Quoting "Heretics" Approvingly

Who are Reformed Christians, theologians, and pastors allowed to read? Or, more specifically, who are we allowed to cite positively in our writings and conversations? Are we allowed to speak positively of anything N.T. Wright has written, for example, without getting accused of all sorts of things?   

Consider Thomas Goodwin, an important member of the Westminster Assembly who helped craft the Westminster documents. Those he read and cited approvingly provide a fascinating test case into how a Reformed theologian from the seventeenth century regarded the writings of those from within and those from outside his own theological tradition. 

Goodwin claimed that William Ames's Medulla was "one of the best books that had been written since the Apostles' times." Goodwin speaks of the hypothetical universalist, John Davenant, as "the most learned, perspicuous, and candid author." 

Reformed theologians did not pursue theology in isolation, such as in their own theological tradition. Rather, they wrote in the context of the wider church and culture of learning. They were able to do so, largely because of their linguistic abilities. 

Early church Fathers and medieval theologians, particularly Thomas, were cited frequently. The "schoolmen" (i.e., medieval scholastics) were also hugely significant for the Reformed orthodox. Goodwin will say: "as Aquinas well speaks"; "it is the comparison that Aquinas has, and it is an exceeding good one"; "It is a good saying of Aquinas"; and "Aquinas says well."

His was no blind allegiance to the medieval scholastics, however. As Goodwin's comments on Ephesians 2:7 reveal, he was well aware of those whom Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) called, the "needle-headed school-men." Goodwin argues, "It is a foolish Dispute the Schoolmen have, that there shall be no such Succession in Eternity; the wisest of them, Scotus, and the holiest of them, Bonadventure, are of another mind." 

The term "schoolmen," referring to the likes of Aquinas, Gerard (980-1046), Duns Scotus (1266-1308), Alexander Hales (1186-1245), and Boetius (1230-1285), for example, occurs repeatedly in Goodwin's writings, both positively - "Therefore the Schoolmen do rightly say" - and sometimes negatively. 

Goodwin's scholastic orientation is also evident from his use of leading Jesuit and Dominican philosophers and theologians, referred to by him as 'Popish Divines." Francisco Suárez (d. 1617) is identified as the "best of the School-men." However, Goodwin, though appreciative of Suárez, accuses him, along with Estius (1542-1613), Bellarmine (1542-1621), and Bonadventure, of holding to a defective view of original sin. Even so, Estius is called an "ingenious Papist" and a "learned expositor." 

Moreover, though the references to Bellarmine are usually negative, Goodwin can write, in a suitable context, "Bellarmine well says." 

All of this suggests that Goodwin was not only well-versed in scholastic literature, but he freely drew from these various authors, even complimenting the "Popish Divines" on occasion, as he articulated his theological points.

Not only was Goodwin well-read in divinity, but his writings evince a strong acquaintance with a number of pagan philosophers. Aristotle (384-322 BCE), referred to by Owen as "the philosopher," appears to be Goodwin's favorite "Heathen philosopher." 

Almost always, he uses Aristotle positively, principally in an attempt to reinforce a theological point. For example, Goodwin notes Paul's use of philosophical speech, which has similarities with Aristotle:

"But if a man have never so good an Eye, if he be in the dark, he can see nothing: therefore the second thing that concurs to Spiritual Knowledge here, is, To give you eyes enlightened; as to give you a new Eye, so to give you a new Light: For Eph. 5:13, it is Light that makes all things manifest: it is a Philosophical speech the Apostle there uses, it agrees with what Aristotle saith, Lumen, it is actus perspicui, it is that which puts life into colours and acts them."

Here, Goodwin uses Aristotle as he defends the idea that believers depend upon the Holy Spirit, alluded to in Ephesians 1:18, to understand spiritual things by "enlightening the eyes."

Goodwin referenced many other theologians, philosophers and intellectuals in his writings, using them to defend and safeguard Reformed orthodoxy. This even extended to those with whom he has serious disagreements, like Jacob Arminius and Hugo Grotius. 

For example, he could say, "the learned Grotius" and "Arminius said true." According to Goodwin Arminius was right to say that Christ's high priestly prayer (Jn. 17) is a copy of his intercessory prayer in heaven.

So, not only did Goodwin pursue his theological work in the context of Reformed orthodoxy, but he read - and freely drew from - authors of diverse backgrounds in an attempt to defend Reformed orthodoxy. And he had no trouble referring to those outside his tradition as "learned". 

Pastor Mark Jones possesses all of the major works of the "learned" former Bishop of Durham. He just hasn't read them.