Muller On The Sources Of Biblicism

The rise and development of Socinianism in the seventeenth century cannot entirely account for the variant trinitarianisms of the age, including the English debates of the 1640s and 1650s, the variant language and historical perspectives of the Cambridge Platonists, and the doctrinal alternative proposed by Milton. In addition to the spread of a rational and biblicistic Socinian critique of traditional dogmatic language, the antitrinitarianism of the era was also fueled by developments in philosophy that challenged either the Christianized versions of Aristotelianism that had been the norm in theological usage or the older Aristotelian models themselves. The new philosophies of the seventeenth century tended to detach themselves from traditional conceptions of essence, substance, and individuality and, in so doing, critiques not only the older philosophy but also the theology that had grown attached to it and had reached, during the course of centuries, a linguistic concordat with traditional philosophical vocabulary.

Notable here is the alteration in meaning of such terms as “substance” and “essence” that can be traced among the various philosophical schools of the seventeenth century. In 1611, Randle Cotgrave defined the French substance as “substance, matter, stuffe,” substanciel as “substantiall, stuffie,” and essence as “an essence or being, the nature or subsistence of things”—perhaps reflecting a movement away from the older dual philosophical usage of “essence” to mean both the individuality and the quiddity, or whatness, of a thing, toward understanding the term in a more material and exclusively individual sense, perhaps more as haeccitas than as quidditas. His definition of substance, moreover, carries only the connotation of primary substance, the actual stuff or material identity of a thing, and not the connotation of secondary substance, the species or genus of a thing. Of course, when one looks to the technical manuals, there is little difference on the point between Thomas Wilson’s Rule of Reason (1551/52) and Thomas Spencer’s Art of Logick (1628): both offer the identification of “first” or primary substance as the individual thing and “second” or secondary substance as the kind of thing, namely, the species or genus.

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 4: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 99–100.


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  1. Of course Christian Aristotelianism continues to be very much under attack, even in (perhaps especially in, e.g., Van Til) Reformed circles.

    • David,

      Some. Those of us who have been studying classic Reformed Theology in the tradition of Muller are less hostile. I began to doubt the reality of a purely Christian philosophy after reading Ramus.

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