Terminology Tuesday: SCHOLASTICISM

A term first used in a derogatory sense by humanists in the sixteenth century. It is now applied to any theology in which concerns with logic and method are prominent, where theology is conceived as a type of science.A scholastic movement flourished during the Middle Ages (1050–1500). Anselm, Abelard, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham were prominent figures. They also influenced later scholasticism. Reformed scholasticism of the last half of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century had contemporary parallels in a Lutheran and a Catholic scholasticism. Reformed scholasticism has had a major influence on the development of the Reformed/Calvinist tradition.

Erasmus popularized the negative image of the schoolmen as boring, tradition bound professors who focused on useless subtleties. Calvin also refers to the schoolmen in derogatory terms, though on occasion concedes the value of their careful analysis. Erasmus and Calvin were reacting to late-medieval scholasticism in which debates had often grown sterile. Both wished to return to a study of the Bible itself, a study directed by the liberal arts.After Calvin, a new scholasticism was inevitable, for every great thinker has followers who teach and interpret his thought. The seeds of Reformed scholasticism were sown with the founding of the Geneva Academy. Theodore Beza, called by Calvin to teach there, is an early Reformed scholastic. In many ways, Beza’s thought is simply a clear, consistent exposition of Calvin’s position, but the systematizing and ordering, the further elaboration of difficult points regarding the inspiration of Scripture, pre-destination, and limited atonement, modified Calvin’s position in significant ways.

Reformed scholasticism is, however, more than just a simplifying and systematizing of Calvin’s thought. Calvin was only one of a number of significant Reformed leaders. Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Oecolampadius preceded Calvin; and Peter Martyr Vermigli, Girolamo Zanchi, and Zacharias Ursinus, as well as Beza, were contemporaries. Their contributions, along with Calvin’s, became known as Reformed theology.While Calvin was most influenced by humanist attitudes and techniques, Vermigli and Zanchi, both Italians, were educated at Padua, the center of a great Aristotelian revival. In both, but especially in Zanchi, the influence of Aquinas is also evident. Like Beza, Vermigli and Zanchi order the doctrine of God in terms of divine decrees, resulting in predestination becoming a major point of contention. These three, more than Calvin, are responsible for the prominent place that predestination assumed in Reformed theology.

A notable example of Reformed scholasticism is the Synod of Dort. Its formulation of Calvinism was under five “heads of doctrine”: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. The most prominent Reformed scholastics in the seventeenth century were Benedict Turretin and his son Francis. Benedict supported the views of the orthodox party at the Synod of Dort and promoted them in Switzerland. His son Francis also defended the decrees of Dort and argued for the complete inerrancy of Scripture. His view is found in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) and is still influential today.


Vos, A. (1992). Scholasticism. In Encyclopedia of the Reformed faith (1st ed., p. 342). Louisville, KY; Edinburgh: Westminster/John Knox Press; Saint Andrew Press.

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