14 November 2006

suarez and reformed eclectic thomism

Francisco Suarez, who died in 1617, was a near contemporary of many formative figures within emerging Protestant and, especially, Reformed scholastic theology. I am thinking here, in particular, of influential (though today largely forgotten) thinkers such as Bartholomaeus Keckermann (1571-1609), Clemens Timpler (1563-1624), Gilbertus Jacchaeus (1578-1628), Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638), Antonius Walaeus (1573-1639), and Johannes Maccovius (Jan Makowski; 1588-1644), among others. While the Reformed tradition has, at times, been presented as largely Scotist in character - and there is some truth to that claim - it is also true that late medieval varieties of Thomism played a significant role in the formation of the tradition.

For instance, the theology of Martin Bucer, a former Dominican, shows signs of Aquinas’s influence. This, in turn, arguably shaped Calvin during his years with Bucer in Strasbourg, particularly (in my estimation) with regard to Calvin's sacramental theology, which, during those years, took a decided turn toward seeing sacraments more as efficacious instrumental causes of grace and less as mere moral and occasional causes - though Calvin never, of course, embraced a fully Thomistic understanding of sacramental causality.

More important than Bucer, however, were the shaping influences of the Italian Reformed theologians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchius (1516-1590), both of whom were openly and pervasively indebted to late medieval Thomism, even if certain of Aquinas’s teachings were freely questioned or revised in light of later developments or questions raised by figures such as Scotus and even some nominalists. Nevertheless, in Vermigli and Zanchius we begin to find a growing Reformed receptivity to a limited natural theology, as well as a deployment of Thomistic apparatus and vocabulary.

We find, for instance, talk of primary and secondary causality that assumes God as the first and final cause, all of which plays out within the created order in terms of instrumental, formal, and material causes. Likewise, we find talk of form, matter, substance, potency, act, habits, and so forth, all with clear (and sometimes explicit) debts to Aquinas, even if again such notions are sometimes re-tooled and re-interpreted in light of subsequent developments and contemporary concerns.

The point here is that already within the Reformed tradition there was an openness toward the heritage of Christian use of Aristotle and its major exponents (often within the wider currents of a Christian faith shaped by a more “neo-platonic” Augustinianism). As Reformed theologians began to construct and solidify their own educational institutions toward the end of the 16th century, and as those institutions began to address questions of pedagogy and polemics, a Protestant “scholasticism” began to emerge.

Within this emergent scholasticism, the already extant openness toward Christian use of Aristotle would foster affinity for, and lay the groundwork of, a positive appropriation of figures such as Suarez, who was himself, after all, a major contemporary representative of Christian use of Aristotle, surfacing from within what one could see as a broad, revisionist - or even eclectic - Thomism. That appropriation of Suarez, in turn, tended to reinforce the relatively Aristotelian character of early Reformed scholastic orthodoxy.