The Revised Historiography of Reformed Orthodoxy: A Few Practical Implications

Carl Trueman

The last forty years have seen a major revolution in the way in which scholars regard the intellectual development of orthodox Protestantism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Prior to that time, much of the field was dominated by historiographical models which tended to oversimplify the intellectual landscape.[1] Thus, some scholars isolated one or two figures and made their theological formulations normative and all those who differed with them in either content or style to be to some extent deviant and defective. Such was the infamous “Calvin against the Calvinists” hypothesis which pitted the allegedly pristine and monolithic theology of John Calvin over against that of his successors in later decades. We might also add to the mix the woefully inadequate use of the term “scholasticism” and its cognates as meaning “rationalistic,” “over logical” or simply “dull and dry.”[2]

It is not my intention to rehearse in detail either the flaws with the older approaches nor all of the insights of the approach which more recent scholars have proposed, but it is useful to be aware of key developments.

The most important figure in the revision of studies of seventeenth-century Reformed Orthodoxy is Richard Muller.[3] Muller did his doctoral work under David C. Steinmetz at Duke Divinity School. Steinmetz himself was the doctoral student of Heiko A. Oberman, arguably the most significant Reformation scholar of the second half of the twentieth century. Oberman’s work was marked by a multidisciplinary approach to Reformation and, most important, an emphasis on the late medieval intellectual context of Martin Luther.[4] This was not an innovation with Oberman; where Oberman was significant was that he refused to allow modern theological convictions to operate as qualitative criteria for assessing the theologians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Where earlier scholars, such as Joseph Lortz, had understood Luther as emerging from a medieval Catholic theological milieu, they had tended to allow their view of such a milieu (in Lortz’s case, a highly negative one) to shape their evaluation of later developments. Hence, for example, Lortz regarded Luther and his theology as the poisonous progeny of a degenerate late medieval theology.[5] Oberman repudiated such an approach, arguing instead for a “social history of ideas” which took ideas seriously but avoided reducing the objects of study to pawns in some modern theological struggle. He also emphasized the need for studying Reformation thought as part of an ongoing Western tradition rather than allowing the rather stark taxonomy of “Medieval” and “Reformation” to create artificial breaks where none existed.

Steinmetz developed Oberman’s approach by devoting much of his academic life to the examination of exegesis in the late medieval and early modern periods. In many ways this was as revolutionary as the approach of Oberman.[6] Popular Protestant mythology regarded late medieval Catholicism as having little time for exegesis; yet Steinmetz (and his students, such as Susan Schreiner and John Thompson) demonstrated that late medieval theologians were also exegetes; and, further, that their exegesis lay in the background of much Reformation exegesis.

What Muller has done is to draw on both of these approaches, applying them not simply to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but extending the analysis to the development of post-Reformation theology up to the late seventeenth century, when the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and others is beginning to transform the intellectual landscape. While his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics is now the standard in the field, his approach has been adopted and developed by numerous other specialists within the field. The result has been a burgeoning number of scholarly articles and monographs and a transformed understanding of how Protestantism developed in the generations after the early Reformers. Methods developed in other disciplines—most notably the history of political thought—have also been appropriated and applied to the issue of Protestant Orthodoxy.

The literature in this field is growing and is often highly technical. For example, where older scholarship used terms like “Aristotelian” as if this referred univocally to some monolithic philosophical approach, the newer scholarship is aware of the fact that Renaissance “Aristotelianism” was a highly variegated phenomenon which defies such generalization.[7] Further, the newer scholarship takes for granted the distinction between a text and its reception. Thus, there is a distinction between Thomas and later Thomism, to the point where those who reject Thomas based upon the reading of him offered by later Thomists (be they Cajetan or Maritain) are rejecting a straw man. Yet, for all of this complexity, it is still helpful to outline a few key insights of the newer scholarship before addressing the question of its usefulness to contemporary Reformed church life.

1. Scholasticism is a method, not a set of philosophical principles.

One of the key insights which Muller had early in his career was that scholasticism was a method, primarily that of the medieval quaestio, or “question.” At a more elaborate level, it also referred to the elaborate technical vocabulary which medieval theology had developed. Such an insight was not original with Muller: medievalists had understood this for a long time. What Muller did was use this to critique the kind of sloppy Protestant scholarship that used the term as a pejorative and moved simplistically from explicit form to implied content. Thus, in the older scholarship, to label theologians as “scholastics” was at once to indicate that they were rationalists, logic-choppers, pedants, and dry as dust. While the new approach to Protestant scholasticism does not deny any relationship between form and content, it does deny any necessary connection between scholastic form and particular understandings of human reason.[8]

2. Theology is expressed in ways that reflect the conventions of context and purpose.

This leads to the second point: understanding Reformed Orthodoxy requires understanding the linguistic and pedagogical conventions of the time. This point has been made implicitly by Muller throughout his work and has been given more explicit theoretical expression through the appropriation of the methodological writings of Quentin Skinner.[9] To provide a common example, in order to understand the reasons why Calvin’s Institutes and Turretin’s Institutes differ radically in form and sometimes in content, one must first understand what the two men were intending to do in the two works; then one must set each within the literary, linguistic, and pedagogical context of his time. Simply saying that “they look different” or “Calvin seems more pastoral” is inadequate as a basis for assessment, being little more than expressions of aesthetic preference.[10]

3. Reformed theology stands in positive relation to late medieval theology and philosophy at a number of points.

Muller’s basic contention, that Reformed theology needs to be understood as an alteration of direction within the wider Western theological tradition stretching back through the Middle Ages to the ancient church, has been confirmed by a variety of specialist monographs.[11] The issue of continuity is philosophically and historically complex; but the basic point, that Reformed theologians build positively upon the metaphysics, doctrine of God, and basic theology of the medieval period is beyond dispute.[12] Within the ranks of those who advocate the new approach, there is some disagreement on the precise nature of this: Antonie Vos and his students in Utrecht have argued strongly that Reformed Orthodoxy is essentially a Protestant form of Scotism, the theological/philosophical approach of Duns Scotus and his followers.[13] I have argued instead for a stronger Thomist influence, at least on individual figures such as John Owen.[14] Richard Muller advocates seeing Reformed Orthodoxy as metaphysically eclectic and defying simplistic generalization.[15] For the record, I see my own view and that of Muller as being compatible: in my opinion, most Reformed Orthodox of the seventeenth century advocate forms of Scotistically modified Thomism, though there is a spectrum within that.

4. Reformed Orthodoxy retained a strong emphasis on linguistics and exegesis.

The old canard, that the early Reformers were interested in exegesis, not systematic theology, while their successors became increasingly preoccupied with proof texts, logical deduction, and systematic consistency, at the expense of doing justice to the Bible, has been thoroughly debunked. A growing number of studies have demonstrated the increasing sophistication of exegesis, linguistics, and textual studies in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such makes perfect sense: ironically, the old model, where the biblical text was nothing more than a theological quarry, cannot account for the rise of higher criticism towards the end of the seventeenth century. It is, after all, only in the context of vigorous concern for the biblical text that one would become aware of textual difficulties.[16]

The Contemporary Theological and Ecclesiastical Significance of the New Scholarship

In addressing the issue of the contemporary relevance of all of this material, the first—and most important—point to make is that, with the possible exception of Antonie Vos and his followers, most of the contributors to the revised understanding of the development of Reformed Orthodoxy see themselves as making a historical contribution, not a systematic one. This means that the results of such revision do not necessarily in themselves have direct theological implications. The questions asked have been along the lines of ‘Why does Reformed Orthodoxy develop this way?’ not primarily ‘Is this development biblical?’

For example, in my own work on John Owen, my primary concern was to demonstrate that the thesis of Alan Clifford, that Owen’s view of atonement was the result of the intrusion of Aristotelian categories into theology, was incorrect.[17] In so doing, I demonstrated that Owen was working with Trinitarian and anti-Pelagian categories drawn from Scripture and mediated through the doctrinal debates of the ancient and medieval church. My point was not that Owen was correct; it was simply that the reasons for him holding his view were not those which Clifford had imputed to him. In a similar fashion, though on a larger scale, Muller’s demonstration that the path from Calvin to the seventeenth century is not susceptible to the old radical break/decline and fall models of an earlier generation does not mean that either Calvin or his successors were necessarily correct. In the context of the new approach, the question of dogmatic truth is separable from the question of historical rationale.

Having said this, there are a number of ways in which the new approach can be of help to the church today. First, it makes clear that Reformed theology is truly catholic theology in that it connects to, and rises out of, the wider Western theological tradition. It draws positively, not simply on Reformation sources or even on patristic writers, but also on medieval thinkers, particularly in the areas of the doctrine of God and the nature of freedom and determinism, the new approach. This considerably broadens the theological sources on which today’s pastor should feel able to draw with integrity; and it also goes some way to answering that perennial question posed to Protestants, “Where was the church between the patristic era and Martin Luther?”

Second, by eschewing simplistic taxonomies and by taking seriously the sophistication of Reformed Orthodoxy, the new approach has been able to tease out important systematic doctrinal connections which have been neglected in the past. Again, to draw on my own research on Owen, the connection between orthodox Trinitarianism and Augustinian anti-Pelagianism is vital for understanding Reformed views of redemption but has often been neglected. Historical study shows how these two doctrinal loci connect.[18] Another example would be Muller’s work on the doctrine of God. By careful examination of texts in context, he has been able to demonstrate that contemporary objections to divine simplicity, such as those made by Alvin Plantinga, are built upon a misreading of the content and intention of the Reformed Orthodox writers. Again, the point is not primarily one of dogmatic truth. Muller demonstrates rather that the contemporary argument misuses historical texts; that does not necessarily mean the arguments are wrong but it is nonetheless a significant criticism. Systematic theology should be done in dialogue with theologians throughout the ages, and those who build their systems in dialogue with incorrect historiography need to take account of those who promote more accurate history, in order to see if it has systematic implications.[19]

Indeed, the new approach can be very helpful in a practical way relative to issues of subscription. For example, one of the areas which is most often cited by students as a point at which they object to the Westminster standards is WCF 2:1, “without ... passions.” To the layman, this seems to present a God who is some kind of First Cause, deistic and distant. In fact, understanding how the language of passions functions in seventeenth-century Reformed Orthodoxy clarifies this: it is not intended to make God a remote deity; rather it is designed to protect his divinity and his absolute priority over the created realm. The clarification is necessary and important, given the way that language and conceptual connotations have changed over time.[20]

This points to a third area where the new approach is significant for the contemporary church: it highlights how important the consensus nature of confessions was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The process of producing confessions was complex and not uniform. Some were written by individuals and later adopted by churches (for example, the Belgic Confession); others were in origin committee productions always intended as ecclesiastical documents. What the new approach has done is demonstrate that, with the confessional Reformed world, there was always a certain amount of legitimate diversity on many topics. Thus, matters such as the distinction between infra- and supralapsarianism are not matters on which the confessions take hard and fast positions; and even where they have distinct preferences, historically these were not issues of ecclesiastical division. The obvious application of this is that arguments which attempt to set criteria for office-bearing within the church based on the thought of individual theologians, or based on interpretations of confessional documents through the narrow lens provided by the theology of a single individual, are historically alien to the intentions of confessional orthodoxy.

Fourth, the new approach has demonstrated that Reformed Orthodoxy was grounded in exegesis but engaged in constant dialogue with the history of theology. This is in part evident in its eclectic nature but also has direct application to some contemporary issues. For example, one common complaint about the Westminster standards is that they are based upon proof texts. The concern seems to be that Reformed theology has thus been built on simplistic, decontextualized reading of isolated texts. Many, of course, will be aware that the divines themselves did not want the proof texts included and that they were overruled in this by Parliament. That in itself should give pause for thought about how such texts function. Yet Muller has explored this issue further and demonstrated that the divines were not only competent exegetes themselves and that Reformed Orthodoxy is exegetically grounded but also that proof texts in the seventeenth century were not intended as simple, blunt answers to complex questions. Proof texts operated rather as exegetical markers, directing the reader to the key verse but doing so in the expectation that the reader would check the classical expositions of that verse.[21]

This is also significant for understanding the covenant of works. One criticism is that the only reference to the pre-Fall arrangement with Adam in the garden as a covenant is Hosea 6:7. The Hebrew is ambiguous and could indeed be read as “like a man.” As such, it seems remarkably slender textual ground upon which to build such a crucial doctrine as the covenant of works. In fact, as Muller has shown through his study of the Westminster Annotations, the divines were well aware of this ambiguity. Their use of the language of covenant to refer to Adam in Eden was not built on this text, but upon Romans 5, which they saw as pointing to the conceptual presence of covenant in Eden, even as it was linguistically absent. Such a point would seem significant in assessing John Murray’s criticism of the covenant of works.[22]


The work of revising our understanding of how Reformed Orthodoxy developed in the post-Reformation period continues apace and, as this article has suggested, is an increasingly complex and interdisciplinary exercise. Yet even now there are some obvious practical implications for the theological life of the church in the present, most notably in the need to understand our history correctly, to do theology today in a manner which understands the tradition within which we stand, and also to apprehend the fact that Reformed theology was always intended at its foundations to be a confessional theology which understood that it is the church, and no single individual, which sets the public norms for profession and for office-bearing.


[1] Scholars associated with the older historiography include Ernst Bizer, T. F. Torrance, James B. Torrance, Brian Armstrong, R. T. Kendall, and Alan Clifford. For a collection of essays which exemplify the newer approach, see Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark, eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999).

[2] A critical survey of the older scholarship can be found in chapters 4 and 5 of Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[3] The single most important text in Muller’s extensive scholarly output is Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).

[4] See Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Durham: Labyrinth, 1983); Luther: Man between God and Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[5] Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968). This book was originally published in 1949.

[6] See his Luther and Staupitz: An Essay in the Intellectual Origins of the Protestant Reformation (Durham: Labyrinth, 1980).

[7] See Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 34–44. There I draw in the work of Renaissance scholar Charles B. Schmitt: see his Studies in Renaissance Philosophy and Science (London: Variorum Reprints, 1981).

[8] See Muller, After Calvin, 25–46.

[9] See Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” in Visions of Politics I: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 57–89. I have made the case for the usefulness of aspects of Skinner’s approach relative to the history of theology: “Puritan Theology as Historical Event: A Linguistic Approach to the Ecumenical Context,” in Willem J. Van Asselt and Eef Dekker, eds., Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 253–75; also Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 179–80.

[10] See Trueman, Histories and Fallacies, 120–29.

[11] E.g., see Willem J. Van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius (16031669) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001); Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002); Carl R. Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007). For a general discussion of this, see Willem J. Van Asselt et al., Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2011).

[12] On the complexity of defining continuity, see Carl R. Trueman, “The Reception of Calvin: Historical Considerations,” Church History and Religious Culture 91 (2011): 19–27.

[13] E.g., Antonie Vos, “De kern van de klassieke gereformeerde Theologie,” in Kerk en Theologie 47 (1996): 106–25; see the essays by Antonie Vos and Andreas J. Beck in Van Asselt and Dekker. See my critique in John Owen, 57–58.

[14] I argue this point at length in both The Claims of Truth and John Owen; also in “The Necessity of the Atonement” in Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones, eds., Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2011), 204–22.

[15] This is the overall implication of his four volumes of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. It is also evident in his introductory essay (“Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction”) to Haykin and Jones.

[16] See Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 2; Trueman, “Preachers and Medieval and Renaissance Commentary,” in Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington, and Emma Rhatigan, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 54–71.

[17] See Alan C. Clifford, Atonement and Justification: English Evangelical Theology, 16401790 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[18] This is the major historical theological argument of The Claims of Truth.

[19] See Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 2, 40–41.

[20] Ibid., 553–59.

[21] See Muller, “The ‘Whole Counsel of God’: Scripture, Exegesis, and Doctrine in the English Annotations and the Westminster Confession,” in Richard A. Muller and Rowland S. Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation and the Directory for Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2007), 3–82.

[22] Muller, “The ‘Whole Counsel of God’,” 69–81.

Carl Trueman is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Ambler, Pennsylvania, and as a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, October 2012.

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Ordained Servant: October 2012

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