Evangelical Calvinism, A 'non-starter'?

Recently I have been interacting with a rather distinguished commenter (I think I know who he is [using my inductive tools], but he prefers to remain anonymous, that’s fine, but his ideas are now public, so I will respond to those), his name is Kenneth P. He believes that I am too rushed, too premature, in fact immature in my analysis of the ‘Reformed tradition’; that “my history” does not comport with history in reality. Thus he believes, by implication, that the premise of my blog is aloof — e.g. a non-starter if you will. Given who this commenter is, I want to show his ‘ideas’ all due respect — he’s done the research, he’s spent the time. Here he critiques my apparently nascent understanding of the history:

. . . But the fact is that you have not drunk deeply enough at the wells of the tradition you are aiming to reclaim/revise/critique in some way. An example: “We have Lutherans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, etc., etc.; all could bear the name of ‘Reformed’ — it’s all of our heritage.”

The problem here is that you confuse Reformation traditon with Reformed tradition. Out of your list, only Presbyterians are actually Reformed even while they are all Reformation theologies – and that’s because Reformed theology is creedally/confessionally based, not simply on one person or an electic pick and mix of doctrines. That’s just a historical fact of terminology, before we start asking any evaluative questions. Any Lutheran in the C17 would NOT want to be called Reformed! This is one example of your revisonism (I think it’s unintended rather than deliberate?). Elsewhere, conversely, in other instances on this blog you draw lines of discontinuity within the tradition which are far too premature.

To this I respond that I agree and disagree. First I disagree that I have misunderstood, maybe overstated, what in fact Reformation tradition encompasses. My point was to generalize, assert that to say that one is ‘Reformed’ could be construed in polymorphous ways. What I was intending to communicate is that we need more pinpointedness in distinguishing someone from the ‘Reformation tradition’; other than just saying the ‘Reformed tradition’ — Kenneth doesn’t like the designation, Calvinist, which I think, historically, is a viable label.

I agree that there is the distinction that Kenneth is making, but I think it is unhelpful to label it ‘Reformed’; without further nuancing it with “Calvinist.” Kenneth himself makes the point that the Lutherans of the 17th century would not take the label ‘Reformed’, which signifies to me that there was somebody, some group who the Lutherans did not want to be associated with — i.e. the ‘Reformed’ or the ‘Calvinists’.

Really though, this point on ‘Reformed’ or ‘Calvinist’ is to quibble — even if Kenneth wouldn’t think so. In other words, relative to the premise of this blog, to make Kenneth happy we would change the name to: The Evangelical Reformed. I could live with that, I actually like the label ‘Reformed’ better (although I’ve found it to be imprecise, at points); but this isn’t really the point of dispute, at least for me.

The point of dispute revolves around this statement from Kenneth:

. . . Elsewhere, conversely, in other instances on this blog you draw lines of discontinuity within the tradition which are far too premature.

Of course it is hard to offer much defense against this, since Kenneth doesn’t cite any solid examples; but I get his point.

This all gets at the nub of what this blog is about; viz. identifying a wrinkle, a substantial nuance within the ‘Reformed/Calvinist’ tradition. My operating assumption is that there is most certainly a competition of sorts within the ‘Reformed’ tradition. It is too easy to say that I prematurely draw lines of discontinuity between apparently competing movements within the ‘Calvinist tradition’. Of course the burden is to demonstrate that there in fact is a mutually exclusive trajectory at work within the Calvinist tradition; one that is at odds, and does not cohere with what we know of the ‘Reformed tradition’ today (e.g. Westminster).

It seems, according to Kenneth’s comments, that he accepts the methodology and premises at work in Richard Muller’s work. I like to think of Muller’s approach as analogous to a steamroller. I say this because the way Muller presents things, is that what we have in the Protestant Reformation (magesterial and post) is this “movement” that incorporates all kinds of strands and trajectories (Thomist, Augustinian, Nominalist, etc.) — except of course, the ‘Scotist trajectory’. Muller says:

. . . Beyond the issue of medieval background, there is also the issue of the ongoing examination, discussion, appropriation, and rejection of Aristotle and Aristotelianism in the philosophy and theology of the Renaissance, Reformation, and post-Reformation eras. It is simply not the case that, at the moment of Luther’s protest against Aristotle, Aristotle and Aristotelianism disappeared from the map of European intellectual history or were universally banned from the thought-world of the Reformation. Whatever one decides about the implication and result of Luther’s early attack on Aristotle, there remains a history of Aristotelianism in the universities and in the thought of the Protestant as well as the Roman Catholic world both during and after the Reformation. That is a fact of history-to ignore it is to prejudice the analysis of period.

Here he is responding to a former prof of mine (Ron Frost) in a dispute they had in the Trinity Journal. While there certainly is a ‘Reformed’ tradition, to frame it the way that Muller (and then Kenneth apparently) does is to misrepresent the material divergence within this broader Reformed tradition. Muller, as illustrated in the quote, frames the history of this whole ‘Reformed’ tradition as represented by its Aristotelian/Thomistic/Scholastic form. This is not correct, this is to misrepresent the ‘Reformed tradition’; it is to misrepresent by failing to identify substantive distinctives represented by the continuum that we call the ‘Reformed tradition’.

The goal of this blog is to correct this caricature by Muller, I say caricature because he fails to give account to the part of the Tradition that took shape under John Knox, and others — the Scottish tradition. This ‘tradition’ represents the set of beliefs that shapes what we have been calling Evangelical Calvinism. Unlike what Muller would say is ‘The Tradition’ (which is best exemplified by the Westminster divines), the Scottish tradition worked from Scotist assumptions — Scotist metaphysics. Muller’s tradition is shaped by Thomist assumptions, these are exclusive from eachother; and therefore this has ‘drastic’ theological implications for how we understand a Doctrine of God, and then subsequent dogma.

So, far from engaging an binary biurfacating of things — as Kenneth claims I’m doing — the Tradition, so called, is multifocal. If we are really going to talk about the Reformed tradition (my ‘Calvinist’); then we ought to include its whole tradition. This is the contention of my blog, Scottish theology has not been given a credible place within the ‘Tradition’ (as far as I can see); simply because it has been deemed as ‘heterodox’ because it does not fit into what the gatekeepers of the ‘Tradition’ has said the ‘Tradition’ is. And this is because the ‘Tradition’ and ‘Thomism’, as evinced in Muller’s construction, cannot allow this to be.

I realize Muller is suppo
sedly doing ‘history’, but if he was doing sound non-revisionist history he would include the Scotists within it; instead he lets theological commitments subvert his interpretive work, and thus in his accounting Scottish theology does not deserve to be included at the table of what it means to be ‘Reformed’ or ‘Calvinist’ — let alone Evangelical Calvinist.

20 thoughts on “Evangelical Calvinism, A 'non-starter'?

  1. Bravo Bobby and well done.Way to expose the root so that those who are willing… may put the axe to it (or them: Aristotle and Aquinas).Also, must say, I appreciate your ability to be direct and humble at the same time.Will

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  2. Yes nice reply! Well done. I didn't see the original post by Kenneth P (where was it made?), but thanks Kenneth for rasing some substantive issues and letting Bobby and others attempt a cogent reply in order to make our position clearer. As I understand it, EC is not trying to claim it is the only way to be Reformed, nor is it trying to say it is even the purest expression of what it means to be Reformed, as if we could prove there was one 'pure' way/system/?. Rather, EV wants to say that we are here and we have been part of what it means to be Reformed for a very long time, as long in fact as there has been Reformed theology. Substnatial elements of Calvin's theology supports EV (as it does federal Calvinism, and other varieites), the various Reformed Confessions support an EV (as they do federal Calvinism etc). And ECists can be found around the globe, even within the PCA. Clearly the view one holds is considered to be the best view by that advocate, so we think EC is the best way to be Reformed, but we are not so arrogant as to say there can be no other ways. Calvin, Bullinger, Bucer, Viret, Zwingli, and on it goes – all disagreed with each other over substantial issues but they were each Reformed. Same then, same today. This really is a very modest claim EV are making – to have our place at the table recognised. Now exactly as to what EV is and means – let the questions, comments, and disputes continue! 🙂 Soli Deo gloria

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  3. Will,Thanks, I'm glad I didn't come off as a snobby little upstart; that definitely was not my goal, and I really do appreciate KP's points . . . they pose a real challenge to what EC is trying to say.Myk,I just hyper-linked the first clause in the opening paragraph of this post, hyperlinked that is to the post and ensuing exchange that Kenneth and I have been having. Or you could scroll down a bit, it is the post Calvinists, Not Christians? Here is the link: Calvinists, "Not Christians?"I really do appreciate Kenneth's challenge; he certainly has forced me to try and think this out even more cogently, as you say. In fact, thanks to Kenneth's points I have come to a better understanding of what's at stake here; and also come to a better understanding on how I will approach this same issue in more substantial ways ;-).Your points on the multi-layered ways that Calvin has been taken and developed I think speak to the fact that Calvin wouldn't have actually fit into the scholasticism that his name has been associate with. You're right, all we want is a place at the table . . . all in the name of semper reformanda (always reforming). Thanks, Myk!

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  4. You probably need to define what you mean by Scottish Theology. If Thomas Boston doesn't fit the bill, for instance, you're speaking a language Reformed Christians don't share.

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  5. Bobby, I don't want to become embroiled in this particular debate, for one thing because I don't think I have a dog in this race. I do want to correct one assertion you continue to make, however: Prof Muller does not at all identify the Reformed tradition with "Thomism" — this is just clearly a mistake. I say it is a "clear" mistake because the hallmark of Scotist teaching is its understanding of the will, a place at which Muller believes Calvin was thoroughly Scotist (and he would posit that the "Reformed orthodox" follow him on this point). It's not an insignificant point because Muller believes that the Scotism, specifically voluntarism, of the Reformed (or of "Calvin and the Calvinists," though here in the sense of a continuity between these) is to be directly distinguished from the "intellectualism" of Arminius and the "Arminian" tradition (yet again we could squabble over whether "Arminian" is appropriate, or if Remonstrant or some other term is more apt), which, Muller believes, is a contributing factor (though not the sole factor, he is clear to point out) into the "rationalism" (I will also not contend over the meaning of that term, even as Muller uses it) of Englightenment thought. The common link made in late 17th century and early 18th century thought of "Arminian" (or "Remonstrant") theology with the "rationalism" of Locke (see, it breaks down), Descartes, or Spinoza is so frequent as to be the one common assertion made by all opponents of Remonstrant theology of the time. The point being made in the passage w/r/t Luther above, as I take it, is simply to say that the common understanding that Reformation teaching is to be opposed to "scholasticism" (even especially by Luther and Calvin themselves!) is a false one. And furthermore, Muller is quite clear that "scholasticism" is a much broader stream than that of Aquinas; in fact, "Thomism" itself is a modification of Aquinas's thought, in Muller's view. One can witness the traces of Scotus, Suarez, and yes Aquinas in the Reformed, as well as Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, and Calvin…I would also say that Muller's awareness of Reformed confessions/catechisms is not limited to Westminster as either ideal or fulfillment of "what counts" as "Reformed." Muller in fact would likely say he's still very much drinking from the deep well of Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (in which case Dort would be as significant as Westminster, if not more — though the limit is not reached there either, I would contend, as I'm sure Muller would wish to as well). I'm not simply here to defend Muller, simply to say that his historical awareness goes much farther than the "caricature" of which you speak in the post.So, I would suggest that however you decide to use your terms, this post may need to be rethought in that light. Again, please find all of this in the spirit of peace and charity for all of our mutual edification by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Peace.

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  6. Let me be the first to admit here that I have ignored the line of Scottish theology here as well, if only because I am responding to the specific charges laid against Muller that I found to be mistaken. I do think you are correct, however, Bobby, that this tradition must not be ignored or excluded from "what counts" for "Reformed," or Calvinist :)peace

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  7. One more thing (last one, I promise):It probably should be pointed out that the term "Calvinist" is not the only epithet thrown by opponents like a stone at the heads of proponents of this or that teaching, and which has subsequently been appropriated by those at whom the stone was aimed. I would wager that even most folks in the debate going down here on this blog who would wish to use the term "Reformed" rather than "Calvinist" nevertheless identify themselves as "Protestant" in some fashion. Well, even this was a term originally meant to cast derision on the Lutherans; their own term of usage was in fact "Evangelical," and yet see how common practice it has become to self-identify with the very term used as a stone. I think while terms certainly don't not matter, certain terms may have more flexibility than we might at first wish to think. The real question, of course, is with the use and/or appropriation of those terms and how we tell our history. I would claim that how we in fact tell this history is far more of a strong concern than whether we use "Calvinist" or "Reformed."Ok, I've said my piece.peace.

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  8. So, then (and in light of Belcher's comment), what about the title Scotist Calvinist? Too pointy-headed? Maybe. But the qualifier evangelical does appear to be engaged in one-upmanship…I've always understood Muller to be saying in essence that the Reformed tradition is deep and wide, and that what makes it so are a couple of crucial elements (which are not necessarily scholastic). Have I misunderstood?

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  9. Certainly scholasticism, Muller would say, is not what characterizes the Reformed tradition; but, he would add, neither is it a foreign element to which it opposes itself (strictu senso), except as certain elements of various scholasticisms depart from what does in fact characterize the Reformed tradition. In that sense, yes, Chris, I think this is correct.

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  10. In all, scholasticism does not refer to a specific metaphysics or to a specific theological ordering, but to a methodology and thus it serves more as a paradigm under which diverging and converging positions can share mutual space. That Arminius's theological system was a wholesale alternative to the Reformed system, as Muller argues is the case, does not distract from the fact that both systems can very rightly be described as "scholastic" systems.

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  11. Puritan,Which ones?Dave,You may be right to say that I overstate on Muller and Thomism in one instance; and then wrong in another. Instead, maybe I should just use the language of scholasticism (with all of its elements). Here is Muller from that same Trinity Journal Spring 98 essay:When the diversity of perspectives in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the post-Reformation eras is admitted to the analysis, it also becomes clear that the measure of continuity and discontinuity between eras will be different when different thinkers are examined and, indeed, when different theological or philosophical issues are investigated. Thus, there are fairly clear lines of continuity as well as discontinuity between Luther and late medieval nominalism and Augustinianism. (One can even trace both Luther's nominalistic inclinations and his distaste for the nominalist tendency toward excessive speculation to the thought of Jodocus Trutvetter, his teacher at Erfurt.46) The lines of continuity between Calvin and probable late medieval Augustinian and Scotist antecedents are vague and difficult to trace, while the resemblances between the thought of Vermigli and antecedents in late medieval Augustinianism and Thomism are fairly apparent. So too, do patterns of continuity and discontinuity vary considerably when one examines different theological issues: trajectories of thought on justification are different from trajectories on the doctrine of God, and both of these patterns are quite different from the trajectories on the doctrine of Scripture and authority.There no doubt, is an appropriation of various traditions by the Reformers, as Muller notes. My contention though, and still is, is that Muller favors scholastic orthodoxy and its development (beyond just historical description) in all of its logicalised glory. You intimate that Muller believed that Calvin was thoroughly Scotist in certain respects; yet in the quote above we see Muller reticent on that point, not as sure as you are about Muller, then.It could just as easily be argued, and has though, Dave, that Calvin's anthropology was much more Augustinian, or 'Affective', and not voluntaristic at all. We would have to look at how Calvin understood the grace/nature symmetry vis-a'-vis Augustines — an interesting study is to see how the Augustine/Pelagius and Calvin/Phigius parallel eachother (or not), and thus derive our conclusions from there. Also per the quote from Muller above, as he notes, certain traditions (Scotism, Thomism, etc.) were appropriated for certain purposes or doctrinal formulations by various reformers. A Doctrine of God is more basic, I would suggest than one of justification (since this understanding will inform anthropology, justification, etc.). What I want to assert is that Muller has followed the post-Reformed scholastic model as the legitimate framework for adjudicating what is orthodox what is not. Thus, the Scottish (Scotist per a Doctrine of God, which is what many followed in Scotland) instanctiation was disallowed as orthodox. Thank you for correcting me on my overstatement, per Muller — on all things Thomistic. The interesting thing is, is that someone like Jonathan Fraser of Brea (a Scot) was condemened by the orthodox for not following their logicalised understanding of a doctrine of God and thus a doctrine of salvation. This illustrates the point I am contending for, that is that their is a scholastic post-Ref. body of theology (whether they be Thomist Intellectualist [see Norman Fiering] or Voluntarist) that has set itself up as 'Orthodox' (this is what Muller favors); and it is this body that needs to know that they are not the only legitimate heirs to Reformation theology (and they don't know that), or the 'Reformed tradition'.

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  12. —cont.The goal is to open up new vistas for Reformed theology; and to somewhat relativize what stands for 'orthodoxy' today. This ultimately is a constructive project. What really matters is what is true, if the Reformed are going to follow their own principles sola scriptura, semper reformanda; then they will not slavishly be committed to certain Canons, when confronted with the fact that maybe those 'Canons' hybrid our idea of who God is, and thus, what salvation is (or who).My point, in the end, is that Muller is clearly in the 'Orthodox' camp who disregards, theologically, Scottish theology a place at the table of constructive theology. This is a problem.

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  13. Dave you say:In all, scholasticism does not refer to a specific metaphysics or to a specific theological ordering, but to a methodology and thus it serves more as a paradigm under which diverging and converging positions can share mutual space. . . .What about Scottish theology's place? Or what about The Spiritual Brethren's place (in 17th cent. Puritan England). So you help make my point, and that is that scholasticism is not just a methodology, it is conceptual. If scholasticism, conceptual, was as friendly and broad as you suggest, then the elements of Scottish Theology that TFT and now I am highlighting would not have been condemned, or would've, at least, been given a place at the table. So its oversimplified to say that it was just a methodology.Chris,Scotist Calvinist sounds good, but I like Evangelical better (it has to do, in many re., with the extent of the atonement and how that impacts the proclamationo f the gospel, etc.)

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  14. Thanks for the rejoinder Bobby. Again, I don't have a dog in this race, I only wanted to offer some clarification. I haven't read this more recent article you are citing here, though I've read a great deal of Muller's other writings. I was mainly referring to one of his older essays (eventually included in Unaccommodated Calvin) on fides et cognitio in Calvin and more specifically on the question of voluntarism and intellectualism. The main thrust of that paper is to shoot down and frankly embarrass RT Kendall's suggestion that, not only was Calvin an intellectualist but later Reformed thinkers were voluntarists (thus intimating, says Kendall, that the later "Calvinists" after the death of Calvin followed Arminius and other voluntarists). Muller specifically claims that on the question of the role of the human will in the faculty psychology, Calvin is more Scotist, but also that later Reformed tradition follows him. I cannot speak to how he would respond to the Scots — if he has written on that trajectory, I have not read those writings. I certainly would agree, however, that making Calvin a "Scotist" with respect to his doctrine of God is far from Muller's purview (or desire). I can also certainly agree that more can be said on Calvin's relationship to Augustine in describing this particular relationship to the human intellect and will (though with respect to Augustine, this is not a simple matter at all — he does not offer much more than a "dogmatic" account of grace's relation to creation (or nature); as others have argued, it was only later that a more "speculative" understanding of this relation was broached…that is, the priority of intellect or will in the faculty psychology of Augustine has some ambiguity, especially given the development of his thought after the encounter with the Donatists, as well as Pelagians).Again, I'm not siding with Muller necessarily here, just clarifying! In fact, I would be extremely interested in how Muller might respond to the placement of the Scots in the Reformed tradition (again, if he has indeed written on this trajectory already, please forgive my ignorance here, and I hope someone can correct that for me). You might just shoot him an email. He is a very cordial fellow and has responded to my emails with very gracious notes back. Seriously! It might just be best to ask him what he thinks! My guess is that you are correct, though: a Scotist doctrine of God would be aberrant to Reformed orthodoxy in Muller's reading of the history. An even more interesting question, I would suggest is how this relates to modern Protestantism, especially 19th cent liberalism. Despite Muller's strong objections to a "neo-orthodox" reading of the Reformed history, Barth's own place in this matter is quite significant, I would add (and even the way that he tells the history). Alright, I've said far too much (I'm getting into project stuff I shouldn't say in this venue).peace.

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  15. Dave,Thank you. I have a project of my own, which this stuff is directly related to; what you've said is helpful, and it will help me to remain on point, and avoid overstatement on certain points (esp. Muller/Thomism).Yeah, I've read both Kendall and Muller's "Unaccomadated," its been awhile though; I think Muller does a good job with Kendall (but I also want to say that I find Kendall's point on Calvin to Beza helpful, if at the least he highlights that there was discontinuity, there was a shift).I agree with you on understanding Augustine's anthropology. I've been exposed to a PhD dissertation that argues for an 'Affective anthropology' (a la Augustine), actually this diss. belongs to a former prof, wherein the 'heart' (affections) in the faculty psychology is seen primary to the Intellect/Will (in fact Norman Fiering highlights this as well). Okay, I digress. What's important, I think, is to follow Augustine's definition of grace/sin pre-Pelagius and post/Pelagius. Pre, he saw sin as merely privatio; post, he shifted to defining sin as concupiscence (in relational terms). Okay, now I really digress.I don't think Muller has written on this, that I know of. I think I will email, him; thanks for the suggestion.And like I said, Evangelical Calvinism, so called, is a constructive project; and it incoporates elements of Barth, but more of Torrance's understanding on election and so forth.Btw, Dave, what is your "project" on?Btw, again, this one of the reasons I have this blog; to get pushback like you're providing, so thank you, Dave . . . this will, in the end, only make EC that much more robust :-).

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  16. Bobby, again, let me just add that I am only speaking (as best I can based on my reading and knowledge of his work) in persona Muller. What I have said here about (even to some extent w/r/t scholasticism), Reformed orthodoxy and Calvin's relationship to the question of human faculty psychology do not necessarily represent my own opinions on the matter. Though, I would add that scholasticism as a methodology is not quite so broad as to be conceived as "conceptual" — I'm not sure what that would mean, exactly…that would seem to me to be like equating scholasticism with philosophy in se (but I think I might just be misunderstanding what you're saying there). The understanding of scholasticism as a certain method within the schools for education into "holy teaching" [sacra doctrina] — which, mind, does not exclude "practical" concerns of contemplation, etc. — is a very basic approach that guards against equating scholasticism itself with one thinker (as is often done, viz., with Aquinas) or movement of thought. It doesn't seem as thought you're opposed to that so long as Scottish theology is not somehow excluded from this. Is that right? Let me state again my ignorance of Torrance save for his writings on Trinitarian thought and a couple of articles on Calvin. And my knowledge of all other Scottish theology is, regrettably, limited to the Scots Confession of 1560 itself. Perhaps, Bobby, you could recommend to me a good place to go for a nice and rigorous account of early Scottish thought? Would you recommend the TFT volume? Well, one more thing: none of this even gets at the relation of humanism to scholasticism during the time period stretching from the most "mature" forms of scholasticism (say, Lombard) to Reformation times and beyond — and it is quite clear that humanism was just as influential a stream on the Reformers as was scholasticism — so this is a more complicated matter I would say. I think working out these matters, however, with care, is an extremely important matter for the future of "Protestant" or "Evangelical" or "Calvinist" or "Reformed" or "Scottish" theology. Ha. 🙂 Peace.

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  17. Dave,What would you want to call the post-Reformation movement? — I'm calling it scholastic — maybe the logicalised form of post-Reformation Orthodoxy ;-)? I don't think though that scholasticism is merely, methodological (dialectic); even Steven Ozment in his book Age of Reform makes this pretty clear.You're right, we haven't even spoke of Humanism, yet (really probably more important for fostering the Prot Ref in the first place, for many reasons). Of course this is one of the issues that is pointed to in drawing distinctions between Calvin the trained Humanist and Beza the scholastic etc. True this is probably an oversimplification; but there is some purchase to it as well (i.e. Calvin's willingness to say Yes and No to certain things, Perkins, for example to bring coherence between the Yes and No).Whether or not, though, scholasticism, as a method guards against focusing on "one" thinker; it certainly involves "thinkers," and this would then speak to its "conceptual" component.I'll email you.Thanks, Dave.

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  18. Dave,Oh yeah, I would recommend TFT's Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell.Hopefully your library has it, it's quite spendy otherwise (luckily my lib has it).

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  19. What is distinctive about a Scotist Doctrine of God? I'd love to hear more on this. Have you written on this already Bobby?Glen

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