Liberal, ahistorical Scholastics?

Leithart comments:

In a Mars Hill Audio interview, Ellen Charry observes that the Protestant theologians of the seventeenth century, even before the Enlightenment, had a tendency to detach truth from historical reference. The truth of theology was seen in the coherence of the system of truth found in Scripture, rather than a truth of reference to historical events.

Charry’s comment was a passing one, no doubt a drastic oversimplification. Protestant scholastics, after all, defended the historical reliability of Scripture as well as its systematic coherence. But, the comment seems worthy of investigation, since it might provide a historical link between Protestant scholasticism and the development of liberal theology.

Maybe there is some truth to this claim, especially since “the Protestant theologians of the seventeenth century” (no reference to confessional position, orthodoxy, etc.) is a pretty wide generalization. I didn’t listen to the interview, and like Leithart noted, it was a passing comment.

That said, there are important nuances to this idea. If by “Protestant theologians of the seventeenth century” one is referring to Reformed Scholastics like Cocceius, Voetius, Brakel, Turretin, Owen, or Witsius, then qualifications should be noted. These qualifications follow in patterns that we, and Charry?, may not quickly set upon. First, the scholastics (and Protestant scholastic era) were some of the best with historically-referent theology, and secondly, despite their connections with history, some of these theologians were quickest into the liberal slide.

The perception of Reformed Scholastics, especially during the period of High Orthodoxy (which according to Muller was smack dab in the middle of the seventeenth century, 1630 – 1700), is that they had a rigidly dogmatic theology which was wholly intellectualized as a rationally-coherent system. This certainly does sound like Charry’s claim of “a tendency to detach truth from history.” But surprisingly, many of the theologians of this era were very sensitive to the ebb and flow of history in their methodology, especially those writers who emphasized covenant and redemptive-historical (anachronism!) theology. True, writers like Voetius and perhaps Turretin may be more or less “pure dogmaticians,” writing in a systematic manner that relied more on the loci communes of a previous era than anything “tied to history.” But the Reformed Scholastics, and especially the writers of the High Orthodox period, were known for their covenant theology.

As most contemporary Reformed fanboys will tell you, covenant theology can trace its roots back to the patristic age, thanks to Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Clement. But everyone agrees that the covenant theology of today really came into its own through the development of the Reformed scholastics as they stood on the shoulders of men like Bucer, Vermigli, Calvin and Bullinger. Cocceius especially, of all these theologians, jump-started exploring theology as it was “tied to history” in his Summa Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei (1648). Witsius wrote a dissertation on the Apostles’ Creed following a very traditional, “systematic theology” layout, yet also penned his famous Economy of the Covenants, where he examines the unfolding of doctrine along the lines of redemptive history. Owen penned Biblical Theology to go along with his Works. Brakel wrote dogmatically, devotionally, and also on the progression of doctrine through covenantal history in his De Redelijke Godsdienst. (Jonathan Edwards would continue this tendency in the Americas with his primarily doctrinal and dogmatic approaches to theology, but attempting, though never completing, his History of the Work of Redemption.)

So despite the tendency to view these Scholastics as mired in rationalism, many of them were at the cutting edge of seeing the sensitive relation between theology and its progression through time and history.

But that isn’t the only un-intuitive deduction in response to Charry’s remarks. Not only were many of the “Protestant theologians of the seventeenth century” concerned to tie their theology to history, but a case can be made that it was especially some of these that introduced a liberalizing principle that eventually gave way to liberal theology. In other words, it wasn’t necessarily those theologians whose concern was “systemic coherence” vs. “truth referencing historical events” that led the way into liberalism, but the exact opposite.

There’s probably no better place to see this than the debate between Voetius and Cocceius. Voetius, the “systemic coherence” guy, the one concerned with preserving “arid,” ahistorical dogma was also (in this case) an ardent promoter of piety. For Voetius, dogmatics were not antithetical to piety, but in fact produced it. It was actually Cocceius’ pedigree that produced the liberalizing tendency, though Cocceius himself was no slouch in personal holiness. Over time, Cocceian influences became indistinguishable from Cartesian principles, and later (sloppier?) thinkers employed both in order to introduce modernity and liberal theology.

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood where Charry was going with her point about detaching truth from history. But hopefully this article has raised some important, and non-intuitive, points as well. Were the Protestant scholastics (entirely) liberal and ahistorical? No! Actually, Reformed scholastics catalyzed biblical and covenant theology, connecting theology to (redemptive) history. And actually, it was Cocceians, not Voetias, who tended toward liberalizing principles and whose followers embrace Cartesianism and the roots of modernity/liberalizing tendencies.

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