Westminster Seminary California
An Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism: Scholasticism Defined
J. V. Fesko

Scholasticism Defined

Scholasticism is typically associated with philosophical and speculative theology. Note, for example, how one theologian describes it: “By scholastic I mean that kind of theology that emphasizes the accessibility of the infinite to the finite and the possibility and indeed the desirability of systematizing the body of revealed knowledge given in Scripture.” Yet, if we take a close examination of those theologians who are considered scholastic we find a rather broad cross-section of theological views. Historically speaking, Roman Catholic theologians such as Peter Lombard (c. 1095-1169), William of Ockham (1280-1348), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), Lutheran theologians such as Martin Chemnitz (1522-86), Arminians such as Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) himself, and Reformed theologians such as Francis Turretin (1623-87), John Owen (1616-83), and Herman Witsius (1636-1708), are all considered scholastic theologians. However, with all of the names just mentioned we find a great variety of theological and philosophical views. Additionally, the terms speculative or philosophical cannot be applied to all of them. Therefore, how should scholasticism be defined?

Strictly speaking, scholasticism is not a set of beliefs or doctrines but rather a theological method. Scholasticism is a method of doing theology that sets out to achieve theological precision through the exegesis of Scripture, an examination of how doctrine has been historically defined throughout church history, and how doctrine is expounded in contemporary debate. Scholastic theological works bear several identifying characteristics:

1. Presenting an issue in the form of a thesis or question.

2. Ordering the thesis or question suitably for discussion or debate, often identifying the ‘state of the question.’

3. Noting a series of objections to the assumed correct answer.

4. Offering a formulation of an answer or an elaboration of the thesis with due respect to all known sources of information and to the rules of rational discourse, followed by a full response to all objections (Muller, "Scholasticism and Orthodoxy," 4).

We see this type of pattern at work in Aquinas’ Summa Theologia; he states a doctrinal issue in the form of a question: “Whether the Son Is Equal to the Father in Power?” After stating the question he lists the following three objections:

1. It would seem that the Son is not equal to the Father in power.

2. Further, greater is the power of him who commands and teaches than of him who obeys and hears.

3. Further, it belongs to the Father’s omnipotence to be able to beget a Son equal to Himself.

Following these three objections Aquinas then refutes each of them using Scripture, reason, and historical theology to support his arguments. 

Scholasticism is simply a way of doing theology and it does not determine theological content. It does, as you can imagine, produce theology that is very precise because it thoroughly considers all the evidence when answering a doctrinal question; it takes into consideration Scripture, historical theology, contemporary theology, as well as objections to the stated answer. As a result of using this method scholastic theologians often established minute distinctions and precise definitions in their expositions of doctrine.