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What exactly is Protestant Scholasticism and why does it matter?

On the Protestant Adoption of Realism

The term “scholasticism” is somewhat difficult to define. Church historians often use it to identify a particular movement in the medieval church from St. Anselm until the age of the Renaissance (about 1050 AD to 1500 AD).[1]  With such a definition, there is no room for a Protestant scholasticism at all, as the era of the Reformation arises after the decline of the scholastic movements of the middle ages. When we use the term “Protestant scholasticism,” then, it is important to identify precisely what it is that such a term means.

Like its medieval counterpart, “Protestant scholasticism” can be used to identify a group of theologians writing in a historical period—particularly, the seventeenth century. However, the things usually used to identify a thinker as a Protestant scholastic in this era all extend far beyond the seventeenth century. There was a revival of the terminology and systems of this age in nineteenth century Lutheranism, for example, with writers such as Conrad Emil Lindberg (1852-1930) and Revere Franklin Weidner (1851-1915), who both produced dogmatic texts which could rightly be called “scholastic.” Today, many writers (myself included) have begun to self-identify as Protestant scholastics. Thus, while recognizing the roots of Protestant scholasticism in the second and third generations of Protestantism, we can define this movement more broadly by some of its foundational ideological and methodological principles. With this in mind, it is incumbent upon us to ask: what are these key features of a Protestant scholastic theology?Despite what some assume when hearing about the term “scholasticism,” those of us who are Protestant scholastics are not standing with one foot in the Reformation and the other in Rome. Click To Tweet

With the identifier “Protestant,” we mean to identify adherence to the central principles of the sixteenth-century Reformation: sola fide, sola Scriptura, and sola gratia. With all of the areas of overlap between Protestant and Roman Catholic scholastic movements, it is essential to identify these distinctives. Despite what some assume when hearing about the term “scholasticism,” those of us who are Protestant scholastics are not standing with one foot in the Reformation and the other in Rome. Protestant scholasticism grows out of a commitment to the unique authority of Scripture, and the doctrine of the sinner’s justification through faith alone.

Adherence to these ideas alone does not make one a scholastic of course, as there are plenty of Protestants who would shudder at the thought of identifying with such a label. The uniqueness of the Protestants who are called scholastics is mostly in three areas: first is the focus of clarity of terminology and extensive presentation of arguments in favor of doctrinal distinctives, along with refutation of opposing views. Second, the scholastics often discuss the relationship between faith and reason (or this could be characterized as the relationship between theology and philosophy). Third, the Protestant scholastics are philosophical realists. Though much could be (and has been) said about the other two points, this article addresses only the third.

The Protestant Adoption of Realism

Before moving onto the details, realism itself should be defined for the uninitiated in philosophical terminology. In short, realism is the belief that when we encounter the world through our experience, we come into contact with real essences that are grasped by the mind. For example, I have a tree outside of my window. As I see that object, my mind identifies this with the category “tree.” The realist says that “tree” is a real category that has an essence that is independent of my own intellect and subjective experience. I can understand the tree as it actually is, since the object shares in the essence of “treeness” and I can mentally grasp the concept of “tree.”Realism is the belief that when we encounter the world through our experience, we come into contact with real essences that are grasped by the mind. Click To Tweet

The opposite of realism is known as nominalism. This ideology is founded upon the notion that essences are not actually real at all. The words that we use to signify are creations of either human language or of the mind. Thus, when I see the object outside of my window, there is nothing inherent within it that makes it a “tree.” Rather, humans have simply chosen to use the category of tree to identify a number of separate objects that have similar characteristics. In this view, our minds do not simply receive that which is outside of us, but we instead shape how the world is viewed by way of subjective categories.

Blame it on Luther?

With reference to the realism/nominalism debate, there is a popular narrative among Roman Catholic apologists that the secular values of modernity are a result of the Protestant Reformation.[2] The implication of such a claim is that the West would not have fallen into these problems had Luther not rebelled against the authority of the church. In these accounts, the Reformation arose from Martin Luther’s training in nominalist philosophy and subsequent rejection of the philosophical inheritance of the classical West. From nominalism then rose skepticism which led to the Enlightenment and then the eventual subjectivism of the postmodern world. All things can be blamed on Luther.

There are two major problems with this thesis. The first is that Luther simply did not promote nominalism. It is true that his training was largely in the context of late medieval nominalism as influenced by William of Ockham. However, these teachers were not praised by the Reformer, but were instead the primary subject of his critiques. The teachers Luther most often cites as influential upon his thought were realists, such as Bernard of Claivaux, Augustine, Johann Tauler, and the anonymous author of the Theologia Germanica.[3]Scholastic theologians from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions inherited much from their medieval forebears. Click To Tweet

It is often pointed out that Luther was highly critical of the appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy in later medieval theology. This is true, as Luther was rather harsh at times, especially toward St. Thomas Aquinas’ extended use of the philosopher. However, Luther himself never makes the claim that he prefers nominalism over Aristotelianism. Rather, in his well-known Heidelberg Disputation, Luther criticized Aristotle for not being enough of a realist. He instead preferred the philosophy of Plato, just as did his primary theological influences.[4] The adoption of realist ideas then is not a later Protestant scholastic innovation, but is consistent with the initial reformer.

The second problem of the thesis that Protestantism led to secularism via nominalism is that even if one were to prove that Luther was a full-blown nominalist, such is clearly not the case with other Reformers and later generations of Protestants. Though cautious about which areas to use the philosopher in, Luther’s colleague Melanchthon often framed his theology in Aristotelian categories. Following Luther’s death, Aristotle’s distinction between a substance and accidental qualities was even given explicit Confessional affirmation by the next generation of Lutherans in the Formula of Concord of 1577. This document remains a binding document among many Lutheran churches today.

By the turn of the next century, the basic categories of Protestant scholasticism had been put into place. The ideas of Luther and Calvin were systematized more precisely by later authors with the language of formal and material causes, substances, syllogistic reasoning, and reiterations of Thomas’ five proofs for God’s existence. Scholastic theologians from both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions inherited much from their medieval forebears.

Why Realism Matters

One might question exactly why these philosophical categories are necessary. They are not directly outlined in scripture, nor are they on the minds of average Christians in daily life. For this reason, classical philosophy is viewed by critics as either anti-biblical or as pointless speculation. People often repeat Tertullian’s famous question: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” As some understand this, is the philosophy of the ancient Greeks just a rival system of religion?Any system that uses philosophy as an authority over scripture should be rejected as inconsistent with the supreme authority of the Word of God. To defend against this, theologians distinguish between a magisterial and ministerial… Click To Tweet

To some extent, the hesitancy to use philosophy is understandable. Scripture certainly warns of the allure of deceptive philosophies (Col. 2:8). Also, any system that uses philosophy or any other system as an authority over Scripture should be rejected as inconsistent with the supreme authority of the Word of God. In order to defend against this, theologians distinguish between a magisterial and ministerial use of reason. The former is the misapplication of reason, whereby philosophy becomes the means by which theological conclusions are determined. The latter professes the inherent goodness in philosophical reasoning, but recognizes its subordination to special revelation.

All of this means that when classical philosophy is applied in the theological task, this is not to be done uncritically, but subordinately in light of Scriptural teaching. The New Testament itself borrows language and ideas from philosophy, such as in John’s use of the term Logos (a popular Stoic concept which goes as far back as Heraclitus in the sixth century B.C.), the book of Hebrews using Plato’s language of form and shadows (Heb. 10:1), and Paul’s positive citation of the Greek philosopher Aratus (Acts 17:28). Thus, in implementing parts of the broader Platonic tradition in their theological systems, the scholastics echoed the methodology of the New Testament itself.

Theology and Philosophy

Since the popularization of the Hellenization thesis of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), it became increasingly common to view the adoption of classical realist philosophy as a degradation of Christianity from its earlier supposedly non-Hellenistic roots. This fundamental presupposition had gained a foothold to such an extent that these conclusions were taken as a given by the mid-twentieth century. But here is the essential problem: attempts to divorce theology from philosophy simply do not work. When theologians try to piece together a system that is non-philosophical, all they really do is replace one philosophy for another. Click To Tweet

But here is the essential problem: attempts to divorce theology from philosophy simply do not work. When theologians try to piece together a system that is non-philosophical, all they really do is replace one philosophy for another. Instead of using the categories of Plato and Aristotle, they use those of Kant, Hegel, or Postmodernity. If this is not done intentionally, it is done uncritically. Whether we desire it or not, all of us inherit philosophical presuppositions from our culture. Everyone has a philosophy. We have preconceived ideas that we read into theology just as we do with everything else. The question is not then of whether you will use philosophy or not, but: which philosophy will you use?

As early church fathers like Origen and Clement of Alexandria recognized, God providentially used the natural reason of the Greeks to provide the intellectual backdrop of the New Testament. This is not to say that Plato, Aristotle, or the Stoics got everything right, or that they were divinely inspired. However, God did send Christ into the world during that intellectual milieu, rather than a Kantian or postmodern one. It is those classical categories that were used in the great Trinitarian controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries leading to the formation of the ancient creeds. Simply no system or categories that have arisen since have had the same kind of explanatory power as classical realism. Experiments with other systems have repeatedly led to heterodox conclusions (at best).Simply no system or categories that have arisen since have had the same kind of explanatory power as classical realism. Experiments with other systems have repeatedly led to heterodox conclusions (at best). Click To Tweet

The Protestant scholastics recognized the importance of outlining and examining our fundamental basic beliefs and systems. This is why treatments of theological prolegomena continued to increase in size during the seventeenth century. At a time when the church faces multitudinous challenges from both inside and out, we would do well to follow the scholastics in engaging with similar philosophical rigor.


[1] Fairweather, Eugene. A Scholastic Miscellany: From Anselm to Ockham. Library of Christian Classics Volume X. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956, 18.

[2] Gregory, Brad S. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge: Harvard, 2015.

[3] Hoffman, Bengt R. Theology of the Heart: The Role of Mysticism in the Theology of Martin Luther. Minneapolis: Kirk House, 1998.

[4] Parker, Eric. “The Platonism of Martin Luther” Calvinist International. http://www.calvinistinternational.com/2013/05/20/the-platonism-of-martin-luther/

Jordan B. Cooper

Jordan B. Cooper is an ordained Lutheran pastor, an adjunct professor of Systematic Theology, the Executive Director of Just and Sinner, and the President of the American Lutheran Theological Seminary. He has authored several books, as well as theological articles in a variety of publications. He hosts the Just and Sinner Podcast, and is a frequent guest on many other podcasts. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife Lisa and their two boys: Jacen, and Ben.

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