similar to Sara and Hagar. Sara is the mother, Hagar is the handmaiden. When used subserviently to theology and with an understanding of its defects, philosophy can serve a helpful role in theology. Muller writes of Turretin, “He does not view philosophy itself as the enemy and will not abandon either the gift of reason or the truths that reason is capable of eliciting from perception or the natural order.” That being said, Turretin understood that the principia of theology are rooted in revelation (not reason).

The chapter goes into much greater detail than I have about the particular sources and theologians whom Turretin was influenced by, and yet those familiar with medieval and Reformed theology will see these influences even in the brief synopsis I have given here.

After Calvin can be purchased here.