Van Mastricht on the Scholastics

While reading through Petrus Van Mastrichts' Theoretical-Practical Theology, I was intrigued to find his thoughts concerning scholastic theology. In his section on "the Nature of Theology," Van Mastricht wrote:

"It is asked, must theology be taught according to a certain method? As an example of excess, the Scholastics, according to their philosophical theology, loved the philosophical methods of Aristotle--whether it was his analytic or synthetic method--to the point of distraction."1

A little further on, he explained:

"Someone may ask what we should think about scholastic theology, which is a middle way between natural and revealed theology in as much as it teaches revealed things by nature method and arguments. By 'scholastic theology' we do not understand here revealed theology as it is taught in the familiar manner of the schools--which is the sense our Alstead meant when he published his scholastic theology--but rather that philosophical theology that is held in the schools of the papists in order to sustain their doctrine of transubstantiation and other sorts of superstitions. This philosophical theology was born under Lanfranc of Pavia, while he was contending with Berengar over transubstantiation. At that dispute, at every point, Lanfranc lacked the authority of both Augustine and Scripture, in so far as nothing in Augustine or Scripture presents itself in favor of transubstantiation. At least, at that time this philosophical theology was more modest, but afterward, when quite dreadful philosophical terms were contrived, gradually it became more impudent, all the way up to Peter Lombard in his Four Books of Sentences, and from there to Albert the Great and his disciples Thomas Aquinas. By Aquinas, without any shame, not only were those quite dreadful philosophical terms augmented to an enormous extent, but also, disregarding the Scriptures, the heads of the faith began to be demonstrated by philosophical reasons, and even Aristotle, Averroes, and others began to be considered equal to the Scriptures, if not preferred over them. Concerning this kind of scholastic theology, it is now asked, 'what should we think?'"2

Van Mastricht then proceeded to give a series of confirming arguments, by which he asserted the following:

"Since the papists generally find nothing in the Scriptures to reinforce their positions on transubstantiation, the absolute rule of the pope, their own satisfactions and merits, and all other kinds of papal doctrines, they commonly flee to philosophical subtleties and go to the thickets of quite dreadful terms. The Reformed generally think, for the reasons already noted, that the aforementioned type of scholastic theology ought to be rigidly proscribed, and in substance agree with the more discriminating of the papists, such as Desiderius, Erasmus, Melchior Canus, Denis, Petau, and others. Nevertheless, there are among the Reformed those who think we should take the middle way, that scholastic theology ought to be neither entirely preserved nor entirely eliminated, but that it ought to be purged of its blemishes, and only then can it be preserved."3

Finally, he sought to explain in what sense scholastic theology is useful when he noted:

"Scholastic theology is useful 1) in controversies with the papists, since you cannot engage very soundly and fruitfully with them if you are unfamiliar with their style, tricks and thickets; 2) in refuting pagans and atheists; 3) in building up souls concerning revealed truth itself; and, especially 4) in those questions that border on theology on one side and philosophy on the other."4

This, it seems to me, is a thoughtful analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of scholastic theology--an analysis that seems to be largely missing from discussions about it in our day.

1. Petrus Van MasctrichtTheoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) p. 70

2. Ibid., p. 85

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 86