A Year in PRRD (Week 5)

Every Wednesday in 2018, Michael Lynch (PhD candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary) and our own editor Danny Hyde (PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) will be blogging through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

These volumes are currently out-of-print but used copies can be found online here. For a schedule of weekly readings, go here

Week 5 (1/29-2/4): I.2.4 (pgs. 177–220)

In the most recent reading, Muller surveys the theological method of the Reformation and Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox. Instead of looking at Muller’s exposition, which included a lot of interesting tidbits (some of which I noted on Twitter), I thought it would be of value to analyze John Davenant's scholastic writing as an exemplar of the theological method in the Reformed orthodox period.
Take, e.g., Davenant’s Commentary on Colossians. This commentary, written in Latin, was clearly not intended for the masses, but for the educated in Europe. This much is clear from Davenant’s introduction, where he notes that this work was borne out of a scholastic context being “formerly delivered at the commencement of [his] Theological Professorship in the celebrated University of Cambridge.” Thus, this work was originally intended for theological students. The eminent Dutch Reformed theologian, Gisbertus Voetius, in fact, recommends Davenant’s commentary to his own students of theology. Given its length as well as its theological tangents, Davenant’s commentary is quite distinct in method from, say, the relative brevity of Calvin’s commentaries. Davenant is also quite polemical throughout the work, finding almost any opportunity to delve more deeply into a theological topic or to criticize Roman Catholic theology.
One can also get a sense of Davenant’s theological method by looking at his public lectures while he was at Cambridge on various theological topics, in this case, his theological Determinations. Davenant explains the reason for these disputations: “Professors of Theology, at the close of disputations, are accustomed to pass their sentence on the questions agitated before them. In the discharge of this office at Cambridge, I had to treat, with more or less copiousness, many theses, on various occasions.” Again, these lectures were published in Latin, and hence, were not intended for the general parishioner. In good scholastic form, Davenant takes a thesis to defend such as “Protestants cannot attend mass with a safe conscience,” gives the status quaestionis, and then argues from Scripture and antiquity (especially Augustine and Aquinas) for his thesis, oftentimes rebutting arguments against his position in the process. This method of discussing and defining the status quaestionis, culling arguments from Scripture and ecclesiastical history in support of one’s position, and rejecting the arguments of one’s adversaries manifests standard early modern scholastic method.
Finally, one can find Davenant at his most scholastic in his Latin treatises on the Death of Christ (De Morte Christi) and on predestination (De Praedestinatione et Reprobatione). The former treatise begins by giving a detailed history of the controversy and then proceeds to defend various theses. Notably, Davenant spends a significant amount of time explaining each thesis before offering arguments for the thesis along with responding to counter-arguments. While both works employ the use of syllogism, Davenant’s treatise on the Death of Christ is especially tight in its layout and argument. On the other hand, Davenant’s treatise on predestination, which William Cunningham thought to be the best in existence, focuses much more on rebutting Remonstrant and Jesuit formulations of predestination.
One can get a sense of the uniqueness of these two treatises by comparing them to others from the period. Take, for example, John Owen’s Death of Death. Owen’s treatise, unlike Davenant’s, is self-consciously intended to be accessible and non-scholastic. Not only is it published in English, but Owen admits to Baxter that he never intended the work to go into the complexities a scholastic treatment would demand: “I was desired and pressed to handle the things of that discourse in the most popular way they were capable of, and in the best accommodation to vulgar capacities, so that it is no wonder if some expressions therein may be found to want some grains of accurateness (though they have not one dram the less of truth) in a scholastical balance.” (Works, 10:435). In contrast, Davenant’s treatise demands a completely different level of engagement than Owen’s does. Owen’s work is much easier to read; Davenant’s work on the same topic is much more technical and nuanced. Compare, again, Davenant’s treatise on predestination with Davenant’s Amimadversions against Samuel Hoard (an English Remonstrant) on Predestination. While both touch on the doctrine of predestination, the latter is written in English (no doubt, because Hoard’s treatise was published in English) and follows a completely different method of exposition. Davenant writes what amounts to be a critical commentary on Hoard’s whole book! Even so, this treatise is quite technical because of the polemical context.
All of Davenant’s works mentioned above are scholastic insofar as they are for the educated and borne out of the theological education of the day. Still, there are significant methodological differences among his various works. Some begin with a historical introduction (such as De Morte Christi), while others begin with a prolegomena touching on definitions and first principles (as in De Praedestinatione). No doubt Davenant’s Colossians commentary is much closer to the biblical text than his Determinations on oft-debated theological topics. Method, genre, context, and aim all play a role in the theological method employed. Students of this period must be sensitive to these differences – differences which Muller aptly highlights in this past week’s reading.
Join us next Wednesday as Danny Hyde blogs through the reading for Week 6 (2/5-2/11): I.2.5 (pgs. 221–269).

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For previous posts in this series, see:

Week 1: I.1.1.1 (pgs. 27–46) 

Week 2: I.1.1.2–3 (pgs. 46–84)

Week 3: I.1.2 (pgs. 85–146)

Week 4: I.2.3 (pgs. 149–176)

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