After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition

By Richard A. Muller
Oxford : Oxford University (2003). 275 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
16.1 (Spring 2005) : 170-171

This book, part of the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series, is made up of eleven interrelated essays devoted to a defense of the post-Reformation scholastics. Muller believes that there is much more continuity between humanism, the Reformation, and Reformed scholasticism than most scholars have taught in the past. The first half of the book argues this thesis directly, and the second half illustrates it historically. It has interesting case studies of Francis Turretin’s theological method, the scholastics wrestling with the problem of the vowel points of biblical Hebrew, Herman Witsius’ and Wilhelmus a Brakel’s advancement of the covenant of works, and Henry Ainsworth’s development of Protestant exegesis in the early seventeenth century.

Richard Muller, the P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has often promoted the continuity thesis in his past works. He grants that the scholastics in the post- Reformation era were academicians and thus wrote more in an academic style than did the pastor-theologians, like John Calvin, of the Reformation. He admits, “The early orthodox phase of Protestant theology did bring about an important change in the forms and patterns of thought; indeed what occurred at the hands of men like Bartholomaus Keckermann was a formalization, a strict patterning, even a rationalization of the Reformation” (133). But Muller believes that to emphasize significant differences in the content of the theology of the first generation Reformers and the scholastics is a major error of historical interpretation.

Moreover, Muller thinks that scholars have often overemphasized the differences between the Reformed scholastics and the Reformed pietists. Two orthodox Reformed theologians, for example, “often remembered for their dexterity in the use of scholastic method, William Perkins and Gisbertus Voetius, also inspired the great development of Reformed piety in the seventeenth century” (31). Muller, however, does acknowledge that among the Reformed, “it is far less easy than among the Lutherans to draw a firm line between scholasticism and pietism”(91).

Muller also argues that “much to the discomfiture of those who identify ‘scholasticism’ and ‘humanism’ as neatly designed and utterly separate pigeon holes into which to thrust recalcitrant historical subjects, ‘Renaissance humanism’ appears to be one of the sources of ‘Protestant scholasticism’” (33). These essays therefore serve to defend the post-Reformation scholastics against charges of being overly rationalistic, philosophical, proof-texters, different from the Reformers, and medieval. In Muller’s opinion, “the claims made by the modern theologians” against the scholastics “are either utterly wrong and undocumentable or they are simplistic in the extreme” (49).

It is evident that Muller knows the primary Reformation and scholastic sources thoroughly and has also meticulously researched the modern-day interpreters of these primary sources. Some of his insights are pertinent to the modern-day theological scene. After reading these essays, for example, it would be most difficult to argue that Reformers held to a doctrine of Scripture akin to neo-orthodoxy, but that the scholastics, though producing “a more rigid doctrine” of inspiration (155) invented the orthodox doctrine of inerrancy. Both Reformers and scholastics were orthodox. No such discontinuity in bibliology existed.

Another helpful insight is Muller’s analysis of the scholastics’ (William Perkins, Francis Turretin, et. al.) use of the term, “science,” to describe theology. Unlike nineteenth and twentieth-century evangelical and Reformed theologians, the scholastics used “science” in its classic sense. “The rise of modern science was certainly evident in the seventeenth century, but the term scientia had not yet been restricted to the empirical and inductive disciplines. It still indicated a disciplined body of knowledge resting on evident principles” (138).

One might question the continuity thesis in a couple of points. Methodology sometimes turns theology in a slightly different direction. In this reviewer’s opinion, the Reformed scholastics tended to stress some doctrines, such as limited atonement, much more than did Calvin himself, for example. Moreover, Muller tries to convince the reader that developed covenant theology was not an answer to the problem of “determinism brought about by the doctrine of predestination” (99). But covenant theology certainly is paraded as a solution to the problem of a super-sovereign, arbitrary God in the writings of the English and American Puritans, including the Westminster Confession itself.

The serious student of historical theology will learn much from a Reformation and post-Reformation specialist like Muller. The historical insights in the book are worth the effort spent reading these essays.