Does Reformed Scholastic Theology Contradict Biblical Theology?

Seung-Joo Lee
Wednesday, August 26th 2020

Paul Oscar Kristeller (1905–99), an eminent scholar of the Renaissance thought and culture, left an enduring insight that in order to appreciate the intellectual accomplishments of Renaissance movements, one should not only look at the achievements of humanism but also of scholasticism. He warned against exaggerating the gulf between early modern humanists and scholastics by insisting that “all kinds of adjustments and combinations between humanism and scholasticism were possible and were successfully accomplished.”[1] This means that early modern scholastic theologians could, with the help of humanism, improve their Latin style, sharpen their understanding of original sources, and refine the questions they brought to the study of theology, yet still use scholastic patterns of argumentation. In fact, in Kristeller’s judgment, humanists did not—and certainly could not—replace the philosophical accomplishments of scholastics merely with their rhetorical excellence, and their reflections on philosophical topics, he commented, appear to be “rather superficial and inconclusive” compared to the ones produced by scholastic thinkers (99). This demonstrates that scholastics were actually not a group of “uncultured” academics; they excelled in what humanists could not, and that was in the training of ratio, or reason.

It is no wonder then that Heiko Oberman (1930–2001) had portrayed Martin Luther (1483–1546) as a critical reformer, not a complete rejecter, of late medieval scholasticism.[2] Richard Muller hence accurately described the early modern Protestant scholasticism as a “revised scholasticism” that is “a child of the Renaissance as well as a child of the Middle Ages.”[3] One should not forget therefore that even at the Academy of Geneva, the academy founded by John Calvin (1509–64) in 1559, students learned not only Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis and Antoine Rodolphe Chevalier’s (1507–72) Rudimenta Hebraicae Linguae, but also Julius Pacius’s (1550–1635) Institutiones Logicae, which was a condensed—and revised—version of Aristotle’s logic. Actually, Theodore Beza (1519–1605), another influential theologian at the Academy, had envisioned the institution to be the “respublica scholastica, or the academic commonwealth.”[4] Hence the theological education even at Calvin’s own institution included both philological and philosophical trainings, both linguistic and logical instructions, and this testifies to one crucial historical fact that many modern Christians tend to undervalue: Reformed theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed their theology by using the tools of both Renaissance humanism and medieval scholasticism.

This background is helpful in reading the works of Reformed scholastics, such as Franciscus Junius (1545–1602). Junius was a student of Calvin and Beza at the Academy of Geneva and later a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Leiden. One interesting facet about Junius is that, despite his prior training in humanism in France, and despite his rigorous biblical education in Switzerland, he never shied away from using scholastic methods and concepts in his theological treatises. For example, he explained the mereological order of creation (i.e., how parts are ordered to the whole) in terms of a thing’s relation to itself and to others, by naming the former as “absolute” relation and the latter as “relative.”[5] The first kind of order is toward self, and the other is toward others. One implication of this view was that moral actions were viewed in terms of how self ought to act in relation to self and others—all motions in creation were understood to occur in the context of one part relating to (or being related to) another either by self or by others. In conjunction with this, Junius believed that these orientations of creatures are inherent in nature: “In fact,” he insisted, “nature itself constantly teaches that all parts of one body are ordered to the whole.”[6] Thus, for Junius, the relational or mereological order of creation is neither arbitrary nor imposed, but is intrinsic and natural. Moreover, in this twofold mereological framework, God is a Being who is necessarily ordered to himself, yet is freely related to creatures; but creatures are those beings who are necessarily ordered to themselves and to others, including God, by the design of creation, or by the intent of their Creator.

What has to be appreciated in his account of the “natural” order of creation is that Junius, as a theologian, related all orders properly to God. Junius clearly insisted that God is the efficient and self-sufficient cause of all existence and all truth.[7] This directly pertains to the issue of revelation: “because God alone is true light and subsists through Himself … it would be absurd if anyone should believe that the light which arises from that One who is Himself very light should fall upon created things from some other source.”[8] In other words, because God is the one who knows himself in himself and who revealed his self-knowledge to creatures by himself, finding the ultimate cause of all existence and truth in creation is absurd; creation is only an effect of God’s act, not its cause. These are not merely philosophical claims—the crucial thing to note here is that these comments about the origin and, by extension, the goal of created order were the fruits of deep contemplations, reflections, and explications of a biblical passage, one that is perhaps dear to all humble Christians: “For from Him and through and in Himself also are all things, the apostle says: to Him be glory forever. Amen (Rom. 11:36).”[9]

Scholastic categories were used in Junius’s presentation of human perfection as well. Junius described two kinds of created perfection, which were distinguished into absolute and comparative kinds (just like he distinguished absolute and relative relations). The absolute perfection of a created thing referred to its state in which “nothing more may be desired that belongs to constituting the nature of a thing as just and full.”[10] In other words, the absolute perfection here referred to the full possession of that which a thing desires, and this category was applied to saints in heaven because their knowledge and desire of God would be so full that nothing more could be added. The comparative perfection, on the other hand, was a state of a thing that “tends by certain degrees to that absolute perfection.”[11] This kind of perfection was fitting for Christians on earth, Junius believed, as their mutable perfection is tethered to the perfection promised to them in heaven. So human perfection is human nature’s motional fullness and mereological completeness, as it can be grasped in Junius’s statement that “the rationale for one part of a thing separately established by itself is imperfect until it is called back to the rationale of the whole of which it is a part.”[12] Hence his construal of the perfection of human nature entailed various layers of natural, mereological, and teleological acts, which, not surprisingly, was how Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74) formulated the concept—Aquinas had claimed that “a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality, because we call that perfect which lacks nothing of the mode of its perfection.”[13] Yet in making these arguments Junius emphatically and repeatedly asserted that supernatural grace was necessary for the perfection of human nature: “[God] claims its rising, progress, and completion entirely for Himself, so that each person who boasts may boast in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31).”[14]

So here is a question worth asking: does Reformed scholastic theology necessarily contradict biblical theology? More precisely, did Reformed scholastic theology contradict biblical theology? The answer to both questions is not complex: no. These reflections on the kinds of creaturely relation and perfection were particularly relevant to understanding the teachings of Paul in Colossians 1:28 and Ephesians 4:13 where the word τέλειον was used to communicate a sense of completeness of Christian unity, or maturity, in Christ in heaven. Reformed scholastics did not contradict but deepened theological reflections on biblical themes, words, and concepts. Therefore, to appreciate the legacy of historic Reformed theology, one should not only appreciate its humanistic features, but also its scholastic features. Both Latin and Greek sources, both philological and philosophical tools, and both literary and logical instructions were used in the development of Reformed theology. And they were used for this very purpose, the purpose of defining, distinguishing, and relating the teachings of Scripture, so that the Reformed faith could be firmly rooted in the Word of God and also that it could stand the test of time.

Reformed scholastic theology will thus provide contemporary Reformed Christians with multiple sets of conceptual tools that can be used to defend their precious doctrines; not only from Roman Catholicism, but also from postmodern secularism, which is intensely forceful in this age. And, by studying it, they can learn to conceptualize how all things are related to God, including themselves. In this regard Michael Allen was certainly correct in designating a scholastic form of theology as “a protocol for pilgrim theology.”[15] This form of theology will help them see the mereological significance of their existence, because, by God’s grace, they will learn to situate themselves in the context of divine providence, and to order themselves toward heaven, the terminal point of God’s providential guidance. And it will no doubt help them see the transcendent value of the Scripture: the Word of God, in Reformed scholastic thought, is the “reservoir” of all supernatural, saving, and sanctifying wisdom.

Seung-Joo Lee holds an M.A degree from Westminster Seminary California and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Seung-Joo is married to Daisy, and is working at Reformed Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, as Personal Assistant to the Principal.

[1]. Paul Oscar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanistic Strains, 116.

[2]. Heiko Oberman, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough,” in The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World, 21–43.

[3]. Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, I.36 & 63.

[4]. Richard Muller, Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition, 43.

[5]. Franciscus Junius, A Treatise On True Theology: With the Life of Franciscus Junius, 104. Translated by David C. Noe,

[6]. Franciscus Junius, The Mosaic Polity, 41. Translated by. Todd M. Rester.

[7]. Junius, A Treatise On True Theology, 114.

[8]. Junius, A Treatise On True Theology, 114–15.

[9]. Junius, A Treatise On True Theology, 115.

[10]. Junius, The Mosaic Polity, 63

[11]. Junius, The Mosaic Polity, 63.

[12]. Junius, The Mosaic Polity, 41.

[13]. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, Indiana: Christian Classics, 1981), Ia, q. 4, a. 1.

[14]. Junius, A Treatise On True Theology, 118.

[15]. Michael Allen, “Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses,” Themelios 44.1 (2019): 119.

Wednesday, August 26th 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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