The Reformation and Theology

“This is the golden age of theology. It cannot rise higher; because we have come so far as to sit in judgment on all doctors of the church, and test them by the judgment of the apostles and prophets.”

In these words from his Table Talk, Luther indicates that the Reformation was also the reformation of theology. Since the true church is “being built upon the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief comer stone” (Ephesians 2:20),1 the rediscovery of the Bible and through it the rediscovery of salvation by grace alone through Jesus Christ required the reformation of the church not only, but the reformation of aU of life and not least the reformation of theology as well.

It is important to remember, however that the Roman Catholic Church then as now officially confesses that the Bible is the inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God. The paradox is that this Church with its high view of inspiration has actually muzzled Scripture’s authority and virtually eliminated its living power. For the Scholastic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, the Bible had become “a mere source·book for dogmatic disputation, ossified in an alien tongue, instead of the living Word of Jesus Christ to the churches.”2 This example is “a warning that even a materially impeccable doctrine may be held and taught and applied in such a way that the true insights of the Bible are suppressed, and the result is a distortion which achieves the very opposite of what is intended, and is almost worse than naked error.”3 The warning is applicable to Rome today, to orthodoxy also and in quite another way to the contemporary theology of our day.

The Contributions of Luther and Melanchthon

The seed of the Reformation sprouted and finally took root as Luther, an Augustinian monk, studied the Scriptures in preparation for his lectures from 1513–1518 on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. It was the power of that living Word that led him to his courageous work of reformation, and to subject the theology of the great scholastics to “the judgment of the apostles and prophets” and to reject this unholy synthesis of Scripture with Aristotle. As the Reformers searched the Scriptures and sought to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). they produced solid, expository commentaries on the books of the Bible; stirring confessions of faith, creeds and catechisms; moving tracts and treatises; and significant works on systematic theology. It was their view of the Bible as the very Word of God written that led them to produce these works in systematic theology in which they attempted to set forth “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in an orderly and unified manner.

Although Luther did not write a systematic theology, the opening quotation demonstrates that he knew the whole of theology had to be reformed and therefore rethought and rewritten, His own contributions were considerable, and his catechisms present a comprehensive and unified picture of his Protestant faith. Luther’s associate and successor, Philip Melanchthon, was the first to produce a Protestant handbook on dogmatics or systematic theology, which Luther said was after the Scriptures “the most perfect of works.”


Melanchthon had been lecturing on the book of Romans, When he discovered that someone had published the notes of some student. he decided to revise and re-arrange his lectures for publication having “nothing in view but to assist in one way or another the studies of those who wish to be conversant with the Scriptures.”4 This work was called Loci Communes, common places, since Melanchthon arranged the teaching of Romans in a methodical manner under such topics as God, unity, trinity, creation, man, grace, faith, hope, charity, predestination, sin etc. Although Melanchthon did not escape a compromising synthesis, especially in his later work, his Biblical and reformatory aims are clearly expressed here:

“Moreover, because it concerns the whole argument, the principal topics of Christian discipline are indicated in order that yours may understand both what things are to be sought out in the Scriptures, as well as learn under what base hallucinations they labor everywhere in theological science, who have handed down to us the subtle pratings of Arislotle, instead of the doctrine of Christ.”5

Calvin’s Aim and Method

The aim of John Calvin was similar, but his success was far greater. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion we have the most significant single work to come from the Reformation. Expressed as a vibrant, dynamic confession of faith, it is at the same time a most significant work in systematic theology for it covers the entire scope of the Scriptural teaching, The first edition of 1536 was a brief compendium of his Reformed faith, but as the work expanded through the various editions to the final edition of 1559, it served as a textbook for the instruction of students in the Scripture, Calvin puts it this way:

“Moreover, it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the rending of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling, For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that i/ anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents.”6

The Institutes reflects Calvin’s grasp of the Scriptures, The various editions of the work reflect his enriched understanding of Scripture through the writing of his various commentaries, The most striking illustration is the major enlargement of the Institutes in the second edition of 1539 which clearly reflects the influence of his commentary on the Romans which was also published in 1539.

The opening words of the Institutes reveal that Calvin has made a radical break with the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages. The scholastics were accustomed to speak of knowledge or science (scientia) while Calvin speaks of our wisdom (sapientia) consisting of two inseparable elements. namely, the knowledge of God and the know1edge of ourselves. For Calvin the knowledge of God necessarily involves religion or piety: “indeed, we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety.”7 While emphasizing the clarity of God’s general revelation so that no man is without excuse for not knowing God, Calvin recognizes the noetic effects of sin and breaks with the natural theology of Rome and the scholastics. He humbly acknowledges that “no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture,”8 recognizing also that one becomes a pupil of Scripture through the manifold workings of the Holy Spirit. The theologian’s relation to Scripture is summarized in the following:

“Not to take too long, let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety; not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s WordLet us not indulge in curiosity or in the investigation 0/ unprofitable things.The theologian’s task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.”9

Thus in his systematic writings Calvin always attempted to set forth biblical theology. Faithfulness to the Word was his fundamental aim: to avoid the frigid speculations of the philosophers, to speak when the Scriptures spoke. to be silent when the Scriptures were silent. “For our wisdom,” he said, “ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture.”10 Therefore he dared to speak about the mystery of the trinity because he was seeking to conform his thoughts and words to the sure rule of Scripture.11 And for the same reason he must also teach and defend the doctrine of God’s sovereign and just reprobation: “I can declare with all truth that I should never have spoken on this subject, unless the Word of God had led the way, as indeed all godly readers of my earlier writings, and especially of my Institutes, will readily gather.”12

The Seventeenth Century Theologians

The Reformers’ faith in Scripture as the authoritative revelation of God himself was basic to their reformation of theology. Their understanding of the truth revealed by Scripture was also fundamental to their attempts to write systematic theologies in which the doctrine of the Word was restated in an orderly. unified manner. And in writing theology they consciously sought to overcome the scholastic synthesis with non-Christian philosophy—even while unashamedly and confidently writing systematic theologies of biblical content.

The great stimulus of the Reformation led to increased theological reflection in the post-Reformation period. The Lutheran and Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century shared the Reformers’ high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. In the area of systematic theology especially they produced several imposing works.

Although the bitter attack of neo-orthodox theologians upon the orthodoxy of the seventeenth century is exaggerated, several dangerous tendencies did develop within Protestantism all too soon after the Reformation itself. The most serious defect and one with far-reaching consequences was the “tendency to subject genuinely scriptural material to alien Aristotelian or Cartesian principles and modes of presentation which result in a measure of distortion from the standpoint of true Biblical and Reformation doctrine. which give an ambiguity still reflected in scholarly assessments of the period.”13 There were other tendencies14 involving features of the doctrine of inspiration that have been the occasion for much of the attack upon the orthodox view of Scripture and which have been avoided especially by some Reformed theologians who speak of the nature of inspiration as organic while maintaining the plenary, verbal extent of the divine inspiration. The unfortunate result of the synthesis with Aristotelian or Cartesian principles led to a Protestant scholasticism which had many of the same disastrous results that Medieval scholasticism had had. Scripture was too often viewed as a mere textbook of dogmatic truth and the systematic theologies of the period lost the vitality and warmth of Calvin’s Institutes, in spite of the agreement that existed in the essentials of the Christian faith.

Modernism or Liberal Theology

Gradually there developed a liberal theology of which Friedrich Schleicrmacher (d.1834) was the father and the philosopher Immanuel Kant (cf.I804) was the grandfather. During the eighteenth century the Enlightenment undermined the Christian faith of many with its confidence in the power of human reason. Only that in the Bible which could be confirmed by reason was accepted. Kant’s philosophy rejected the possibility of factual knowledge of God or the super-sensible order. A naturalistic spirit led men to deny the possibility of miracles and to reject the supernatural. With the development of modem science and the application of Darwinian evolution, there arose a new view of life which no longer deserved to be called Christian even though it continued to insist upon its Christian character.

Liberal theology was rooted in humanism; it involved faith in man rather than faith in God. Whereas the Reformers had been moved to the reformation of theology by their rediscovery of the authoritative Word of God, the liberal rejection of Scripture as the Word of God led them to a revolution in the area of theology and a rejection of the Reformers.

Schleiermacher looked upon man’s religious feeling as the essence of Christianity. But he refused to regard Scripture as the norm and standard of Christian life. He also denied that the task of the theologian is to expound the authoritative Word of God in its relevance for life today. It seeks, rather, to describe accurately the state of religious feeling of a given people at a given time. Even the word “theology” must finally be replaced, and “science of religion” is used to describe this new theology. Adjusting to the demands of modern science, liberal theology became the history of religion, the psychology of religion and the philosophy of religion. Under the leadership of A. Ritschl and then of Harnack. Herrmann and Troeltsch. it held sway into the twentieth century.

Neo-orthodox Theology

While the rise of rationalism and liberalism led to the dissolution of dogmatics or systematic theology as it had been pursued by the Reformers and their faithful successors, it was the First World War which contributed to the demolition of liberal theology. Faith in man was shattered by the brutality of world war. Many liberal theologians and ministers, seeing their presuppositions challenged by the brute realities of life, turned in frustration and despair to Scripture and the Reformers for aid. Out of that background came Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans in 1919, and there began the present theological era.

Contemporary neo-orthodoxy, as it is frequently called, recognizes the universal sinfulness of man and the impotence of his reason or other faculties for reaching God. Acknowledging the need of revelation, they display new respect for Scripture and the Reformers. However. these neo-orthodox theologians refuse to accept Scripture as the very revelation of God himself. At that important point they profess their continued agreement with liberalism. Biblical criticism or higher criticism is said to he scientifically demonstrated, so that to abandon this view of Scripture would be ohscurantistic and out-dated. At this crucial point. then. neo-orthodoxy accepts the Kantian denial of the possibility of factual or historical revelation and knowledge of God. Hence the nature of revelation and the place of the Bible in connection with revelation remains a decisive issue in theology today.

The widespread aversion to classic forms of systematic theology today is rooted in neo-orthodoxy’s general acceptance of the liberal view of the Bible. Imposing theologies arc being written. such as Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Emil Brunner’s Christian Dogmatics and Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. But they differ radically in form and content from such classic Reformed theologies as those of Calvin, Kuyper, Bavinck, Hodge and Berkhof. According to Karl Barth “systematic theology,” presumably in the line of those just mentioned, is as paradoxical as a “wooden iron.”

The key to this disparagement of systematic theology today and the exaltation of “biblical theology” actually roots in neo-orthdoxy’s refusal to acknowledge Scripture as the inspired, authoritative, revelational Word of God. At best Scripture is held to be a witness to revelation, and then a fallible witness at that. Revelation is conceived of primarily as “encounter” and verbal communication is denied. While Reformed theologians understood God’s revelation to be both a word and fact revelation, today’s theology stresses event but denies even the possibility of word or propositional revelation. The identification of Scripture with the Word of God is held to be an idol of orthodoxy which has now fallen to pieces in the wake of modern science.

Any theology which refuses to submit believingly and joyfully to the Scripture as God’s self-revelation carries the seeds of its own decay. Neo-orthodoxy in its Barthian form began as a reaction theology and that reaction has already moved against Barth himself. And even Rudolf Bultmann, the New Testament scholar who rose to prominence at the expense of Barth’s popularity, is already seeing his influence wane. Contemporary theologians may continue to reject the validity of Reformed systematic theology, but this is only the symptom of the disease which leads them to reject God’s very revelation of himself. The crisis in that illness is being reached as they become increasingly restless in their frustrating search for the revelation they refuse to accept.


While many contemporary theologians haughtily sneer at systematic theology and exalt what they call “biblical theology,” they are either sadly misunderstanding the nature of Reformed systematic theology or, consciously or unconsciously, camouflaging an unbiblical view of revelation and an altered view of the Christian faith. How much truer to Scripture and the Reformers is the view of the late Gerhardus Vas who was himself a pioneer in Reformed biblical theology. He recognized the legitimacy and necessity of both disciplines stemming from an obedient study of Scripture as God’s Word. Vas denies that biblical theology, his own particular field of specialization, was inherently more biblical than systematic theology or adhered more closely to the truths of Scripture. A difference in the principle of organizing the Biblical material constituted the uniqueness of each.

“Whereas Systematic Theology takes the Bible as a completed whole and endeavors to exhibit its total teaching in an orderly, systematic form, Biblical Theology deals with the material from the historical standpoint, seeking to exhibit the organic growth or development of the truths of Special Revelation from the primitive pre-redemptive Special Revelation given in Eden to the close of the New Testament canon.”15

From the famous New Testament scholar, J. Gresham Machen, we hear a similar sound. He frankly asserts that at the old Princeton Seminary where he taught theology, the center of the curriculum was to be found in the department of systematic theology. And then he adds:

“For my part, I have always regarded the study of the New Testament, to which I have given my life, as ancillary to that other department [i.e. systematic theology]. New Testament study has its own methods, indeed; but ultimately its aim should be to aid in the establishment of that system of doctrine that the Scripture contains.”16

Behind the complex theological scene of our day with the oft expressed rivalry of biblical and systematic theology and the frequent disparagement of the latter by the former, there lurks the greater danger. That greater danger is that many contemporary theologians no longer know what the Word of God is! In that they differ from Calvin and Luther and from Vas and Machen. Reformed theology in all its branches—and specifically now, Reformed systematic theology—is possible only when men learn believing]y to accept Scripture as the very Word of God written!


1. Cf. J. Calvin, Institutes, I, vii, 2.

2. G. W. Bromiley in Revelation and the Bible. (Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1958), p. 209.

3. Ibid., p. 209f.

4. The Loci Communes of Philip Melanchthon, translated by C. L. Hill, (Boston: Meador Publishing Co., 1944), p. 65.

5. Ibid., p. 64.

6. Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by F. L. Battles. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 4.

7. Ibid., I, ii, 1.

8. Ibid., I, vi, 2.

9. Ibid., I, xiv, 4.

10. Ibid., I, xviii, 4.

11. Ibid. . I, xill, 3.

12. Concerning The Eternal Predestination of God, translated by J. K. S. Reid, (London: James Clarke, 1961), p. 61f.

13. C. W. Bromiley, op. cit., p. 214.

14. Ibid., p. 213f.

15. Biblical Theology, Old and New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans., 1954), preface.

16. Vergflius Ferm, editor, Contemporary American Theology, (Chicago: Round Table Press, 1923), p. 253.