Friday, May 15, 2015

Agricola, “Loci”, and the Birth of Systematic Theology

The question may be asked as if by a youngster: “Daddy, where did systematic theology come from?”

(For the benefit of the Roman Catholics in our audience, I am making a joke: I’m taking the question that is frequently asked, “where do babies come from”, and applying it to “systematic theology”. This should not be construed as if I’m suggesting that Protestant theologies only came into existence in the 16th century. They did not. The bases for these theologies had existed since Old Testament times. The problem is that Rome, because of its supposed position of authority and influence, had not only allowed but actually fostered some fairly distorted viewpoints and doctrines to flourish; and so the Reformers and the Reformed Orthodox, interested in “how to think rightly about God and the things He is doing in the world”, had to disentangle all of the distortions from all of the right thinking that also been carried through the centuries…)

This blog post will seek to show how the Reformed Orthodox writers (those who wrote in the generations after Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin) came upon their method first of all for understanding what the sources of theology were, and then what the topics of theology were.

Keep in mind that once you reject “Church authority” as a principle of “how we know what to believe” – and that is precisely what was done at the Reformation – you have to try to understand really what it is that you understand, and how you understand it.

That involves understanding the long-term relationship that God, who has the genuine authority, has sought to create and foster with sinful mankind, and also how He communicates to us.

Richard Muller describes “the development of theological method in the mid-sixteenth century…”
Among second-generation Reformed theologians, one in particular stands out as carrying the Melanchthonian demand for methodus theologiae toward systematic realization: Andreas Hyperius (1511–64), professor of theology at Marburg from 1542 on.

His posthumous system, the Methodus theologiae, sive praecipuorum Christianae religionis locorum communium (1568), not only adopts the locus method of exposition but provides some insight into the issues of order and organization faced by the early Protestant systematizers.

First, comments Hyperius, the topics viewed as important by church writers of various ages ought to be weighed and considered; only the important and necessary articles are to be chosen as loci.

Once a compend of these loci is made, each topic should be examined in terms of the ages or times of the church: before the fall, after the fall, prior to the Law, under the Law, under the gospel, thus adapting the
scripturae series
of Melanchthon to the shape of argument in each of the loci.

Hyperius also argues a balance of Scripture and tradition in this work of theological construction: all loci must be explained, first, in the light of Scripture, second, in the light of the fathers.

The argument mirrors the Reformers’ sense of the relative authority of Scripture and tradition, subordinating the latter to the former, in continuity with the understanding of the greater part of the earlier tradition and in distinct and conscious contrast to the canons of the Council of Trent.

This locus method became the standard pattern of theological system with the publication of the works of Hyperius, Musculus and Vermigli.

The locus method also, together with the Reformation concern for the original languages, provides the point of contact between what can be called the humanism of the Reformers and their successors and the scholasticism that developed in the Protestant academies and universities and that is evident in major works of theology after the middle of the sixteenth century.

Alsted, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, views it as the sole and proper method for the gathering of theological topics.

He views the “major parts” or actual species of theology—natural, catechetical, scholastic, and so on—as primary loci and the actual “topics, titles and subtitles” within these major parts as the secondary and constituent loci of each kind of theological system.

These constituent loci, in turn, are to be the proper subjects of theological declaration and disputation, with the result that Hyperius could speak of a Protestant school-theology, a theology that follows, in other words, a “scholastic” method—language that would become a standard description of the academic theological exercise in Protestantism by the time of Alsted.

Hyperius also notes that the collation of topics yields six major loci: God, creatures and man, the church, the doctrine of Law and gospel, signs or sacraments, and the consummation.

He has no objection to the placement of a general locus on holy Scripture first, prior to the doctrine of God, inasmuch as Scripture is the source of all doctrine, but his preference is to state this ground of theology and to proceed immediately to the first locus, the doctrine of God.

The doctrine of God—the divine attributes and the persons of the Trinity—precedes all other doctrines since they are concerned with the works of God (creation, providence and administration).

The remaining loci proceed in order from creation, by way of the church and its doctrines, to the final consummation. This method, concludes Hyperius, is synthetic (synthetike), which is to say, constitutiva seu compositiva, moving from general first principles by way of individual instances or differentia of the principles to the final goal.

Hyperius thus establishes the organizational model and the language used to describe its patterns and methods that would come to characterize scholastic orthodoxy.

Beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century with Hyperius’ Methodus, there is increasing interest in theology as a discipline—and in the relationship between the discipline of theology as taught in the academic context and in the life and work of the church.

This language of method carries over into such early orthodox systems as Trelcatius’ Scholastica et methodica locorum communium institution and Alsted’s Methodus sacrosanctae theologiae. In the former title in particular, a “scholastic instruction” includes both the loci or topics and the proper methodus or “way through” those topics.

Alsted’s use of methodus similarly emphasizes the way through or ordering of theology, in this case, the division of “the whole of theology” into its “members,” of the genus into its species.

Thus Alsted moves through his Praecognita or prolegomena to a separate methodus for natural, catechetical, scholastic, “soteriological” or moral, homiletical and mystical theology.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd Ed., Pp. 179–181). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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