"Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology" by Ryan M McGraw - Modern Reformation (2022)

Writing only in 1985, Richard Muller could note an irony that plagued much of modern theology. Faced with new issues and problems brought about by advances in the sciences and philosophy, much of Modern theology had jettisoned its living, traditional form of scholastic theology, opting instead for an “ahistorical” and “de novo” form of school theology, thought to have a much better chance of answering modern questions. The irony of this move, he argued, was that in rejecting what it considered to be an ‘outdated’ traditional school theology—i.e. scholasticism—for the purposes of answering new questions, it severed itself from a rich set intellectual tools and a carefully developed mode of thinking by which the new questions might have been more fully addressed.[1]

In 2020, on the heels of the ressourcement of Protestant scholasticism carried out by Muller, Robert Preus, Antonie Vos, Willem van Asselt, and their many students, we may fairly say that something is afoot in the Protestant theological world. Not something de novo, mind you; it is something much closer to via antinqua. This something has inevitably popped up under different monikers, and it inevitably includes different points of emphasis, views, and assessments. But the baseline commonality is an interest in scholasticism, both in its historical practice and as a contemporary mode of theology.

Perhaps this ought not be too surprising, given historical precedent of this kind of development. It has often been the case in the history of Christian theological education that periods of scholastic refinement in theological discourse have followed on the heels of periods of intense humanist and historically oriented programs of research. This general trend can be seen again in the twentieth century’s several intensely historical movements, in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles, that now, it seems, is being followed by a burgeoning movement of genuine scholastic interest. This interest is still primarily in a historical register, it has to be said. And that is good. For theologians must listen before they speak.

Are we seeing a new generation of Protestant theologians that have listened and are now beginning to speak? Perhaps the irony of Modern theology’s rejection of scholastic theology will soon be more an historical record then a current state of affairs—one can hope, at least.

A recent offering from one of this new generation of scholars is Ryan M. McGraw’s Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology. Typical of McGraw’s works, this study is well organized. He leaves no ambiguity as to his aim for the work: “In summary, this entire book argues implicitly why students should study Reformed scholasticism.” He says implicitly, but his reasons are quite on the surface. With respect to Reformed scholasticism itself, McGraw argues that it “promotes precision and clarity in teaching,” “provides the foundational character of classic Reformed Systematic Theology” and helpfully “provides a model for engaging critically with the entire catholic tradition of the church.” Furthermore, studying scholasticism “enable[s] ministers and seminary professors to translate academic theology into pastoral theology” and “promotes historical methodology,” which in turn aids the pupil in recovery of “Reformed theological method and not merely Reformed theological content.” (see pp. 4-13) These reasons become themes that are variously explored throughout.

One might summarize the whole of the argument this way: Reformed scholasticism is worthy of study, and so we must learn how to study it aright. Part II (chapters 2–5), then, details various aspects of research methodology, and Parts III–IV (chapters 6–11) offer an account of the nature and character of Reformed scholasticism. In the final part, McGraw offers some reflections on contemporary appropriations of Reformed scholasticism.

Though there are other books – arguably, better – for the study of historical method and for the study of Reformed scholasticism, this book helpfully culls those books, and a good deal of the growing body of scholarship on Reformed scholasticism, into a single place, at least in bibliographic form. It serves, then, as a good starting point for those interested in getting a handle on the ever-growing body of scholarship on Reformed scholasticism.

One of the great emphases to come out of the recovery of the Protestant scholastic heritage is that it itself has a rich catholic heritage. I am appreciative that McGraw devotes a few chapters to this theme in Part 3. According to McGraw, for the Reformed scholastics, “Interaction with the catholic Christian tradition was woven into the system of theology” (144). And this, further, was not simply the expression of an ecumenical preference (anyone reading seventeenth century polemical texts will know otherwise). It was, in part, on account of the scholastic method the Reformed employed: “Arguably, the scholastic method coupled with clearly defined confessional boundaries made this kind of catholic critical interaction possible” (149).

With respect to the intended audience—pastors and seminarians primarily (11-12)—it is also helpful, in this reviewer’s view, to include the contemporary appropriations section. Though, I add, it would have been better titled something like “Contemporary Emulations,” insofar as McGraw does not really appropriate any content from Reformed school theology but encourages the reader to practice theology the way the scholastics practiced it: in humility, with thanksgiving, reflection, and perseverance, for the glory of God in service to his church. Good advice.

Nevertheless, and at the risk of merely formulating a list of grievances, I would note a few issues with the book, ranging from the somewhat strange to the somewhat more problematic.

For a book published by T&T Clark, the text reads in many places like lecture notes only hurriedly changed for publication. Third person references (“this author”) are intermingled with reflections on his own progress as a scholar and on personal experiences, some of which go back to McGraw’s undergraduate days. These reflections may well be useful in a classroom setting but seem strange in a book such as this.

There are other strange happenings. Certain things read out of place, as when summarizing the catholicity of the Reformed scholastics (149-151), he includes a paragraph length review of Mathew Levering’s book, Was the Reformation a Mistake. The review is peripherally related to the section at best. Or, when proposing to discuss the monastic model of medieval education (123-124), half of the section is taken up with Luther’s disdain for scholasticism as evidence that monasticism had influence in the early reformation.

And for those readers desiring to know “the primary areas of distinction and overlap” between scholastic and monastic theology in this period will be left quite unsatisfied. Indeed, after proposing to detail those primary areas of distinction and overlap, McGraw simply concludes that “it is easier to state that a monastic model of theology existed than it is to distinguish it fully and clearly from scholastic alternatives” (123). In the end, we learn very little about either.

Some issues strike me as a bit more problematic. The section promisingly titled, “The rise and development of medieval theological education” (ch. 7), for example, is immediately followed by the sentence, “Rather than presenting a detailed analysis of medieval theological education, it is helpful to narrow this treatment by addressing some of the primary areas of distinction and overlap between scholastic and monastic theology in the medieval period” (122). This is somewhat of a disappointment for those intrigued by the title of the section. Even more so, this is followed by (only) a page and a half on “the scholastic model of theology” in which it is claimed that the question animating scholastic theology of this period was whether lecturing on Lombard’s Sententiae took priority over lecturing on the bible, or vice versa (122-123). Such a characterization will strike the historian of medieval scholasticism as bizarre at best.

Or, take the claim that “medieval debates over whether the being of God took priority over the will of God (Aquinas) or vice versa (Duns Scotus) also found their way into Reformed theology, particularly in relation to the necessity of Christ’s atonement” (148). So stated, this claim again is quite misleading. One certainly couldn’t fairly charge Aquinas with holding that God’s being takes priority over his will, nor Scotus with holding the reverse. McGraw is right that certain medieval discussions informed the Reformed debate on the necessity of Christ’s satisfaction. But to characterize that medieval discussion in this way is not merely a simplification, it is oversimplification and so propounds mischaracterizations of both Thomas and Scotus on this point, the broader medieval scholastic discussions, and even the Reformed debate.

At times McGraw seems to think that scholasticism includes both a methodology and at least some content, even citing Richard Muller for “the fact that scholasticism referred primarily to a method of teaching does not preclude the incorporation of ideas from medieval scholastic authors into Reformed theology” (147). So to phrase it rather obscures the issue of defining scholasticism, and it confuses what McGraw had previously, and more correctly, noted: “Post-Reformation Reformed theology and scholasticism are not synonyms. Scholasticism referred decisively to an educational model. As such, scholasticism was a tool, or rather a set of tools, that was most immediately relevant for the purpose of training Reformed pastors” (137).

These issues are not insurmountable problems, much less serious missteps. But they may be the cause of a furrowed brow or a scratch of the head from time to time. And that, I suppose, gets to the central claim of this review. The subtitle of the book indicates a kind of promise, or project at least: that of “recovering the tools of Reformed theology.” Indeed, as McGraw puts the thesis of the book, “The thesis of this work is that students of Reformed theology need to study the scholastic roots of the Reformed orthodox tradition to understand and to build a constructive Reformed theology” (3), and, as noted above, “this entire book argues implicitly why students should study Reformed scholasticism” (10, emphasis mine). Yet, what comes to the fore in the book is that Reformed scholastics studies are currently flourishing and how properly to join that endeavor. Given such a subtitle and thesis, one is left again scratching their head, and could be forgiven for desiring more than a survey of the current scholarship on the Reformed scholastics and an introduction to historical methodology.

In short, McGraw’s book will be a valuable single volume introduction to scholarship on the Reformed scholastics for seminarians and pastors. However, as monograph with a promise in the title, is reads somewhat disappointingly.

Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine and an author at Conciliar Post. He lives with his beloved wife, Bethanne, and three children in Southern California.

[1] Richard A. Muller, “Giving Direction to Theology: The Scholastic Dimension,” JETS 28/2 (1985): 183-193.

  • Joshua Schendel
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