Before I write this post let me be clear about something: When I write posts against other Christian traditions, like in critique, I am writing them, at a first order level, with the understanding that Christian precedes tradition. In other words, I am typically not challenging whether or not the proponents of some interpretive tradition are eternally justified or not; I am not questioning whether they are brothers or sisters or not; but I often am challenging their theological understandings in regard to important loci. Indeed, my challenges consist of language of such provocative and serious depth as ‘anti-Christ,’ ‘demonic,’ and other like grammar. I often do believe that the interpretive traditions I am challenging are of the sort that will and can have deleterious spiritual consequences for their adherents; which is why I feel compelled to riposte against them.
Such is the case with what I call: Classical Calvinism. I use the designation ‘Classical Calvinism’ more as a riff on ‘Classical Theism.’ It is my conviction, and the history of ideas bears this out, that Classical Calvinism is a sub-set of Aristotelian and Western theological developments. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotelian categories into his theological developments; insofar that Classical Calvinism imbibes that heritage, it imbibes echoes of Aristotle, Aquinas, and a host of other Protestant developers of this tradition in a particularly Protestant trajectory. It is this movement of Protestant thought development that I seek to rebuff in the name of Jesus Christ.
So, I have now mentioned the centrality of Aristotelian thought-categories for the development of Protestant Scholasticism Reformed theology; let’s continue with this focus, and consider how pervasive this reality was (and is, insofar that the current theology of retrieval movement currently underway is retrieving just this history) towards the formation of what most now consider to be what I call classical Calvinism. Richard Muller writes at great length:
Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.
Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.
This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:
. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.
Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.
The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.
What are the implications we can glean from this?:
- Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
- Christian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
- Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
- Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
- For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.
According to the premiere Christian historian of this period, Richard Muller, Aristotelianism is so central to the development of theology during this period that he thinks it best to call it: Christian Aristotelianism. This is the heritage that so many conservative Reformed Christian theologians are currently retrieving for the evangelical churches (think of the work of people like Scott Swain, Michael Allen, Kevin Vanhoozer et al.). The belief is that the theology during this pre-modern time is the bulwark that evangelical Christians currently need; swamped as they are, so the tale goes, in the mud of modern and postmodern forms of incurved anthropocentric individualistic Christianities. I can agree that their diagnosis is largely correct in regard to the shape of modern 21st century evangelical Christianity. But I heavily demur in regard to the theological medicine they are prescribing evangelical Christians. You see, the 16th and 17th century Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology that they are retrieving presents people with a conception of God that is not based on God’s triune Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, no matter how much they claim that they do; instead they offer people a conception of God that is grammarized and packaged in Aristotelian categories. You know, a God who relates to the world through decrees that keep Him untouched and unmoved by His creation; a God who thus relates to the world through a jurist frame where performing the Law is paramount for the bruised reed in order for the would-be saint to be in right relationship with God (think of Federal or Covenantal theology and its Covenants of Works and Grace).
Since these ‘retrievers’ imagine that the only way out of the morass of contemporary evangelical theology is to retrieve a conception of God based on pre-modern categories, they are willing to retrieve a conception of God, well intentioned as it was developed at its time in history, that for all intents and purposes is a God developed on unrevealed bases. As much as I disagree with David Congdon in significant ways, he offers a good sketch of the sort of ‘metaphysical’ God that is being retrieved by our contemporary ‘evangelical retrievers’:
Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].” No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.
To retrieve ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ is to retrieve the God conceived by a speculating ‘metaphysics’ and a chain of being that is presupposed as inherent between God and humanity. We see, as Congdon develops, that it is the moderns who critique this sort of understanding of God. And as we noted earlier contemporary classical Calvinists believe that it is the moderns who turned evangelical theology in on itself and starting doing anthropology as theology (think of the way Schleiermacher’s theology is often appealed to). As I said, I agree with the classical Calvinist’s diagnosis of the evangelical theological problem; one that can largely be laid at the feet of many modern theologians. But what Congdon is noting can be used as a helpful or constructive corrective in certain ways.
My contention is that while the moderns essentially did give us an anthropomorphized ‘theology,’ not all did. Which, in my view means, that the critique of the moderns, contra much of the premodern developments on a doctrine of God, are largely correct. In other words, I contend that many premoderns, and for our purposes, those in the Protestant orthodox realm, developed a doctrine of God (and thus all of their subsequent theologizing was fundamentally impacted in deleterious ways) based on unrevealed bases. I.e. these theologians, doing the best they could at the time, did not, in principial ways, allow Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ, to function as the categorical framework through which they thought God. Instead, as Muller has pointed out, they used Aristotle, mediated in the various ways that he was, to inform their engagement with revelation; as a preamble to the faith, so to speak.
Classical Calvinists, as classical theists of mediaeval shape, have based all of their theologizing, which of course includes very significantly, their soteriology (like Federal theology, “Five Point Calvinism,” etc.) on a faulty non-revealed conception of God. As such classical Calvinism (and its cousin, classical Arminianism) are based on speculative theories of God that have no real point of contact with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is not possible to conclude with an ‘orthodox’ doctrine of God when revelation is not the principled basis for how God is thought. Muller mistakes the intention of the synthesizers, which was noble, with the actual fact of production. In other words, just because the intent of those who developed many of these premodern theologies was noble, does not correlate with the most proximate reflection on what the Evangel implies about who God is. As strongly-stated as my thesis is, I am not wanting to suggest that they were not really worshipping the Christian God back then, just that they did not have the most adequate resources to arrive at the best spot possible when attempting to think God. So, my question to the current classical Calvinists, to those attempting to retrieve the theology from back then, is why do that? The Gospel itself ought to be allowed to speak fresh words into the current moment, even as we consider the various trajectories of the past. If we are not willing to allow the risen Lord to speak to us now, with all of the tradition considered, and simply insist on repristinating the past, even in translated forms, we will have antiquated a reality that is in fact still living: Jesus Christ.
In the next posts we will continue this critique by referring to Barth’s critique (CD II/1 §26) of the Roman Catholic conception of God (and as that is extrapolated out to the Post Reformed orthodox conception of God), insofar as he critiques a partitive understanding of God (versus God’s Self-revealed unity), and the analogy of being (analogia entis).
 Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One, 71-73.
 David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii-xxii.