Saturday, April 23, 2016

“Reformed Scotism”

John Duns Scotus
In response to my “Reformed Thomism” post, an “Unknown” commenter who identified himself as a “Reformed Scholastic” asked, “can you name one pre-20th century influential Scotistic or nominalistic Reformed theologian?” (he was of course suggesting that scads and scads of Reformed Orthodox writers (those from 1550-1750) were “Thomists”).

As a matter of fact, Muller suggests that it was Scotist influence, rather than Thomist, that shaped the “Orthodox definition of the discipline” of theology. What follows is from Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena to Theology (2nd ed., pp. 222–224). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic:

In the decade following 1590, a distinction between theologia archetypa, God’s knowledge of himself and his works, and theologia ectypa, creaturely knowledge of God and works, entered the systematic conceptuality of early Reformed orthodoxy. Althaus correctly points to Franciscus Junius’ De theologia vera (1594) as the first work to employ this distinction and to make a threefold division in the theologia ectypa: the theologia unionis, visionis, and viatorum.

Junius was certainly the first major thinker to pose these definitions in a Reformed context and it was his treatise that was used consistently by the theologians of his generation and the next several generations of Reformed theology as the model for theological prolegomena. In early orthodox theology, particularly in the works of Junius and Polanus, these categories are all discussed at some length—despite the fact that only the theologia viatorum [more on this to follow] is accessible to man.

This terminology, although it appears somewhat curious to the twentieth-century mind, is in fact the avenue chosen by early Reformed orthodoxy to clarify both the definition of the church’s theological task and the nature of the discipline of theology itself. The terminology echoes traditional distinctions between the pilgrim believer (viator) and the blessed (beati) in heaven, between the church militant and the church triumphant, and between the light of grace (lumen gratiae) given to believers in this life and the light of glory (lumen gloriae) given in the life hereafter.

This terminology, in its distinction between a divine archetype and a variety of temporal ectypes, also allows theology to identify both the relationship and the disjunction between God’s knowledge of himself and man’s knowledge of him.

Althaus argues that these formulations mark the entrance of Thomistic epistemology into the Reformed system. Two considerations, however, weigh against this argument. In the first place, Thomist epistemology was present in Reformed thought from the time of Vermigli and Zanchi, not to mention the admiration of a Genevan like Daneau for Aquinas’ thought.

Secondly, the distinction between God’s knowledge of himself and creaturely knowledge of him was such a commonplace in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century scholasticism that its subsequent adaptation by the orthodox does not necessarily point to a Thomistic understanding of the nature of theological epistemology.

Roots of the Reformation in Medieval thought prior to John Wycliffe.

The Reformed use of this distinction seems, in fact, to draw more heavily on the Scotist distinction between theologia in se and theologia nostra and, like its Scotist predecessor, to hark back to the even more fundamental distinction between potentia Dei absoluta and potentia Dei ordinata. Du Moulin’s variation on this theme points to a God who transcends the virtues and capacities of human beings by “an infinite distance,” to describe whose majesty is like staring into the sun: the “excellency” of the subject both “instigates the endeavour” and “cumbers the success.”

This is no Thomistic conception of theological language as analogical. Indeed, the presence of what Congar has termed “the constant intervention of disjunctions between the order in se and the order of fact” is the hallmark of the Scotist critique of Thomism.

Regarding this “Scotist critique of Thomism”, by the way, Richard Cross (“The Medieval Christian Philosophers: An Introduction” London, UK and New York, NY: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2014), notes that:

Aquinas was one of a large number of teachers of theology, and (outside Aquinas’s own Dominican order) his works received no more attention than those of many of his contemporaries: he was not primus; he was not even primus inter pares. Scotus, for example, is far more interested in Henry of Ghent than he is in Aquinas, and of those thinkers, such as Aquinas, who are in some sense more recognizably Aristotelian than Henry, Giles of Rome and Godfrey of Fontaines feature far more strongly in Scotus’s sights than does Aquinas.

Outside of the Dominicans, Aquinas was not important in his own lifetime, nor in the years immediately following. In a way, Aquinas repudiated his own writings and died “frustrated and confused” (to Simon Tugwell, O.P., Nihil Obstate, Imprimi Potest, 1988) in his work “Albert & Thomas, Selected Writings” (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1988). Tugwell notes:

Something happened to him while he was saying Mass [on or around 6 December 1273], we are told, and thereafter he neither wrote nor dictated another word. Reginald was afraid that too much study had driven him out of his mind and urged him to resume his work on the Tertia Pars, but Thomas simply said, “Reginald, I can’t.” … “Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

Tugwell speculates that Aquinas’s dejection had to do with the fact that words cannot convey true meaning, but it is only speculation. Shortly after his death in 1277, his work was both controversial and challenged by the ecclesiastical authorities in Paris.

Aquinas’s “popularity” both at the time of the Reformation and today is due, in large part, to the fact that he made a conscious effort to conform his teaching to the Roman teaching of his day, and that Rome, after the fact, looked at the broad base of thinkers and selected “Thomism” precisely because it conformed to Roman dogma.

But in his own time, he was not on Duns Scotus’s radar screen. This reliance on Scotist thought, and rejection of Aquinas, has its roots in Luther and Calvin. More from Muller:

Although Junius was probably the first Protestant theologian to state these distinctions explicitly and positively for use in Reformed dogmatics, the underlying problem addressed by the distinctions belonged to the theology of the Reformation from its very beginnings. One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture.

Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ.

Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them. Calvin also distinguishes between the eternal Word and Wisdom of God and the revealing Word given forth in the words of the prophets, the latter being accommodated to human ways of knowing (pg 224).


  1. What's the gang symbol hes performing in the painting?

    1. I don't know, but I'm sure he didn't get it from the gangs.

    2. It was a joke : (

    3. I know. But still, fodder for instruction.

  2. John,

    I think you've missed my point. Like I said, I understand that Muller finds a great deal of eclecticism in Reformed scholasticism. However, Muller has also argued things like the following which get at the central issues more than archetypal/ectypal categories:

    "Not Scotist: Understandings of Being, Univocity, and Analogy in Early Modern Reformed Thought" by Richard Muller in Reformation & Renaissance Review, 14/2 (2012), pp. 125-148.

    Abstract: Several lines of recent scholarship have identified developing Protestant thought as Scotist and, specifically, have contended a dominance of the Scotist concept of the univocity of being in early modern Protestantism. The present essay examines early modern Reformed metaphysics and theology and demonstrates that the contention is unfounded and that the more typical approach to the language of being and related issues of predication concerning God and creatures in Reformed circles was advocacy of the analogia entis, often understood in a classical Thomist manner as an analogy of proportionality.

    Yet, the point I was making is that the influence of Reformed Scotism or nominalism is rather marginal. Instead, we find Thomistic figures such as Turretin, Charnock, Owen, Voetius, Bavinck, and to some extent those of Old Princeton who have had a lasting effect upon Reformed thought. Moreover, I have never come across a doctrine in any Reformed confession that seem to have Scotistic influence. Have you? Yet, my modified philosophical Thomism deepens portions of these texts with wonderful philosophy and philosophical theology.

    As for nominalism in Luther. Well, that's one of the reasons the Reformed should distinguish themselves from Lutheranism. For example, I would suggest taking a Westminster East stance on justification, sanctification, and union with Christ to avoid nominalism creeping in.

    1. And I think you've missed my point. The Reformed theologians you named were influenced by a range of Medieval thinkers, and for Reformed folks of our day to isolate themselves under the name of "Thomist" and to hang out with Roman Catholics for the purpose of understanding Thomism per se is to expose themselves to things worse than nominalism.

    2. And by the way, Steve has responded to your comment below:

  3. Scotus and the Scotist school did not reject the analogy of being, but held that it was compatible with the univocity of being.