In this post I am interviewing my colleague Matthew Barrett about his new book The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Dr. Barrett is Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He is also the Director of the Center for Classical Theology and the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine.
[TK] The Reformation as Renewal is clearly a monumental new assessment of the Reformation. Why did you write this book?
[MB] John Henry Newman once said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Newman’s accusation is not new but was well-known to the Reformers who were charged with breaking from history and with it, from the church catholic (universal) itself.
Sadly, many Protestants have nodded their heads and taken Newman’s word for it. But I think Newman was mistaken. It’s time Protestants stop settling for such a stereotype. However, instead of writing a polemical book I have written a piece of history. The reason matters: if Protestants have any chance of overcoming Newman’s stereotype, they need to hear the Reformers in their own words.
After ten years working through primary sources, I am convinced we hear a constant chorus from the Reformers: “We are not innovators, but faithful heirs of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” What I found so remarkable in my research, however, was the consistency of that tune across each corner of the Reformation. Reformers as diverse as Luther and Cranmer, Melanchthon and Bucer, Calvin and Bullinger, Zwingli and Jewel, Vermigli and Foxe all insisted they were not betraying catholicity but bringing about its renewal against innovations.
Many scholars have assumed that the Reformers rejected medieval Scholastic theology, especially the work of Thomas Aquinas. But you say that “Scholasticism is the soil in which the Reformation garden grew its roots.” How so?
Yes, the phrase “the Dark Ages” is quite misleading, as if the lights after the early church went out and were not turned back on until the Reformers arrived. And people love to blame “scholasticism” for turning off the lights. This is what I call the “oppositional narrative.” However, historians like Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and Protestant theologians led by David VanDrunen have done detailed work in the primary sources to prove such a narrative is grossly inaccurate.
First, “scholastic” is used by the oppositional narrative as a pejorative term, as if it is synonymous with a rationalistic philosophy that disregards scripture. But scholastic simply refers to a style of lucid learning used in the medieval schools to help students.
Take one example: a teacher in the schools would raise a question on a significant doctrine of the faith. Students gave an answer that (a) relied on the Bible as God’s inspired and authoritative revelation, (b) retrieved the wisdom of the church fathers and the creeds, and (c) summoned reason as a maidservant (not a master) to exegesis and theology alike. The best students attempted to weave together a, b, and c, creating a synthesis to answer old questions and propose new ones to advance the credibility and coherency of the Christian faith.
Yet their goal was also spiritual: they desired to participate in God’s grace so that they could ultimately contemplate him in the beatific vision (1 Jn. 3:2). Therefore, their disposition was one of humble dependency on God’s revelation. They loved the phrase credo ut intelligam—I believe so that I may understand—because they saw faith and reason as a marriage. Scholastics from Anselm to Aquinas would have been horrified if they had lived to see modernism turn that phrase on its head.
The Reformers were medieval men, and many were trained in scholastic styles of learning at European universities. The evidence shows that they did not abandon scholasticism when they turned evangelical, but they continued to utilize its methods for the sake of Reformation.
Furthermore, scholastic distinctions—which valued precision to avoid heresy—were used in abundance. If one knows scholasticism one cannot miss the innumerable uses of its distinctions in Calvin’s Institutes for example, even if the Institutes themselves are written in a different genre. But why stop with Calvin? Scholastic distinctions were used by Luther to refute Erasmus, by Philip Melanchthon to disprove anti-Trinitarians, by Martin Bucer to exegete Romans, by Girolamo Zanchi who formulated a summa theologiae of his own, etc.
By the latter half of the sixteenth century well through the eighteenth century many of their heirs were called “Protestant Scholastics” because they more formally retrieved scholasticism to establish theological education, codify their faith in confessions, frame entire systems of theology, and defend the faith against new heresies like Socinianism.
As for Aquinas, he is another victim of the oppositional narrative. But again, history proves that many of the Reformers and their heirs considered Aquinas the “sounder scholastic,” even an ally. My research has led me to the same conclusion as Steinmetz: “There were Thomists who were converted to the Protestant cause and who remained, to a greater or lesser degree, Thomists all their lives: theologians like Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Jerome (Girolamo) Zanchi.”
Peter Martyr Vermigli has been called a “Calvinist Thomist” because he employed Aquinas to defend Reformed anthropology and reintroduce harmony between faith and reason. Johann Oecolampadius, Zwingli’s ally, was forthright with those in Basel that the metaphysic of late medieval scholastics like Scotus could no longer be trusted and they should locate themselves in the stream of Aquinas instead.
Sometimes reliance on Aquinas was even pastoral: Heinrich Bullinger was not shy to utilize the scholastic in his sermons to substantiate his exegetical work. But a critical appropriation of Thomism was not limited to the Reformed tradition. Lutherans like Melanchthon retrieved Aquinas when he lectured on John’s Gospel.
A trip to the English Reformation reveals William Whitaker’s ironic use of Aquinas to refute his Roman nemesis on the clarity of scripture. Furthermore, their use of Thomism only accelerated with the council of Trent because, as Michael Horton says, the “Reformers actually stand closer to Aquinas than does Trent.” The point is, Protestants did not merely borrow from Aquinas, but with time they considered their program an advancement of Thomism, even its refinement.
I could go on but allow me to be blunt: anyone who says the scholasticism of the Early or High Middle Ages is a strict antithesis with Protestantism does not know what they are talking about. The historical evidence is overwhelming.
Surely the Reformers were rejecting, or significantly revising, some aspects of medieval theology, or there would have been no need for the Reformation. What were some of the key points of disagreement?
The key word in your question is “some.” Sometimes as evangelicals we can so narrow our focus to the polemics of the Reformation that we assume the totality of our faith is limited to those polemics. We do well to remember Richard Muller’s correction. The Reformation “was not an attack upon the whole of medieval theology or upon Christian tradition.” Rather, the Reformation “assaulted a limited spectrum of doctrinal and practical abuses with the intention of reaffirming the values of the historical church catholic.”
What were those abuses (dare we say, innovations)? They concerned specific aspects of soteriology, such as infused versus imputed righteousness in justification, as well as specific components of ecclesiology, like transubstantiation and papal authority. However, the Reformers “did not alter the doctrines of God, creation, providence, and Christ,” doctrines essential to orthodoxy.
Furthermore, even on soteriology their reform was a return to the church catholic. For example, says Muller, “they maintained the Augustinian tradition concerning predestination, human nature and sin.” Even when they disagreed with a scholastic like Aquinas, they nevertheless considered him far closer to their cause due to his Augustinianism than late medieval scholastics who betrayed Augustinianism’s priority of grace.
Who might these latecomers be? Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. They prove to be a major provocation for Luther’s protest in 1517. Luther was trained in Ockham and Biel—the via moderna—thanks to his professors, but when Luther realized their philosophy (voluntarism and nominalism) was driving him towards a soteriology that was Semi-Pelagian at best and Pelagian at worse, Luther abandoned ship and swam for Augustinian shores for rescue.
Luther did not realize it at the time—Biel misled Luther on Aquinas—but his return to core components of Augustinian soteriology was also a return to Thomism. Other Reformers were far more aware, however.
With the advent of Protestant Scholasticism many Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican theologians probed more systematically. They connected the participation metaphysic behind Augustine and Aquinas (realism) to their wider classical Protestant commitments, which led them to further separate themselves from the likes of Scotus, Ockham, and Biel. That common narrative today (Brad Gregory) that blames Protestants for secularism, as if they cut the cord of participation in God and carried the voluntarist-nominalist virus that gave birth to modernism, needs serious reconsideration. With time came a more pronounced Protestant alignment with the Augustinian-Thomistic stream of the church catholic.
Therefore, Muller’s conclusion deserves to be underlined: “The reform of individual doctrines, like justification and the sacraments, occurred within the bounds of a traditional, orthodox, and catholic system which, on the grand scale, remained substantively unaltered.”
What difference would it make in the church today if we understood the Reformation as a renewal rather than a rejection of church tradition?
First, we might see fewer young people leave. When Protestants confuse “reformer” and “radical,” taking on the persona of the latter, many young people despair and start looking for the exit. They want proof that we are not sectarians, but true heirs of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The irony is that those who buck against catholicity in the name of Reformation often row the next generation across the Tiber.
Second, we need to face our own theological incompetency with a Luther-like fear of God rather than man. In the recent Credo colloquy Carl Trueman issued a rebuke: “Protestants today think agreements on soteriology relativizes disagreements on the doctrine of God. We need to rethink that. Fundamental agreements on the doctrine of God need to be our starting point. Church unity cannot simply be built on soteriology. Prior questions on the Trinity and Christology must be up front and central.”
Until Protestants take a stand on God and Christ our claims to catholicity will never be taken seriously. And Newman’s words will haunt us still.
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