I want to reiterate that I’m not picking up this information to suggest that we go back to living and worshiping as these men did. Theirs was a completely different era. And yet today, there is a notion that we must “recover” their “Confession” and their “Theology, Piety, and Practice”.
I’m suggesting that there are tremendous things that we can learn from these generations of writers, without “recovering” their every move.
There is a story from an old book that meant a lot to me as a young man, “The Perfect Joy of St. Francis”. This was a “biographical novel” about Francis of Assisi, who, as we know, embraced a simple life of itinerant poverty, and after whom “Pope Bergoglio” seems to have fashioned himself.
Yes, this is directly to address Scott Clark, and the method of “recovery” that he has adopted and that he has been advocating. But Clark is not imitating Francis of Assisi. In this respect, Clark rather reminds me of “Brother Jack”, a character from that novel (and for all I know, a real-life character) who sought in a very simple way to imitate Francis:
Everything was a peaceful as a scene in the Gospels. Francis was in the little chapel, praying. And Brother Jack was behind him. Whenever Francis bent over, Jack bent over too. When Francis sighed, Jack sighed also. When Francis coughed, Jack coughed after him. That was simply Jack’s way of following Francis …
Thereafter he imitated Francis in everything he did … Jack, like the simple dove that he was, merely said, “Francis is a saint. So if I imitate him, the devil will have no hold on me” (pgs 119-120).
The theologians of this era served their times by thinking through what the Christian faith meant to their own times. They did it using a language (Latin) and a philosophical thought-system (largely Aristotelian) that was prevalent in their own era. They wrote “confessionally binding documents” not for people who would live three and four centuries later, but for themselves … to set themselves apart from their own world, in terms that their own world would understand.
They lived at times when “being a Christian” (and specifically, “being a Protestant”) meant going to war and standing up to persecutions while at the same time producing “a clearer identification of the theological task in its university setting. From the very beginning of Luther’s protest, the university and university-trained theologians were at the center of the movement”.
The great mark of this era was not that the great theologians had somehow conformed themselves to some kind of outward “Piety and Practice” or another (although those things were important too, but not in the “Brother Jack” kind of way). It was because they had thought through the challenges of their own day, and they sought to address those challenges in their own terms.
The prolegomena of the scholastic Protestant systems were designed specifically for the purpose of presenting and defining the presuppositions and principles controlling the system of theology as a whole.
Close analysis of the prolegomena, therefore, and their identification of the presuppositional structure of dogmatics and of the principia or foundations of theological endeavor is one way of assessing both the older dogmatics and the scholarship on it.
These prolegomena evidence two principia of theology, Scripture and God, and, moreover, a highly exegetical and traditionary theological method of identifying, ordering, and expositing those and the subsequent topics [or “loci”] of theology.
What is absent is the claim that the topics and arguments of a theological system can be logically deduced from any single principle – as is the practice of doing so.
Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd Ed., pg. 125). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
This “loci” method of understanding and ordering theology certainly did appear at the time of the Reformation: in fact, Melanchthon’s first work in 1521 and subsequent years was called the “Loci Communes”, or “the common places” or “universal topics”. Calvin, too, picked up this ordering for his Institutes:
Melanchthon and the roots of Protestant theological method.
The natural concomitant of the careful analysis of the meaning of the term theology and its relation to the forms of human knowledge of God is an increased awareness of theology proper as an academic discipline. Indeed, these are but two aspects of a single issue.
The success of the Reformation led to the establishment and institutionalization of its reforms and of the theology on which those reforms were based. The very success of the theology of the Reformation must be regarded as one of the most important sources of its post-Reformation quest for clarity and self-definition.
That definition, in turn, produced a clearer identification of the theological task in its university setting. From the very beginning of Luther’s protest, the university and university-trained theologians were at the center of the movement.
The process of establishment and institutionalization of the Reformation viewed in terms of the need to train new generations of Protestants in theology led to a reexamination of theology as an academic discipline—and that, in turn, to a clarification of the definitions and presuppositions of that discipline.
As Ong observes in his study of Ramus, the philosophers and theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries placed considerable stress on the question of method. The De dialectica inventione libri tres (1479) of Rudolf Agricola, together with the brief epitome of Agricola’s work by Bartholomaus Latomus, were perhaps the most influential works on the logic of organization and argumentation in the first half of the sixteenth century.
From the point of view of theology and theological method, the importance of Agricola’s text lay in its methodological use of topics—topoi or loci—in the organization of knowledge rather than the typically Aristotelian use of categories of predication. This methodological model was brought to the service of Protestant theology as early as 1521 in Melanchthon’s Loci communes.
It became, moreover, Calvin’s basic model in the second edition of his Institutes. These “commonplaces” or “universal topics,” as elicited from Scripture, became the model for Protestant dogmatics—and in the case of many Reformed theologians, beginning with Calvin and Musculus, the dogmatic or doctrinal task was assumed to coordinate with the exegetical task.
Melanchthon also recognized that topical organization demanded consideration of a “proper and expeditious way” (recta et compendaria via) of gathering and arranging a subject—in short, an identification of the topics followed by the discovery of a methodus or proper “way through” them.
Melanchthon provides the following definition: “method is a disposition (habitus), namely a science or art making a way or path according to a definite pattern (certa ratione), that is, which invents and opens up a path as it were through impassible and densely planted places (loci), through the confusion of things (rerum confusionem).”
The loci, in short, demand a method. Calvin echoes this Melanchthonian approach in his insistence on establishing the “right order of teaching” in his Institutes. The method may, as in the case of Melanchthon’s earliest Loci communes and Calvin’s restructured Institutes of 1539, draw its primary topics from the Epistle to the Romans.
This method also, as we have seen, tends to follow out the historical order of Scripture while also recognizing the causal priority of God the Creator and acknowledging the authority of the creeds.
As in the case of the final edition of Calvin’s Institutes, there can be a blending of these various approaches to order and arrangement—although the law-gospel model of catechisms that work through the commandments and then offer the Creed and the model of the Creed itself, running from God and creation, to Christ and his work, to the work of the Spirit, the church and the last things, were readily blended with the topical order of Romans and with a historical series of loci.
So too, if the Reformers wrote little in the way of formal theological prolegomena, they also, in addition to these methodological discussions, provided a significant series of propaeduetic works, methods, or courses of study that offered insight into the way in which the discipline of theology ought to be approached.
Both Melanchthon and Bullinger wrote treatises on the study of theology in which both the life and spirituality of the student and the course of study was presented. Bullinger’s Ratio studiorum of 1527 sketched out the theological and philosophical loci communes, offered advice on the daily routine of study and prayer, and developed a course of reading in Scripture, the fathers, and philosophy, with recommendations of particular works on Greek and Hebrew language and grammar written by his contemporaries.
Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd Ed., pp. 177-179). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.