11 July 2012

Answering Questions #17- Calvin v. The Calvinists, The Renaissance and Reformed Scholasticism, Orthodoxy, Armstrong, Amyraut and Muller…Incomprehensibility and the nature of Theology.

A friend recently sent an email referencing Brian Armstrong’s “Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France

I responded………


This guy........


is their answer to people like Armstrong. It's a big debate and most people think Muller shows that Armstrong and others are wrong. In all honesty I have not read Muller's books. I just haven't had the time. But I've read articles by him and others defending his ideas and I've listened to him interviewed etc... I'm not convinced he's correct. It's funny I was just listening to him being interviewed a couple of days ago.

Calvin's Institutes has gone through a few translations into English. The Beveridge translation is that big kind of cheaply bound paperback you'll see floating around....but most people use the Battles translation. There are others as well, but less commonly found. I have the Beveridge, Battles, and Allen translations. Anyway, Muller seems to really take issue with the Battles translation (the most common) and says that he wasn't translating a lot of the precise theological terms like 'loci' correctly....that would show Calvin's 'Scholastic' bent.

What I have found listening to Muller and others is that when they're discussing "Scholasticism" they're using the term in a broad sweeping sense....and seem to suggest that if you're not scholastic then you're anti-theology or something. Scholastic is just the 'school' method etc... But that's not what Armstrong and others are arguing against. They're arguing against the Scholastic use of logic and systematics when it comes to dealing with the text. The big point Armstrong and others make is that with the Scholastics you see them shifting (for example) the doctrine of predestination, taking it from the realm of salvation and 'logically' placing it within the realm of the doctrine of God, taking it away from the discussion of assurance and the covenant and giving rise to the whole question of decrees (leading to the infra- and supra-lapsarian questions) and setting it up as a Central Dogma that dominates all of Scripture. In other words Amyraut and Armstrong would say....using it in a way the Bible doesn't.

And then Muller and those in agreement with him (most Reformed people) then launch into the scholastic use of Aristotelian syllogisms etc. and kind of mock the notion that such a method would not be correct....and basically just dismiss as absurd the idea that there's a rationalistic tendency in Scholastic thought. I think they're either just missing the point or just really and truly believe their method is right and that's the end of it. And to them to suggest Calvin and some of the other 1st and 2nd generation Reformed had more of an 'ad fontes' Humanistic type understanding of the text is just unacceptable to them.

What I mean by that is.....the Renaissance is usually looked down as the beginnings of the West's rejection of Christianity. It was a rejection of Medievalism, the whole mindset of Christendom which had dominated Europe for almost a thousand years. The Renaissance in part rejected how the Middle Ages looked at things like art, science, philosophy etc... The Renaissance battle cry was 'ad fontes'...to the sources. They wanted to de-clutter ideas, remove all the Aristotle and Roman theology (I'm generalizing here).....and get back to older notions about everything from art to ideas about beauty etc... Frankly a lot of it meant going back to Greco-Roman paganism.

But it also generated the study of texts and ideas and though many don't want to admit it, with all its bad influence, it also led to some good things...and certainly provided a fertile field for something like the Reformation to happen. It was that mindset that people like Erasmus and Luther to go back to the Biblical Texts....not the Vulgate (the Latin translation used by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages).........Luther re-discovered Paul....Paul minus Aristotle and this led to the Reformation. To me the Renaissance and Reformation are inseparable.

We think of Humanism today in terms of secular Humanism (man being the measure of all things) but Renaissance Humanism wasn't quite the same thing. It did seek to shift the cultural bent away from the Scholastic/Professional/Elitist dominated realm of professional theologians, lawyers etc and revitalize the common man. It placed a greater emphasis on things like history, morality and how these things would influence ideas like poetry, art, and rhetoric. They wanted the common man to participate in culture and not leave it to the elites. There's much more to it, but that's a broad-brush sweeping explanation. This Renaissance Humanism wanted go back 'to the sources' which meant back Greco-Roman art and poetry but it also meant (for some) a return to the Bible. The argument of Armstrong and those like him is that Calvin and others were reading the Bible with something of a Renaissance mindset. Not entirely, but they certainly weren't sitting down like Thomas Aquinas and reading the Bible through a logic-system-philosophical grid. The later 'Calvinists' consciously re-adapted the Scholastic method. It had started before Calvin's successor Theodore Beza but he and people like Francis Turretin are usually pegged as the initiators (or perhaps re-initiators) of Reformed Scholasticism.

Definitely by the time you reach some like Charles Hodge in the 19th century, you find a different 'method' of theology, a different way of approaching the Bible. Hodge believed theology is just like any of the other sciences. Instead of studying nature like a Biologist or Geologist, the Theologian is essentially a scientist studying the materiel of Scripture. The other day I listened to Muller and Scott Clark mock the idea that Reformed Scholasticism was Rationalist....but that's exactly what it is. I have a quote posted down at the bottom of my website:

"In the theology of Zanchi, at the very point of transition from Reformation to Orthodoxy, the spirit of medieval Scholasticism has thus begun to replace that of the Reformers at a point where it counted most. To the extent to which—under the influence of Thomistic-Aristotelian tradition—the christocentric orientation of Calvin's thinking shifted toward a metaphysics of causality in the thought of his successors, Reformed theology ceased to be a theology of revelation."

Otto Grundler in 'Thomism and Calvinism'

The term Reformed Orthodoxy when used historically, is synonymous with Reformed Scholasticism. If you get what Grundler is saying...it's pretty stunning.

I (and I'm in the minority to be sure!) think this reaches its zenith with Charles Hodge and in different areas of theology and application with the ideas of Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til. They believe that speculative theology can develop (with breathtaking presumptive confidence!) systems of theology that range far beyond the text....and yet because the method is right they can call these systems they build....Biblical. To me they're building paper castles built on sand, but the issue is method. I think they've imbibed philosophical ideas which drive their theological method and how they interact with the text and this leads to their 'expansionism' in dealing with all their modern 'worldview' topics that I don't think are Biblical in the least.

They would say I've imbibed philosophical ideas and become something of a mystic who embraces irrationality and contradiction....to which I would counter I am simply desiring to 'submit' to the Biblical text and form my ideas of logic and system around a Christocentric reading of the text rather than bring pre-conceived notions of logic and system with me when I read the text.

R Scott Clark was talking about syllogisms and logic and mocking the idea that we wouldn't use these in theology. Of course we want syllogisms and logic to be used when someone is building an airplane of whatever (I can't remember his specific example)........and he's right about the airplane or something like that. We use that type of reason to determine of things work and work in a safe consistent manner.

But to apply this type of thinking to theology, to metaphysics, to revelation....wow, you're saying that these things have to 'make sense to me' in order for them to be true. I just don't think the Bible approaches theology or the doctrine of God in this way...at all.

Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark were embroiled in a controversy in the 1940's and after over the Incomprehensibility of God. Gordon Clark was to me a hyper-rationalist and many Van Tillians would agree. I guess I just go further and look at it as a matter of degrees. Van Til was a rationalist in many areas of his thought while Clark was a full blown Rationalist that had a startlingly reductionist formulaic view of God and theology....really pushing the edge of blasphemy. It's no accident most modern hyper-Calvinists love Gordon Clark and resonate with his view of God. Hyper-Calvinists believe they're elevating God above all other Christian claimants. Actually they're trashing God and reducing Him to mathematical formulas. They think they can pick him apart and break down in pretty simple terms all of his works and theological revelation. It often makes me ill.

The Reformed Scholasticism of today is not quite that bad....but it gives birth to Hyper-Calvinism....it's not much of a leap to jump from where most people are at to a position like Clark. Many are closer than they realize when it comes to a host of theological issues.

It's disappointing to me because in the end I find that with most Reformed people it's not really about what's right, but about who gets to claim Calvin and who gets to claim that they're the 'real' Reformed or the 'authentic' descendants of Calvin etc...

It's not about what theological method is correct, but it's an argument of tradition and the agenda of the modern denominations.

From my standpoint, I'm not interested in claiming anyone nor am I interested in their denominational traditions. I don't care about being 'Reformed'....whatever that means. I say that because the term means many different things to different people. I've known many Reformed that espouse Anglican or Lutheran theology in certain areas and yet they're convinced 'that' IS Reformed. Many Reformed today think the term means....5 point Calvinist.

Predestination was not what differentiated the Reformed from the Lutherans. Luther believed in predestination, reprobation...all of it. That wasn't the issue. The issue regarded the extent of Sola Scriptura as the sole authority....especially in the realm of Ecclesiology. Ironically I would say about 95% of 'Reformed' people today aren't Reformed at all when it comes to this matter.

To some Reformed means 'Covenant Theology' and therefore they don't want to call Baptists 'Reformed' because they don't properly embrace it.

In some ways I'm very Reformed.......in the original sense meaning Sola Scriptura applied to Ecclesiology. I believe in Reforming the Church 'all the way back' to the Bible, in terms of worship and practice....every aspect of the Christian and the Church's life. That's why I reject Presbyterianism with all my heart and soul. It's an extra-biblical rejection of this principle.

But for most 'Reformed' today, it's about denominational affiliation and Confessionalism.

They can have it.

The proto-protestant position I've embraced is Biblicist. In some ways I'm similar to the Reformed. In other ways I'm much closer to say, Mennonites. And like the Waldensians and Mennonites, in some ways I'm closer to Catholicism than I am to Luther or Calvin. When I say that, I'm pointing to aspects of Popular Medieval Catholicism...not the Papacy or anything that goes with it. In some ways I'm closer to Eastern Orthodoxy.

I just find it all interesting in seeing where they're at today and the issues that have arisen in the past. They're instructive both in terms of the modern Reformed mindset regarding theology but also on the whole question of theology in general. I remember I was wrestling with all this stuff about 13-14 years ago and coming to conclusions similar to Armstrong....not only with regard to Calvin and modern Reformed theology but also with regard to theological method in general. And then that book (Armstrong's) fell into my hands....and blew me away. Up until that point, Amyraut was just that 'inconsistent' 4 point Calvinist. The issue of course has nothing to do with 4 vs. 5 points of Calvinism. The issue is the theology that leads to formulating something like the '5 points' in the first place.

Around the same time I ran into whole Norman Shepherd debate over Justification etc...... This was while I was at Greenville Seminary. And the issues regarding how you 'do' theology were related. All these things starting coming together and I realized I had no future or interest in Presbyterianism (which I already loathed) nor 'Reformed' circles in general. So I left Greenville and started down my lonely road in history. It has been lonely, but really rewarding and exciting. It's opened up whole worlds to me.

And then in 2007 I picked up Verduin and that was just sort of icing on the cake. It was refreshing (almost to the point of tears) to find someone else expressing so many of the same ideas and not afraid to say it. I knew that book was excoriated in Reformed circles. I wish I had picked it up back in about 1996, but I might not have been ready. At that point I probably would have tossed it aside as well.

I look forward to conversations with X-, Y- and you regarding these matters.




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