Wholesome Protestant Doctrine
Dedicating an entire issue of Credo Magazine to the topic of Reformed scholasticism will, no doubt, illicit a wide spectrum of reactions. Some potential readers will be enthused, ready to further their understanding of what has become familiar to them in recent years. Others will approach this issue with skepticism if not downright dismissal. It is the latter group that I would like to address. I do not wish to convince you of the historical relevance of the Reformed scholastics, as many well-qualified contributors will attempt to do just that throughout this issue. Likewise, I will not spend my column arguing fine distinctions or analyzing technical doctrine in true scholastic fashion. Rather, I’d like to simply say – I was once counted among you. My story may be different than yours, but our doubt is one and the same. My theological education filled me with a sincere skepticism of ancient, medieval, or post-reformation sources. My experience, however, made me hesitant to pursue academic training. Click To Tweet
My theological education filled me with a sincere skepticism of ancient, medieval, or post-reformation sources. I saw the history of the Church as the chronological progression from the apostles to John Calvin, to Charles Spurgeon, to the 20th century. I was as Young, Restless, and Reformed as an SBC Mississippi-raised college student could be. My shelf was filled with contemporary voices – Piper, Grudem, Platt, Erickson – and these men served me well. My undergraduate experience, however, made me hesitant to pursue academic training. Men with PhDs would tell me why the Bible was wrong and why I needed to jettison antiquated beliefs for a more modern approach to ministry. Pastors, not schoolmen, were to be trusted. The academy was to be kept at arms-length. Still, in need of pastoral training, I pursued seminary.
A Well-Grounded Skepticism
In seminary, I was taught to love systematics, but I was taught to fear those who passed doctrine down to us. Contemporary voices would be revered while ancient voices would be dismissed. I remember one teacher cautioning a student because Athanasius’s On the Incarnation sat on his desk. “Oh, I’m glad you’re widening your scope, but be careful,” the teacher said. “There’s danger in Catholic sources.” When classical Protestant sources were mentioned (a rare occurrence to be sure), they may not have been criticized, but they were ignored. “Turretin is ok, I suppose, but awfully dry. Your time is probably better spent elsewhere. Have you read Kevin DeYoung’s new book?” Contemporary voices, not ancient voices, were to be trusted.
By the time I reached doctoral studies, I was firmly planted in the 20th century. Carl F.H. Henry, Gordon Clark, Harold John Ockenga, even, dare I say it, Cornelius Van Til – these were my friends, and they served me well. Then, something happened. I turned 30, and I went camping. For some reason, I packed a book that I had heard mentioned years before – On the Incarnation by Athanasius. As I sat by a fire reading (I’m ashamed to admit it) my first patristic book, I was shocked at how familiar it seemed. I was expecting dragons, but I felt at home. Is this what antiquity has to offer? I read it in one setting as my coffee grew cold. These thinkers were robustly Protestant, joyfully Reformed, and aggressively biblical. Click To Tweet
My appetite began to grow. Athanasius led me to Cyril, who led me to Gregory of Nazianzus, who led me to Basil, who led me to Augustine. While these authors began to feel increasingly familiar, their doctrine at times did not. Chalcedon? Nicaea? Eternal generation? Aseity? I was entering deep waters, and I needed all the help I could get. So, I widened my net. Medieval voices began to assist me, but I heard the voice of my previous teachers in the back of my head. “Be careful. There’s danger in Catholic sources.” I have no delusions of grandeur. I knew that my interpretation of these ancient and medieval works was not only fallible, but absolutely elementary.
I knew I needed someone on this side of the Reformation to help me think through new ideas. So, what did I do? The same thing I always do – I went camping. This time I brought with me a contemporary book, Aquinas Among the Protestants. My interest at the time was purely focused on Thomas Aquinas and evaluating his doctrine (both positively and negatively). I expected to learn about Thomas, but I was confident that I had the “Protestant” side of the argument nailed down. The book consists of a collection of essays highlighting the critical appropriation of Thomas by several Post-Reformation thinkers. I was surprised, however, at the new names I encountered. Johann Gerhard? Richard Hooker? William Whitaker? Looking through footnotes and the index just expanded my confusion – who in the world is Peter van Mastricht? I was surprised to find how unfamiliar I was with my own camp. As I was traveling to strange and distant lands, I had neglected to keep my own house in order. I assumed I had known all along what it meant to be Protestant. I never even thought to even ask. It was not Thomas Aquinas who explained divine simplicity to me – it was Francis Turretin. Click To Tweet
I began to buy books that fundamentally changed the way I saw the world, God, and myself. It was not Thomas Aquinas who explained divine simplicity to me – it was Francis Turretin. As good as Augustine is, I didn’t see the exegetical grounds of classical theism until I met van Mastricht. Some say that actus purus is a medieval Roman invention grounded in Greek philosophy. Well, I learned it from Stephen Charnock (who demonstrated it from Scripture). The more I read, the more continuity I saw, and the more familiar these classical concepts became. These Reformed Scholastics were not afraid of the tradition that preceded them, nor did they idolize it. Rather, they engaged the tradition, Bible in hand.
Over time, the Reformed Scholastics helped me to better understand my Bible, the great Protestant confessions, medieval scholasticism, and even my modern context. They guided me to the gold I had buried in my own backyard. These thinkers were robustly Protestant, joyfully Reformed, and aggressively biblical.