Protestantism, Liberal Learning, and Scholasticism: Part 2

by Matthew T. Gaetano

In my previous post, I wanted to challenge the perspective of some (unnamed) Catholics who are wrongly suspicious of Protestant views of learning. The great writers of ancient Greece and Rome (such as Aristotle and Cicero) were appropriated by Reformed and Lutheran writers, just as they had been by medieval and Renaissance Christians in the Latin West. But what about the medieval tradition itself? What about scholasticism in particular? I have often spoken to students who find themselves drawn to figures like Thomas Aquinas. But they are concerned that such an appreciation may not be in keeping with their Protestant convictions. Because of this perception, I sometimes worry that students see an articulation of Thomistic perspectives as a subtle way of defending Catholicism.

While Aquinas was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1567 by Pope Pius V and while he certainly affirmed transubstantiation, the invocation of the saints, the meritiousness of (graced) works, and the authority of the pope, many early-modern Protestants freely employed Thomistic ideas. They did not think of quoting Thomas Aquinas as an odd concession to Roman Catholicism. These Protestants saw Aquinas (along with other schoolmen like Peter Lombard and Bonaventure) as among the saniores scholastici (the sounder scholastics), who had many useful (and true!) things to say about theological and philosophical doctrines held in common by Christians in the West.

Gisbertus Voetius (d. 1676), a Dutch theologian who taught at the University of Utrecht and participated in the Synod of Dort, has a 1640 disputation dedicated to scholastic theology. Of course, he offers many criticisms of the medieval scholastics, but, when he comes to the use of scholastic theology, he says a number of quite positive things. And, even when he is critical, he supports deep familiarity with the medieval scholastics as a precondition for accurate and penetrating treatments of Roman Catholic theology by Reformed writers:

In philosophical subtleties, especially in unfolding logic, physics, metaphysics, ethics, and politics, they are very profitable. … In their theological method, especially that of Thomas, they must be approved. As the common proverb holds of Thomas (according to Sisto of Siena), he brings together four things in an indissoluble union, things that fight relentlessly among themselves: abundance and brevity, perspicuity and obscurity. We discover this at least to be true in many respects, if not in all. [The scholastics] thought up many terms and distinctions for elucidating otherwise obscure matters. With these terms, no one–unless he is ignorant of solid theology–will deny that the natural capacity and memory of man are aided wonderfully and that many theological mysteries are explained and defended with the greatest expedience and safety. … In the analysis of Aristotelian texts and of Scripture, they often show supreme judgment and subtlety. Let those at leisure see Thomas’ commentary on De anima, Bonaventure’s commentary on Luke, etc.

The matter of theology is twofold. There are those dogmas which do not exceed the terms of natural theology … and those which do exceed them. In the former [natural theology], [the scholastics] are successful (felices) and their fruitful genius has helped us quite a bit in obtaining reasons and solutions against atheists, Epicureans, etc. Let the writings of recent scholastics on God, on angels, on the human soul, etc., be consulted.

The matter of supernatural theology is either in controversy today between us [the Reformed] and the papists or not in controversy. In what is not controversial – for example, the simplicity and infinity of God, the Trinity, the person of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, etc., [the scholastics] are quite serviceable to us against ancient and modern heretics, especially the neo-Arrians. For they are ingenious in explaining and uncovering the tangles of the heretics, in discovering reasons that oppose the poor reasoning of the heretics…, and, finally – and more surprisingly – in explaining the Scriptures that are twisted and thrown around by the adversaries.

In matters that are in controversy today, they furnish for us a double use. The one is that they explain the mysteries of their corrupt theology more candidly than today’s tricksters. This provides an occasion for us to expose [or refute] those prevaricating figures who flee from the light and then to drag them into the light. From all the points that might be brought forward, our example here will be the controversy on the adoration and cult of images. The other use is that the scholastics better retained the truth in some things or came nearer to it than today’s … irreformable [theologians]–for example, concerning the principles and object of faith, the grace of God and free choice.  On these points, it happens that we here and there confound [our opponents] with their own domestic witnesses.

Our more excellent theologians everywhere acknowledge these and other uses of scholastic theology – if not in words at least by the very fact that there is in their writings the imitation and use of the scholastics.

Voetius addresses the themes of my previous post when he responds with great frustration to the charges of two sixteenth-century Catholic theologians, Melchior Cano and Antonio Possevino, that Protestants had rejected scholasticism. He is willing to concede that the Reformed had rejected (what he deemed to be) false doctrines and certain corrupt practices of the schools. But he fiercely opposed the suggestion that this opposition to elements of medieval scholasticism meant a rejection of a purified version of scholastic theology, fitted for Protestant schools. As he said in reply to contemporary Roman Catholics:

We do not banish reason, the light of nature, logic, or philosophy as a handmaiden of theology from our schools. … We do not reject but studiously follow and cultivate the acromaticus method of treating theology … in our schools.

By an acromaticus method, Voetius meant the scholastic form with which we are pretty familiar. The brevity of schoolmen like Aquinas in treating complex issues, the absence of rhetorical flourishes in their works, the simplicity and plainness of their prose, etc., are what Voetius means by acromaticus. So, we have a substantial embrace of the style and method of the schoolmen, along with a clear statement of the role of logic, natural reason, and philosophy in Reformed theology. (Again, he is almost contemptuous of the suggestion by some Roman Catholics that Protestants rejected these things in their theological schools.)

Voetius says that one cannot be an erudite theologian–at least a theologian seeking to teach university students and work through doctrines in the mode of asking questions, making arguments, etc.–without knowledge of the scholastics. The fact that Voetius–a major player at the Synod of Dort–thought that knowing medieval theology was indispensable for academic theology and for theological discussion, especially between Reformed and Roman Catholic writers, is significant for our enterprise here. First of all, it shows that Catholic and Reformed Christians share not only Scripture, the Church Fathers, the ancient councils, and pre-Christian, Greco-Roman learning (as I indicated in the first post), but also the rich tradition of medieval theology. Furthermore, the unadorned style of the scholastics may be a model for dialogue, at least in some of its aspects. Finally, the erudition of early-modern Reformed theologians may help us to recognize where today’s controversies miss the target. Because of shared sources and terminology (which helped to prevent many misunderstandings between the confessions), the scholastics of the seventeenth century–both Reformed and Roman Catholic–may help us to identify the central issues requiring further inquiry and conversation.

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