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Is the Reformed Faith a Thomistic Faith or a Biblical Faith?

The Reformed faith is a Biblical faith, an exegetical faith; as such it remains an open endeavor per the confessional norms provided for by Scripture. Richard Muller writes, “… the theologians of the Reformation neither produced a monolithic system nor set up their own theological systems as norms apart from the exegesis of Scripture, ….”[1] It doesn’t seem as if those who claim to be
thomasstampReformed today appreciate this. Instead what seems to have obtained in the Reformed world, in general, is that a certain reading of Scripture, from a certain commitment to a form of the Reformed faith gets conflated with the idea that theirs is the sole representative of the Reformed faith; both contemporaneously and historically. As if they are simply just reading the Bible for all its worth, but it really isn’t that simple.

The fact of the matter is is that there are prior commitments, by all Christian readers of Scripture (Reformed or not), prior theological commitments imported into our reading of Scripture; commitments that help us arrive at our exegetical conclusions. Within the pale of the Reformed faith it is no different; what is different is that for many in the Reformed faith there is an uncritical (sometimes it is critical though, as we will see) adoption of a certain metaphysic as if this metaphysic is self-same with the Bible itself. But why should any critical thinking person accept this? Why is one metaphysic, one theo-logic, more sacrosanct, more holy than the others? Answering these questions is challenging, but we need to at least identify that these are questions. I don’t see many in the Reformed world acknowledging this; instead I see a triumphalism about their version of the Reformed faith, and in this triumphalism all others who take a different approach to the Reformed faith are considered heterodox, or even heretical (think of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance to an extent).

I have highlighted, over and over again, the metaphysic and “system” that the Reformed faith is by and large shaped by in large swaths of its quarters (but not all); in the history and contemporaneously. The metaphysic, the hermeneutic is what is called Thomism; i.e. the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian theology through the work of the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas. It is this synthesis that funds so much of the shape of the Reformed faith, but most of its adherents simply believe that what they believe is the Bible alone as they shout sola Scriptura from the rooftops.

Richard Muller, one of the premiere ecclesiastical historians of the late medieval, post reformation reformed orthodox period substantiates my points about Thomism this way as he sketches the developments that took place during the scholastic Reformed period (you will notice that Arminius is part of his discussion):

Finally, we must address the question of the intellectual tendency of Protestant scholasticism, particularly the tendency of Arminius’ theology. Why did Protestant scholasticism take on a decidedly Thomistic character—why, specifically, did Arminius’ theology lean toward Thomism rather than toward Scotism and nominalism, despite the clear impact of a more Scotistic or nominalistic perspective on Reformed epistemology and on the definitions of theology found in the Reformed theological prolegomena? In the first place, the relationship of the earlier codifiers of Reformed theology was quite different and considerably more pronounced than the relationship of members of the same generations of Reformers to either Scotism or nominalism. Of the early codifiers of Reformed theology, only Musculus was trained in Scotist and nominalist theology. As Ganoczy has shown, the Scotist tendencies in Calvin’s thought relate not to early training in Paris but to later reading and they hardly indicate an immersion in Scotist theology. By way of contrast,  Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi were all trained as Thomists and, in the case of the latter two thinkers, elements of Thomism were integrated into full-scale theological systems. The Thomistic model, particularly as developed by Zanchi, was highly influential in Reformed circles—as is witnessed by the parallel interest in Aquinas by other writers of Zanchi’s generation like Lambert Daneau. In addition, contemporaries of Arminius instrumental in the development of early Protestant orthodoxy—thinkers like Arminius’ predecessor at Leiden, the Basel theologian Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, and the great Lutheran dogmatician Johannes Gerhard—all drew heavily on the scholastic tradition, in particular on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

In the second place, the revival of Aristotelianism and of scholasticism in Roman Catholic circles in the sixteenth century had, as its intellectual centerpiece, a revival of Thomism. Not only was there a flowering of interest in Aquinas’ thought as witnessed by the many fine editions and commentaries on Thomas’ works printed in the sixteenth century, there was also a notable shift of emphasis in the study of Aquinas. Whereas medieval Thomism, due to the reliance of medieval theological study on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, had focused on Aquinas’ commentary on the Sentences, the sixteenth century, because of the work of Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, and others found the greater Aquinas, the mature Aquinas of the Summa theologiae. Although many other scholastics received attention in the sixteenth century—many scholastic systems and treatises appeared in print—none were given the close analytical attention that Thomas received. Not only were the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles printed in five editions, they were also the subject of numerous commentaries. Here again, the work of Cajetan must be noted. In addition, this interest went beyond the bounds of the Dominican order: the Jesuit order, at the insistence of its founder Ignatius of Loyola, looked to Thomas Aquinas as its primary theological guide. This revival of Thomism represented a marked shift from the theological and philosophical tendencies of the fifteenth century. As Oberman has argued, the Thomism of the later Middle Ages was hardly the force that it eventually came to be. Not only was it the “young Thomas” of the sentence commentary who “determined the profile of the total Thomas,” it was also a highly “metaphysical Thomas” who was taught by the late medieval Dominicans rather than the careful interpreter of Scripture and the fathers. In this context, Franciscan theology, particularly the theology of Scotus appeared as powerful and attractive alternative, which worked its way into some of the theology of the early Reformation. The rising tide of Thomism in the sixteenth century, presenting as it did the Thomas of the Summa, offered the world a more strictly Augustinian doctrine of grace than that found in the commentary on the Sentences and, in addition, a Thomas more adept at scriptural and patristic argumentation.[2]

Concluding Remarks

Without a doubt the Reformed faith is a faith deeply marked by a high theology of the Word; it is a “Biblical faith.” Nevertheless, as Muller so clearly delineates for us, it isn’t all that simple. Even during the post reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries) there was a hodgepodge of metaphysics bandied about in order to help work out what might be called the ‘inner-logic’ of Holy Scripture. But as Muller makes clear, Thomism rued the day; an Aristotelian-Augustinianism provided much of the bed rock and theological bases from which Scripture was exegeted. It is this form of the Reformed faith that for some reason has become absolute for so many today (I would say for various reasons).

I think that what this should illustrate, at the least, is that the triumphalism of many in the Reformed faith should be squelched; it should be turned down a bit. You are not purist Bible interpreters, anymore than us evangelical Calvinists are after Barth. You chide Reformed people who follow after Barth for not being truly Reformed, but on what basis? Is it because we do not simply want to repristinate the post reformed orthodox past and assert loudly THAT THIS IS WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS in its disclosure? The fact that you all are committed to an Aristotelian faith, by and large, should at least make you more humble when approaching others in the Reformed faith (like evangelical Calvinists) who believe that we have found, if not a better way, at least an alternative way to read the Bible in the same type of confessional ‘always Reforming’ mode per the dictates of Scripture that you all believe you are doing. Unless you want to claim that Thomism (Scotism, et al.) are univocal, self-same with the teaching of Holy Scripture, it would be an error to look down your noses at those who repudiate that metaphysic for something else; something that we (as evangelical Calvinists) believe is more proximate with the ‘dynamic’ and ‘dialectical’ nature of Scripture’s teaching.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 33.

[2] Ibid., 34-6.

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2 thoughts on “Is the Reformed Faith a Thomistic Faith or a Biblical Faith?

  1. Derek!

    Good post Bobby. Once again, Muller is an unlikely ally. I do find it odd, though, that at times he insists ad nauseum that scholasticism was purely method and involved no metaphysical or philosophical commitments, then other times you find sections like this. As I’m reading Post-Reformation Orthodoxy, I find myself going back and forth at times between sections that seem to be somewhat inconsistent on this very point.

    Anyway, it is stuff like this that people need to be aware of. Glad to see it in the Reformed Pub!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Derek! Lol 🙂

    Yeah, I’ve really been driving this point home for years (as you’ve probably noticed). And I do think Muller is inconsistent. I’ve had to use him selectively even in those quotes, because he’ll say what he does in the quotes and then throw in a huge BUT. And yes, he is very inconsistent when it comes his claim that scholasticism is merely a school method or dialectical process of thinking i.e. thesis, antithesis, synthesis new thesis ad nauseum. His PRRD is definitely illustrative of his back and forth on things. I think he is inconsistent for sure. A methodological point that I think is important, but one that is usually so boring to people that they disregard it.

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