I read a tag line advocating Lutheran Theologian Dr. Jack Kilcrease offering a class on "Protestant Scholasticism", which I had never heard of before. This seems odd to me because of Luther's rejection of the Aristotelian scholastics. So what is Protestant Scholasticism?
The Reformed and Lutheran theologians of the late 16th and 17th centuries are often termed "Protestant Scholastics."
Because they took over the methodology of the Medieval Scholastics and produced vast systematic theologies. Concordia Publishing House is currently publishing one example of this, Johann Gerhard's 16 volume systematic theology.
The Protestant Reformation didn't think the earlier western Catholic tradition got everything wrong: just the doctrine of justification, sacraments, and Church. Everything else was pretty good. Hence, the second generation of Protestant theologians wrote theologies not only to defend the Reformers' doctrinal proposals, but also to integrate the insights of the Reformers with the larger doctrinal and methodological concerns of the western Catholic tradition.
During the early years of the Reformation "scholasticism" was a word thrown about as something of an insult toward the Roman Catholic Church. Scholasticism identifies the traditional approach (at least through the medieval time period) to developing theology and understanding scripture. And because Reformers were rejecting almost all things Catholic, the idea of scholasticism was rejected out of hand. But what might more correctly be stated is that they rejected the Church's medieval approach to scholasticism.
During the Middle Ages scholasticism had developed into something of an elitist practice. Because the Church was invested in protecting its own power and was unwilling to allow common people access to scriptural understanding, most of the scholasticism was reserved for "professional" theologians. Scholastic work in interpreting scripture or analyzing theology was done by professors and doctors in universities, and was aimed at other theologians. Their work was never intended even for regular priests to use in preaching or homiletics. This was one more example of how the Church's hierarchy kept control of "God" for itself.
It was this attitude and approach that the early Reformers rejected. Since one of the founding principles of the Reformation was the right of the people to have direct access to and understanding of the Bible, a scholasticism that was reserved for the theologian class was repugnant to people like Martin Luther. He and other Reformers believed that it was good and proper to translate the Bible into the indigenous tongue and give it to the people, and that the people would be able to read and understand it for themselves. They believed that preachers should be interpreting and teaching people from the pulpit.
While this attitude was pervasive, several of the early Reformers were actually somewhat scholastic themselves, but with a major difference.
John Calvin in particular, perhaps because he was not formally trained in theology or scripture, as Luther was, actually thought exegesis and the study of the historical context of scripture was important to interpreting and understanding it. The major difference was that he rejected the old approach to scholasticism when theologians were writing their works for other theologians. Scholasticism must be applied to common preachers and their people so that they could use it for their own edification and to build the faith of their people.
This was a source of conflict as the Reformation spread. Many rejected any attempts at scholasticism because they felt that this was distancing the individual from scripture by telling them how they should interpret and understand the Bible. The second and third generations of Protestant leaders steadfastly rejected anything that could remotely be associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
However, people being what they are, as new groups sprang up, rejecting the interpretations of other Protestant groups and varying their dogmas and belief systems, scholasticism inevitably crept in. As different traditions (what we now call denominations) developed, they began codifying their beliefs and many (although not all) wanted to demonstrate a theological and scriptural mandate for their beliefs. This lead to scholars and theologians writing and expounding on their theological interpretation.
As early as the end of the 16th century, treaties were being written about such things as the difference between archetypal and ectypal theology (God's knowledge of God's own Self and what God condescends to reveal to sinful humanity). During the High Orthodoxy period, many groups created detailed works outlining their theology and beliefs, and many groups were writing extensively in opposition to traditions with which they had broken or with which they disagreed. Many of these theological works developed into confessions used to define particular denominations.
Throughout the 18th century, though, the Reformation faced new challenges with scholasticism as the Age of Enlightenment broke open new ways of examining life and studying the world based on a more scientific approach. Biblical authority was questioned, and Natural Theology began gaining acceptance. This led to a sharp decrease in any type of scholasticism, whether from theologians writing for other theologians or reformers and Protestants writing for their people and to define their beliefs. And this is where many later Protestant traditions completely rejected any real scholastic approach to studying scripture, and developed doctrines and dogmas based on more traditions and on individual interpretations and understandings.
So those who look at the surface of the Protestant Reformation, and see the strong rejection of most things Catholic, can easily say that the Reformation rejected scholasticism, and that therefore those who want to stay true to its roots will do so as well. Tradition and individual interpretation are what is important, and these should be the foundation of faith. The scripture alone is the sole authority and the individual path to God. But to look more closely at the lives and works of the early Reformers and to examine more closely the evolution of the Reformation, it becomes apparent that scholasticism, albeit in an importantly different form, was alive and well throughout Protestantism.
It is somewhat ironic that those who would believe Protestantism is the antithesis of scholasticism are taking the same approach to support this belief as they do to support their approach to scripture. They will look at the surface and accept what they see without any deeper examination. And when one applies a scholastic approach, which means examining the situation in a historical framework, looking beyond the surface, applying a systematic analysis of the parts, then one can see more accurately the role and place of scholasticism in the Protestant Reformation.