5.1 The Identification of the Discipline: Changes in Style and Definition between Reformation and Orthodoxy
A. Reformation Era Backgrounds
The theology of the Reformers, even when it attained relatively full systematic expression, as in Melanchthon’s Loci communes, Calvin’s Institutes, Bullinger’s Decades, or Musculus’ Loci communes, did not include a self-conscious definition of the nature of theology as discipline in the traditional sense—whether as scientia or sapientia, and as a theologia in via—or to offer formal prolegomena apart from brief methodological statements.
This is not to ignore the several treatises from the period on the manner or ratio of studying theology, which do offer considerations of the methodus and the loci for study.
The theologies of the Reformers, particularly those that took the form of loci communes, did offer a finely conceived approach to the extraction of topical materials from Scripture and to the gathering of these materials into the topics or loci and did offer a refined sense of method and order for the organization of the loci, in accord with the humanist models of the era.
Still, there remains a formal difference between the large scale theologies of the second generation Reformers and the major dogmatic compendia of their successors, a difference identifiable in part by an increasingly detailed theological definition of the task of theology.
Whereas all of the writers just mentioned devoted some attention to the issue of the human knowledge of God and to the issue of scriptural revelation, none of them saw fit to discuss the character of theology as an intellectual discipline set in the context of a finite world and accommodated to the forms of human knowing: none, in short, define theologia.
The same situation obtains in the systematic works of the generation immediately following: Beza, Ursinus, Zanchi, Daneau, and Olevianus all omit discussion of the discipline from their larger theological exercises.
This approach to theology could only be maintained while the Reformation was still in a large sense a protest movement with theological roots and some academic training in medieval models.
Once Protestantism had been established as an institutional church with its own confessional orthodoxy and had recognized the need to teach theology in academies and universities, the situation changed and the task of teaching demanded some approach to definition of the discipline, not just in terms of etymologies but also in terms of the problem and the manner of knowing God.
The one theologian who provides a significant exception to the generalizations of the above paragraphs is Andreas Hyperius, in whose Methodus theologiae there is such a detailed carefully drawn prospectus for the design of theology as a series of loci communes—ordered in series from God to the final consummation, resting on Scripture and the fathers for their content, and referencing the larger tradition including the medieval scholastics—that elements of the later definitions begin to appear.
In particular, Hyperius stepped past Melanchthon’s appeal to the historical series of loci and was sensitive to the more intimate relationships of the historical economy of salvation to the ways in which theology is to be understood: he therefore recommended distinctions between the understanding of a locus like the Law of God prior to the fall, after the fall, and under grace.
Indeed, most of his major topical divisions are themselves organized with respect to these distinctions, adumbrating the early orthodox use of distinctions between theology ante lapsum and post lapsum, theology in via and in patria.
Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd Ed., Pp. 221–222). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.