A Series of Unfortunate Ideas? The Use and Abuse of Scholastic Theology

There will always be those who believe that “Reformed” and “scholasticism” are like fire and water, the one always threatening either to extinguish or to evaporate the other.

These two words should be more like oil and fire or like storm clouds and rain, scholasticism fueling the fires of a vibrant Reformed theology or filling the clouds with the water of sound doctrine to fall on thirsty souls. Unfortunately, though this sounds good, this is not always what happens. Rather than revealing and clarifying biblical teaching to the heirs of the kingdom, scholastic theology can become like parables that conceal the truth even while revealing it.

 

I have often noted in conversation that “scholasticism” is a bad word with bad connotations for many people. However, it has also become a strange word that does strange things to people. In some cases, it may even produce strange people or make the strange ones even stranger. When I hear, “Reformed scholasticism,” I think, “classic Reformed theology,” or, “training clear and effective pastors who are devoted to the triune God.” These ideas appeal to me, both because I have been a Reformed pastor and now my job is to train Reformed pastors. There will always be those who believe that “Reformed” and “scholasticism” are like fire and water, the one always threatening either to extinguish or to evaporate the other. However, they should be more like oil and fire or like storm clouds and rain, scholasticism fueling the fires of a vibrant Reformed theology or filling the clouds with the water of sound doctrine to fall on thirsty souls.

Unfortunately, though this sounds good, this is not always what happens. Rather than revealing and clarifying biblical teaching to the heirs of the kingdom, scholastic theology can become like parables that conceal the truth even while revealing it. The problem is that this often results in hiding the truth from those who should understand it and revealing it to a select gnostic group of Reformed few. Some people like obscure terms and philosophical concepts for their own sakes. Some people can teach and practice engineering, but not help people use their smart phones or computers. Likewise, some can talk about the habits and acts of saving faith, habitual and actual sin and sanctification, without telling people that they must be willing to believe whatever the triune God tells them and to do whatever he commands them. Sometimes Christians gradually lose touch with the world around them and how people think and speak and, for some, scholasticism becomes the unintentional means of cutting their last remaining ties.

My purpose here is to show why the church needs scholastic theology and why she needs more than scholastic theology. To speak in scholastic terms, scholastic theology is a necessary cause of recovering classic Reformed thought, but it is not a sufficient cause of doing so. It is a means of understanding good ideas, but it is not and end replacing those ideas or of keeping them from the average Christian. After a bit of explanation of what Reformed scholasticism is, the rest of the material will illustrate why we should use it and how we should beware of abusing it.

First of all, what is Reformed scholasticism? “Reformed” refers to a set of beliefs that more or less aligns with a historical movement in church history. If you think that content is enough to be Reformed, then sorry. It is not. Calling yourself Reformed says as much about what you think about history as you do about what the Bible teaches.“Scholastic” refers to a scientific method of organizing theology, giving clear definitions and making precise distinctions. It involves stating questions clearly, knowing what you are talking about and what you are not (or should not), understanding the available options, distinguishing between truth and falsehood, examining the truth from many sides and in light of many questions, and knowing what to do with what you learn and why it matters. Scholasticism can take philosophical forms to convey biblical ideas. Reformed scholasticism, however, is more concerned with biblical ideas than with their precise philosophical forms. If there is a tension between the two, then philosophy will bend or break rather than Scripture. For example, following Aristotelian categories, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause of salvation. Yet this does not convey the whole truth. Faith is part of the picture too, which becomes the instrumental cause of salvation under the efficient causality of the Holy Spirit. The whole point is that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The Spirit works faith in God’s people so that they can see and receive Christ. Only then can they come to God and only then does God receive all of the glory in their salvation. They must believe, but they can’t and won’t and they can’t because they won’t. Scholastic causal categories help theologians in this case to sift through what they are finding in Scripture. At least this is how things should work.

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