Reformed Scholasticism

Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology

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Ryan McGraw
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ryan McGraw’s presentation of Reformed scholasticism, the development of the Reformed tradition following the initial outbreak during the Reformation, is an ambitious project. Ever since the publication of Richard Muller’s Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Labyrinth Press, 1986), the study of Reformed scholasticism has exploded, resulting in a massive revision in how this movement ought to be interpreted communicated through many volumes and essays. The task McGraw set for himself in Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology is to summarize essentially the findings of this mountain of research and equip younger scholars with the tools to make their own contribution, both to historical inquiry and to the life of the modern Reformed church. As he writes, “the thesis of this work is that students of Reformed theology need to study the scholastic roots of the Reformed orthodox tradition to understand and to build a constructive Reformed theology. The author aims to introduce the tools needed to study Reformed scholasticism with an ultimate view to the potential benefits that such studies can offer the church today” (3-4). McGraw envisions his work as an accompaniment to already existing introductory studies of Reformed scholasticism.

After a justification for his book, McGraw offers a crash course on historiography. This section walks a tension between historiographical advice salutary for anyone writing history and specific recommendations for those working in this particular field. It covers ground one might naturally expect—the difference between primary and secondary sources, basing research on primary sources in original languages, etc. McGraw dives deeper into the minutiae of how to conduct research in Reformed scholasticism by recommending specific publishers that tend to publish quality books related to the field and even ways to study Latin. He engages other contemporary scholars critically, but charitably, a model he wishes his students to emulate. This section is basically a truncated version of historiographical books such as those by David Bebbington or Richard Muller and James Bradley. The only item that might make readers pause is his claim that “only a biblical epistemology can support the possibility of historical research” (68). This is a considerable claim that is handled in only a page.

The next section orients the reader to the current scholarly consensus on Reformed scholasticism. After providing a description of some of the key terms and a broad overview of the development of the tradition, McGraw walks through several key questions: 1) the relationship of Protestant theology to the medieval scholastic tradition; 2) the catholicity of the movement; and 3) the matter of connections to the first generation of Reformed theologians. How McGraw answers that first question contributes a lot to the way he frames the rest of his interpretation of Reformed scholasticism. McGraw maintains that “the Renaissance should be less prominent in the study of Reformed scholasticism than the influences of medieval theology and method should be” (106). It should come as no surprise that when he considers the development of Protestant universities, he generally finds more continuity with medieval universities than one might expect. Here we encounter a little bit of a problem. McGraw does not cite any primary sources from university sources that speak to the nature of the curriculum or changes ushered in through the influence of the Renaissance, nor does he cite modern histories of the universities he engages. Had he done so, he may have arrived at a more nuanced presentation of Protestant universities that shows a greater sensitivity to continuities and divergences. This is a matter of interpretation, but McGraw does little to corroborate his opinion.

It has an impact upon the way he thinks about the catholicity of Reformed scholasticism, too, both in terms of chronological and contemporary catholicity. The chapter on chronological catholicity tilts toward the question of reception of medieval scholasticism, with only a nod toward the patristic era. This is actually pretty typical of scholarship on the tradition. It is the adoption of scholastic method that contributes to a sense of discontinuity between earlier Protestants and later scholastics, but that also serves as an international bond in the Reformed tradition. The chapter on international Reformed scholasticism covers the advancement of the movement in seven geographic areas in a mere thirteen pages. It serves largely as an introduction to names, but students will move quickly to other, more expansive sources, as McGraw himself acknowledges. Since scholasticism is such a dominating factor in McGraw’s narrative, he seems compelled to argue that piety is a constitutive part of Reformed scholasticism in the penultimate chapter. This is where the influence of humanism might be important given the humanist critique of scholasticism as impractical.

There are some idiosyncrasies within the text that qualify its utility. McGraw frequently uses “this author.” This reveals the prehistory of the book in class lectures where he would have used the first person and it is technically correct, but it feels a bit stilted. Footnote citations are a bit erratic. On p. 118, McGraw references an article by Isabel Apawo Phiri in The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology (Cambridge, 2016). The footnote only lists the book, not the chapter, and Apawo Phiri is not in the bibliography. On p. 141, McGraw wishes to give evidence for Socinian exegetical practices and cites Sarah Mortimer’s book as well as all of The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism (Cambridge, 2008), though there is very little on Socianianism in the latter volume and what is there does not speak to exegetical matters. There are also a surprising number of typographical errors. None of these are egregious, but in a book for students, the model for scholarship should be better.

Reformed Scholasticism is helpful for beginning graduate students, but they will likely quickly outgrow the content of the book. This makes it hard to justify the cost of the book, particularly when there are less expensive, more comprehensive books available. A revised paperback edition will correct some of the miscues and bring the price down to a more reasonable range for the target audience.





About the Reviewer(s): 

David Barbee is Assistant Professor of Christian Thought at Winbrenner Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ryan M. McGraw is Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Adjunct Professor of Doctoral Studies at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and Research Fellow for the University of the Free State.


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