Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 12. Post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy (I)

by | Jun 4, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 11. Renaissance and Reformation

The theological methodology of the post-Reformation Reformed orthodox: The theological methodology of the post-Reformation Reformed orthodox was, in the first place, exegetical. In order to get a firmer grip on their methodology, we will examine it from the vantage point of what it is not – 1. a hyper-syllogistic method; 2. an Aristotelian, rationalistic method; and 3. a universal method – and what it is – 4. a pre-critical method; 5. an exegetically-based method; 6. a redemptive-historically sensitive method; and 7. a multi-sourced method. The last four mentioned methodological characteristics are especially visible in the writings of John Owen, one of the premiere post-Reformation Reformed scholastics.[1] 

 1.      Not a Hyper-Syllogistic Method: Their method was not reduced to syllogistic argumentation ad nauseam. In fact, Muller claims that “[f]ew of the orthodox or scholastic Protestants lapsed into constant or exclusive recourse to syllogism as a method of exposition.”[2] Syllogistic argumentation was utilized, but mostly in polemic contexts and not as an exegetical tool. Logic–the science of necessary inference–was utilized by the Reformed orthodox in the drawing out of good and necessary conclusions from the text of Scripture,[3] but it was a servant and not lord of the interpreter. Muller says that “the drawing of logical conclusions appears as one of the final hermeneutical steps in the [Reformed orthodox exegetical] method…”[4]

 2.      Not an Aristotelian, Rationalistic Method: The Protestant scholasticism of the post-Reformation era must be distinguished from rationalism. The Reformed orthodox did not place human reason above, or even equal to, divine revelation.[5] The place and function of reason was subordinate to the authority of Scripture. Reason was an instrument not an axiomatic principle.[6] The Protestant scholastics utilized a modified (or Christian) Aristotelianism “that had its beginnings in the thirteenth century.”[7] Muller explains:

It is important to recognize what this use entailed and what it did not. The Christian Aristotelianism of the Protestant orthodox drew on rules of logic and devices such as the fourfold causality in order to explain and develop their doctrinal formulae—and only seldom, if ever, to import a full-scale rational metaphysics or physics into their theology. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the fourfold causality (i.e., first, formal, material, and final causes) does not imply a particular metaphysic. Specifically, it is not by nature “determinis­tic.” One can use the model to delineate the soteriological patterns of the eternal decree of God and its execution in time; one can also use the model to describe the sources and effects of human sinfulness and human moral conduct; or one can use the model to explain how a car­penter makes a table. The large-scale result of Christian Aristotelianism was not, in other words, a fundamentally Aristotelian Christianity: Aristotle would have disowned this hybrid philosophy with its infinite God who created the world out of nothing! There was, certainly, less imposition of rational metaphysics on theology in the seventeenth-century orthodox affirmations of divine eternity, omniscience, and immutability than there is in the twentieth-century claims of a changing God whose very being is in flux and who lacks foreknowledge of future contingency![8]

Van Asselt says, “[the] facile equation of Scholasticism and Aristotelianism is no longer tenable.”[9]

3.      Not a Universal Method: As well, simply because an author utilized the scholastic method in some of his writings did not mean he used it in all of them. For instance, Muller offers Beza as an example.[10] Elsewhere, Muller says, “In the cases of Perkins, Ames, Voetius, and Baxter, works of piety and works of scholastic theology emanated from the same pens.”[11] Muller goes on to say:

…there is no clear division between Protestant scholasticism and federal theology. Theologians who wrote works of piety that followed a “positive” or “catechetical” method also wrote more technical and academic works using the scholastic method – and many of the scholastic, as well as “positive” works were covenantal in their theology.[12]

This observation applies to Johannes Cocceius and John Owen. Owen utilized the scholastic method in some treaties and a more practical, pastoral approach in others. Both Cocceius and Owen utilized the federal model as well as the loci model. Also, within the body of Owen’s Biblical Theology, he utilizes the scholastic method but also ridicules it.[13] This obviously shows that Owen could use a method he fully realized was abused by others and that the scholastic method was just that–a method and not a theology.

 4.      A Pre-Critical Method: The Reformed orthodox obviously predate the Enlightenment and the critical assault on the Holy Scriptures. The Enlightenment gave birth to, among other things, a rationalistic approach to the interpretation of Scripture. This can be seen, for instance, in the early developments of biblical theology.[14] Typical Enlightenment rationalism and anti-supernaturalism is evidenced in the following statements made by Benjamin Jowett, a Greek professor at Oxford in the mid-nineteenth century. David C. Steinmetz quotes Jowett and comments:

Jowett argued that “Scripture has one meaning–the meaning which it had in the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it.”[15] Scripture should be interpreted like any other book and the later accretions and venerated traditions surrounding its interpretation should, for the most part, either be brushed aside or severely discounted. “The true use of interpretation is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us alone in company with the author.”[16]


Jowett obviously reduces meaning to the intent of the human author alone. In critical hermeneutical theory, there was no room whatsoever for the medieval concept of “double literal sense”[17] or for the Reformation and post-Reformation concepts of sensus literalis (literal sense), analogia Scripturae (analogy of Scripture), analogia fidei (analogy of faith), and scopus Scripturae (scope of Scripture).[18] In post-modern thought, man, the reader, is king of interpretation; in the modern/Enlightenment theory man, the author, was. In the Middle Ages, however, and in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, though through differing hermeneutical principles, the meaning of Scripture was not determined by the human author’s intent alone or the reader. Ultimately, the meaning of Scripture was determined by God, the author of Scripture.[19]

 5.      An Exegetically-Based Method[20]: Though the Reformed orthodox were confessionally one in a historical sense (i.e., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and in Britain in the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Savoy Declaration, Second London Confession of Faith), this did not mean they viewed the exegetical task as complete and, therefore, unnecessary, nor that there was no room for disagreement over the exegesis of individual texts. Muller comments:

the biblicism of the seventeenth-century orthodox must not be read as an era of dogmatizing exegesis devoid of careful textual analysis and devoid of any variety in interpretation among those of an orthodox confessional persuasion. Instead, the age ought to be viewed as the great age of Protestant linguistic study and Judaica, of the textual analysis that led to such monumental productions as the London Polyglot Bible. …the Protestant orthodoxy must be recognized as producing highly varied and diverse exegetical works and commentaries, ranging from text-critical essays, to textual annotations, theological annotations, linguistic commentaries based on the study of cognate languages and Judaica, doctrinal and homiletical commentaries, and, indeed, all manner of permutations and combinations of these several types of effort.[21]

Biblical exegesis, in fact, experienced a revival of sorts within the Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century. Muller says:

Contrary to much of the “received wisdom” concerning the seventeenth century, the era of orthodoxy was a time of great exegetical, textual, and linguistic development in Protestantism–and, indeed, it was the orthodox exegetes who were responsible for the major monuments to biblical scholarship.[22]

Carl R. Trueman says, “…the seventeenth century witnessed a remarkable flourishing of linguistic and exegetical studies, driven by both the positive and the polemical exigencies of Protestantism’s commitment to scripture, in the original languages, as being the very Word – and words – of God.”[23] Trueman continues elsewhere:

A high view of the authority and integrity of the biblical text as God’s word written was [a] major factor in fuelling the development of careful attention both to the biblical languages and other cognate tongues, and to issues of textual history and criticism. The idea that the seventeenth-century Reformed were interested neither in careful exegesis nor in the literary and linguistic contexts of the Bible is simply untrue. Indeed, the linguistic and exegetical work of this century was far more elaborate than that which had marked the earlier Reformation. …the exegesis of the Reformed Orthodox is far from the dogmatically-driven Procusteanism[24] [sic] of popular mythology.[25]

 6.      A Redemptive-Historically Sensitive Method: Not only were the Reformed orthodox exegetically driven, their hermeneutic was a whole-Bible hermeneutic, evidenced in such concepts as their highly nuanced view of sensus literalis (literal sense), analogia Scripturae (analogy of Scripture), analogia fidei (analogy of faith), and scopus Scripturae (scope of Scripture).[26] It is of vital importance to understand the nuances involved with these concepts in order to properly understand the Reformed orthodox. We will explore these concepts in our next post.

[1] We will discuss Owen below.

[2] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” I:369.

[3] Cf. Muller, PRRD, II:497-500 for a discussion of the use of logic in interpretation.

[4] Muller, PRRD, II:501.

[5] Cf. WCF 1:10 for confessional embodiment to this conviction.

[6] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” I:374.

[7] Muller, “Sources of Reformed Orthodoxy,” 55. Cf. van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology,” 322, where he says that the Reformed theology of the late sixteenth century (i.e., Franciscus Junius) critically received the Christian tradition.

[8] Muller, “Sources of Reformed Orthodoxy,” 55.

[9] van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology,” 329, n. 42.

[10] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” I:370.

[11] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:145.

[12] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:146.

[13] Cf. Rehnman, Divine Discourse, Chapter 4, “Faith and Reason,” especially the sections “The Abuse of Reason in Theology” and “A Contextual Line of Explanation,” 119-28 and the “Conclusion” to my dissertation.

[14] See below.

[15] Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” Essays and Reviews, 7th ed. (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861), 378, quoted in David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today (April 1980): 27.

[16] Steinmetz is quoting Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” 384. Cf. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” 27.

[17] Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” 31.

[18] We will discuss these below.

[19] This, of course, does not imply that pre-critical exegesis always arrived at God’s meaning of the text. Cf. Packer, Quest for Godliness, 98, for a brief discussion of the Puritans as pre-modern exegetes.

[20] Cf. Muller, “Sources of Reformed Orthodoxy,” 46-48; Muller, PRRD, II:482ff; Packer, Quest for Godliness, 98; and Thomas D. Lea, “The Hermeneutics of the Puritans,” JETS 39/2 (June 1996): 273.

[21] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:132-33.

[22] Muller, “Sources of Reformed Orthodoxy,” 46.

[23] Trueman, John Owen, 8-9.

[24] Tending to produce conformity by violent or arbitrary means.

[25] Trueman, John Owen, 37; Cf. Muller, PRRD, II:482ff. for a fascinating discussion of the practice of exegesis among the Reformed orthodox.

[26] Packer lists six governing principles of interpretation for the English Puritans: 1. Interpret Scripture literally and grammatically. 2. Interpret Scripture consistently and harmonistically. 3. Interpret Scripture doctrinally and theocentrically. 4. Interpret Scripture christologically and evangelically. 5. Interpret Scripture experimentally and practically. 6. Interpret Scripture with a faithful and realistic application. Cf. Packer, Quest for Godliness, 101-5. Cf. Barry Howson, “The Puritan Hermeneutics of John Owen: A Recommendation,” WTJ 63 (2001): 354-57.

Follow Us In Social Media

Subscribe via Email

Sign up to get notified of new CBTS Blog posts.

Man of God phone

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This