I remember the first time I heard the term “Scholasticism.” It was spoken as if it were the boogeyman of Roman Catholicism, the monster under the bed that undermined the five solas of the Reformation. It was presented as a relic of the Roman Catholic Church from the Middle Ages that the Reformers had to expel from their midst—lest they fall back into bondage to Rome. It was treated like a sightseeing boat tour crossing the Tiber River for modern Protestants who were too sophisticated to swim it outright.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized that these mischaracterizations kept me from growing theologically. I’d embraced the conclusions of men that I trusted to have studied the issue thoroughly, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized they hadn’t read enough to substantiate their pejorative use of the term “Scholasticism.” I realized how gravely mistaken I had been after being pushed to learn about Scholasticism for myself and checking out a book from the library, Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, edited by Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark. I’d embraced the conclusions of men that I trusted to have studied Scholasticism thoroughly, only to realize they hadn’t read enough to substantiate their pejorative use of the term. Click To Tweet
It was through this adventure of recovering Scholasticism for myself that I recognized the gold yielded by much of the Scholastic method. It had been easy for me to believe the mischaracterization of Scholasticism by picking random (or even heretical) statements from Scholastic authors, lumping them all together, and thereby vilifying the Scholastics in toto. This recovery in my own studies helped me realize the futile nature of such an exercise.
While many men were content gathering dross regarding Scholasticism, I felt I had uncovered pure gold. I discovered the amazing potential for precision offered by the Scholastic method. It had the ability to help me communicate the core truths of the Christian faith in a more robust and technical way so as to refute a host of errors. With that in mind, I’d like to briefly explain what Scholasticism is (and what it is not), review the appropriation of this method by the stalwart Protestant minister Jerome Zanchi, and then consider how the Scholastic method can aid us today.
What is Scholasticism?
Scholasticism is a term used to describe a method that structured a system of thought, a method that has had a significant impact on both theology and philosophy. The head of a Christian school in the sixth century was commonly referred to as a scholasticus (which means “scholar”). Thus the term developed out of that educational setting. No matter where you look to define Scholasticism, you find a common theme: “The term ‘scholasticism,’ thus should not be much associated with content but with method, an academic form of argumentation and disputation.” Ryan McGraw helpfully summarizes the benefits of the Scholastic method in that it “promotes precision and clarity in teaching,” “enable[s] ministers and seminary professors to translate academic theology into pastoral theology,” and “promotes historical methodology,” which in turn yields, for the judicious student, a recovery of “Reformed theological method and not merely Reformed theological content.” Most helpfully, he summarized, “Scholasticism referred decisively to an educational model. As such, scholasticism was a tool, or rather a set of tools, that was most immediately relevant for the purpose of training Reformed pastors.” If Scholasticism is not content but method, what is the method and how did we get it? Furthermore, why is it useful for the prudent student of Scripture? Scholasticism is a term used to describe a system of thought that has had a significant impact on both theology and philosophy. Click To Tweet
Scholasticism is a method of learning that was formalized in medieval Europe between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. It combines logic, metaphysics, and semantics (or rhetoric) to form a single discipline, and is widely regarded as having made significant contributions to the thoughtful and precise development of Christian thought. It’s essentially a tool and method for learning that emphasizes dialectical reasoning. This involves the exchange of arguments (or theses) and counterarguments (or antitheses) to arrive at a conclusion or synthesis (formally known as dialectic reasoning). In medieval Europe, dialectics was one of the three original liberal arts, along with rhetoric and grammar, collectively known as the “trivium.”
During the period of Scholasticism, there were two primary methods of teaching. The first, known as the lectio, involved a teacher simply reading a text and explaining certain concepts or words. However, no questions were allowed. The second method, the disputatio, was a more interactive approach where a question would either be announced beforehand or proposed by students. The teacher would then provide a response, citing authoritative texts, such as the Bible, to support their position. Students would then offer counter-arguments, and the debate would continue back and forth, with someone taking notes to summarize the discussion. These became known as disputations. The goal of a disputation was to resolve a question or contradiction related to theology or philosophy, and it was a key aspect of formal scholastic training in the church during the medieval period. Disputations provided several benefits in scholastic training. First, they allowed students to practice the art of argumentation and refine their skills in logical reasoning. Second, they provided a forum for the presentation and critique of ideas, and in doing so, helped to advance knowledge in a particular field of study. Third, they allowed students to engage with authoritative texts, such as the Bible, and to develop their ability to support arguments with evidence. Finally, disputations were used as a means of testing students’ knowledge and understanding of a particular subject, often in preparation for their formal examinations.
In the thirteenth century, Scholasticism made two very decided advancements. First, the use of reason in the discussion of spiritual truth and the application of dialectic to theology were accepted without protest, so long as they were kept within the bounds of moderation. Second, there was a willingness on the part of the schoolmen to go outside the lines of strict ecclesiastical tradition to learn from Aristotle and many others. Scholasticism had the ability to help me communicate the core truths of the Christian faith in a more robust and technical way so as to refute a host of errors. Click To Tweet
Late Scholasticism, which began in the fourteenth century, became increasingly intricate and sophisticated in its differentiation and reasoning. It gave rise to specific branches of thought, such as Thomism and Scotism, which follow the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, respectively. Both methods differ in their emphasis on reason and intuition, as well as in their approach to theology. However, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Scholasticism was superseded by Humanism and began to be regarded as a rigid, formal, and antiquated approach to philosophy.
Based on that historical background, how would we identify something that uses the Scholastic method? Richard Muller helpfully provides a few significant features in identifying something as Scholastic. The characteristics that unify the Scholastic method are 1) identifying an ordered argument suitable for technical, academic discourse, 2) presenting a thesis or question, 3) organizing it in a way that makes discussion or debate simpler, 4) acknowledging potential objections to the proposed answer, 5) providing a formulation of the thesis with respect to known sources, and 6) providing a response to all objections.
Did the Reformers Reject Scholasticism?
The theology of Reformed Scholasticism has often been overlooked in favor of the theology of the great Reformers, despite the assistance the former gave to the latter. While those who initiated the Protestant Reformation are often celebrated, the theologians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who codified and perpetuated the movement are seldom given the same level of attention. Yet, those who continued the movement deserve recognition for their contributions as well. They defended, systematized, and formalized over the course of a century and a half what the Reformation began in less than half a century. The Reformation would be incomplete without the confessional and doctrinal codification that Reformed orthodoxy provided. In fact, without a normative and defensible body of doctrine, embodied in the confessions to establish guardrails of orthodoxy, Protestantism would not have been able to withstand the onslaught of errors presented by groups such as Catholics, Spiritualists, rogue Anabaptists, Socinians, Arminians, and others. Therefore, neglecting the contributions of these individuals is unjustified. The theology of Reformed Scholasticism has often been overlooked in favor of the theology of the great Reformers, despite the assistance the former gave to the latter. Click To Tweet
Perhaps this neglect stems from a misunderstanding of the critical parts of Calvin’s Institutes regarding the “schoolmen,” or Luther’s criticisms in which he targets a specific formulation of Scholasticism in Scotism. Interestingly enough, Luther never mentions Lombard or Aquinas in those criticisms. This is not to say that the preeminent Reformers agreed with those they didn’t criticize, but it should be a cautionary tale of the genetic fallacy: they didn’t reject the Scholastic method altogether just because they rejected certain doctrinal conclusions of some Scholastics. In fact, their students and theological grandchildren would go on to leverage the method in order to articulate the doctrines of the Reformation more precisely.
The Reformed Scholastic theologians played a crucial role in the history of Protestantism by creating an institutional theology (reaching its zenith in the Puritans) that was both confessionally in line with the Reformation and doctrinally continuous with the larger tradition of the Church. While the Reformers had developed a series of doctrinal issues based on their scriptural exegesis, the orthodox theologians held firmly to these insights and the confessional norms of Protestantism, while simultaneously working toward the establishment of a body of “right teaching” that was in continuity with sound Christian thought. In order for Protestantism to be representative of the Church, the Reformation’s witness had to reform not only ecclesiastical abuses (such as indulgences), but also errors related to doctrine (such as the Roman denial of Sola Fide). As such, later generations of Reformed Scholastics had to transcend the selectivity of the Reformation’s polemic in order to present a whole body of doctrine. Later generations of Reformed Scholastics had to transcend the selectivity of the Reformation’s polemic in order to present a whole body of doctrine. Click To Tweet
Upon closer examination, Reformed orthodoxy, and Reformed Scholasticism in particular, can be recognized as a distinct form of Protestant theology that has both similarities with, and differences from, the theology of the Reformation. Although it is rooted in the theological convictions of the Reformers, it developed systematically and scholastically in a way that diverged from the methods of the Reformation, often relying upon forms and methods from the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries.
The influence of Reformed Scholasticism is still evident in contemporary Protestantism, and is necessary for understanding this theology and its relationship with earlier ages, particularly when it comes to the Middle Ages and the Reformation. While some major changes have occurred, orthodox or Reformed Scholastic theology is still evident in the works of Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, and Louis Berkhof, with little alteration in terms of its formal and substantial dogma. Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, for example, is indebted to Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology —though it seeks to present orthodoxy’s systematic insights in a nineteenth-century mold, especially in its prolegomena.
Who Is Zanchi?
Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590) was an Italian Protestant theologian and pastor who played an important role in the development of Reformed theology. Zanchi was born in Alzano Lombardo, Italy, and was educated at the University of Padua. He began his career as a Roman Catholic priest in the Augustinian order, but converted to Protestantism in the 1540s and became a follower of John Calvin. Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590) was an Italian Protestant theologian and pastor who played an important role in the development of Reformed theology. Click To Tweet
Zanchi was known for his strong defense of Reformed theology, particularly in the areas of predestination and the sacraments. He was the first Protestant to debate the post-Melanchthon scholars who had abandoned double predestination in favor of single predestination. He served as a professor of theology in Strasbourg and Heidelberg, and was also a pastor and a prolific writer. Zanchi’s major works include De religione Christiana fides (“The Christian Faith”), De natura Dei (“On the Nature of God”), and De redemptione (“On Redemption”). He also wrote commentaries on several books of the Bible, including Romans, Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation.
Zanchi’s theology had a significant impact on the development of Reformed theology in the sixteenth century, particularly in Italy and other parts of Europe where the Reformed movement was still gaining ground. His emphasis on predestination and the sovereignty of God helped to shape the distinctive character of Reformed theology, which remains influential in many parts of the world today.
What Can We Glean from Zanchi?
It has been said of Zanchi, “Though he was neither original nor creative, he was one of the most learned among the theologians of the sixteenth century.” Why was Zanchi so influential while remaining inconspicuous and unoriginal? I’d suggest that it was due to the fact that his method produced a robust, contemplative, body of literature that helped people precisely articulate the doctrines of the Reformation they loved—and it was a method born out of Scholasticism. Zanchi's method produced a robust, contemplative, body of literature that helped people precisely articulate the doctrines of the Reformation they loved—and it was a method born out of Scholasticism. Click To Tweet
As a case study to demonstrate that one can remain thoroughly Protestant while utilizing the mighty tool of Scholasticism, I propose Zanchi’s Confession of the Christian Religion. If we wanted to test his Protestant convictions to see if the Scholastic method caused any kind of compromise, we could consider the fruit of his work in the section on justification (chapter 19). He begins with the thesis, “I. They which have true repentance, have also lively faith, are ingrafted in Christ and justified in him.” This thesis was fairly standard to what one would find in Calvin and others, since it defines justification by appealing to the fruit of justification (“a lively faith”), in order to answer Rome’s claim that sola fide produces lasciviousness. His second thesis further develops that same principle, in which he says,
We believe also that we which through Christ, into whom he is ingrafted by the Holy ghost, is [accounted] just and is truly just, having obtained forgiveness of his sins in Christ and imputation of his justice, the same man for with is possessed of the gift of inherent justice, so that he is not only perfectly and fully just in Christ his head, but hath also in himself true justice, whereby he is indeed made conformable unto Christ.
The method here allows him to develop an answer that has qualifications built in, considering the objections of his Papist opponents. He further clarifies that this vindication of penalty and imputation of righteousness, does not make men perfect so they no longer sin, but rather gives them the new nature whereby they follow their Lord. While Zanchi has twelve total theses under the main header in chapter 19, there are some remarkable observations that can be made. Zanchi’s method allowed him to consider objections, potential errors, or mistakes patiently and thoughtfully, and to articulate more precisely what the Reformed doctrine of justification truly is. Click To Tweet
Zanchi’s method allowed him to consider objections, potential errors, or mistakes patiently and thoughtfully, and to articulate more precisely what the Reformed doctrine of justification truly is. Among his observations are some very important ones to note.
First, through the scholastic process he explains how we are not justified by the virtue of faith (akin to the modern Norman Shepherd error). In article six, he explains what it is to be justified by faith. By way of negation, he contends that faith is not the virtue of our justification:
Wherefore, when we say a man is justified by faith or through faith, we do not mean that the virtue of faith is that very thing, whereby as by the form (as they speak) and by true justice he is justified; or that, for which we deserve forgiveness of our sins and justification;. . .
Next, he recognizes that justification is not legal fiction (akin to the New Perspective on Paul). In article nine he considers this objection:
IX. Justification by faith alone is no imaginary or feigned matter.
Now lest any man might think that we forge a certain imaginary righteousness, which hath no foundation nor force in us, we will again repeat that which we have before made profession of.
Finally, he reaffirms the reality of a true justification secured by Christ given to us by imputation. He confronts the objection of works (contrary to Romanism) in article six and again in eleven, writing, “But if we be asked of the former kind of justifying, we answer that a man is never justified by his works, but always properly by faith alone.” He deals with the objection that faith is not dead, but full of fruit (contra antinomianism in articles six and ten), and that it is not the attribute of Christ (contra the deification error of Osiander), nor single imputation (as in Piscator). This is marvelously expressed by his summary of errors related to justification, in which he begins with a repudiation of Pelagianism and the subsequent errors.
We condemn all Pelagians which taught that infants were conceived without sin and therefore needed not the forgiveness of sins and benefit of Christ for their salvation . . . Yea, and their opinion is disallowed of us, which teach that a man is justified not by remission of sins and imputation of Christ’s justice, but even by the very essential righteousness (as they call it) of Christ really communicated to us.
What’s also important to notice is that each truth is proofed with direct and indirect Scripture citations and marginal Scriptural references throughout. It is a thoroughly thoughtful and biblical document. It’s frightening to imagine how the Church might have fallen into some of the modern (or ancient) justification errors had their practitioners, like Zanchi, been unfamiliar with Scholastic methodology. Thankfully, these men had been trained to think more comprehensively and meticulously about the conclusions they were drawing from Scripture.
Scholasticism does not represent a monolithic consensus, whether regarding metaphysics, soteriology, or any other locus of thought for that matter. Thus, when critics retort, “That’s Scholasticism!” as a generic pejorative to stifle an argument, they only show they have no answer to the substance of the argument. We should not allow such shallow thinking to stand. The derogatory thought that these ideas are merely grids forced upon Scripture should be cast out from the society of believers who are concerned with precision and thoughtful conclusions. Scholasticism is not, and never has been, a grid imposed upon Scripture; the Scholastic method is a contemplative and detailed way of reflecting on Scripture. Scholasticism is not, and never has been, a grid imposed upon Scripture; the Scholastic method is a contemplative and detailed way of reflecting on Scripture. Click To Tweet
Instead, Scholasticism produces patience and humility—as opposed to rash claims of knowledge. Sadly, years of intellectually inbred thinking has led to stunted growth, and those today who won’t read or think outside their own generation are doomed to perpetuate the cycle. In fact, hostility to Scholasticism is evidence of the modern flight from rationality, cautious thinking, and carefully measured conclusions. We should not tolerate men as serious who fail to think critically through the doctrinal conclusions they discover in the Bible. If the integrity of the Church is to be preserved—if even a hollow shell of reason is to remain— then the contemporary rejection of Scholastic thinking must be torn up by its roots and cast to the wind. We must make ignorance of the past a thing of the past. Give me one man like Zanchi or Turretin, wielding the Scholastic method like a skilled surgeon, over a hundred theologians holding to modern, inbred, scholarship.
Bring back the Scholastics!
 Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007).
 William Turner, “Scholasticism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), 13:548.
 Willem J. van Asselt and Pieter L. Rouwendal, “Introduction: What is Reformed Scholasticism?” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2011), 1.
 Ryan M. McGraw, Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2019), 4, 5, 13.
 McGraw, Reformed Scholasticism, 137.
 William Turner, “Schools,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), 13:555.
 Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis was an attempt at starting a formal disputation.
 For a thorough discussion on the disputation process see: Alex J. Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice, and Performance (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
 Many recognize the beginning of the method in Christianity as finding its origins in Augustine. The formalization of the various schools that employed the method can be further studied: Desmond Paul Henry, “Medieval Philosophy,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillian Publishing, 1967), 252 –57.
 Richard Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 26.
 Gerald Bray, Doing Theology with the Reformers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 37.
 Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:27–29.
 Johannes Ficker, “Zanchi, Girolamo,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed Samuel Macauley Jackson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 12:496–97.
 Girolamo Zanchi, The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted, trans. Augustus Toplady (New York: George Lindsay, 1811).
 Ficker, “Zanchi,” 12:497.
 Girolamo Zanchi, De religione christiana fides – Confession of Christian Religion, ed Luca Baschera and Christian Moser (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1:335. All modernized English by author.
 Zanchi, Confession of Christian Religion, , 1:335–7.
 Zanchi, Confession of Christian Religion, 339.
 Zanchi, Confession of Christian Religion, 347.
 Zanchi, Confession of Christian Religion, 347.
 Zanchi, Confession of Christian Religion, 349–51.