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Protestant Scholasticism

A. The Theology of Puritanism


Despite Elizabeth's efforts to unify the people of England, some did not think the spirit of the Reformation had gone far enough. The Puritans, as they came to be called, did not believe Elizabeth's attempt at compromise (Via Media ) was sufficient. Elizabeth's settlement "was based on the assumption that while Christian doctrine is found only in the Bible, such secondary matters as liturgy and Church organization may be imposed by the earthly Christian ruler" (Peter Toon, Puritans and Calvinism, 12).

Puritanism in its initial form, therefore, was the reaction of many Protestants to the proposed "middle ground" of Elizabeth. They were persuaded that the church needed to be purified of every last vestige of RC influence. The use of vestments, the sign of the cross, confirmation, the use of such words as "priest" and "absolution", kneeling for communion, god-parents in baptism, etc., were evidence to them of Rome's lingering influence. They called for the removal of these "rags of popery" and a return to biblical simplicity. They also felt the Prayer Book did not place sufficient emphasis on preaching of the Word. They also called for more strict application of church discipline.

In brief, "for their biblically-enlightened consciences the essential rock of offence was the large measure of continuity with the Roman Catholic past which persisted in the ministry and government of the church as well as in its liturgy and church furnishings" (Toon, 12).

Among the distinguishing characteristics of the Puritans are:

(1) A practical as well as theological commitment to Sola Scriptura

J. I. Packer writes:

"They were patient, thorough, and methodical in searching the Scriptures . . . And their knowledge was no mere theoretical orthodoxy. They sought to 'reduce to practice' (their own phrase) all that God taught them. They yoked their consciences to his word, disciplining themselves to bring all activities under the scrutiny of Scripture, and to demand a theological, as distinct from a merely pragmatic, justification for everything that they did" (A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life [Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990], 29).

(2) A desire for a reformed and purified national church of England

Again, Packer's summation is helpful:

"The Puritan goal was to complete what England's Reformation began: to finish reshaping Anglican worship, to introduce effective church discipline into Anglican parishes, to establish righteousness in the political, domestic, and socio-economic fields, and to convert all Englishmen to a vigorous evangelical faith. Through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and the sanctifying of all arts, sciences, and skills, England was to become a land of saints, a model and paragon of corporate godliness, and as such a means of blessing to the world. Such was the Puritan dream as it developed under Elizabeth, James, and Charles, and blossomed in the Interregnum, before it withered in the dark tunnel of persecution between 1660 (Restoration) and 1689 (Toleration)" (28-29).

(3) A sense they were living in the last days (they believed God's judgment was on the RCC; they lived in expectation of the soon return of Christ; both pre- and post-millennialists were found among them)

(4) A stress on conversion and personal piety

Edward Hindson, in Introduction to Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), writes:

"The genius of Puritan theologians was that they were preachers first and theological writers secondly. Their written works were mainly edited versions of their sermons. Because of their emphasis upon application of doctrine to the Christian life, their writings generally came to be designated as 'practical divinity.' They were not 'ivory-tower' theologians, but preachers of God's grace who were determined to meet the needs of men" (Hindson, 20).

(5) A stress on the perpetual validity of the moral law of God (10 commandments especially)

There is throughout virtually all Puritan literature a strong denunciation of any form of antinomianism.

(6) A strict Sabbatarianism

The protestant reformers had focused on the typological and therefore temporary significance of the fourth commandment, according to which the Sabbath was a shadow that found its fulfillment and substance in the soul’s rest in Christ’s work. They still acknowledged the principle of one day’s physical rest in seven as a law of creation. The Puritans went a step further and insisted that the Sabbath was no less a part of the eternal and abiding moral law of God than were the other nine commandments. For them the Sabbath was to be studiously kept, not as a day of leisure or sloth or neglect, but as an opportunity to pursue the business of God’s kingdom. Careful preparation was to be made, both physically and spiritually, for its observance (e.g., go to bed early on Saturday so that maximal energy will be availabe for the spiritual labors of the Lord’s Day).

(7) A general adherence to Reformed Calvinism

This entailed far more than merely a commitment to the well-known and controversial “five points of Calvinism.” The Puritan vision of life and church was thoroughly and decidedly theocentric. The focus was on the sovereignty of God in all of life, his providential oversight of human history, and the majesty of his kingly rule.

(8) A stress on the daily mortification of sin

The Puritans were remarkably disciplined. They kept diaries of their thoughts and actions. They would write an account of their day, what they had thought and why and what they had done and why. They would list their sins, ask forgiveness, and plot out the best way in which to avoid such sin tomorrow. This daily diary was a thankful statement of God's goodness as well as an acknowledgment of personal sin and failure.

(9) An integrated view of life

Packer explains:

"As their Christianity was all-embracing, so their living was all of a piece. Nowadays we would call their lifestyle holistic: all awareness, activity, and enjoyment, all 'use of the creatures' and development of personal powers and creativity, was integrated in the single purpose of honouring God by appreciating all his gifts and making everything 'holiness to the Lord'. There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation, so far as they were concerned, was sacred, and all activities, of whatever kind, must be sanctified, that is, done to the glory of God" (23-24).

(10) A profound commitment to what they believed was true Scriptural worship. The Lutheran tradition, followed by Anglicanism, essentially allowed in worship whatever was not explicitly prohibited by Scripture, assuming of course that it was deemed effective and profitable. The Calvinist tradition, adopted by most Puritans, insisted that nothing was to be employed or practiced that did not have explicit biblical sanction.

B. Varieties of Puritanism

One wing within Puritanism sought to bring about reform within the church. These were called Conformists. Those who felt it necessary to separate entirely from the national church were called Separatists or Non-Conformists.

1. Conformists

a. Presbyterianism - Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) was the principal leader. Presbyterianism did not significantly impact the Puritan movement until the Westminster Assembly (1643-49).


b. Congregationalism - Henry Jacob (1563-1624) contended that each church was free to choose its own pastor, to determine its own policies and manage its own affairs. The culmination of congregationalism came with the rise to power of Oliver Cromwell.


2. Separatists

Initially under the leadership of John Smith (at Gainsborough) and William Brewster, John Robinson, William Bradford, and Robert Browne (at Scrooby), the separatists were forced to flee to Holland in 1608 and eventually gave rise to the movement which sailed for America in 1620 in the Mayflower.

C. The Puritan Struggle Continued

1. James I - He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's half-sister. When Elizabeth died childless, James, next male in the royal line and already king in his native Scotland, marched to London where he was crowned King of England.

The Puritans immediately presented him with the Millenary Petition (so called because it had a thousand signatures), asking for moderate changes in the Church of England. James was not inclined to meet their demands but did agree to a conference which met in January, 1604, at Hampton Court. The only victory for the Puritans was James commissioning a new translation of the Bible. After two years and nine months of work, the famous King James Bible was released.

2. Charles I - James' son who took the throne in 1625. By now many Puritans had given up home of reform in England and had fled for America. With the appointment (1633) of William Laud (an outspoken Arminian) as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Puritan cause was threatened.

3. The English Civil War (1642-46) and Oliver Cromwell

4. The Westminster Assembly and Confession of Faith - During the period when the Puritans were in control of Parliament, the latter commissioned the Westminster Assembly to compose a confessional statement in tune with the Presbyterian polity of the majority of those in the legislative body. It convened on July 1, 1643, and held 1163 daily sessions between 1643 and 1649. The Confession of Faith, the Assembly's most important achievement, was completed in 1646 and adopted by the Scottish church in 1647 and the English in 1648.

5. The Act of Uniformity (May 1662) - Following the long and tumultuous interregnum, Charles II (a Roman Catholic) was recalled to the throne. This Act, among other things, prohibited the meetings of Puritans. Among those persecuted at this time were John Bunyan (Pilgrim's Progress) and John Milton. It was not until the Catholic James II was driven from England by the Protestant William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 that toleration was again granted to the Puritans.


D. The Calvinist-Puritan Tradition in America

To the surprise of many, the history of America up to the Revolutionary War is the history of Calvinism. Winfield Burggraaf, in The Rise and Development of Liberal Theology in America, writes:

"The first theology in America bore the unmistakable stamp of the person and teaching of John Calvin. The absolute sovereignty of God in all of human affairs was not only maintained theoretically . . . but was in reality the cornerstone upon which colonial statecraft as well as domestic life was based and upon which the stately structure of Puritan life was erected" (1).

1. The Pilgrims (Separatist Puritans)

The Pilgrims were separatists who had refused to remain within the Anglican church of England. Under the leadership of John Robinson they left England and settled in Holland where they remained for 10 years. They received a grant of land in northern Virginia but contrary winds landed them on the shores of New England in 1620.

a. John Robinson served as pastor of the Pilgrims in Leiden, Holland. He was a strict Calvinist who adhered to the Synod of Dort. Robinson was active in opposition to the influence of Arminianism in Holland. He died in 1625 in Holland before he could join in his congregation in the new world.


b. In order to deter anarchy and in the absence of a either a charter or legal right to the land, the Pilgrims drew up the Mayflower Compact which would serve as the basis for their government for many years. William Brewster and William Bradford, who assisted Robinson in leading the Pilgrims, were also both strong Calvinists.


2. The Puritans

The Puritans were English Calvinists who, while agreeing with the Pilgrims on matters of salvation, differed over the issue of ecclesiastical separation. They desired reform within the Anglican church rather than separation from it. Their journey to the new world was prompted by the absolutism of the king, Charles I, and the Arminianism of his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.

The major departure took place in the years 1628-30, and by 1640 more than 20,000 had reached the shores of New England. The colony they initiated at Massachusetts Bay was both larger and better equipped for survival than that of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. That their motive for emigration was purely religious is seen in that after 1640, when the Long Parliament removed Charles and Laud from power, the stream of new settlers dried up.

The Puritans remained loyal to England. They longed only for a commonwealth which would give expression to their Calvinistic world-and-life view. The founder of the Salem colony, Francis Higginson, thus spoke as the ship set sail for the new world:

"We do not go to New England as Separatists from the Church of England, though we cannot but separate from the corruptions of it; but we go to practice the positive part of Church reformation, and to propagate the Gospel in America."


Among the more prominent Puritans in America were:

a. John Endicott - the first governor of the colony and a strong Calvinist.


b. John Winthrop (1588-1649) -followed Endicott as governor and, like him, was a vocal Calvinist.


c. Roger Williams - proceeded to America after conferring with John Cotton and Thomas Hooker (1631). He placed radical emphasis on separation of church and state. He was forced to leave Boston and later was expelled from Salem by the General Court of Massachusetts (1636). He later founded the colony of Rhode Island which soon became a haven for religious dissidents. Williams was a devout Baptist and Calvinist.


Be it noted that the Puritans did not come to America to establish a nation in which religious tolerance could flourish. They often persecuted and expelled the unorthodox.

d. Thomas Hooker - was the founder of Connecticut; he was a former minister in England and graduate of Cambridge, and like his fellow Puritans, a Calvinist.


e. John Cotton - was pastor of the first church in Boston. Cotton Mather wrote of him: "He was a walking library, a universal scholar, an indefatigable student, the Cato of his age for his gravity, but having a glory with it which Cato had not." It is said of him that he loved "to sweeten his mouth with a piece of Calvin before he went to sleep". He was an extremely successful and popular pastor.


f. John Davenport - was founder of the New Haven colony. According to Monsma, he was "as radical a Calvinist as could be found on New England soil" (What Calvinism has done for America, 115).


Hooker, Cotton, and Davenport had been asked to attend the Westminster Assembly in England in 1643 to help write the Confession of Faith. They were all later involved in a Synod that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in September of 1648 where the following resolution was passed:

"This synod having perused and considered (with much gladness of heart and thankfulness to God) the Confession of Faith published by the late Reverend Assembly in England, do judge it to be very holy, orthodox, and judicious, in all matters of faith, and do therefore freely and fully consent thereunto for the substance thereof."


The resolution takes exception to the Westminster Confession only in the area of ecclesiology (the Puritans were Congregationalists).

The early American colonists, therefore, were Calvinists who affirmed both the findings of the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly. In 1691 the Plymouth (Pilgrims) and Massachusetts Bay Colonies (Puritans) united. By 1776 there were some 800 churches of Calvinist heritage in New England alone.

E. Other Calvinist Emigrants

1. The Dutch Reformed

The earliest settlement of Dutch Reformed was made by people of the Netherlands under the auspices of the Dutch West Indies Co. The early director was Peter Minuit, a Dutch minister who was instrumental in the founding of what was later to become New York City. He was also responsible for the purchase of Manhattan Island from the Indians for $24!

The Dutch Reformed were highly influenced by the Synod of Dort. By 1700 there some 1,200 Dutch Calvinist families in New York and by 1750 there were 1,700.

2. The French Huguenots

These were the Calvinists of France who sought to escape the persecutions of Louis XIV (1658-59). By the time the Edict of Nantes had been revoked (1685), some 500,000 French Calvinists had fled to America, Prussian, England, and Germany. In America they settled primarily in Virginia and the Carolinas and eventually merged with the Dutch and German reformed churches.

3. The German Reformed

Between 1690-1777 some 200,000 emigrated to America. Many were actually Huguenots by ancestry whose forefathers had fled to Germany after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Others came from France to Germany after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The only permanent settlements of German reformed were in New York and Pennsylvania. William Penn invited them to make the latter state their home. The first congregation was organized at Germantown in 1719. By 1794 the denomination had some 180 churches with 40,000 members.

4. The Scots-Irish

These were the religious heirs of John Knox and introduced established Presbyterianism to America. Francis Makemie organized the first presbytery in 1706 in Philadelphia and the first synod in 1716.

It has been estimated that, by 1776, of the @ 3 million people in America, 2 million were of Calvinistic heritage.

The history of theology in America up to the time of the Revolution is largely the history of the demise of Calvinistic influence. The Arminian opposition grew steadily. Unitarianism made significant inroads. After the Great Awakening, and in particular the death of Jonathan Edwards, the influence of Reformed theology subsided.

F. The Theology of Protestant Scholasticism

Protestant Scholasticism/Orthodoxy has longed been viewed as an era of theological systematization and spiritual stagnation following the vibrant creativity of the 16th century reformers. In the years following the reformation (principally, 1559-1622), Calvinists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics found themselves occupying the same geographical territory and competing for the same followers. Each began to feel the pressure to identify itself and explain how it differed from and surpassed its theological rivals. Distinctive doctrinal criteria, logically deduced and carefully articulated, became the principal means by which each group set itself apart from the others. One of the principal catalysts for the development among protestants was the work of the RC Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), whose theological assault on the principles of the reformation required a careful response. According to van Asselt,

“Bellarmine’s offensive was scholastic in nature, so in order to combat him and the other Roman Catholic polemical theologians, use had to be made of the same scholastic apparatus. In the course of this debate an increasingly detailed elaboration of the Protestant theological position came into being” (Willem J. van Asselt, “Scholasticism, Protestant,” in The Dictionary of Historical Theology [Eerdmans, 2000], 513).

As McGrath explains, “the insights of the reformers were codified and perpetuated through the development of a series of systematic presentations of Christian theology” (Historical Theology, 169). On this view, the principal aim of 17th century Reformed (Calvinistic) and Lutheran thinkers was to demonstrate the internal logical consistency and theological coherence of their respective systems.

A number of scholars, such as Brian Armstrong (Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth Century France [Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969], 32), and more recently Alister McGrath (Historical Theology), have identified five characteristics of this approach to theology.

1. Human reason was assigned a major role in the exploration and defense of Christian theology, almost to the point that it assumed an equal standing with faith.

2. Christian theology was presented as a logically coherent and rationally defensible system, derived from syllogistic deductions based upon known axioms. In other words, theology began from first principles, and proceeded to deduce its doctrines on their basis. Armstrong describes it as a theological approach “which asserts religious truth on the basis of deductive ratiocination from given assumptions or principles, thus producing a logically coherent and defensible system of belief” (32).

3. Theology was understood to be grounded upon Aristotelian philosophy, and particularly Aristotelian insights into the nature of method; later Reformed writers are better described as philosophical, rather than biblical theologians.

4. Theology became oriented toward metaphysical and speculative questions, especially relating to the nature of God, God’s will for humanity and creation, and above all the doctrine of predestination” (McGrath, 169). In fact, the doctrine of predestination and the divine decrees in general became the central starting point from which all other truths were either deduced or logically related. Predestination was removed from its subsidiary place within the larger framework of soteriology (where it is found in Calvin’s Institutes) and placed at the head of the theological agenda within the doctrine of God.

5. Protestant orthodoxy embraced the sentiment that “the scriptural record contains a unified, rationally comprehensible account and thus may be formed into a definitive statement which may be used as a measuring stick to determine one’s orthodoxy” (Armstrong, 32).

All of this, it is argued, constitutes a serious and radical divergence and departure from the more biblically sensitive and pastorally oriented theology of the 16th century reformers. Armstrong speaks for many when he concludes that “the strong biblically and experientially based theology of Calvin and Luther had, it is fair to say, been overcome by the metaphysics and deductive logic of a restored Aristotelianism” (32).

Scholars tend to divide protestant scholasticism into three periods:

1) “early” orthodoxy, from 1560-1620;

2) “high” orthodoxy, from 1620-1700;

3) “late” orthodoxy, from 1700-1790.

Among the leading orthodox or scholastic Calvinists are:

Peter Martyr Vermigli (1500-62) – although not technically old enough to qualify as a protestant scholastic, Vermigli’s theology was influential on subsequent developments. He taught for a season at Oxford in England, and eventually in Strasbourg and Zurich.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605) – was the successor to Calvin in Geneva and the head of the Academy there. He is often acknowledged as the first of the great scholastic thinkers.


Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) – early on was influenced by Melancthon but later was a faithful exponent of Calvin’s doctrine of election. Together with Caspar Olevianus, he authored the Heidelberg Catechism.

Jerome Zanchi (1516-90) – associated with Vermigli; taught OT at Strasbourg.

Francis Gomarus (1563-1641) – generally acknowledged as one of the most outspoken Calvinists in all of Europe; appointed professor at the University of Leiden in 1594, he heatedly debated with James Arminius in the final years of the latter’s life. He was a delegate to the Synod of Dort.

William Ames (1576-1633) – born in England; studied under William Perkins; moved to Holland and attended the Synod of Dort where he was a paid consultant to the president. His volume, The Marrow of Theology, is regarded as one of the finest expressions of Calvinistic and covenant theology ever written and had a profound impact on the Puritanism of New England.

William Perkins (1558-1602) – one of the finest exponents of English Puritan theology; a combatant of Arminius and famous for The Golden Chain of Salvation.

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) – studied under Gomarus at Leiden; was a delegate to the Synod of Dort and taught theology at the University of Utrecht.

Francis Turretin (1623-87) – was certainly the most famous of all Reformed scholastics; taught at the Academy of Geneva for thirty years and authored The Institutes of Elenctic [a logical refutation of an opposing view, often in the form of a syllogism, leading to a positive statement of truth] Theology (now available in three volumes from P & R).

Peter van Mastricht (1630-1706) – had a profound influence on the theology of Jonathan Edwards; ended his career as professor of theology at Utrecht.

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) – taught theology at Utrecht and Leiden.

John Owen (1616-83) – not technically a protestant scholastic, Owen was the greatest of all English puritan thinkers

Leading Lutheran orthodox scholars include:

Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586) – a student of Melancthon’s, he is regarded by some as “after Luther, the most important theologian in the history of the Lutheran Church” (Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism [St. Louis: Concordia, 1970], 49).


Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) – became professor of theology at Jena in 1616 and remained there until his death. “To Gerhard belongs the dubious distinction of bringing Aristotelian terminology and distinctions to the aid of Lutheran dogmatics” (Preus, 53).


Abraham Calov (1612-1686) – is considered the most brilliant and influential Lutheran theologian of the so-called “silver” age of orthodoxy.


John Andrew Quenstedt (1617-1688) – spent his entire career as professor at the University of Wittenberg. “There is no question that after the Loci Theologici of Chemnitz and Gerhard (who was his uncle) the Systema of Quenstedt ranks as the greatest dogmatics book ever written by a Lutheran” (Preus, 62).


More recently, following the lead of Richard Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary), students of protestant scholasticism are beginning to question the accuracy of this portrayal. Muller makes the following corrective suggestions to the traditional model:


(1) It is no longer cogent to insist on a dichotomy between the theology of the 16th century reformers and their 17th century heirs. The latter assuredly refined and adapted the theology of the former, but there is far more substantive continuity than discontinuity.


(2) Contrary to what some have argued, the doctrine of God (essence and attributes) among protestant scholastics was grounded in biblical exegesis, not merely philosophical or logical speculations about what seemed reasonable.


(3) The “scholasticism” of protestant orthodoxy was an issue, not of content, but of theological method designed to facilitate academic argument. Yet rarely, if at all, was human reason or deductive logic given a prominence above biblical authority. The Reformed scholastics, notes Muller,


“certainly sought to formulate a logically or rationally defensible body of doctrine, but they sought also to formulate a body of doctrine defensible in the light of the best exegetical results of that time and in the light of the catholic tradition to which they laid claim. Rational argumentation never displaced exegetical interest – indeed, the most scholastic of seventeenth-century Protestant theologians would assume that the defensibility of their theology was grounded in its intimate relationship with exegesis” (“Calvin and the ‘Calvinists’: Assessing Continuities and Discontinuities Between the Reformation and Orthodoxy,” in Calvin Theological Journal, Part One, 30 [1995]:368).


If there was an appeal to the use of syllogisms and deductive logic, they belonged either to the exposure of an adversary’s error or to the practice of drawing conclusions from biblical texts, “not to any attempt to deduce an entire theological system from a single principle or ‘central dogma’” (368). The scholastic enterprise, notes Muller, “assumed the necessity of drawing out, debating, and as far as possible, resolving apparent disagreements between theology and philosophy” (Part Two, 31 [1996]:126).


(4) The protestant scholastics were not “rationalists,” as has been charged. Rationalism is the predominant use of reason in the study of theology or philosophy that claims to resolve questions on the basis of logical coherence apart from appeal to the authority of divine revelation. Reason was certainly an instrument employed by the orthodox (as it is by all, whether they recognize it or not), but it was never given a principial role or elevated above biblical authority. It is important to differentiate between rationalism, which is a matter of philosophical conviction, and scholasticism, which is a matter of methodology.


(5) If Reformed scholastics were predestinarian (and they were), it was not because of their theological method but because of their convictions concerning the meaning of the biblical text. There is no intrinsic relationship between the use of the scholastic method and a predestinarian theology. Arminius, it may be noted, was methodologically scholastic!


(6) If one identifies discontinuities between the Reformed scholastic and John Calvin (and there aren’t many), this does not necessarily indicate discontinuity between the former and the Reformation itself. Calvin was not the sole progenitor of the Reformed faith. He was but one of several significant second generation exponents of Reformation thought. Moreover, simply in terms of genre, the Institutes can hardly be compared with the systematic theologies of the scholastic period. Even among the latter there was hardly the theological uniformity that many have simply assumed to have existed.