A Year in PRRD (Week 3)

Michael Lynch

Every Wednesday in 2018, Michael Lynch (PhD candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary) and our own editor Danny Hyde (PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) will be blogging through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

These volumes are currently out-of-print but used copies can be found online here. For a schedule of weekly readings, go here

Week 3 (1/15-1/21): I.1.2 (pgs. 85–146)

Most of us probably have not spent a lot of time thinking about the “prolegomena” of Christian theology. Sure, we might have Bavinck’s first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics entitled “Prolegomena”— but have we actually read, it or did we skip to the second volume? Yet, arguably the single most important development of Christian theology in the modern period has been theological prolegomena. From Brunner and Barth to Kaufman and Pannenberg, questions touching on 1) the nature of theology and revelation, 2) the source of revelation, and 3) theology’s relation to reason make up what has come down to us as the theological prolegomena. Muller’s first volume of PRRD, especially this second chapter, surveys the basic contours of theological prolegomena from Augustine through the Reformed orthodox in the early modern period. Muller’s thesis is that the development of theological prolegomena occurred well after the practice or the doing of theology was well under way. According to Muller, scholasticism (or school-theology) – both medieval and early modern – was a significant if not primary catalyst for such post-dogmatic reflection.

Reformed orthodoxy, unlike much of the theology of the Reformation, reflected deeply on the nature of Christian theology. As Muller points out, this reflection was not only in continuity with its medieval precursors, as found in theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus, but also underwent significant shifts in emphasis and even substance. Given the early Reformation debates over the interplay between Scripture and tradition, and their authority in determining orthodoxy, it is no surprise that the principia of theology (the foundations upon which theology exists) would soon be systematically configured. By the end of the 16th century, Franciscus Junius, in what was arguably the most significant prolegomena of theology in the early modern period among Reformed theologians, laid out and argued for a material, formal, efficient, and final cause of our theology.

Another area of theological prolegomena which received significant treatment in the early modern period was the relationship between faith and reason. Given the revival of Augustinian hamartiology and soteriology among the Reformers, and because prolegomena “develops in dialogue with basic dogmatic conclusions after the system as a whole has been set forth” (pg. 121), it is no surprise that the Reformed orthodox would emphasize the insufficiency of natural theology and the concomitant need for special revelation, especially in contexts where rationalists and Socinians questioned either the necessity of special revelation or sought to make reason the arbiter of Christian theology.

A third aspect of theological prolegomena developed in the early modern period relates to the philosophical eclecticism of the day. Take, e.g., the advice Richard Baxter gives to students who wish to study philosophy and his caution against following one particular philosophical sect (among the many different philosophical options of the day). Along with your standard Christian Aristotelianism (as modified by Neoplatonism), theologians had to wrestle with the Hermetic tradition, Cartesianism, the revival of ancient Epicureanism, and atomism, just to name some. And some of these latter philosophies, most notably Cartesianism and to a lesser extent the hermetic tradition and atomism, even influenced certain theological systems of the Reformed orthodox. With such philosophical wranglings, it is again, no surprise that the Reformed would be forced to examine the nature and even legitimacy of theological inquiry.

One area where each of the two former aspects of the development of theological prolegomena was exercised regards the question of how we know Scripture to be divine (and, hence, should be believed). This is one area, among many areas, where John Owen and Richard Baxter disagreed. And it is probably the only theological point at which William Cunningham takes Baxter’s side over Owen! Owen emphasized that we know Scripture to be divine principally on account of the inward testimony of the Spirit. Baxter, alternatively, emphasized that we know Scripture to be divine because of objective evidence which points to Scripture as being divinely authored. I am not especially interested in who got the better of the debate, though I think Cunningham is right. These questions of theological prolegomena have profound practical implications on how we do theology and vice versa – this is one area Cornelius Van Til has helped our tradition, no doubt, think through more carefully.

Muller’s survey of these developments will now look in more detail at each of the main topics of early modern theological prolegomena, beginning with the meaning of the term “theology” and “religion” in Reformed orthodoxy. Find out more next Wednesday—it's not too late to join our reading group! 


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For previous posts in this series, see:

Week 1: I.1.1.1 (pgs. 27–46)

Week 2: I.1.1.2–3 (pgs. 46–84)