Friday, April 22, 2016

No such thing as “Reformed Thomism” among the Reformed Orthodox

The concept of “Reformed Thomism” is thoroughly wrong-headed.
There’s a Facebook group (and I suppose a movement) that calls itself “Reformed Thomism”. I think that’s a wrong-headed concept through and through. “Thomism” has had a lot of different iterations, and most of the contemporary ones rely heavily on (and work to support) Roman Catholicism.

Elsewhere, I’ve cited Richard Muller regarding the phenomenon known as “Reformed Scholasticism”, something that was a mark of the “Reformed Orthodox”:

The term “scholasticism,” when applied to [the scholarly practices of the Reformed Orthodox] indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well. As Masson has remarked, borrowing Chenu’s definition of medieval scholasticism, this relatively uniform method of exposition, with its clear structure, its patterns of reasoning and standard practices of making distinctions, neatly dividing and subdividing topics, its brief citations of texts, its monotonous use of formulae, and its impersonality of style, serves to hide the variety of its actual contents (Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pg. 34). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.).

So “Reformed Scholasticism” was a genuine phenomenon. However, taking the word “Thomism” and plugging it in where the word “Scholasticism” appears is buying into a lot of things that the Reformed Orthodox did not buy into.

One writer defended “Reformed Thomism” by saying that “John Owen was a Thomist”. To be sure, there were some Reformed writers who considered themselves Thomists. Peter Martyr Vermigli came out of a Thomist background. He was born in Italy in 1499, and he grew up Roman Catholic and with a “thorough training in Thomistic scholasticism”. He was a Roman Catholic priest, converted to Protestantism as a grown man, in his 30’s. He was a “Thomist” as a result of his upbringing.

In the case of Owen, it’s not as if he was a “Thomist” in the sense that these folks want it to be so. Owen was influenced by Thomism in three specific doctrines: “God as pure act, infused habits of grace, and the hypostatic union of Christ's two natures” (according to Ryan McGraw, OPC, in a review of Christopher Cleveland’s “Thomism in John Owen” that appeared in the Calvin Theological Journal). To suggest that those items made Owen a “Thomist” is a bit of a stretch.

Outside of these two examples, trying to fit “Reformed Thomism” into the “Reformed scholasticism” bucket is purely a stretch. Muller further qualifies his statement about “Reformed scholasticism”, offering “some tentative conclusions” concerning “the Reformed orthodox appropriation of scholastic models:

First and foremost, that appropriation was eclectic. Among the second-generation Reformers, Musculus cited various medievals positively, notably Scotus and Ockham. Calvin, of course, has been argued to evidence Scotist inclinations, but the problem of documenting their source and extent is notorious. Vermigli, by contrast, leaned more clearly on Thomist models, typically with a strong Augustinian accent. Among the early orthodox, Polanus cited both Aquinas and Scotus. In the case of Lambert Daneau’s use of Durandus of Sancto Porciano or of Richard Baxter’s citations of Gregory of Rimini, initial interest may have arisen because of such a mundane reason as the availability of the medieval author’s work in a sixteenth-century printing.

As we move into the seventeenth century, a broader pattern of citation appears, notably a recognition of the medieval writers as a source of paradigms, especially the paradigm for identifying theology as a speculative or practical discipline, where, typically, Henry of Ghent, Durandus, Johannes Rada, Scotus, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Giles of Rome, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas of Strasbourg are cited as illustrative of the various possible definitions. The exact relationship of Reformed orthodoxy to these older sources is difficult to map, given that there was no motive for most Protestant thinkers of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century to follow out the theology of a particular thinker or, certainly, a particular order—as there presumably was for their Dominican, Augustinian, or Jesuit contemporaries. Some necessarily preliminary conclusions can, nonetheless, be drawn from the Reformed usage found in the prolegomena and the doctrines of Scripture and God.

The various categories of definition offered by the Reformed orthodox in their prolegomena, beginning with Junius’ De vera theologia, point toward an eclectic use of the medievals based on a set of rather particular concerns, themselves traceable in large part to the Reformation or to the roots of the Reformation in the concerns of late medieval theology.

The typical identifications of theology by the Reformed as either a mixed theoretical-practical but primarily practical or as a purely practical discipline point toward the Augustinian and the Scotist definitions, respectively, and away from both the Thomist (theoretical-practical but primarily theoretical) and the Durandist (purely speculative) forms of definition. A minority opinion, represented by Du Moulin, followed the Thomist definition.

This practical emphasis of the majority, moreover, coincided with the fundamentally voluntarist set of assumptions held by the Reformed, both concerning the divine will and the problem of human salvation—pointing again in the doctrine of God to an Augustinian or Scotist background and in the doctrine of salvation to an Augustinian background. Similarly, the identification of the object of theology as God revealed and the basic division of that topic into revelation as Creator and revelation as Redeemer, echo the definitions presented by medieval Augustinians like Giles of Rome and Gregory of Rimini.

On other topics, however, the Reformed do not typically follow out the Scotist line—rather they may, in these issues, look to Aquinas or to various Augustinians like Thomas of Strasbourg and Giles of Rome for a via antiqua model or Gregory of Rimini for a via moderna model.

Specifically, on the question of the distinction of attributes in the Godhead, the greater number of Reformed avoid a strictly Scotist view of formally distinct attributes and gravitate either toward a Thomistic or via antiqua definition of the attributes as conceptually or rationally distinct in God or toward a nominalist or via moderna view that denies distinction of attributes in the Godhead and regards them as distinct only in their ad extra manifestation. In the case of the former option, Keckermann offers the clue that it was derived (at least by him) from the chronologically proximate Thomism of Cajetan. In either case, the options chosen by the Reformed stand in the way of an easy conclusion (on the basis of the identification of theology as practical and the voluntaristic conception of God) for a largely Scotist influence.

The Reformed response to Molina’s notion of scientia media, moreover, allies the Reformed with a later Thomist model as well, in particular the views of such late sixteenth-century Thomists as Baius and Bañez, who followed out the more Augustinian reading of Aquinas found in a late medieval follower like Capreolus rather than the reading of Cajetan or, indeed, of the Jesuits Molina and Suárez.

Although an enormous amount of study needs still to be done before the shape, the specific sources, or the rationale for this eclecticism can be fully identified, several observations can be made. If there is an internal logic to the majority of choices made, it points in the direction of a model that is epistemologically critical, but not skeptical, and a view of God and world, particularly of soteriological issues, that is highly Augustinian.

The ontology of the Reformed, which often can identify the created order as having being “by participation,” has via antiqua, probably Thomistic origin—albeit in those thinkers who argue the univocity of being, a decidedly Suárezian accent. The rhetorical restructuring of the proofs of the existence of God and the correlation between the self-evident and indemonstrable nature of principia with the identification of God as principium essendi, taken together with the assumption of a rational distinction of attributes in God, is neither nominalist nor Scotist in perspective. Nor, given its denial of demonstrability of the principium essendi, is it strictly a Thomistic model. As already noted, the voluntarism of the theology also points away from a purely Thomistic model.

At the same time, the Scotist resemblances can be accounted for as Augustinian tendencies—namely, the sense of theology as largely or wholly practical and the voluntaristic understanding of God and salvation. When the voluntarism is coupled with a very specific construction of the radical contingency of the world order, identified by Vos as “synchronic contingency,” this may be a Scotist accent in Reformed theology, or it may be the result of the transmission of a teaching found in Scotus through a series of other thinkers, including such diverse figures as Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini, and (contemporary with the Reformed orthodox) Diego Alvarez and Dominic Bañez.

The trajectory of the transmission is unclear: there is more to the issue than the decision on the part of various seventeenth-century thinkers to rest an aspect of their thought on a distinction derivable from Scotus—nor given the strict soteriological monergism of the Reformed is it probable that this synchronic contingency works itself out in the Reformed model in precisely the same way in which it would operate in Scotus’ thought.

The parallel with Gregory of Rimini is significant inasmuch as it points toward an Augustinian, via moderna background; the potential connection with Alvarez and Bañez is also of interest, given the kinship of the Dominican and the Reformed oppositions to Molinism; and the linkage of the synchronic contingency construction with a notion of ultimate possibility, rooted by the Reformed of the era in the divine potential rather than the divine intellect (as Scotus had argued), points perhaps toward an Ockhamist line of argument. The question of background remains complex.

If, then, the Reformed patterns of reception and usage of scholastic models could be identified clearly as Thomist or Scotist, one would still need to use a qualifier—such as “modified Thomism” or “modified Scotism”—to describe them.

Such usage, however, fails to represent the variety of the appropriation and also tends to depict one or another of the appropriated elements as a center around which the eclecticism coalesces and from which it gains a coherence not afforded by elements drawn from other sources. The quest for a single point of origin, a neat trajectory leading back to one thinker or even to a medieval “school” of thought, or to a center, either theological or philosophical, will fail here, just as it did in the case of the central dogma theory.

The late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reception of medieval materials and methods, whether of individual themes that have Thomist, Scotist, Augustinian, or nominalist accents or of the broader patterns of scholastic method, was after all a late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reception: these accents are not a throwback to an earlier era but elements of an ongoing discourse. Both the general scholastic method of the Reformed orthodox and the specific appropriations of medieval materials had a specified late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century context, having been filtered through the lenses of the Reformation and the late Renaissance.

The Reformed reception of these elements of older tradition was not a return to the Middle Ages, but a historical development of academic or scholastic style and of theological and philosophical content in the wake of the Reformation and Renaissance. Here especially the continuities and discontinuities of the Protestant orthodox methods and teachings must be measured against both the medieval and the Renaissance-Reformation background and, as we have seen throughout this study, the impact of new contexts reckoned with: thus, the scholasticism of the seventeenth century, including the appropriations of Thomistic, Scotistic, Augustinian, and nominalist patterns, evidences elements of continuity (and discontinuity), not only with the Middle Ages but also with the Renaissance and Reformation, just as it evidences the immediate academic, cultural, and polemical context of Protestant orthodoxy. (Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Oorthodoxy; Volume 4: the Triunity of God (pp. 394–397). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.)

Sorry for the long quote. But my contention is that “Reformed Thomism” is a wrong-headed concept, and that those who want to emphasize that it is somehow a good thing must bear the burden of proof to say how and why the Roman Catholicism that’s so thoroughly mixed in with “Thomism” does not actually harm the “Reformed” portion of this significantly artificial construct – and that, more importantly, it doesn’t actually harm the Reformed believers who are buying into it.


  1. I think what's going on is that they're using these expressions as indicators of their views on particular questions. It's sort of the way Plantinga uses the expression "Reformed" in his "Reformed epistemology" view. He's certainly not Reformed in the sense of Calvinism about soteriology. He's a libertarian on free will. But he's Reformed in his epistemology. Similarly, R.C. Sproul is Reformed about soteriology (among many other things), but he's basically got a Thomistic apologetic. You don't need to accept Thomism as a whole to be Thomist about something. I think that makes sense of what they're doing without necessarily committing them to the problem that you're raising. You might argue that full-on Thomists wouldn't accept them, the same way the very narrow version of Reformed thought that accepts Van Tillian apologetics won't accept Plantinga or Sproul as Reformed. But that just seems to me to be talking past each other rather than substantively disagreeing. They might disagree on apologetics, but the thing they're nitpicking about isn't that. It's how we should use our words, and I don't recommend getting into too big a fight about that (for one reason, scripture forbids it).

    1. I'm not intending to get into a fight, just to draw some lines. Aristotle's first "Category" is equivocation, and it makes no sense to me to equivocate on what it is to be Reformed, especially if one hopes to call oneself a "Thomist".

      Some of the folks there just seem to me to be full-blown "Thomist", subsuming under that (to the point of oblivion) what it means to be "Reformed". For example, I've pointed out what Reformed writers (like Bavinck!) have said on a given topic, and some of them just chuckle it off as if what the Reformed say is nothing, and what Thomas says is everything.

      Sproul can call Thomas respectable, and I can too, without enabling the "ism" of it to take over.

      If you’ve read anything that I’ve written, you’ll know that I think Roman Catholicism is the most insidious evil to have happened to Christianity. Roman Catholicism has been shown for what it is in the last 100 years -- shown not to be Scriptural in many ways, and also shown not to be historically true in its accounts of itself either. The only measure of respectability that it has is in the philosophies it has espoused. In the current environment, "Thomism" is the entry drug for Roman apologetics.

      Thomism needs to be shown for what it is, and the place it has occupied in history. I'm sure you're aware of the current environment in our broader culture. I'm convinced that Christianity is the only hope for it. However, Rome bastardizes Christianity in a very thorough way, and Thomas is a mouthpiece for it.

      We don't need people who call themselves "Reformed" to be muddying the waters on this.

    2. Looks like the names are working again in the comment engine. Just leaving a comment to indicate that the above comment was me. The Unknown comment below is certainly not.

    3. Thanks Jeremy, we figured that out.

  2. John,

    Yes, Muller does say that Reformed scholasticism was eclectic (many times) but he also states that the majority of Reformed scholastics were Thomist (many times). I can give you these quotes if you would like.

    However, John, can you name one pre-20th century influential Scotistic or nominalistic Reformed theologian? Or a single proposition from the WS or TFU that were significantly influenced by Scotism or nominalism? Maybe you could mention a few at best, but I could go on for days regarding the influence of Thomism upon the WS and TFU and pre-20th century theologians up through 20th Century Old Princeton and, ironically, and Van Til.

    You are right. "Reformed Thomism" is an inadequate identifier. If I were to sum up my position like that it might go like "Reformed Thomistic Van Tilinism." But what the hell does that mean?

    As Feser replied to "Steve" because of this blog's "significant readership among people interested in apologetics" I would also like to make some recommendations to your readers:

    (1) Rather than "Reformed Thomist," I would suggest either "Reformed scholastic" or "Reformed orthodox" as adequate identifiers for contemporary traditional Reformed orthodoxy. Biblicists and modernist like John and "Steve" carry the burden of proof to suggest otherwise.

    (2) When around Catholics or those who are significantly informed about religion and philosophy "Protestant Thomist" might be a good alternative.

    (3) In all other situations, identifying as a "Classical Theist, Christian" will do the job.

    I'll conclude with this, John and "Steve" are not classical theists. They are modernist (like Locke or Plantinga). They believe in a god that is in process somehow à la liberal theology. Moreover, they are biblicists in that they deny the creator/creature distinction when interpreting the Bible and usually end up on the side of univocal/Scotistic side of church history. They are also Scotistic in regards to voluntarism as well.

    These are not theological nor philosophical traits that should be emulated. Hence there is "No such thing as 'Reformed modernism'among the Reformed Orthodox" but there is a Reformed Orthodoxy that is informed by Thomism.

    A Reformed Scholastic

    1. “Unknown” “Reformed Scholastic”:

      You seem not to have read any of this as carefully as you might have. Nor do you have as good a grasp of the issues as you seem to think you have.

      I’ll be addressing your comment about “name one pre 20th century theologian” influenced by Scotus in a separate blog post. In fact, it was Scotus’s thinking that influenced what I’d consider to be one of the most important contributions by the Reformed Orthodox, and that would be the archetypal/ectypal distinction. I’ll be posting more about that shortly. Meanwhile, I am not denying that Aquinas was influential.

      So yes, please do provide the “many times” when Muller “states that the majority of Reformed scholastics were Thomist”. I’d love to see them. I’m sure you’ll have to fudge on this and qualify it heavily. Perhaps they held Thomist views on one topic or another (I’m sure these existed, and I don’t question that), but Nathan, the leader of the “Reformed Thomism” group (who booted me out of it) admitted that there were really only two “Thomists” that they had in mind: Vermigli and Zanchi. I addressed Vermigli above, and Zanchi was enough of a “Modified” Thomist (Vol 1 pg 295) to have clarified [to your “Biblicist” point] that “Scripture, thus stands as the Word of God, having its own authority prior to the authority of man, prior even to the authority of the church”. Muller also refers to Du Moulin, but that’s really the extent of the influence of “Modified Thomism”.

      Nathan (creator of the Reformed Thomism group) also (if memory serves), in his rather lengthy response to me, rejected your suggestion of “Reformed scholastic” or “Reformed orthodox” – I’d refer you back to that post (if it’s still there). That takes care of your item (1). I personally don’t have objections to those terms. Nor, as Muller stated and I reiterated at the outset, do I object to his statement that “The term “scholasticism,” when applied to [the scholarly practices of the Reformed Orthodox] indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content.”

      So I stand by my original statement, “taking the word “Thomism” and plugging it in where the word “Scholasticism” appears is buying into a lot of things that the Reformed Orthodox did not buy into.” In this, then, you unknowingly agreed with me.

      As for (2), we should not use “Thomist” at all – and should be proud to simply be Protestant (or Reformed). (3) Even “Classical Theist” carries baggage; mere “Christian” will do. For what it’s worth, I really don’t care what Feser thinks.

      So, on to your uninformed conclusion: you have put forth a slop of entirely uninformed characterizations. Your suggestion of “Reformed modernism” is just plain floating in left field. To suggest that either of us believes that God is “in process” shows that you’re just stopping by to throw mud, but you really don’t know who you’re dealing with.

      As for the Biblicism, you treat that as a slur, but when you look at this in light of the archetypal/ectypal distinction that I’ll be posting about, it really is the only way to look at things.

    2. In contemporary discussions, classical theism usually contrasts with open theism. In that, all of the parties to this discussion are classical theists, but it's such a broad category that it's not very informative unless you're distinguishing between open theists and everyone else.

    3. "They are modernist (like Locke or Plantinga). They believe in a god that is in process somehow à la liberal theology."

      I've repeatedly defended God's impassibility and timeless eternality. So you're allegation is either willfully ignorant of willfully dishonest.

      "Moreover, they are biblicists in that they deny the creator/creature distinction when interpreting the Bible and usually end up on the side of univocal/Scotistic side of church history."

      i) First of all, you fail to explain how "biblicism" entails a denial of the creator/creature distinction.

      ii) You fail to explain how univocal predication denies the creator/creature distinction. God has communicable as well as incommunicable attributes.

      iii) I think that at a high enough level of abstraction, it's possible to make univocal statements about God. Prove me wrong. Let's take a concrete example. Here's a definition of causality:

      "Where c and e are two distinct possible events, e causally depends on c if and only if, if c were to occur e would occur; and if c were not to occur e would not occur."

      On that definition, a human agent can cause something and God can cause something in the same sense. If you disagree, show how that definition is inapplicable to divine and human agency alike.

      ii) You fail to explain how your alternative fails to avoid apophaticism and agnosticism. You fail to explain how God-talk is meaningful on your view. Do you take the position of logical positivism and theological noncognitivism.

      "They are also Scotistic in regards to voluntarism as well."

      I've repeatedly argued against theological voluntarism. So your allegation is either willfully ignorant or willful dishonest.