Reformed Scholasticism, the Puritans, and Text Criticism

(This is a re-post from April, 2008.)

Puritan and Reformed Scholasticism was built on an intense, scholarly, detailed, and humble study of the Scriptures – including original languages and semitic studies. The Reformed scholastics were not opposed to early textual criticism – what we may call “lower” criticism as opposed to “higher” criticism. Actually, the scholastics did massive textual and critical work.

Take Matthew Poole (d. 1679) for instance. In five large volumes, Poole gathered many different scholarly analyses of Scripture, called the Synopsis Criticorum and also wrote Annotations on the Holy Bible, along with other textual and critical works. Here is a sample of some of Poole’s textual and critical scholarship.

“Poole recognized that some of the statements in the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses and were probably additions made by later prophets, and in the case of the account of the death of Moses, he could state quite categorically that the problem of authorship was ‘no more impeachment to Divine authority of this chapter, that the penman is unknown, which is also the lot of some other books of Scripture, than it is to the authority of the acts of the king or parliament, that they are written or printed by some unknown person'” (Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 134).

Concerning 1 and 2 Samuel, Poole admits unknown authorship: he says it could have been written by more than one author (Ibid.). Furthermore Poole notes that Solomon didn’t write the entire book of Proverbs – after chapter 24, the book was “gathered by others” (Ibid.). In today’s language, Poole would not have denied some sort of a redactor concerning the “gathering” of some OT books.

What does this teach us? A few things. First of all, as Muller well says, “there is no clear division [in Reformed Scholasticism] between ‘pre-critical’ and ‘critical exegesis'” (Ibid., 135). Secondly, the Reformed and Puritan scholastics contributed positively to the development of textual criticism; textual criticism is not a “naughty word” in Reformed studies (Ibid.). Thirdly, textual criticism can and sometimes does take a negative turn, but only when approached rationalistically.  Francis Turretin’s son, J. A. Turretin, for example, in a more rationalistic way than Poole opened the door to a wedge between textual criticism and orthodox Reformed doctrine (Ibid., 145). Finally, the hermeneutical principles (principles of interpretation) of Reformed scholasticism were indeed pre-critical. That is to say, though the later Reformed and Puritan teachers interacted with and utilized later critical methods, they did not utilize later critical hermeneutics. They interpreted Scripture side-by-side with Calvin, Ursinus, and the other earlier Reformers while digging deeper into textual criticism than their predecessors.

For more on the above, and before asking deep questions, read Volume II of Muller’s PRRD, especially the above listed pages/sections, along with 248-255. Better yet, read Poole if you can get your hands on it!

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI