Skip to content

Francis Turretin

Keep Scholasticism in the Schools

He was in Logick a great Critick

Profoundly skill’d in Analytick.

He could distinguish, and divide

A Hair ’twixt South and South-west side:

On either which he would dispute,

Confute, change hands, and still confute.

                                                – Samuel Butler

The last half century has seen a surge of Protestant scholastic studies and ressourcement movements. Writing near the beginning of this surge—indeed, instigative of it—Richard Muller argued that the theological method of scholasticism not only is not outmoded (contrary to then popular opinion), but that those trained in it could still have “a compelling word to speak to our age.”[1] In particular, it was scholasticism’s body of technical conventional signs and modes of expression, its mastery of forms of thought, its ordered methodology, and its engagement with other fields of inquiry that uniquely suited scholasticism as a school theological method for handling the modern, fragmented theological world.[2] A half century later and many think scholasticism is beginning to speak that compelling word.

Others are not so convinced. At best, the whole thing smacks of so much punching the air. The remarks of the German Protestant Liberal David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century just about sum it up:

It would really seem as if the more ignorant those old Christians were of all the facts of nature, the more brain-force they possessed for such like transcendental subtleties; for the kinds of claims of their reasoning faculties, which it simply paralyzes ours to recognize, such as conceiving three as one and one as three, were a trifle to them, nay, a favourite pursuit, in which they lived and had their being, about which they could fight for centuries with all the weapons of acumen and sophistry…[3]

Scholastics are constantly splitting hairs ’twixt South and South-west side. To what point? At worst, it may be even more sinister. Those who profess to be operating as scholastics often seem to have fallen afoul of Paul’s warning “not to quarrel about words,” and “to avoid irreverent babble,” and, hence, to have become a “debater of this age” (2 Tim. 2:14-17; 1 Cor. 1:20).

The subtitle of this article is purposefully ambiguous. I wish to make a case that goes, as it were, in two directions.I wish to show that scholastic theology ought to have a place in the schools, that is, in our theological training institutions. Click To Tweet I wish to show that scholastic theology ought to have a place in the schools, that is, in our theological training institutions. I also wish to make the case that precisely because scholastic theology developed as a school theology, it ought to be kept there as a technical discipline and not be paraded about among those of God’s faithful who do not have the requisite training to benefit from it. I realize that putting the point like this may sound patronizing or condescending. I do not intend it to be, as will hopefully be made clear throughout. This point has nothing to do with faithful Christians and their mode(s) of theological discourse. It has everything to do with the technical scholastic discourse of the academy.

Let me illustrate my point by the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin (1623-1687), with reference first his to writings and then to his life.

Francis Turretin and his Institutes

Francis Turretin came from “noble stock,” as his nephew, the Reformed theologian Benedict Pictet (1655-1724), observed in his “Funeral Oration” for Francis on November 3, 1687.[4] Noble, Pictet further explains, not only aristocratically, in that Turretin’s “ancestors held the highest ranks in the ancient republic of Lucca,” but also theologically. His father, Benedict Turretin (1588-1631), had been an ordained minister in Geneva and professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva, as was Francis Turretin himself, and as his son Jean-Alphonse (1671-1737) would be as well. The Turretin theologians exerted a good deal of influence on Reformed theology throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth.

Of the three, Francis has been the most influential, at least for more confessionally oriented traditions coming out of the Reformation,[5] and the most influential of his writings has been the three volume Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (something like “instruction for points of theological dispute”). Published first between 1679 and 1685, it went through two more Latin editions before the seventeenth century was up, a couple more in the eighteenth and nineteenth, and have now been in English translation since 1997. They were among the favorite theological works of such notable theologians as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and Herman Bavinck. Precisely because the scholastic method employs a series of dialectical tools in the service of precision and concision, it is uniquely suited for theological exploration. Click To Tweet

Explaining the title of his own work, Turretin observes that on issues of debate in particular, students often find themselves as in a labyrinth, a maze of excess opinions, and are tempted to despair. But this is precisely where the method of scholasticism holds out “to the young the thread of Ariadne.”[6] Precisely because, as noted above, the scholastic method employs a series of dialectical (in the Aristotelian sense) tools in the service of precision and concision, it is uniquely suited for theological exploration. So, his Institutes of Elenctic Theology is not intended as “a full… system of theology” but rather “to explain the importance of the principal controversies which lie between us [the Reformed] and our adversaries…”[7] In order to accomplish this arch explanation, Turretin follows a basic scholastic order: he poses questions, “explain[ing] as far as is possible the state and main hinge of the questions according to the opinion of the parties,” selects “with judgement the better and more solid by which [the truth] can be supported,” engages “the principal objections of adversaries,” presents needed distinctions toward final solutions, which are then further explained.

Let’s look briefly at an example of this order at work. Under the topic of “theology,” Turretin poses the traditional scholastic question (which you can find in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae for example), “Is theology theoretical or practical?”[8] He notes, first, that “The question is necessary.” It is does not come from an idle curiosity of the overly speculative. First, it is necessary “for the understanding of the true nature of theology.” Working within a broadly Aristotelian framework, Turretin presumes that to understand what theology is one needs to understand what it is for. The goal, or end, of theology—whether theoretical or practical—determines what theology is and, thus, determines what our true understanding of it is.

The second reason this question is necessary is “on account of the controversies of this time; especially with the Socinians and Remonstrants who say that theology is so strictly practical that nothing in it is positively necessary to salvation, unless it is that which pertains to moral precepts and promises.” In other words, the Socinians and some Remonstrants of his time were arguing that theology is strictly moral instruction that humans ought to follow with their lives.[9] Thus, determining whether theology is strictly a practical science has far reaching consequences for theology.

The question having been posed and shown to be necessary, Turretin surveys various historical opinions, then moves toward initial distinctions. He denies that theology is strictly, or only, practical, because “a practical system is that which does not consist in the knowledge of a thing alone, but in its very nature and by itself goes forth into practice and has operation for its object.” If theology were strictly practical, it would be merely the study of moral behavior for the purpose of actual good behavior. But theology is more (not less) than this. He also denies that it is only theoretical, because “a theoretical system is that which is occupied in contemplation alone and has no other object than knowledge.” But theology—particularly in via—is not merely about knowledge of God, it is also about love of God, and love directs the will to actions. And so, “We consider theology to be… partly theoretical, partly practical, as that which at the same time connects the theory of the true with the practice of the good.” It is not tedious if, as Turretin has it, theology comes to its end in the vision and fruition of God. Click To Tweet

Next, having so distinguished, Turretin lists in short order “proofs” for his claim that “theology is mixed,” all of which rest on God as “first truth” and “highest good” and humans as rational agents whose perfection consists in the perfection of their knowledge and love. Thus, “the end [of theology] is the happiness of man which consists partly in the vision and partly in the fruition of God, from each of which arises assimilation to him (Jn 13:17).”

Still, the matter is not quite concluded. The proofs just listed in short order are, finally, bolstered with further reasons that function as explanations, giving the mind a fuller, richer grasp of what Turretin means that theology is a theoretical-practical science.

All of this may seem tedious: careful statement of the question, reasons for the importance of the question, arguments from all sides, denials, distinctions, affirmations, arguments, further explanations of the affirmations. Indeed, it is certainly slow, sometimes difficult, and so takes a great deal of patience and perseverance. Yet, it is not tedious if, as Turretin has it, theology comes to its end in the vision and fruition of God. In that case, it is worth every care, every small step forward, every prayer. To that end, let’s keep scholasticism in the schools.

Scholasticism and Theological Education

As a sort of first conclusion, I’m contending that scholasticism is a technical method that enables efficient, systematic theological analysis and exposition and fosters theological dialogue that aims at an understanding of God and all things in relation to him. What I intend by the term “systematic,” by the way is not so much a theological subdiscipline but rather the orderly, patient, careful, and studious searching into what may be known of God in the orders of nature and supernature. Because scholasticism is uniquely suited to this kind of exploration, its recovery and use in theological training institutions will not be at the expense of the now typical theological subdivisions (exegetical, biblical, systematic, philosophical, etc.), but will enable their greater unity in the theological curriculum itself. Scholasticism, then, ought to have a place in the schools. Scholasticism is a technical method that enables efficient, systematic theological analysis and exposition and fosters theological dialogue that aims at an understanding of God and all things in relation to him. Click To Tweet

On the heels of this first conclusion, however, a caution must swiftly follow. The astonishment at how great an aid scholasticism can be to the study of theology often spurs its pupils to greater mastery of scholasticism’s technical discourse. So far, so good. But as the study of scholasticism moves from the scholar’s study to the pastor’s pulpit to the public arena, it can create a buzz.

Anytime there is increase in knowledge, pride is surely not far behind. Anytime an “inner ring” is formed, snobbery rears its ugly head. Rather than putting scholasticism to its purpose—to know and love our God—we could be tempted to abuse it, wielding it to cut down our neighbor. In that sense, let’s keep scholasticism in the schools. That is its proper place and it ought to be left there. It ought not bandied about in the church or the public square by the immature who like to play know-it-all (and are often deluded into thinking they are not playing). Would that our theological training institutions could produce those skilled in logic and analytics. Would that our institutions could produce disputants that could take up the other side and still confute. Would our institutions produce logicians and disputants that heed Paul’s warning that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Lofty in works, lowly in spirit

Let me turn back to the Reformed Scholastic theologian Francis Turretin, this time to what Benedict Pictet records of his life. Pictet’s testimony of Francis, even if a somewhat hagiographical, nevertheless portrays an ideal that would-be scholastics of our own time would do well to follow. Of Turretin he says, “He was a sober theologian, if ever there was one.” While observing the legitimate boundaries to our knowledge, he would also “track down the open things of Scripture with sedulous industry.” While writing with a profound level of technical mastery, what Gregory of Nazianzus said of Athanasius may equally be said of Turretin: “on the one hand, lofty in his works; on the other, lowly in his mind.” “As much as he was humble in spirit,” Pictet reminisces, “so was his life sublime.”[10] While observing the legitimate boundaries to our knowledge, Turretin would also “track down the open things of Scripture with sedulous industry.” Click To Tweet

That combination of lofty theological mastery with profound personal humility with sublime example of life is not just about getting the balance right. They are interconnected. One does not reach lofty theological mastery without personal humility or in the absence of holiness of life; one is bowed in humility and spurred on toward godliness by pursuit of theological mastery.

It is good that scholasticism has a place in the academy and better that it be kept in its place.

Scholastics may well have a compelling word to speak to our age. Time will tell. But that word will have been enabled by scholasticism; it will itself not be a scholastic word.


[1] Richard A. Muller, “Giving Direction to Theology: The Scholastic Dimension,” JETS 28/2 (1985): 183-193, cited 191. Round about that same time Muller defined scholasticism as “designed to develop system on a highly technical level and in an extremely precise manner by means of the careful identification of topics, division of these topics into their basic parts, definition of the parts, and doctrinal or logical argumentation concerning the divisions and definitions,” and so is “characterized by a thorough use and technical mastery of the tools of linguistic, philosophical, logical, and traditional thought.” Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1: Prolegomen to Theology, 1st ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1987), p. 18.

[2] The medieval historian L. M. de Rijk very nicely captures the essence of scholasticism when he says it denotes “all academic, especially philosophical and theological, activity that is carried out according to a certain method, which involves both in research and education the use of a recurring system of concepts, distinctions, proposition-analyses, argumentative strategies, and methods of disputation.” L. M. de Rijk, Middeleeuwse wijsbegeerte: Traditie en vernieuwing (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1977), 25; cited in Martin Bac and Theo Pleizier, “Reentering Sites of Truth: Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom,” in Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honour of Willem J. Van Asselt, ed. Maarten Wisse, Marcel Sarot, and Willemian Otten (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 36. In short, scholasticism functions as a means of exploring, analyzing, disputing and explicating the content of the Christian faith, not as a means of determining or creating that content.

[3] The Old Faith and the New (New York: Prometheus Books, 1997), 14-15.

[4] “The Funeral Oration of Benedict Pictet Concerning the Life and Death of Francis Turretin,” trans. David Lillegard, in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992-1997), 3:657-676. Turretin divides his Institutes into twenty-nine topics, which are subdivided by particular questions, which are then further subdivided by articles. My notations follow this patter: “Inst. I.I, q 1, i,” for example, refers to Institues, volume 1, topic 1, question 1, article 1.

[5] It may be argued that Jean-Alphonse has been as influential as his father in the developments of Protestant theology through the eighteenth and into the 19th centuries. But because in some important respects he took Reformed theology in a different direction than had his father, Francis has undoubtedly been more influential among confessionally oriented traditions of the Reformation. See, Martin I. Klauber, Between Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism: Jean-Alphonse Turretin (1671-1737) and Enlightened Orthodoxy at the Academy of Geneva (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994).

[6] Turretin, Inst., “Preface,” p. xl.

[7] Inst., “Preface”, p. xl.

[8] Inst., I.I, q 7. The remainder of this discussion come from articles i-xv of this question.

[9] John Owen, responding to the Socinians on this point, pointed out the irony of their position: “Some [namely, the Socinians] suppose that we should wholly content ourselves with the plain lessons of morality, without any further diligent inquiry into these mysteries [i.e. the person and offices of Christ]; which is at once to reject, if not the whole, yet the principal part of the gospel, and that without which what remains will not be available.” John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980) IV.551.

[10] “The Funeral Oration,” 667-668.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel, PhD, is Professor of Theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute and author of The Necessity of Christ’s Satisfaction: A Study of the Reformed Scholastic Theologians William Twisse (1578-1646) and John Owen (1616-1683) (Leiden: Brill, 2022).

Back to Top