The Fathers, Medieval Doctors, and the Reformers: Continuity in Scripture and Theology

 I appreciate how Richard Muller shows that the Reformers’ view of Scripture had its roots in the theology of the church fathers and medieval doctors.  We have a wrong view of the Reformation if we fail to understand that the Reformers stood on the shoulders of those who came before them in the church.  (Notice especially the first and last paragraphs of this extended quote – and watch for the sentence with “naked text” in it.)

“Just as the medieval view of text, canon, and exegesis is the proper background against which the Reformation and the subsequent development of Protestant approaches to Scripture must be understood, so also is the medieval doctrine of Scripture the necessary background to an understanding of the development of an orthodox Protestant doctrine of Scripture.”

“With striking uniformity the medieval doctors declare the authority of Scripture as the divinely given source of all doctrines of the faith.  They deal, for the most part, quite carefully and precisely with the concept of inspiration, recognizing the need to balance the divine and the human authorship of the text and, with surprising frequency, noting the relationship between the diversity of genre and literary style within the canon and the form taken by the doctrine of inspiration” (p. 37).

Later, Muller notes the following:

“The early Reformation view of Scripture, for all that it arose in the midst of conflict with the churchly tradition of the later Middle ages, stands in strong continuity with the issues raised in the theological debates of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  The late medieval debate over tradition and the late medieval and Renaissance approach to the literal sense of the text of Scripture in its original languages had together raised questions over the relationship between Scripture and churchly theology, between the individual exegete and the text, and between the exegete and established doctrine that looked directly toward the issues and problems addressed by the early Reformers.”

“It is, thus, entirely anachronistic to view the ‘sola scriptura’ of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.  It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history.  Both the language of ‘sola scriptura’ and the actual use of the text by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the questions of authority and interpretation posed by the developments of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  Even so, close study of the actual exegetical results of the Reformers manifests strong interpretive and doctrinal continuities with the exegetical results of the fathers and the medieval doctors” (p. 64-5).

Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2.

shane lems