Instead of mining the riches of Owen this morning, I decided to take a quick trip to the Christian Aid book sale at George Street. There, I picked up Hugh Ross Mackintosh’s volume, Types of Modern Theology (1937; reprint, 1945) for an unbelievable price of one GBP. Mackintosh was formerly Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College Edinburgh. Curious as to what his thoughts were on Protestant Scholasticism, I went straight to his introductory section on “Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought.” Here’re some rather scathing comments he made about it:
In the seventeenth century began the ascendancy of what is known as Protestant Scholasticism, a mood or spirit of theological rigour, consequent upon and more or less keeping pace with the fierce conflicts of Lutheran and Calvinist. It was an age of vast dogmatic systems, often spoken of in tones of condescending patronage as ignorant as it is absurd. Doubtless it is hard not to grow impatient with the harshnesses and limitations of an age which developed to an extreme point the sub-Christian doctrine of the Verbal Inspiration of Scripture as well as a rigid penal and quantitative theory of the atonement. (p. 8)
…it appears to be something like a ‘law’ that on any great creative movement, such as the Reformation, there should follow a period of diminished originality but of larger discursive power, in which the gains of the larger time are, so to speak, catalogued, arranged, and valued. The mine having been opened by the Reformers, it became a duty to get out the ore and smelt it. In the process traditional orthodoxy emerged…characterised by the fatal tendency to attach an absolute value to dogmatic formulas, to consider faith and assent to creed as virtually one and the same thing, to harp upon the language of confession or catechism without at each point getting back behind the form of sound words to truth as truth is in Jesus. (pp. 8-9)
Scholasticism, the name by which this period of Protestant theology goes, essentially means an intellectual temper which may invade any subject in any age; in religion, it is the spirit of law overbearing the spirit of the Gospel.
Thus in a few paragraphs, the theologies of William Perkins, William Ames, Samuel Rutherford, William Twisse, Richard Baxter, John Owen, Robert Rollock, Francis Turretin, and of a host of Reformed Orthodox theologians, are indicted of “the spirit of law overbearing the spirit of the Gospel.” What a depressing analysis of the theologies of some of my heroes in the faith.
But take heart! Here’s a different story from an unexpected ally.
Classical Orthodoxy had a great theology. We could also call it Protestant scholasticism, with all the refinements and methods which the word ‘scholastic’ includes….Protestant Orthodoxy was constructive. It did not have anything like the pietistic or revivalistic background of American fundamentalism…One of the great achievements of classical orthodoxy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the fact that it remained in continual discussion with all the centuries of Christian thought…These orthodox theologians knew the history of philosophy as well as the theology of the Reformation…All this makes classical orthodoxy one of the great events in the history of Christian thought.
(Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, 276-77, 306).
For more information on "Classical Orthodoxy" (I love this term!), see the notes of conventicler John Tweeddale.