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Wholesome Protestant Doctrine

Gold in My Own Backyard

Dedicating an entire issue of Credo Magazine to the topic of Reformed scholasticism will, no doubt, illicit a wide spectrum of reactions.[1] Some potential readers will be enthused, ready to further their understanding of what has become familiar to them in recent years. Others will approach this issue with skepticism if not downright dismissal. It is the latter group that I would like to address. I do not wish to convince you of the historical relevance of the Reformed scholastics, as many well-qualified contributors will attempt to do just that throughout this issue. Likewise, I will not spend my column arguing fine distinctions or analyzing technical doctrine in true scholastic fashion. Rather, I’d like to simply say – I was once counted among you. My story may be different than yours, but our doubt is one and the same. My theological education filled me with a sincere skepticism of ancient, medieval, or post-reformation sources. My experience, however, made me hesitant to pursue academic training. Click To Tweet

My theological education filled me with a sincere skepticism of ancient, medieval, or post-reformation sources. I saw the history of the Church as the chronological progression from the apostles to John Calvin, to Charles Spurgeon, to the 20th century. I was as Young, Restless, and Reformed as an SBC Mississippi-raised college student could be. My shelf was filled with contemporary voices – Piper, Grudem, Platt, Erickson – and these men served me well. My undergraduate experience, however, made me hesitant to pursue academic training. Men with PhDs would tell me why the Bible was wrong and why I needed to jettison antiquated beliefs for a more modern approach to ministry. Pastors, not schoolmen, were to be trusted. The academy was to be kept at arms-length. Still, in need of pastoral training, I pursued seminary.

A Well-Grounded Skepticism

In seminary, I was taught to love systematics, but I was taught to fear those who passed doctrine down to us. Contemporary voices would be revered while ancient voices would be dismissed. I remember one teacher cautioning a student because Athanasius’s On the Incarnation sat on his desk. “Oh, I’m glad you’re widening your scope, but be careful,” the teacher said. “There’s danger in Catholic sources.” When classical Protestant sources were mentioned (a rare occurrence to be sure), they may not have been criticized, but they were ignored. “Turretin is ok, I suppose, but awfully dry. Your time is probably better spent elsewhere. Have you read Kevin DeYoung’s new book?” Contemporary voices, not ancient voices, were to be trusted.

By the time I reached doctoral studies, I was firmly planted in the 20th century. Carl F.H. Henry, Gordon Clark, Harold John Ockenga, even, dare I say it, Cornelius Van Til – these were my friends, and they served me well. Then, something happened. I turned 30, and I went camping. For some reason, I packed a book that I had heard mentioned years before – On the Incarnation by Athanasius. As I sat by a fire reading (I’m ashamed to admit it) my first patristic book, I was shocked at how familiar it seemed. I was expecting dragons, but I felt at home. Is this what antiquity has to offer? I read it in one setting as my coffee grew cold. These thinkers were robustly Protestant, joyfully Reformed, and aggressively biblical. Click To Tweet

My appetite began to grow. Athanasius led me to Cyril, who led me to Gregory of Nazianzus, who led me to Basil, who led me to Augustine. While these authors began to feel increasingly familiar, their doctrine at times did not. Chalcedon? Nicaea? Eternal generation? Aseity? I was entering deep waters, and I needed all the help I could get. So, I widened my net. Medieval voices began to assist me, but I heard the voice of my previous teachers in the back of my head. “Be careful. There’s danger in Catholic sources.” I have no delusions of grandeur. I knew that my interpretation of these ancient and medieval works was not only fallible, but absolutely elementary.

Unexpected Friends

I knew I needed someone on this side of the Reformation to help me think through new ideas. So, what did I do? The same thing I always do – I went camping. This time I brought with me a contemporary book, Aquinas Among the Protestants. My interest at the time was purely focused on Thomas Aquinas and evaluating his doctrine (both positively and negatively). I expected to learn about Thomas, but I was confident that I had the “Protestant” side of the argument nailed down. The book consists of a collection of essays highlighting the critical appropriation of Thomas by several Post-Reformation thinkers. I was surprised, however, at the new names I encountered. Johann Gerhard? Richard Hooker? William Whitaker? Looking through footnotes and the index just expanded my confusion – who in the world is Peter van Mastricht? I was surprised to find how unfamiliar I was with my own camp. As I was traveling to strange and distant lands, I had neglected to keep my own house in order. I assumed I had known all along what it meant to be Protestant. I never even thought to even ask. It was not Thomas Aquinas who explained divine simplicity to me – it was Francis Turretin. Click To Tweet

I began to buy books that fundamentally changed the way I saw the world, God, and myself. It was not Thomas Aquinas who explained divine simplicity to me – it was Francis Turretin. As good as Augustine is, I didn’t see the exegetical grounds of classical theism until I met van Mastricht. Some say that actus purus is a medieval Roman invention grounded in Greek philosophy. Well, I learned it from Stephen Charnock (who demonstrated it from Scripture). The more I read, the more continuity I saw, and the more familiar these classical concepts became. These Reformed Scholastics were not afraid of the tradition that preceded them, nor did they idolize it. Rather, they engaged the tradition, Bible in hand.

Over time, the Reformed Scholastics helped me to better understand my Bible, the great Protestant confessions, medieval scholasticism, and even my modern context. They guided me to the gold I had buried in my own backyard. These thinkers were robustly Protestant, joyfully Reformed, and aggressively biblical.

Meet Them for Yourself

In this instance, I was blessedly ignorant about the misconceptions surrounding the Reformed scholastics. Luckily, I had encountered primary sources before I had heard about the “Calvin against the Calvinists” theory or how the post-Reformation Scholastics had, supposedly, compromised the pure biblical theology of John Calvin. Here, however, is exactly where I want to respectfully offer a warning. For years the vague jabs at “Catholic sources” I heard from the people around me had kept me from my would-be friends. I know my nature, and I know that if I had first encountered the misconceptions lobbied against post-Reformation Scholastics, then I would have delayed my interaction with them as long as possible. I know I would have rather played it safe than sorry. Perhaps you are not as stubborn as I am, but I know that my ill-founded doubt would have kept me from wholesome Protestant doctrine.

The Reformed scholastics engaged the tradition, Bible in hand. Click To Tweet To that end, dear reader, I humbly ask you to lay your pitchfork down, if only for a moment. There be no dragons here. These Protestant scholastics can help you think clearly, live piously, and love deeply. Compare them all you wish to John Calvin, but make sure you read them for yourself. That’s the ultimate goal of this issue of Credo – to offer you the tools you need to engage the men themselves as they engaged the tradition before them, Bible in hand. Perhaps I cannot convince you that we have no ulterior motives or malicious plan, but I hope my story can be replicated. Not because the world needs more academics or twitter-warriors, but because I genuinely believe that the Protestant Scholastics can help you love Jesus and the Triune God. Retrieving the genuinely Protestant doctrines that shaped the post-Reformation world can benefit your local Church; I’ve seen it happen.

The phrase ad fontes is referenced a lot when discussing topics such as these. Usually it’s translated “to the source” and is used as an exhortation to take up primary sources. We could also say, however, “to the fount.” That’s why I love the Protestant Scholastics. They point me to the “fountain of life . . . a truly inexhaustible fountain” where “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).[2] Head to the sources so that we may head to the fount.



[1] The title of this column comes from the introduction to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. The authors of the confession used this language to describe the biblical content present in preceding confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. The authors write, “[O]n behalf of Protestants in divers nations and cities; and also to convince all, that we have no itch to clog religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words which hath been, in consent with the Holy Scriptures, used by others before us; hereby declaring before God, angels, and men, our hearty agreement with them in that wholesome Protestant doctrine which with so clear evidence of Scriptures they have asserted” (The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), 18.

[2] Fountain imagery was a favorite rhetorical device of John Calvin. See Lee Gattis, “The Inexhaustible Fountain of All Good Things: Union with Christ in Calvin on Ephesians,” in Themelios 34.2.

Timothy Gatewood

Timothy Gatewood is an adjunct professor for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he teaches courses in systematic theology. He also serves as a book review editor for the Journal of Classical Theology, the executive editor of Credo Magazine, and the associate director of the Center of Classical Theology. He earned his PhD in Theological Studies from MBTS. His dissertation, entitled Truth Not Served by Human Hands, argued that the Reformed Thomistic models of the divine intellect and the divine ideas are the grounds of a participatory theory of truth. His work has been featured in The Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon, the Midwestern Journal of Theology, Didaktikos Journal, and before the Evangelical Theological Society.

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