[K:NWTS 23/1 (May 2008) 63-67]

Book Review

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Volume One: Prolegomena to Theology, second edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 463 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-0-8010-2617-1. $59.99.

Richard Muller has given us a monumental work in volume one of his four-part collection. This volume has been expanded and revised from its first publication in 1987. As he notes in the preface, it has been given a new subtitle “The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725,” implying that it covers this development from the beginnings of the Reformation and not just from 1565 onward.

Dr. Muller has also added second and third level subheadings, rewritten and occasionally rearranged paragraphs, and moved one of the later chapters (“Theology as a Discipline”) earlier in the book, directly after the definitions of theology. He has also more finely focused the direction (or thesis) of the work to compliment the other three volumes. Finally, he has supplemented the work with the more recent secondary literature in both seventeenth century scholasticism and secondary figures in the history of seventeenth century philosophy. Most of this scholarship has flowered since the first publication of his work in 1987 and partially as a result of it.

The one editorial decision this reviewer regrets is that Dr. Muller chose to remove the list of Reformed theologians found in the first edition. This provided a brief bibliography of the important figures mentioned in his work and was a helpful tool for those not familiar with the subject. Dr. Muller promises us its inclusion in a future work, but we believe that many readers would have found it useful somewhere in their copy of this four-volume set.

Dr. Muller’s work is set thoroughly within the context of previous scholarship on the subject. He is arguing, as is well known, against the older scholarship that pitted Calvin against the later Calvinists. He argues instead that there is great continuity between the Reformers and Protestant Scholasticism. As a result, Muller argues against numerous assumptions found in the older scholarship. Among these are: (1) Scholastic method is a departure from the Reformers, especially Calvin; (2) Scholastic theological systems are inherently Rationalistic and represent a return to the corruptions of Medieval theology, especially Thomism; (3) Reformed Scholasticism is a form of Rationalism that set the stage for eighteenth century Rationalism, especially as that is found in the writings of Christian Wolff and his disciples.

This book is expansive and deals with all the issues of prolegomena found in Reformed scholastic systems. Therefore the above descriptions do not do justice to its broad content. Dr. Muller deals with the nature of theology and religion, theology as a discipline, the relationship of natural theology and supernatural theology, the object and genus of theology (is it theoretical or practical or both?), the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology, the use of philosophy in theology, fundamental articles to which all Christians must subscribe, and the basic principles of theology. One should read this book simply to get a more expansive (and diverse) treatment of these issues than one might find by reading a single theological work of the period. Nonetheless, most of the concerns we have noted in our previous paragraph run throughout the book and help us understand Muller’s historical concerns in relationship to most of these issues. 

Before we begin examining these issues, readers of this journal will find it noteworthy that Dr. Muller describes the Reformed as Christocentric. He distinguishes Reformed Christocentrism from Barthian Christocentrism, noting that Reformed Christocentrism operates in the arena of soteriology. In our own words, it does not imply that union with Christ is an all-embracing doctrine so that even the reprobate may be viewed in Christ (Barth). At the same time, Muller notes that the Reformed did believe that all of Scripture points to Christ. He does not suggest (as one recent Reformed writer) that adopting a Christocentric understanding of Reformed theology is to unwittingly adopt a “Central Dogma” theory. 

Readers will also find his section on the Theology of Union very helpful. This deals with Christ’s own knowledge. Muller shows that the Reformed believed (in contrast to the Lutheran ubiquitarians) that the finite cannot contain the infinite. Therefore, Christ’s human nature is incapable of infinite knowledge. At the same time, he articulates the unique way in which Christ in his human nature knows God by way of the hypostatic union.

Returning to Muller’s primary focus, in responding to ‘Calvin against the Calvinist’ views, Muller asks numerous questions. For instance, why should the Reformed be required to slavishly hold to Calvin’s views in all respects?  And why should they be named after one of the Reformers, when there were many Reformed leaders during the Reformation? In this he points to the significance of other Reformers. Some of them used a more pronounced scholastic method which served as a precedent for later Reformed theologians. For instance, the use of scholastic method is found in the writings of Peter Martyr Vermigli, Wolfgang Musculus, and Jerome Zanchius. In fact, in some cases the Reformed generally followed the insights of some of these theologians where they differed from Calvin. For instance, in Muller’s opinion Calvin was uncomfortable with passive decrees, but the Reformed at large argued for passive decrees, following the scholastic distinctions of Vermigli.

Muller also shows that Luther’s rejection of Aristotle in theological education did not represent a rejection of Aristotle’s Logic and Rhetoric. When Luther reformed theological education with the help of the German nobility only Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Ethics were jettisoned. The Logic and Rhetoric were retained. However, at a later point Melancthon gave lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This use of the Ethics was also found among the Reformed, notably by Vermigli in England, who used it as a textbook in his ethics course. The Reformed also used the Metaphysics by the end of the sixteenth century.

The use of logic and rhetoric were not simply a return to Aristotle or his appropriation by Medieval scholastics. Instead, logic and rhetoric had been retooled by such thinkers as Agricola and Ramus, using the insights of the Renaissance. Thus, we find Melanchton using Renaissance insights on the topoi in his Loci Communes, which formed the starting point for Calvin’s Institutes. At the same time, there continued to be debate on the use of Ramus’s modifications of logic among logicians. And the Reformed differed in some respects on their appropriation of Ramist logic. Thus, Reformed scholasticism was not simply a return to Medieval models (in spite of their use). It represented a concern for method that was in touch with the academic concerns of its day and in continuity with the Reformation, now seen in the context of the Renaissance.

In addition, Muller helps us to see some of the contextual issues (both theological and institutional) that lead to the more sophisticated use of scholastic method among the Reformed. For instance, the need to respond to the detailed arguments of Roman Catholic polemics (such as Cardinal Bellarmine) lead to the need for greater sophistication in theological method. Also, once the Reformation had established the legitimacy of Reformed churches, the need arose to formulate a theological curriculum well suited for Reformed universities. The scholastic method was appropriate for the give and take of classroom education.

Central to Dr. Muller’s argument is the fact that scholasticism does not designate a particular theological perspective but a method of theological study and presentation. First, theologians with a wide range of views could be called scholastic. Thus, Reformed scholastics not only adapted methods from their own age, but freely picked and chose insights from a wide range of Medieval theology, sometime integrating perspectives from Thomists, Scotists, and occasionally Nominalists. Thus, Reformed scholasticism should not be viewed as a Reformed return to Thomism. It does not represent any particular theological or philosophical perspective. Secondly, the same theologian may use catechetical instruction in one of his writings, rhetorical method in his sermons, and scholastic method in a scholastic treatise. Thus, scholasticism is not to be equated with a particular theological content but with a method of theological discourse.

All of this helps us understand that scholasticism is not a form of Rationalism, but a particular theological method. When Dr. Muller uses the term Rationalism here it is important to recognize that he is using it in a specifically Christian way. He is not referring to Rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Wolff in opposition to Empiricists such as Bacon, Locke or Hume. He refers to Aristotle as a Rationalist even though Aristotle is usually contrasted (to some extent) with his more Rationalist teacher Plato. This and other points indicate that Muller uses the term Rationalism in his book to refer to anyone who uses reason to the exclusion of revelation. Thus, while he is constantly referring to Wolffian Rationalism it does not appear that his primary point is that Christian Wolff used rational criteria as opposed to empirical criteria as his first principles. Instead, the point is that Wolff used natural criteria as opposed to Scripture as his first principals of understanding.

Insofar as the rising tide of Enlightenment philosophy was a return to ancient philosophy with its general disregard for supernatural revelation, this is a salutary and important point. Reformed scholasticism did not present a system that exalted corrupt reason over supernatural revelation. Nor did it set the stage for such a development. In addition, as Dr. Muller notes, the Reformed opposed the Socinians, who exalted reason as the principium cognoscendi (“principle of understanding”) in the interpretation of Scripture. They would not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, because it was not fully comprehensible to reason. To support Muller’s point, we may note that Reformed scholastics like Francis Turretin rejected this principial use of reason in revealed theology, noting that while the doctrine of the Trinity may be incomprehensible, it is not incompossible (incapable of being conceived). Scripture is the alone first principle for interpreting Scripture.

This work is well worth anyone’s time. It is a gold-mine of material. Read it and enjoy. Be strengthened and built-up. Learn from the riches of the Reformed tradition. Understand it in its historical context, and be aware of the debates surrounding it. You’re in for a workout, but one that is well-written and easier to digest than some of the sources from which it is drawn, especially since most of them are in Latin. This is your door of entry. Take advantage of it.

—Scott F. Sanborn