Review: Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology By Ryan M. McGraw (Part One)

Commendations

In the wake of Richard Muller’s revolutionary work (he overturned a consensus of more than a century, grounded in the work of Alexander Schweizer [1808–1888] and Heinrich Heppe [1820–1879]), there are questions that remain to be addressed in the study and use of Reformed orthodoxy.1 One of the more important, but neglected, of these is: What now? How do we do in our age what our orthodox and scholastic forebears did in theirs? To this question and many others Ryan McGraw has set his hand in this worthy and often delightful (and sometimes frustrating) volume. Let us get the bottom line out of the way. This is a highly useful volume. I am recommending it to my students in our Reformed Scholasticism seminar.2 This is a good place for one to begin their study of Reformed orthodoxy.

This is a valuable work for a variety of reasons. First, McGraw gets a great number of important things right about the value of studying Reformed orthodoxy, and how to study and write both historical theology generally and this field specifically. Presumably, most readers of this space already have some degree of sympathy (or at least curiosity about) classical and confessional Reformed theology. It can hardly be understood without a solid grasp of the period of Reformed orthodoxy (c. 1540–c. 1700), where so much of our theology, piety, and practice took its mature form. It forms the historical context in which to understand the theology, vocabulary, and original intent of our ecclesiastical confessions.

This work is a good model of Reformed scholasticism insofar as it is very clear and well organized. In that regard, it well reflects the author’s roots in the study of Reformed orthodoxy. His advice is spot-on in almost every place. My list of disagreements is much shorter than the list of places where we agree about how to study and write about Reformed orthodoxy. Students studying this field (or others) will benefit from his advice about how to pick a dissertation topic (and why), how to narrow that topic, how to form a thesis, and the importance of using primary sources in the original language (33–35). His advice regarding the developing electronic access to primary sources is helpful.3

This volume calls attention to some important places for future research. For example, I was aware of Lambert Daneau’s commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, but I appreciate very much McGraw drawing attention to it (46, 147–48). This is a topic just crying for a good PhD dissertation.

His distinction between academic and popular history, and between history and hagiography (e.g., p. 61) is much to be welcomed, as is his implicit distinction (passim) between writing history and writing theology. His caution that affirming what the author calls a “biblical epistemology” does not warrant importing “religious evaluations to into every historical investigation” is most helpful (70). Equally welcome is his emphasis on trying to put ourselves into the shoes of our subjects, so that we might see things as our subjects saw them (71–72). His admonition that, as students of the past, we need to listen to rather than speak to the past is just right (73–74). He is right to remind us that historical objectivity is not to be equated with “neutrality” (75–76). In an era when it is fashionable literally to destroy reminders of the past, his call for charity toward the historical subjects is refreshing (79–80).

The author’s connection of Reformed orthodoxy to the broader (catholic) Christian tradition is much appreciated. The Reformed, beginning with Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531), were fascinated by the Fathers. They studied them and produced editions of the Fathers. The modern study of Patristics is often traced to seventeenth-century Reformed figures. They were, as McGraw observes, also well read in the medievals—and good for McGraw for discussing Polanus, who is also a neglected figure (141–44).4

I very much appreciate his courage in sticking his professional neck out, as it were, to call attention to the difficulties inherent in the adjective “Puritan” (187, et seq). There is much more that could be said by way of commendation, but I hope these notes will encourage readers to take up this book for themselves. The following observations, quibbles, and reservations take a little longer to explain, but they should not be taken as a discouragement to the reader.

Observations, Quibbles, and Reservations

General Observations

Let me begin with some general patterns that emerged during my reading of this work. At times the tone struck me as remarkably casual. For example, the author recounts a number of personal anecdotes and personal conversations. In this way it almost reads like the work of a long-retired professor emeritus who no longer cares about academic conventions. This is not a criticism but an observation about what might be a generational shift in the way scholars write.5

One other generational observation might help students. Scholars try (or ought to try) to balance the one (that which unifies) and the many (that which distinguishes). Since perhaps the early 1990s, after the work of the French postmodernists washed over the English-speaking world (in translation), the tide turned from universals (the one) to the particulars (the many). This work seems very much on the side of particulars. We see this in the author’s two discussions of Wilhelmus a Brakel’s discomfort with the distinction between the visible and invisible church (e.g., 31, 190–92). His passing comments regarding minority views of the atonement may also confuse inexperienced readers. The diversity of views on the atonement among theologians should be understood in light of the consensus confessed by the Reformed churches at the Synod of Dort, by the Westminster Assembly, and in the Savoy Declaration (22).6

Muller and Reformed Orthodoxy and Scholasticism

When I began my academic study of Reformed orthodoxy, my tutor, John Platt, gave me two words of advice: “Read Muller.”7 For those without experience with English understatement, he meant, “Read everything Muller has published.” So I did. Thus, I am struck by the relative absence of Richard Muller’s work in this volume. To be sure, there are many citations and references to Muller’s work, but I could not help but notice the absence of any reference to James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller’s Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources.8 This work is essential for students of historical theology generally and of Reformed orthodoxy specifically. It further struck me that, in his discussion of books and publishers students should consult (52–59), Muller’s work generally was not front and center (though its influence is obvious to those who know Muller’s work). I especially expected to see students directed more plainly to Muller’s monumental (and we hope growing) Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.9 This series is essential for any student of the history of Reformed theology and especially of the classical period of Reformed orthodoxy.

The author’s passing comment that the Second Helvetic Confession “continues to be used by Reformed churches today” is intriguing (44). The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) includes it in their Book of Confessions. This reader would like to know what other communions are actively using the Second Helvetic.

Regular readers of this space will not be surprised to see me object to the author’s casual inclusion of “the London Baptist Confession” (which one?) among “historic Reformed confessions” (5). I understand that my resistance to this classification is a minority position, but it seems that a scholar of Reformed scholasticism would be well aware that, as friendly as some (e.g., John Owen) might have been with some in the emerging Particular Baptist movement, and notwithstanding the limited degree of cooperation that existed between the Reformed and the Baptists in London in the seventeenth century,10 the Reformed theologians and churches of the classical period did not regard even the Particular Baptist churches as Reformed. To impute the adjective Reformed to churches and confessions that reject essential aspects of the Reformed confession seems like the very sort of anachronism about which McGraw himself rightly warns us (76–77).11 There is, after all, a reason why Featley was asked to reply to the Baptists from jail.12

Notes

  1. See “Muller Bibliography Chronologically Ordered.” McGraw’s volume is oriented, obviously, to Reformed scholasticism but that movement was a subset of a wider and integrally related movement, Reformed orthodoxy. Since the author addresses a wide arrange of writers, some of whom were in the academy and some who were not or not continuously, I will speak of Reformed orthodoxy.
  2. See R. Scott Clark, “HT611 Reformed Scholasticism.”
  3. Readers might also benefit from knowing about the existence of the Digital Library of Classic Protestant Texts (DLCP), which provides ASCII text versions of source documents and allows topical and word searches, a function unavailable in other resources. The DLCP is a subscription product available to academic institutions.
  4. McGraw indicates that he has been translating Polanus’ Syntagma but does not indicate whether he intends to publish it.
  5. A more casual approach to academic writing is not entirely new. The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been writing this way for thirty years. John Frame also writes in this style.
  6. Cf., R. Scott Clark, “Unconditional Atonement.” See the Second Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort; Westminster Confession 8.5; Savoy Declaration, chapter 8.
  7. J. E. Platt, Reformed Thought and Scholasticism: The Arguments for the Existence of God in Dutch Theology, 1575–1650 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1982); John E. Platt, “The Denial of the Innate Idea of God in Dutch Remonstrant Theology From Episcopius to van Limborch,” in Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark, Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle, UK: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999), 213–26.
  8. James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources. 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016).
  9. 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: Baker Academics, 2003).
  10. I am thinking of Crawford Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 151–54, where he describes Owen’s cooperation with Baptists in the examination of ministers. This cooperation, however, did not prevent him from confessing the Reformed view of the history of redemption and baptism in the 1658 Savoy Declaration, which includes what is possibly and perhaps likely a rebuke of the Baptist rejection of infant baptism in 29.4–5.
  11. I am well aware that Richard Muller has sometimes classed the Particular Baptists among the Reformed. For all my admiration of and debt to Muller, I cannot see how such a judgment can be defended on historical grounds.
  12.  R. Scott Clark, “Featley: The Sweet Dipper (part 4).” See also R. Scott Clark, “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Cribben, and Caughey,” in Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over a Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018), 69–89; R. Scott Clark, “Baptists, The Definition of Reformed, and Identity Politics” (part 3).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Ryan M. McGraw, Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology (London and New York: T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2019)

You can find the whole series here. 


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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2 comments

  1. 2nd Helvetic Confession: confessed & paired with the Heidelberg Catechism by the Magyar Reformed, including that somewhat puzzling, almost-orthodox body know as the Calvin synod of the United Church of Christ

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