A Series of Unfortunate Ideas? The Use and Abuse of Scholastic Theology

I have often noted in conversation that “scholasticism” is a bad word with bad connotations for many people. However, it has also become a strange word that does strange things to people. In some cases, it may even produce strange people or make the strange ones even stranger. When I hear, “Reformed scholasticism,” I think, “classic Reformed theology,” or, “training clear and effective pastors who are devoted to the triune God.” These ideas appeal to me, both because I have been a Reformed pastor and now my job is to train Reformed pastors. There will always be those who believe that “Reformed” and “scholasticism” are like fire and water, the one always threatening either to extinguish or to evaporate the other. However, they should be more like oil and fire or like storm clouds and rain, scholasticism fueling the fires of a vibrant Reformed theology or filling the clouds with the water of sound doctrine to fall on thirsty souls.
Unfortunately, though this sounds good, this is not always what happens. Rather than revealing and clarifying biblical teaching to the heirs of the kingdom, scholastic theology can become like parables that conceal the truth even while revealing it. The problem is that this often results in hiding the truth from those who should understand it and revealing it to a select gnostic group of Reformed few. Some people like obscure terms and philosophical concepts for their own sakes. Some people can teach and practice engineering, but not help people use their smart phones or computers. Likewise, some can talk about the habits and acts of saving faith, habitual and actual sin and sanctification, without telling people that they must be willing to believe whatever the triune God tells them and to do whatever he commands them. Sometimes Christians gradually lose touch with the world around them and how people think and speak and, for some, scholasticism becomes the unintentional means of cutting their last remaining ties.
My purpose here is to show why the church needs scholastic theology and why she needs more than scholastic theology. To speak in scholastic terms, scholastic theology is a necessary cause of recovering classic Reformed thought, but it is not a sufficient cause of doing so. It is a means of understanding good ideas, but it is not and end replacing those ideas or of keeping them from the average Christian. After a bit of explanation of what Reformed scholasticism is, the rest of the material will illustrate why we should use it and how we should beware of abusing it.
First of all, what is Reformed scholasticism? “Reformed” refers to a set of beliefs that more or less aligns with a historical movement in church history. If you think that content is enough to be Reformed, then sorry. It is not. Calling yourself Reformed says as much about what you think about history as you do about what the Bible teaches. “Scholastic” refers to a scientific method of organizing theology, giving clear definitions and making precise distinctions. It involves stating questions clearly, knowing what you are talking about and what you are not (or should not), understanding the available options, distinguishing between truth and falsehood, examining the truth from many sides and in light of many questions, and knowing what to do with what you learn and why it matters. Scholasticism can take philosophical forms to convey biblical ideas. Reformed scholasticism, however, is more concerned with biblical ideas than with their precise philosophical forms. If there is a tension between the two, then philosophy will bend or break rather than Scripture. For example, following Aristotelian categories, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause of salvation. Yet this does not convey the whole truth. Faith is part of the picture too, which becomes the instrumental cause of salvation under the efficient causality of the Holy Spirit. The whole point is that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The Spirit works faith in God’s people so that they can see and receive Christ. Only then can they come to God and only then does God receive all of the glory in their salvation. They must believe, but they can’t and won’t and they can’t because they won’t. Scholastic causal categories help theologians in this case to sift through what they are finding in Scripture. At least this is how things should work.
Second, why should we study Reformed scholasticism? I care enough about this topic that I wrote a book about it. To summarize what I wrote in the first chapter of that book, Reformed scholasticism can:
  1. Promote precise and clear teaching, both in the church and in the seminary.
  2. Teach us how to translate academic ideas into pastoral theology.
  3. Enable us to understand the development of theology in history.
  4. Give us the methodological foundation of classic Reformed ideas.
  5. Enable us to learn by imitation how to benefit carefully from the entire catholic Christian tradition.

I love Reformed scholasticism, but sometimes when I read online posts and discussions related to it I wonder if I am unintentionally creating a monster by writing such things. I can read (and appreciate) Amandus Polanus explain divine simplicity by listing Aristotle’s eleven modes of composition only to negate them one by one. Yet if I start speaking and teaching this way in the church, or even in the seminary, then I have likely lost the benefit of reading Polanus and others like him. While scholasticism can help us communicate better with people, we should never lose sight of the fact that it is real people with whom we are communicating. Scholasticism is not ready made for today’s church, let alone today’s world. We need clear thinking, academic and pastoral theology, good historical theology, Reformed methods as well as Reformed ideas, and the ability to see Christ’s faithfulness in every century of church. Yet we need to be able to use these tools to build a house rather than to cut down a forest.

Third, where do we often go wrong? When I think of Reformed scholasticism, I think of John Owen and Thomas Manton: Men who were good thinkers and even better pastors; Men who aimed at the heart by aiming at the head, blending the two inseparably and seamlessly. Or, I think of Gisbertus Voetius and Petrus van Mastricht: Men who were good thinkers who trained some of the best pastors the world has ever seen. These men often moved from things like philosophical habits and modes of composition, through Scripture, to doxology. In the modern resurgence of interest in Reformed scholasticism, this link between scholastic and pastoral theology does not seem to be gaining enough traction. People are imitating the academic acumen of the scholastics without developing their pastoral skills in reaching people in the pew. While many of us struggle to conceive of how to relate these things, the Reformed scholastics struggled with how to separate them. How could the pastor reach his congregation without inadvertently lapsing into the Latin paths driven into his brain? (read Thomas Watson’s sermons, for example). On the other hand, how could a professor write a system of theology without pastoring his readers? (think of Wilhelmus a Brakel, who was aware of living and communicating in two worlds). Learning from Reformed scholasticism does not mean speaking in technical language in every setting. Teaching theology is like designing and building a house. Scholastic theology is like engineering and framing the building. Most people don’t want engineering jargon and research. They just want a house to live in. Without precise science, planning, and framing, the house can neither stand nor become a home. Yet pastors and theologians need to learn to think like scientists and engineers while making an attractive place for the souls of God’s people to live.
Scholastic theology is vital to the well-being of the church. However, weird things happen and weird people latch onto weird ideas when scholastic theology becomes an end rather than a means; when it becomes the primary way of expressing theology rather than a tool for thinking clearly. The best way to use scholastic theology without abusing it is to think in scholastic terms, but to teach in Scriptural terms. While this will not always mean using the exact words of Scripture (e.g., Trinity, incarnation), it means that we must show that our theology is Scriptural. The terms we use do not always come from the text, but when they do not drive us back to the text and, more importantly, to the God who is speaking in the text, then something has gone awry. Reformed scholastic theology teaches us biblical doctrine so that we might live to God. When it fails to do so in us and in others, then we may think we are being precise when we have actually become dazed and confused. Is it any surprise that those who hear us start becoming intellectually sharp and spiritually disoriented at the same time? Reformed scholasticism is a blessing, but only if we make it so. Scholasticism should not be a bad word and neither should it become a strange word describing strange people. It is a tool for knowing the right God in the right way as he has revealed himself in his Word.
Ryan McGraw