The latest dispensation of the continuing effort by Dr. Jones to regenerate protestant scholasticism appears in the form of a primer. Dr. Jones gives a little indication, perhaps, of his motivations with the following comment:
Of course, the Reformed could have adopted a rather simplistic Biblicism – crying, “we are just letting the Bible speak for itself” – but that would have convinced no one, though perhaps the Socinians would have been impressed to have such allies in method!
We’ll let the guilt-by-association fallacy there pass with only a mention, but the suggestion that the alternative to scholasticism is a “simplistic Biblicism,” and worse, one that is “crying,” deserves a little attention. Of course, if this is the type of argument one could expect from neoscholasticism, then perhaps its introduction will be its refutation. More charitably, we can suggest that it is just poor scholasticism that creates such false dichotomies.
Must we, in fact, decide between a neoscholasticism or a simplistic Biblicism (whatever that would fully entail)?
I have no intention here of giving a full analysis of this issue, but one comment Dr. Jones offers somewhat tongue-in-cheek (I assume) near the end of his post provides a fruitful point of departure:
Karl Barth once remarked, somewhat ironically, “The fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet” (Church Dogmatics I/1. 279). Indeed. At least the fear of scholasticism might suggest some acquaintance with it; but ignorance is even worse, especially when it forms such a large part of our Reformed heritage.
It is not clear what the antecedent of that last “it” was supposed to be: was it the scholasticism that forms such a large part of our heritage, or ignorance? I would posit that an ignorance of scholasticism only hurts much from the perspective of the historical theologian, or church historian, each trying to understand the past. Purely as historical pursuits, Latin and scholasticism still have some utility. In some cases, they can be useful for translating lost or forgotten works that do have some abiding merit, such as Johannes Piscator’s Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses. But even here we must use discernment.
But whence cometh discernment? Aristotle’s Organon? Socrates, Seneca, or Scotus?
We all know it is from Scripture, and no amount of effort to prop up any heritage or tradition besides that can ever amount to anything better than intellectual filigree. In most cases, however, they become theological albatrosses and millstones hung about our necks.
The big question is why one sees the quest for a purely Scriptural worldview and method as something to be dismissed in favor of such a millstone as scholasticism. I have my ideas, but for now, I am intrigued by Jones’s decision to drag Karl Barth into it. In short, he is being cute here, but the interesting thing is that the quotation ends up being far cuter than Jones’s use of it.
What follows comes from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.1.275–287, and is in no way an endorsement of his theology at large (no am I in any way an expert). He was, however, hugely influential, and his thoughts in this particular area are more than solid. Barth also provided some influence on Van Til, and thus on presuppositionalism. As opponents of the natural theology traditions, catching Barth speaking highly of scholasticism is like catching Pope Leo X admiring Luther.
The problem here is not only the apparent misunderstanding of the quotation, but the context which goes on, immediately and at large, to make such a vigorous point to the opposite of what Jones’s neoscholasticism would like to hear.
Barth said, indeed, “Fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet.” Now here’s the rest of the story:
Nothing that can claim to be truly of the Church need shrink from the sober light of “scholasticism” [note the quotation marks!]. No matter how free and individual it may be in its first expression, if it seeks universal acceptance, it will be under constraint to set up a school and therefore to become the teaching of a school. Fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet. The true prophet will be ready to submit his message to this test too. . . .
By “scholasticism” here, Barth merely meant normalizing and systematizing one’s preaching so that it can be judged, accepted, and used as regular teaching for the whole church. Else, it is just opinion and pontification.
One of the fears I have with the high praise of Latin, scholasticism, etc., is the attempt to uber-professionalize the preaching and teaching of the church—to remove it into the caste of only those who have been professionally trained in the upper echelons of forming properly scholastic syllogisms. But Barth’s point runs exactly counter to this impulse:
Anyone who wants to pursue regular dogmatics will have, of course, special cause to remember that this way of doing the task cannot claim a monopoly, even or especially as regards scientific character. It is certainly as well to reflect that at any moment it is possible that the question of dogma may be put and answered much more seriously and fruitfully in the unassuming Bible class of an unknown country parson than in the most exact academic discussion imaginable. School dogmatics should not try to regard itself as better dogmatics, only as a necessary second form of dogmatics. And it should not disdain to listen time and again to the voice of free dogmatics. [Emphasis JM.]
Instead, our modern scholastics seem to deny this and do the opposite. Instead of testing their scholasticism against freelance biblical theology time and again, they “listen time and again” only to the voice of their Latin circles and certain pagan systems, and keep preaching a natural law theology based on them.
Barth goes on to note that the Protestant scholastics of the more modern era were guilty of just that, and it cost them:
It has had disastrous results that the dogmatics of the 19th century Protestant schools, which was much prouder at this point than that of the age of orthodoxy, did very largely disdain to listen in this way, . . .
But listen it must, and often to “free-lance” theologians and preachers outside of, or against, the mainstream ecclesiastical establishment.
But we’re still a bit wide of the mark if we have not stated the focus at which all theologians ought to aim. The task of what Barth calls “free-lance” or “irregular” dogmatics, and of “school” or “regular” dogmatics checking, correcting, and sustaining each other must be carried out according to an authoritative standard. By what standard? After all, how can either criticize or correct the other if both are autonomous? Or if either one is autonomous? If the free-spirits are autonomous, they are loose cannons. If the system contains elements of autonomy, it is both unstable and is a threat of tyranny—which is more often than not the case in church history and today. If both are autonomous, you have a powder keg.
Neither can be autonomous. Both must submit to Scripture, so that when the free spirits get too loose, the system points them back to Scripture; and when the system gets shaky or overbearing, any free spirit can point it back to Scripture with immunity before God. Remember, Arius was a bishop and in the majority, and Athanasius a lowly deacon.
Barth got the part about the need for an authoritative standard right, too:
Whether or not regular or irregular dogmatics is scientific depends on the answer to the question how far they stick to their task and are not distracted by very different things. But their task consists in criticism and correction of Church proclamation regarding its agreement with the revelation attested in Holy Scripture. [Emphasis JM.]
Eventually, Barth calls this the “decisive point.” He continues, that having a purely scriptural standard (and it would appear, method, too) does not mean one must resort to “simplistic Biblicism”:
It is quite right—and we are not questioning this here but emphatically underlining it—that an education in the arts and a familiarity with the thinking of the philosopher, psychologist, historian, aesthetician, etc., should be demanded of the dogmatician or the theologian. The dogmatician, too, must think and speak in a particular age and should thus be a man of his age, which also means a man of the past which constitutes his age, i.e., an educated man. Nevertheless, the only element in education that makes him a dogmatician is the one which is not provided in all these other disciplines and which consists in indemonstrable and unassuming attention to the sign of Holy Scripture around which the Church gathers and continually becomes the Church. By this attention and by nothing else, the theologian becomes a theologian.
Mark that well, scholastic: by attention to Holy Scripture, and by nothing else, is one made a theologian. Be a church historian if you like; be part of any “heritage” you like; just don’t call it theology if it does not have full investment in, and only in, Scripture for its heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Then Barth moves to the crux of another issue before us still today, and where the modern churches have repeatedly failed:
It is not a question, then, of depreciating other disciplines. It is sheer nonsense to talk of criticizing culture in this regard, for in the last resort attention to Holy Scripture might be called an element of culture or education. Nor is it a question of the barbarous demand that the problem of culture as such must be indifferent to the theologian.
Barth goes on to say that this “decisive point” about the ultimate foundation in the Bible is special, not decided by culture or apart from culture, but “has its own set of laws which is not to be confused or intermingled with any other.” Further, “Without any arrogant criticism of culture we may postulate that he may realise that in this sphere the criteria of other philosophies cannot play a role which they might perhaps be assigned in every other sphere.”
As students of Van Til may note, Barth has arrived the idea of a presupposition here: Scripture is primary and foundational to all these other questions: the Church, dogma, all the other disciplines, culture, and the whole bit. Other philosophies are prohibited from entering here.
The modern recourse (by many groups) to classical scholasticism may indeed be correct to say that Reformed traditions of days gone by had indeed thoroughly furnished their intellectual house with classicism, strains of classical and medieval scholasticism, etc., but that is hardly the most important question to ask before we go redesigning the seminary according to the Lyceum. Barth recognized the danger here, too: “In fact there has never been, not even in the Reformation, an unequivocally scriptural dogmatics that has not been determined at all by other authorities.” This is not a license to fail, though; it is a challenge to do better. Then we can reduce it to a school of thought—Barth’s sense of the word “scholastic,” and the only one that is probably beneficial for theologians to use.
Fear of developing one’s thought within a biblical system of thought and by a biblical system of thought is indeed the mark of a false prophet. Therefore, so is adhering to non-biblical traditions—which is the point Barth makes, if his readers don’t equivocate. It hardly makes any sense, then, based upon such a thought to run to false prophets like Aristotle to find one’s system.
For a well-spoken conclusion, we can stick with Barth here, too:
What finally counts is whether a whether a dogmatics is scriptural. If it is not, then it will definitely be futile, for we shall definitely have to say regarding it that in it the Church is distracted, i.e., it is busy about other matters and is not doing justice to the scientific task set for it by the problematic nature of its proclamation.
Again, we certainly cannot follow Barth is so much of what he taught; but his outlook and proposed method here were spot on. His work is simply testimony that even a biblical outlook at the start is not enough.