Painting by number: it’s easy, it’s simple. While this simplified method of painting may work as an introduction to painting, it does not work in assessing history. God made the world far too complicated a place for that. Accordingly, one common conception about the Reformation and the succeeding generations of Protestant theologians is that the Reformation was largely an unsystematic theological revolt, while the succeeding generations of theologians were engaged in the organization of vast and detailed theological systems. Oversimplifications like this place problems in nice, neat boxes. We like such boxes. This post will try to show that the Reformation/post-Reformation boxes are not quite so neat and tidy.

It is true that, at least in theological terms, the Reformation period tended toward a theological revolt. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and all the first-generation Reformers were sounding out answers to the problems they found in the Medieval Christianity they inherited. The second-generation Reformers (e.g., John Calvin, Philip Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger) carried on the work of their predecessors and tried further to establish and expand the Reformation.

How about some dates? Luther died in 1546 and Calvin in 1564. If we date the close of the Reformation and the opening of the era of so-called Protestant orthodoxy[1] between these dates, we can say the period runs from ca. 1550 to ca. 1700. What distinguishes the Reformed theologians and teachers of this later period from the theologians of the Reformation? One common answer is that it is the systematizing impulse which distinguishes the later period of Orthodoxy/Scholasticism from the former period of the Reformation. The Reformers, it is claimed, did not feel the same need to systematize or organize all their vast doctrinal knowledge, while the Reformed Schoolmen in the period of Orthodoxy did.

It is true that the Orthodox/Scholastic statements of theology were more systematic than those of the Reformers; it would be an error, however, to suppose  that the Reformers did not also have a systematic impulse. For example, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (first published in 1536 and arranged into its final form in 1559) is certainly a systematic theology, but it is organized around the Apostles’ Creed. What is undeniable, at any rate, is Calvin’s attempt to bring together all of Christian teaching into an ordered, systematic whole. This is the systematizing impulse, and it is present in the heat of the Reformation.

While Calvin chose the famous Apostles’ Creed as an organizing principle for his Institutes, the Orthodox tended to group theological ideas together under specific heads or places (singular: locus; plural: loci). This method is far more efficient for classroom teaching, as it consolidates all discussion of a particular topic in a single area. For example, to understand Francis Turretin’s doctrine of Scripture, one need only look to a single chapter or locus: the one on Scripture. In Calvin, on the other hand, one finds three separate areas of the Institutes that deal specifically with his doctrine of Scripture.

Organization by loci, however, does not distinguish the Reformation from the period of Orthodoxy. Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s protégé, published his famous Loci communes theologici in 1521. Melanchthon organized his systematic treatment of Christian doctrine under places, or loci, in the same way that the Orthodox were later to do. “Thus,” in Richard Muller’s words, “as of 1521, barely four years after the Ninety-Five Theses, we find a systematizing or doctrinal impulse at the heart of the Reformation” (PRRD, 1:49).

We therefore conclude that the common conception mentioned above in the first paragraph, the paint-by-numbers assessment of Reformation and following age of Orthodoxy is simply inaccurate. Analysis emphasizing continuities and discontinuities between the Reformation and the succeeding generations is far more satisfactory, as it better accounts for the date. False dilemmas are just as destructive in historical analysis as they are elsewhere.

[1] The period of Protestant Orthodoxy / Scholasticism (used interchangeably) was one of careful theological development and refinement. Sometimes the Scholastics are called “Schoolmen,” as their emphasis was teaching theology in schools (hence the name Scholastics). For a helpful single volume of essays see Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark, eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1999). Of course, Muller’s majestic four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (or simply PRRD) is a treasure-trove.

Tim Prussic

Aside from his dashing good looks, consistent fresh breath, and rapier wit, Tim's a normal, likeble guy... and a good spellr.

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