For most of modern Reformed theology, there has been an operating thesis which says that, after Calvin, there was a departure from the pure evangelical theology of the first generation of Reformers. The simple, pastoral style of Calvin and others was abandoned for the complex and overly rational method of the Scholastics. This thesis has contributed to a poverty in the Reformed world. This poverty can be seen in the debates over basic doctrines found in our confessions. The reason for the debate over these doctrines is that the exegetical foundation for them, which was more fully developed by the post-Calvin scholastic theologians of the Reformation, has been lost.
The passage from Zanchi’s De Operibus that I want to look at is an excellent example of why we should pay attention to the Reformed Scholastics. Two things in particular stand out from this quote; Calvin’s commendable aim of simplicity is reproduced in Zanchi and the emphasis on systematic theology as grounded in the text of Scripture. A third lesson arises from the first two, the need for Latin among our ministers.
Zanchi introducing his exposition of Genesis 1:1
Let no one expect from me, either that I will reproduce statements of every interpretation or that I will follow an minute explanation of each particular point or an observation of them in the manner that they deserve which can be searched out from clear statements of the rest of Scripture. It will be sufficient for me to draw out the common places (topics, loci communes, or heads of doctrine), if I briefly overview the context and, as I myself judge it to be, open up, for a bit, a true and genuine interpretation. This, therefore, is my view: this first verse is the overview of the whole, which afterwards Moses will explain piece by piece, in which he briefly teaches, first, that of those things which are in Heaven, as well as on earth, that is of things invisible and visible, nothing is eternal, save God. Then, all things were made of nothing. And third, all things are from God. This is the proposition; the first part arises from that which is said “In the beginning,” the second from the word “created,” and the third from the name “Elohim.”
The simplicity of Calvin
Note that at the outset, Zanchi sets the expectation for his readers. He says that he is not going to cover all the interpretations that have been produced on this verse nor is he going to descend into examination of all the details of this verse. Rather he proposes to draw out the heads of doctrine that arise from this verse. He is not engaged in logical or grammatical gymnastics. He wants, rather to edify his readers with the pure doctrine that arises from the text and to present it to them clearly.
This was Calvin’s goal in all his expositions, sermons, and the Institutio. What we find in Zanchi is the same goal. There is then a happy continuity between the father of the Reformed faith and one of his offspring. In our expositions, this should also be our goal. Reformed theologians are not academic giants, though they should strive for academic excellence. They are not grammatical savants, though all our doctrines should be tied to the text of Scritpure. Rather, we are pastors, feeding the flock of God the pure word of doctrine revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
Calvin, Zanchi, and the other Reformed scholastics are examples to us of how this should be done.
As you can see from the quote above, Zanchi uses this phrase to indicate the doctrines that arise from this text and which he will prove in his exposition. The eternity of God, the creation of all things, visible and invisible, and the source of all, God himself, Zanchi draws out of this verse. Far from being a logical deduction from a governing dogma, Reformed scholastic theology was self consciously grounded in the text of Scripture. At the end of the quote, Zanchi indicates the terms from which his three loci arise: the eternity of God from in principio, the creation of all things from creavit, and the source of all things from the name of God, Elohim.
Systematic theology has fallen on hard times. Given the logical nature of it and the complexity that sometimes attends its exposition and defense, modern Christians are little disposed to endure it. Today we are seeing the ascent of Biblical Theology, that is, the examination of the text of Scripture as a literary work with a coherent narrative structure and main narrative thread running through out. And this development is glorious. To be an effective preacher, one needs Biblical Theology if only for the fact that people love a good story. And the Bible contains the best story, God redeeming, through the death of his Only Begotten, a people to worship and adore him. Amen and amen!
But, systematic theology is necessary as well. Without systematic theology, all we have is a happy narrative that has no application to our lives. One of the contributing factors to the aversion to the scholastics is that they were, first and foremost, systematic theologians. Given their training and the language in which they worked (Latin), they were aptly equipped by God’s overruling providence to systematize the doctrines of the Reformation. It is no accident that all the great Reformed Creeds and Confessions grew in and arose from this scholastic soil. The debates over our confessions that are raging right now would be much helped by a return to these fathers of the Reformation. Even Luther saw the need for this work of systematization when he characterised himself as the one who cleared the path through the woods and Philip Melanchthon (“my Philip” in Luther’s homey phrase) as the one who smoothed out the road. Melanchthon was the first to employ the Loci method for arranging the heads of doctrine into a coherent whole. He it was who first wrote a Loci Communes.
Latina discenda est
If you are seeking the Reformed pastorate, you need Latin. The day in which we live is a fascinating modern age. I am writing to you on my phone from which I also accessed Zanchi’s De Operibus, 1602 edition. The only thing that separates my ability to read Zanchi and your inability is the knowledge of Latin. There is now no hindrance between your eyes and those pages, except the acquisition of a relatively easy to learn language (it is much easier than Hebrew and Greek).
I taught Latin for several years. It is by far the most straight forward and regular language I have studied. Whereas English has as many exceptions as it does rules, Latin has rules with very few exceptions. She is as orderly qua legio in agmine.
Your knowledge of Latin will give you access to the exegetical and theological work that went into the formation of our confessions. And it is having that background, as a pastor, that will enable you to teach and defend those doctrines to which you will or have taken vows.
May we be learned men, mighty in the Scriptures, for the good of our flocks and the glory of the Church, our beloved Savior’s Bride.
There is so much demand on a pastor’s time and energy. And yet, there is so much in this world to distract him from his goal. The same phone with which I can access Zanchi and any other scholastic text, is also a den of distraction. It is not technology itself that will perpetuate the Reformation. It is goldy pastors who give themselves to these things, whose progress is evident to all and whose teaching will save both themselves and those who hear them (1 Timothy 4:15, 16).
Learning Latin and returning to the Reformed Scholatics is one way a modern Reformed pastor can do just this.