The Postreformation Period

It seems to be a general rule of history that periods of enormous creativity are followed by eras of stagnation. The Reformation is no exception. Perhaps through a desire to preserve the insights of the Reformation, the postReformation period witnessed the development of a strongly scholastic approach to theology. The insights of the reformers were codified and perpetuated through the development of a series of systematic presentations of Christian theology.

In the period after Calvin's death a new concern for method—that is, the systematic organization and coherent deduction of ideas—gained momentum. Reformed theologians found themselves having to defend their ideas against both Lutheran and Roman Catholic opponents. Aristotelianism, hitherto regarded with a certain degree of suspicion by Calvin, was now seized upon as an ally. It became increasingly important to demonstrate the internal consistency and coherence of Calvinism. As a result, many Calvinist writers turned to Aristotle, in the hope that his writings on method might offer hints as to how their theology might be placed upon a firmer rational foundation. The following developments are of especial importance during this period.

(a) A new concern for method. Reformers such as Luther and Calvin had relatively little interest in questions of method. For them, theology was primarily concerned with the exposition of Scripture. Indeed, Calvin's Institutes may be regarded as a work of 'biblical theology', bringing together the basic ideas of Scripture into an orderly presentation. However, in the writings of Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor as director of the Genevan Academy (a training institute for Calvinist pastors throughout Europe), there was a new concern for questions of method. The logical arrangement of material, and its grounding in first principles, come to assume paramount importance. The impact of this development is perhaps most obvious in the way in which Beza handles the doctrine of predestination, to be noted later.

(b) The development of works of systematic theology. The rise of scholasticism within Lutheran, Calvinist and Roman Catholic theological circles led to the appearance of vast works of systematic theology, comparable in many ways to Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae. These works aimed to present sophisticated and comprehensive accounts of Christian theology, demonstrating the strengths of their positions and the weaknesses of their opponents.

Thus Theodore Beza (1519-1605), a noted Calvinist writer who served as professor of theology at the Genevan Academy from 1559-99, produced three volumes of his Tractationes Theologicae (1570-82). These volumes represent a rationally coherent account of the main elements of reformed theology, using Aristotelian logic. The result is a tightly argued and rationally defensible account of Calvin's theology, in which some of the unresolved tensions of that theology (chiefly relating to the doctrines of predestination and atonement) are clarified. Some writers have suggested that Beza's concern for logical clarity leads him to misrepresent Calvin in a number of critical points; others have argued that Beza merely streamlined Calvin's theology, tidying up some loose ends. The starting point of Reformed theology thus came to be general principles, not a specific historical event. The contrast with Calvin will be clear. For Calvin, theology centres on and derives from the event of Jesus Christ, as this is witnessed to by Scripture.

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