VI.6 The Reformation as disputation

VI.6 The Reformation as disputation

Image. Detail from Hans Schwyzer, Effigies praecipuorum, illustrium, atque praestantium aliquot theologorum ... (1650), Zentralbibliothek Zürich.  Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain.  Full image available here

In fact, the entire Reformation controversy was sometimes represented as a disputation in which the opposing sides faced one another across a table – another common format for these protracted events. In this image from the very end of our period, the leading Reformers -- Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, and Oecolampadius -- are clearly identified sitting on the left of the table, with only copies of the Bible in front of them. The legend below the full image identifies 36 other leading Protestant theologians, who flank the table on both sides. The pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, and monk, sitting on the right and armed with their bulls, decretals and legends, remain unidentified.

This piece of Protestant propaganda therefore vividly illustrates the manner in which the disputation -- the most characteristic feature of scholastic education -- was not only continued but powerfully reinforced by the disputes arising from the Reformation. The scholastic style of argumentation had been developed during the Middle Ages for defending Christian doctrine against enemies outside the Church -- such as pagan philosophers, and Jewish or Muslim unbelievers -- as well as heretics within.  But the Reformation divided Latin Christendom itself into inimical camps: Protestant versus Catholic, Lutheran versus Reformed (or Calvinist), Reformed versus Arminian, Socinian, and so on. In such circumstances, the successful defence of any species of orthodoxy required precisely the debating skills fostered by a scholastic university education, now reinforced by the superior linguistic and historical scholarship cultivated by the humanists. 

From the late sixteenth century onward, therefore, 'scholasticism' was no longer the preserve of the Roman Church alone.  Protestants also developed a rigorously academic, essentially scholastic form of theology.  While older generations of historians of Protestant theology have deplored Protestant scholasticism as a lapse back into medieval darkness, others (particularly in the Reformed or Calvinist confession) have more recently rehabilitated it as the characteristic form of high theological discourse throughout the confessional era (more information available here and here).

Further reading. For medieval precedents, see M. Grossman, 'Disputations', The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. A. Berlin (Oxford, 2011), available here.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2021)