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What is Reformed Scholasticism?

Our Reformed fathers used scholasticism to convey orthodoxy

For many readers, “Reformed” and “scholasticism” might appear to be a strange conjunction. In Reformation and post-Reformation thought, “the scholastics” were often short-hand for the “bad guys.” Martin Luther even wrote an early work against scholastic theology.[1] Scholasticism is often pitted against a commitment to scripture in popular thinking, substituting exegesis with complex and muddled arguments about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Yet many scholars have recognized that Reformed theology from around the 1560’s to the mid-eighteenth century revived the scholastic method in order to teach theology to ministerial students in Reformed universities.[2] Some scholars have even traced hints of scholastic influence in earlier authors, like Luther and Calvin, despite their vitriol against scholasticism.[3] No less than Karl Barth (1886-1968) asserted, “The fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet.”[4] Though this author disagrees with Barth in most things, Barth noted rightly that modern theologians and pastors need to learn something from Reformed scholasticism to understand and transmit Reformed ideas to the present generation. The fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet. -Karl Barth Click To Tweet

The primary questions before us are, what is Reformed scholasticism, what are its benefits, and what are ways we can abuse it? This essay seeks to answer these questions, arguing primarily that we must understand Reformed scholasticism both to use it rightly, and to avoid abusing classic Reformed dogmatics.

What is Reformed Scholasticism?

“Scholastic” is a somewhat nebulous word. Like the term “Puritan,” we often think that we understand it until we try to define it.[5] Also like “Puritanism,” “scholasticism” often becomes a ill-defined derogatory term for something people don’t like. Following Ulrich Leinsle and others, this author primarily defines scholasticism as a method of teaching in the schools (hence the name “scholastic”), which began in the Middle Ages and stretched into post-Reformation theology.[6] Though this definition remains somewhat vague, this section seeks to give it concrete shape primarily through illustrations.

Our two key terms are “Reformed” and “scholasticism.” If scholasticism refers to a method conveying ideas, then “Reformed” indicates a particular brand of confessional orthodoxy. Without judging which kind of orthodoxy is the right one, orthodoxy, as a historical term, includes Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic orthodoxy.[7] Defining each form of “orthodoxy” is a body of normative confessional statements. While the Book of Concord and The Decrees of the Council of Trent characterized post-Reformation Lutheran and Roman Catholic orthodoxy, respectively, many confessions defined Reformed orthodoxy, most notably the so-called Three Forms of Unity, the Second Helvetic Confession, and later the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. Though not describing each form of “orthodoxy” here, orthodoxy referred to the normative doctrinal content of each movement. If scholasticism refers to a method conveying ideas, then “Reformed” indicates a particular brand of confessional orthodoxy. Click To Tweet

As Protestant universities developed, teachers required an appropriate method to convey orthodoxy to students. Reformed scholasticism spans roughly from the 1560’s, in which some of the early major Reformed confessional statements appeared, to at least the mid-eighteenth century, when Enlightenment philosophical shifts furnished authors with new categories through which to convey ideas. Illustrating the nebulous character of scholasticism, Leinsle argues that the scholastic method began as early as Augustine (354-430), though most authors use Anselm (1033-1109) as a starting point. The Anselm start date is a bit tidier, having the advantage of connecting the rise of the scholastic method to the rise of medieval universities. The main question surrounding scholasticism is, How did people teach theology in the schools?

What features, then, make the scholastic method identifiable, both in the Middle Ages and in post-Reformation thought? Some of its main relevant features were the ability to define terms clearly and to make sharp distinctions, using the current scientific terms available at the time.[8] This could include categories drawn from Neo-Platonism, or more famously (or infamously) from Aristotle, starting in the late twelfth century onward. It is important to recognize that scientific categories drawn from philosophical sources served primarily to furnish theologians with the needed distinctions to convey ideas. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274) is commonly noted for his use of Aristotelian categories, but he often transformed them to suit the needs of his theology.[9] In the post-Reformation period, Peter Ramus (1515-1572) sought to revise and simplify Aristotle’s logic in search of a better teaching tool, illustrating the utilitarian role of scholasticism as a method.[10]

The primary forms or vehicles of scholastic theology were questions (quaestio), disputations, and declamatory speeches, all drawing from careful scientific terms and definitions. To give some medieval examples, Aquinas is an easy illustration of the quaestio method, since each chapter of his Summa Theologiae begins with a question, followed by negative answers to it, leading to his responses and answers to objections, resulting in a clear statement of doctrine. Reformed scholastic Francis Turretin (1623-1687), among others, largely followed this method in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which became a standard text of Reformed orthodoxy.[11]

Disputations, similar in form to the quaestio, posed a question in response to which students sought to defend their answers, after narrowing the issue at hand and defining it clearly. Often Reformed professed published theological works answering the disputation questions themselves, such as the so-called “Leiden Synopsis,” which countered the Arminian system of doctrine in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century.[12]

Declamatory, or didactic theology, simply presented the system of doctrine in a compendious straightforward manner, often bypassing questions and disputations for the sake of brevity. Bonaventure’s (1217-1274) Breviloquium fits this form, giving readers concise summaries of each doctrine and all its related distinctions in brief chapters in a single volume,[13] in contrast to say Aquinas’s multi-volume Summa. Reformed authors followed this form as well, represented by the concise and direct theological systems of William Ames (1576-1633) and Johannes Wollebius (1689-1629),[14] though authors like Amandus Polanus (1561-1610) could expand this method into massive texts.[15] Using current scientific terms to convey ideas through precise definitions and distinctions spilled into other sciences, such as medicine, which still retain some of these distinctions today.[16] It is important to recognize that scientific categories drawn from philosophical sources served primarily to furnish theologians with the needed distinctions to convey ideas. Click To Tweet

Though sometimes hard to distinguish, and not entirely separate, scholastic theology was distinct from popular theology. On the surface, one can “feel” the difference between Bonaventure’s Breviloquium and his work on the mind’s journey towards God, though both aimed at the true knowledge of God.[17] Similarly, Andreas Hyperius (1511-1564), the first Reformed author to write on theological method, distinguished scholastic from popular theology.[18] Scholastic precision and terms informed popular theology, yet with less explicit distinctions and more direct address. John Owen (1616-183) illustrates the point if readers compare his Christologia with his Meditations on the Glory of Christ, both in volume one of his works.[19] Christologia is dense, detailed, and often challenging, while the Meditations present the same material, teashing his congregation how to live and how to prepare for heaven.

The Scholastic method is, in many ways, better illustrated than defined. For instance, following the quaestio method, Aquinas asked whether a divine person can assume a human nature without assuming human personhood. After presenting Nestorian arguments that assuming human nature without assuming human personhood is impossible, Aquinas defined his position that Christ was one divine person with both human and divine natures, answering objections against it. Ultimately, since the suppositum in Christ lies in his identity as God the Son, and since we cannot divide divinity and personhood in the Trinity, Christ must be a divine person who took on a human nature, the personal identity of his humanity subsisting in hypostatic union with the divine nature.[20] All Reformed authors effectively followed the same lines of argument in Christology.

Polanus provides a solid illustration of the scholastic method in treating the perspicuity of Scripture against Roman Catholic views of the obscurity of Scripture, whose interpretation rested on the church’s magisterial tradition. After arguing that Scripture is clear, and that all should read it,[21] he presented a Protestant view of the proper relationship between Scripture and tradition. Rather than being magisterial, tradition had ministerial authority, teaching the church to understand the Scriptures considering (correctible) historic dogmas. Priority went to ecumenical creeds and councils, then to the fathers and other notable teachers, next to ordained ministers, and finally placing private interpretation last in order of priority.[22] Like a student learning from a professor, Polanus’s point is the church should be biased in favor of her teachers without following them slavishly. Such examples show how using scientific categories eclectically (dare I say pragmatically) enabled scholastic theologians to say what they wanted to say about biblical doctrines using precise and clear definitions and distinctions.

What Should We Do (and Not Do) with Reformed Scholasticism?

The still-pending question is, What are the benefits of Reformed scholasticism and what are ways we might abuse Reformed scholasticism? Put simply, the primary advantage of Reformed scholasticism lies in sharpening our thinking, and its primary abuse lies in ruining our speaking. In other words, Reformed scholasticism can potentially teach people how to think more clearly, and, if misused, lead them to communicate more poorly.

Most Reformed theology explained the Trinity and Christology fully based on medieval and scholastic categories. Click To TweetStarting with the positive, how does Reformed scholasticism lead us think more clearly? The most obvious, though by no means isolated, examples lie in Trinitarian theology and Christology, where we most need distinction and precision. Most people think that post-Reformation Trinitarian theology and Christology are Nicene and Chalcedonian, respectively. This is at once true and incomplete, since most Reformed theology explained the Trinity and Christology fully based on medieval and scholastic categories.[23] For example, most medieval discussions of Trinitarian personhood began with Boethius (480-525), who defined person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.”[24] Though most medievals modified this definition, “individual” and “rational” remained key terms. According to Richard St. Victor (1110-1173), essence described something, while person designated someone.[25] Person described an individual, singular, and incommunicable property,[26] distinguishing it from others by origin only. Building on this idea, Aquinas noted, “Now distinction in God is only by way of relation of origin.”[27] This meant that the Father was God of none, the Son was God of the Father, and the Spirit was God of the Father and the Son together. Distinguishing, without separating, essence and person in God, the Son was a divine person by eternal communication of the divine essence from the Father, and so the Spirit by communication from Father and Son. John Calvin (1509-1564) followed this line of thought, defining person as an “incommunicable quality,”[28] though excluding relation of origin or communication of essence. Most Reformed scholastics did not follow Calvin on this point, however.[29] Westminster divine, Francis Cheynell (1608-1665), for example, defined person as,

a spiritual and infinite subsistent, related indeed to those other uncreated persons, which subsist in the same divine nature with it, but distinguished from those coessential persons by its peculiar manner of subsistence, order of subsisting, singular relation, and incommunicable property.[30]

Yet retaining the idea of relation or origin and communication of the divine essence, he asked (in contrast to Calvin), “How can you describe a divine person, if you abstract his personality from his divinity?”[31] I have argued elsewhere that William Perkins (1558-1602), Francis Turretin, and others, argued along similar lines.[32]

The same observations are true of Christology. The point is that Trinitarian theology and Christology require clear definitions, sharp distinctions, and precise language to remain orthodox. While Reformed theology represents common Christian theology on these points, it is fair to say that the scholastic method is, arguably, both necessary to and embedded in the heart of Western Christian theology. Perhaps we can now sympathize with Barth’s point that fear of scholasticism marks a false prophet.

What, then, is the “dark side” of Reformed scholasticism? The main liability of scholasticism, whether Reformed or otherwise, is losing one’s ability to communicate with real people. Remember that the scholastic method was a tool that Reformed authors used to convey orthodoxy. When the tool works, then it is useful. When it does not, then one seeks another tool. For example, if we defend the (correct) idea of divine simplicity, namely, that God is his attributes and that he is not composed of parts like we are, then in some circumstances it may not be helpful to imitate Polanus by listing Aristotle’s seven modes of composition, only to negate them one at a time.[33] Depending on your audience, it may be better to tell people that God is his attributes, and to illustrate the point by showing in Scripture how every attribute assumes and is informed by the others. Likewise, Turretin’s quaestio about what language the saints will speak in glory will not likely be overly useful to most modern readers,[34] even though the “Leiden Synopsis” adds that the question arose from Augustine on Genesis.[35]

Sometimes modern students excited by the precision and clarity of Reformed scholasticism make the mistake of trying to speak to modern people in scholastic categories rather than translating useful ideas into simpler terms, even omitting some of them for the sake of accommodation. Don’t forget that the reason why people still read Puritan sermons and still use the Westminster Larger Catechism is that they retained the precision of scholastic theology while conveying ideas clearly and simply to ordinary people. The scholastic method was a tool that Reformed authors used to convey orthodoxy. Click To Tweet

As the famous Latin proverb says, however, abusus non tulit usus (abuse does not remove use). Who would stop eating because they were afraid of food poisoning? Or who would avoid heart surgery because surgeon’s can make mistakes? Reformed scholasticism can teach us how to think well even if we need to learn how to communicate well through some prayerful creativity and applied wisdom. For instance, if we try to convince someone that church membership is biblical, we need to identify and narrow the question, in good scholastic fashion, to hit our target. The question is not whether Christians need fellowship, must attend worship services regularly, or participate in ministering to others. The question is whether they should add their names to the roles of a local church. Used rightly, Reformed scholasticism both teaches us critical thinking and expands our toolbox for making our case clearly.

Read the Reformed Scholastics today

Reformed scholasticism was a teaching tool fit for teaching university students. Neither medieval nor Protestant scholasticism was ever ready-made for teaching congregants. Yet Reformed scholasticism served its purpose in conveying and defending Reformed orthodoxy in a new generation. Used rightly, Reformed scholasticism both teaches us critical thinking and expands our toolbox for making our case clearly. Click To Tweet Serious students, and especially teachers, of Reformed theology cannot afford to pass this period by. Though most Reformed scholastic texts are buried in Latin, many English translations are now available, including Ames, Jerome Zanchius (1516-1619), Turretin, the “Leiden Synopsis,” Peter van Mastricht (1630-1706), Johannes Heidegger (1633-1698), Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644), Bernardinus de Moor (1709-1780), Herman Witsius (1636-1708), and Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711). Edward Leigh (1602-1671) has the advantage of being one of the few seventeenth authors to write a scholastic text in English, which is free at[36] Such literature represents some of the best, mature, and clear presentations of Reformed theology ever written. While defining the scholastic method remains challenging, if you take up and read some of these works, then you will likely know it when you see it, and see its value when you know it.


[1] Gerhard Muller, “Luther’s Transformation of Medieval Thought: Discontinuity and Continuity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 105–14.

[2] To list a few, Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003); Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma, and Jason Zuidema, eds., Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard a. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition, vol. 170, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 2013); Willem J. van Asselt, “Reformed Orthodoxy: A Short History of Research,” in A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy, ed. H. J. Selderhuis, vol. 40, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 11–26; W. J. van Asselt et al., Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, trans. Albert Gootjes (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011); Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999); Ryan M. McGraw, Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2019); W. J. van Asselt and E. Dekker, eds., Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).

[3] D. V. N. Bagchi, “Sic et Non: Luther and Scholasticism,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. R. Scott Clark and Carl R. Trueman (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 3–15; David C Steinmetz, Calvin in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); D. C. Steinmetz, “The Scholastic Calvin,” Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, n.d., 16–30; Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).

[4] As cited in van Asselt et al., Reformed Scholasticism, 15.

[5] For a survey, see Randall J. Pederson, Unity in Diversity: English Puritans and the Puritan Reformation, 1603-1689, vol. 68, Brill Studies in Church History (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

[6] Ulrich G. Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 10. See also, Ulrich G. Leinsle, “Sources, Methods, and Forms of Early Modern Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology, 1600-1800, ed. Ulrich L. Lehner, Richard A. Muller, and A. G. Roeber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 25–42.

[7] See chapter 6 of McGraw, Reformed Scholasticism.

[8] Leinsle, Scholastic Theology, 12.

[9] For a host of examples, see Matthew Levering and Gilles Emery, eds., Aristotle in Aquinas’ Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[10] Petrus Ramus, Scholae Dialecticae sive Animadversionum in Organum Aristotelis Libri Viginti (Frankfurt, 1594); Steven J. Reid and Emma Annette Wilson, eds., Ramus, Pedagogy and the Liberal Arts: Ramism in Brittain and the Wider World (London: Routledge, 2011).

[11] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1992).

[12] Walaeus et al., Synopsis Purioris Theologiae = Synopsis of a Purer Theology, ed. Henk van den Belt, trans. Riemer A. Faber, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

[13] Bonaventure, Breviloquium, ed. Dominic Monti, vol. 9, Works of St. Bonaventure (New York: The Franciscan Institute, 2005).

[14] William Ames, Medulla S.S. Theologiæ, in Fine Adjuncta Est Disputatio De Fidei Divinæ Veritate. Editio Tertia Priori Longe Correctior(London, 1629); William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. John D Eusden (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997); Johannes Wollebius, Compendium Theologiæ Christianæ, Editio Ultima Prioribus Multo Correctior, 9th ed. (Cantabrigiæ, 1655); Johannes Wollebius, The Abridgment of Christian Divinitie so Exactly and Methodically Compiled That It Leads Us as It Were by the Hand to the Reading of the Holy Scriptures, Ordering of Common-Places, Understanding of Controversies, Clearing of Some Cases of Conscience: By John Wollebius ; Faithfully Translated into English by Alexander Ross., trans. Alexander Ross (London: Printed by T. Mabb for Joseph Nevill and are to be sold at his shop, n.d.), accessed April 3, 2015.

[15] Amandus Polanus, Syntagma Theologiae Christianae Ab Amando Polano a Polansdorf: Juxta Leges Ordinis Methodici Conformatum, Atque in Libros Decem Digestum Jamque Demum in Unum Volumen Compactum, Novissime Emendatum (Hanoviae, 1610).

[16] William Roscoe Estep, Renaissance and Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995); William Cecil Dampier Dampier, A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy & Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1944).

[17] Though Protestants will likely be less appreciative of Bonaventure’s prayers to Mary and his aim at mystical contemplation in the latter work than they will of popular works by Reformed scholastics, like Puritan sermons.

[18] Andreas Hyperius, Methodus Theologiae Adj. Eft. De Ejusdem Vita Et Obita Oratis Wigandi Arthii (Basileae, 1562).

[19] John Owen, The Works of John Owen., ed. W. H Goold (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965).

[20] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Lawrence Shapcote, Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas (Steubenville, OH: Emaus Academic, 2012). 3.3.3.

[21] Polanus, Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, 605.

[22] Polanus, 672–83.

[23] See volume 4 of Muller’s PRRD for a detailed narrative.

[24] Boethius, Liber de Persona et Duabus Naturis, Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, ad Johannem Diaconum Ecclesiae Romanae, Patrologia Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris, 1847), 64:1345.

[25] Richard St. Victor, Richard Saint-Victor, On the Trinity, ed. Jean Riballier, trans. Aage Rydstro-Poulsen, vol. 4, Brepolis Library of Christian Sources (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepolis, 2021), book 4, chapter 7.

[26] “Alias ergo subintelligitur proprietas, alias proprietas specialis; ad nomen autmen persone proprietas individualis, singularis, incommunicabilis.” St. Victor, Trinity, 4:166; bk. 4, ch. 6.

[27] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.29.4.

[28] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. XX–XXI, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:128. Bk. 1.13.6.

[29] For a fine study of this story, see Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[30] Francis Cheynell, The Divine Triunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or, the Blessed Doctrine of the Three Coessentiall Subsistents in the Eternall Godhead Without Any Confusion or Division of the Distinct Subsistences or Multiplication of the Most Single and Entire Godhead Acknowledged, Beleeved, Adored by Christians, in Opposition to Pagans, Jewes, Mahumetans, Blasphemous and Antichristian Hereticks, Who Say They Are Christians, but Are Not (London, 1650), 96.

[31] Cheynell, 76.

[32] See chapter five (co-authored with Scott Cook) of Ryan M. McGraw, ed., Charles Hodge: American Reformed Orthodox Theologian, Reformed Historical Theology (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2023).

[33] Polanus, Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, 907.

[34] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3:635–36.

[35] Walaeus et al., Synopsis Purioris Theologiae = Synopsis of a Purer Theology, ed. Harm Gorris, trans. Riemer A. Faber, vol. 3 (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 609.

[36] Edward Leigh, A Systeme or Body of Divinity Consisting of Ten Books, Wherein the Fundamentals and Main Grounds of Religion Are Opened(London, 1654).

Ryan McGraw

Ryan McGraw is the Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, SC. He is the author of numerous books including By Good and Necessary Consequence, The Day of Worship: Reassessing the Christian Life in Light of the Sabbath, and Christ’s Glory, Your Good: Salvation Planned, Promised, Accomplished, and Applied.

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