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Reformed Scholastics in the Pulpit?

The Need for Clarity and Consistency in the Ministry of the Word

To ask whether the Reformed Scholastics can serve our preaching today likely sounds to most pastors as absurd as the answer is obvious. Parading Latinate sentences, obscure jargon, and speculative theological abstractions with no practical relevance to the Christian life in the pulpit? Unfortunately, these caricatures of scholasticism misrepresent its goal, which was explicitly tied to the ministry of the Word, and so it can still serve that ministry today.

In our pews sit Christian minds that are muddled by a wider culture that has abandoned clear and consistent thinking – and our pulpits often offer little help. T. David Gordon observed:

… sermons reflect the babbling, rambling quality of a typical telephone conversation. The discourse consists of a series of unrelated observations that occurred to the minister as he read the passage (or other books about the passage), but there is little apparent unity or organization. Further, ministers display very little judgment about what is significant and what is insignificant.[1]

We Distinguish!

The pulpit’s fog has fed the pew’s mental mist by preaching that fails to carefully distinguish. And if the Reformed scholastics had had a marketing slogan, it would have been “We distinguish.”[2] That may not initially strike us today as all that vital to Christians, let alone devotional or practical, but this is only ignoring what we all assume – we distinguish what we value and want to know truly. Sinclair Ferguson explained:

Scholastic is often used as a theological slur intended to introduce a bad odor. Yet the people who use it thus are sometimes the very people who become hot under the collar if strangers refer to a fastball as a “slider” (in baseball) or confuse an eagle with a double bogey (in golf) or, for that matter, describe someone living in the Carolinas as a “Yankee” or a Scot as “English”! Aren’t these merely “scholastic” distinctions? To ask the question is to answer it. Right understanding always involves making careful distinctions.[3]

If Christians are to know God truly, and so to live before him rightly, distinctions are unavoidable. So, they are integral to our preaching. The Reformed scholastics understood that, and it was the explicit motivation for their teaching and writing. In our pews sit Christian minds that are muddled by a wider culture that has abandoned clear and consistent thinking – and our pulpits often offer little help. Click To Tweet

The Reformed scholastics, though from a different time and theological world, might have appreciated James Denny’s sentiment, “I don’t care anything for a theology that doesn’t help a man to preach.”[4] They studied the logical coherence of the faith in order to establish a basis for sound ministry and practice, believing “[t]heology must issue forth in preaching or holy discourse (oratio sacra) and other aspects of ministry.”[5] Their exhaustive consideration included the nature of the theological task, which they most often defined as “theoretical and practical.”[6] Typical scholastic definitions of theology argued:

Theology consists not of bare and empty theory but of a practical science that powerfully stirs the human will and all the emotions of the heart to worship God and to cherish one’s neighbor.[7]

… that theology is more practical than speculative is evident from the ultimate end, which is practice. For although all mysteries are not regulative of operation, they are impulsive to operation. For there is none so theoretical (theoreton) and removed from practice that it does not incite to the love and worship of God. Nor is any theory saving which does not lead to practice.[8]

It is such an art as teacheth a man by the knowledge of God’s will and assistance of his power to live to his glory. The best rules that the ethics, politics, economics have, are fetched out of divinity. There is no true knowledge of Christ, but that which is practical, since every thing is then truly known, when it is known in the manner it is propounded to be known. But Christ is not propounded to us to be known theoretically but practically.[9]

Of course, we could not forget William Perkins’s justifiably famous definition: “Theology is the science of living blessedly forever.” When you compare these standard explanations with our rather narrow definitions of theology today, which assumes a real division between theology and Christian practice, one wonders whether it’s not our own day that has succumbed to the acid of rationalism. One wonders whether it’s not our own day that has succumbed to the acid of rationalism. Click To Tweet The Reformed scholastics labored to distinguish according to scripture to serve the glory of God in public ministry. In their attention to homiletics, logical entailments, incomprehensible wonder, theological definitions, and illustrations, the Reformed scholastics remain an important resource for preachers today.

A Scholastic Homiletic

Notable Reformed scholastics, like Francis Turretin, were known as great preachers.[10] Turretin preached doctrine with careful attention to the scriptural text and, with pastoral insight, called Christians to respond in faith and obedience.[11] Petrus Van Mastricht prefaced his entire Theoretical-Practical Theology with “The Best Method of Preaching”[12] and understood the whole, including his orderly presentation of doctrines, as a guide and example for preachers.[13] Frans Burman gave detailed instructions for preachers, including a model outline of preaching, from introduction to exposition, application, and dealing with errors.[14]  Many meandering preachers – and struggling hearers! – would be helped by considering the homiletical insights given by the scholastics.

If preaching is, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones once suggested, “logic on fire,” then who better than the Reformed scholastics to provide the logical kindling for the pulpit? As they present the necessary entailments of biblical doctrines, they even provide preachers with shock value to awaken their hearers. Take, for example, John Owen’s argument against the Arminian rejection of God’s immutable decree, where he deduces:

To ascribe the least mutability to the divine essence, with which all the attributes and internal free acts of God are one and the same, was ever accounted ὑπερβολὴ ἀφεότητος, ‘transcendent atheism,’ in the highest degree.[15]

To impress the importance of the Lord as the One who “does not change” (Mal 3:6), preachers can unfold how ascribing any change to the being of God in response to His creatures is nothing less than theoretical atheism! It supposes God to be indistinguishable from the ever-changing nature of creation and, therefore, not the Creator at all. The Scholastics labored to distinguish according to Scripture to serve the glory of God in public ministry. Click To Tweet

Scholastic logic can also lead pastors to press their hearers’ consciences and address contemporary questions. When Van Mastricht considers divine beatitude, he argues:

He who exists as the cause of all blessedness for all things, such that they have nothing that they did not receive, and that they did not receive from him – would he himself not be blessed? What he has granted others, would he not have? Therefore, either there is no blessedness, though every creature, and especially every rational creature, cries out in desire for it; or, God is blessed.[16]

God’s blessedness raises important issues about the universal human quest for happiness. Why do we all want to be happy? What does that say about who we are and why we are? Because God is happy in himself and created us to rejoice in him, we know that joy and happiness are real. If this isn’t true, then even our fleeting moments of joy are a delusion, a material phenomenon, and this life is as good as it gets. Man’s quest for happiness is fertile ground for pressing the existence of God and the hope of the gospel of our blessed God (1 Tim. 1:11) on our hearers.

Or, what about that ubiquitous cultural slogan, “Love is love”?  When love is properly distinguished as not something different from God, but the propensity of His benevolent will to make us like Him, the emptiness of that tautology is exposed. Any affection or action can only be labeled as love when it conforms to the revealed will and character of God Himself, love’s archetype. Whatever people shout on the streets, love is not and cannot be love.[17]

Gravitas that Provokes Adoration

Often our sermons fail to grip the mind because there is little gravitas to provoke adoration. But careful scholastic distinctions raise our minds to the incomprehensible wonder and mystery of God in his works. John Gill, for example, cautions against reducing Jesus’ virginal conception to a mere miracle:

This is a most wonderful, abstruse, and mysterious affair; and which to speak of is very difficult…. This was a new thing; unheard of and astonishing; which God created in the earth, in the lower parts of the earth, in the virgin’s womb.[18]

There have been miraculous births, like Sarah’s and Elizabeth’s, but in the incarnation of our Savior we have more than a miracle – a creative act of God, as incomprehensible as the creation of heaven and earth, as the Spirit hovers over the virgin’s womb and the Word assumes flesh, recapitulating Genesis 1. Distinctions fuel Christian wonder and worship.

Though the scholastics are known for sentences that struggle to find a period, they can also regularly aid preachers with succinct, memorable definitions. On divine blessedness, again, Bernard Pictet wrote:

…who would not call God happy, who is in need of nothing, finds all comfort in himself, and possesses all things; is free from all evil, and filled with all good.[19]

God is “fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11) because He is free of all evil, filled with all good. Or, to explain the incomprehensible truth of divine simplicity, Edward Leigh offers a very, well, simple definition:

God is absolutely Simple, he is but one thing, and doth not consist of any parts… If he did consist of parts, there must be something before him, to put those parts together; and then he were not Eternal.[20]

God is most absolute, so He cannot have been assembled by something prior to Him, He’s simple. We worship God as the maker and sustainer of all things because He is not made up of things (Rom 11:36). Despite the caricatures, the fullness of their logic can make scholastics great aids to simplicity in preaching. We worship God as the maker and sustainer of all things because He is not made up of things. Click To Tweet

They are similarly often a source of evocative illustrations – consider John Owen’s explanation of the Creator-creature distinction:

What is an angel more than a worm? A worm is a creature, and an angel is no more; he hath made the one to creep in the earth,—made also the other to dwell in heaven. There is still a proportion between these, they agree in something; but what are all the nothings of the world to the God infinitely blessed for evermore?[21]

Angels and worms have more in common than us and the great I AM! God is on a whole other order of existence than we are – He’s identical with His existence! – so we are distinct from Him in kind, not degree. The created commonality between angels and worms can vividly illustrate that for a congregation.

It is undeniably true that we preach to the heart, but you do not reach the heart by bypassing the mind. In a proper scholastic distinction, the late R.C. Sproul observed:

The primacy of the intellect is with respect to order. The primacy of the heart is with respect to importance… To be central in our hearts [God] must be foremost in our minds. Religious thought is the prerequisite to religious affection and obedient action.[22]

Many pastors are rightly concerned about how orthodoxy appears to be listing in our generation and biblical morality is faring little better. To address the fainting Christian heart, should we not begin with our mind? And does shaping the Christian mind not start with our preaching? If we want our preaching to give Christians greater confidence, assurance, and wonder to proclaim God’s excellencies to the world (1 Pet 2:9), we will find tremendous help in the Protestant scholastics. If we want our preaching to give Christians greater confidence, assurance, and wonder to proclaim God’s excellencies to the world, we will find tremendous help in the Protestant scholastics. Click To Tweet

James Montgomery Boice once said, “I am convinced that those with the very best minds and training belong in the pulpit, and that the pulpit will never have the power it once had (and ought to have) until this happens.” And one of his suggested remedies was continuous learning by preachers:

The ministry should not only be an educated ministry. It should be educable and self-educating. If it is, the preacher will continue to be fresh, alive, and interesting. If it is not, his material will soon run out and the sermons will become repetitious and boring.[23]

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s nonetheless true that reading and considering Protestant scholasticism will help preachers today from becoming (or remaining) repetitious, boring, and irrelevant in the pulpit. As their works stretch and order our minds as preachers, we will be better able to capture the minds of our hearers to glorify God in all they do.


[1] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach (P&R, 2009), p. 66

[2] See, for example, its recurrence in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (P&R, 1992)

[3] Sinclair Ferguson, The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen (Reformation Trust, 2014 ), p. 47.

[4] Cited by Donald Macleod, “Preaching and Systematic Theology,” in The Preacher and Preaching (P&R, 1986), p. 246.

[5] Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2nd ed. (Baker, 2003), 1:216.

[6] Ibid., 1:218-19

[7] Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, 1.24

[8] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:23.

[9] Edward Leigh, A Systeme or Body of Divinity (London: William Lee, 1662); spelling and capitalization slightly updated. For an insightful treatment of Leigh’s theological method, and whether scholastic theology can be practical, see James Dolezal, “A Practical Scholasticism? Edward Leigh’s Theological Method,” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009), 337-54.

[10] For further consideration of the scholastic background to the 17th century homiletics, see Carl Trueman, “Reason and Rhetoric: Stephen Charnock on the Existence of God,” in Reason, Faith and History (Ashgate, 2008); Richard Muller’s discussion in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics is helpful, especially this encouragement: ‘We need to overcome the stereotype of the orthodox sermon, generated in large part by pietist polemics of the late seventeenth century – that of a dry, dogmatic declaration inattentive to the spiritual needs of a congregation. There are dry, dogmatic sermons preached in every age of the church, some of them by pietists, but the presence of a few ought not to color our judgment of the many” (1:218). See also n. 170, where he points to Dargan’s A History of Preaching, as well as the sermons of Thomas Manton and John Owen, as examples.

[11] For a discussion comparing Turretin’s scholastic writing and pastoral preaching, see J. Mark Beach, “Preaching Predestination – An Examination of Francis Turretin’s Sermon” (MAJT 21 (2010): 133-147)

[12] See vol 1: Prolegomena (Reformation Heritage Books, 2018).

[13] Ibid., p. xlvii.

[14] See Muller’s discussion in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:216-19; Van Mastricht agrees and his system follows the same basic order as a model for preachers.

[15] John Owen, A Display of Arminianism, in Works (Banner of Truth, 1968), 10:14.

[16] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1:487-88.

[17] Ibid., 1:381

[18] A Body of Doctrinal Divinity (The Baptist Standard Bearer, nd), p. 384.

[19] Cited by Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:382.

[20] Leigh, A Systeme or Body of Divinity, pp. 166-67.

[21] Owen, Works, 2:60.

[22] Sproul, “Burning Hearts are not Nourished by Empty Heads,” in Christianity Today (3 Sept 1982), p. 100.

[23] Boice, “The Preacher and Scholarship,” in The Preacher and Preaching, ed by Samuel Logan (P&R, 1986), pp. 91, 97.

Steve Meister

Steve Meister serves as pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Sacramento, CA, where he focuses on preaching, theological instruction, as well as the church’s ministry internship and leadership training. He also serves on the board of the Bible Translation Fellowship.

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