White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Bringing Back Lutheran Scholasticism?

Published Wednesday, October 7, 2020 By John Ehrett

Jordan Cooper’s new book Prologomena: A Defense of the Scholastic Method is a welcome and long-overdue contribution to today’s confessional Lutheran theology. The first in a planned series of volumes entitled “A Contemporary Protestant Scholastic Theology,” Prologomena lays the necessary philosophical groundwork for the retrieval of a distinctly small-c catholic understanding of Lutheranism.

Though Cooper never directly argues the point, it’s fair to say that Lutheran theology in America—particularly in its more conservative expressions—occupies something of an intellectual backwater. Catholics can point to Robert George and Robert Barron, the Reformed can hold up Tim Keller and Peter Leithart, Baptists have Al Mohler and Russell Moore—but Lutherans with an outsize impact on American Christianity and culture more broadly seem tough to find. Why might this be?

The answer, Cooper contends, lies in the rise of an “existentialist” interpretation of the Lutheran tradition that has consciously cut itself off from the larger tradition of Christian intellectual life. The existentialist interpretation—which Cooper associates with theologians Oswald Bayer, Steven Paulson, Gerhard Forde, William Schumacher, and others—eschews “metaphysics” and “ontology” in favor of a theology centered almost exclusively on the individual’s encounter with the proclamation of Law and Gospel. The experience of living in the world as a finite being—what Martin Heidegger called Dasein—is, on this view, an ever-present condition of absolute alienation from God. This felt alienation, then, is what is meant by the “Law.” The Gospel, in turn, is the good news of salvation that empowers the individual to live authentically in the world. (Paulson even goes so far as to argue that the Gospel is the end of “virtue” as a classical theological category altogether—since “virtue” is a function of living under law.)

It doesn’t take a theology doctorate to grasp the sharp distinction between this way of doing theology and the broader mainstream of Christian thought, which has from the start been underpinned by major metaphysical claims. Surely, after all, the Bible’s talk of sin, salvation, obedience, and final judgment means something weightier than merely the individual’s attempt to live well in the world. And that is exactly what Cooper, in his extended defense of a traditional “realist-essentialist” metaphysic, sets out to prove.

The heart of Cooper’s book is a sustained argument that the principles of both the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical traditions properly belong in Lutheran theology, notwithstanding some Lutherans’ historic skepticism of such incorporation. To that end, Cooper marshals an immense range of historical authorities, ranging from better-known Lutheran scholastics like Johann Gerhard and Philip Melanchthon to more obscure figures like Calov, Quenstedt, and Hollaz, and elaborates the classical metaphysical vision that underpinned their systematic theologies. “Platonic” concepts, on Cooper’s account, include notions like metaphysical participation, absolute unity, and the doctrine of divine ideas; “Aristotelian” motifs include the fourfold account of causality, the substance/accident distinction, and the concept of hylomorphism.

Without retrieval of these principles—and the classical theism they entail—Cooper argues that Lutheran theology will struggle to meet the challenges of the modern age. Reducing faith to mere existential encounter with the power of authenticity, after all, is not much of an answer to a generation steeped in Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. And how are issues such as sex and gender to be meaningfully discussed without some philosophical account of what those words refer to?

As far this this larger argument is concerned, Cooper’s case in Prologomena succeeds on all fronts. The book is at its very best when Cooper, having laid a robust philosophical foundation for Christian thought, finally deploys it against the “existentialist Lutherans” to devastating effect. Prologomena is, at its heart, a clarion call for the Lutheran tradition to return to the faith of its forefathers, and readers would be wise to heed Cooper’s appeal.

That said, the volume is not without its weaker points—two of which in particular warrant discussion.

It is never quite clear why, throughout the course of Prologomena, Cooper takes such pains to defend distinctly Aristotelian philosophical concepts at great length. These concepts are not themselves integral to coherent Christian theology: prior to the development of Thomas Aquinas’s “Thomistic synthesis,” an Augustinian interpretation of Neopolatonism was the philosophical lingua franca of educated Christians. Indeed, Aristotelianism was originally seen as a threatening, alien presence in Christendom prior to Aquinas.

What the Thomistic synthesis succeeded in demonstrating was that there was no necessary conflict between the church’s Augustinianism and the new Aristotelian science. That synthesis did not entail that Aristotelian ideas—useful though they may be in certain contexts—were intrinsic to Christian intellectual life as such. The truly core motifs of classical Christian metaphysics—the infinity of God, the Logos, participation in God leading to final union with Him, and so on—are all essentially Neoplatonic in origin.

None of this is to say that Aristotelianism is per se wrong or useless—merely that it’s not clear why Cooper spends so many pages arguing a claim that isn’t necessary to his main argument. And in places, Cooper’s affinity for Aristotelian categories may do his case more harm than good. Cooper oddly argues that Platonic metaphysics is ill-suited to a truly sacramental view of the Eucharist, and instead comments Aristotelian thought’s embrace of “materiality.” Yet he never attempts to explain why an “Aristotelian” sacramental theology doesn’t immediately collapse into a form of Roman Catholic transubstantiation; surely, a Platonic cosmology that affirms multiple overlapping, equally substantial levels of reality is better suited to a Lutheran sacramental theology.

In any event, this tendency doesn’t significantly undercut Cooper’s main point. It’s a distraction, though (and not the only one—the book tends toward the digressive, and likely could’ve shed a hundred pages or so if the excessive throat-clearing had been edited out.)

A broader question raised by Cooper’s book is what exactly “the scholastic method” means. Cooper uses the term somewhat idiosyncratically, as a kind of shorthand for the set of theological-philosophical commitments shared by thinkers often grouped together as “the Lutheran orthodox” or “the Lutheran scholastics.” These commitments, as mentioned, included classical-theistic views about the nature of God, as well as a willingness to draw on the best insights of Hellenic and Hellenistic thought.

But this is not what is conventionally meant by “scholastic method.” The “scholastic method,” as a method, is associated with a highly systematized, technical approach to the writing of theology. It is often difficult for outsiders to access. (At times, medieval scholastic theology could become so arcane that it was derisively described as contemplating “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”)

The scholastic method qua scholastic method is mostly out of favor in the world of academic theology, with the exception of a few recent authors (Charles De Koninck comes to mind). Indeed, Cooper’s own book has almost nothing in common, structurally, with the great “manualist” stream of scholastic theology. And it is hard to say that this is a bad thing: much scholastic theology is crushingly boring and spectacularly removed from the practical needs of the church, to say nothing of its near-total unintelligibility to the average layperson.

A book defending the continued relevance of scholasticism as a method would be a fascinating read. Perhaps the modern loss of that era’s methodological rigor has done more harm than good, in the end. But alas, Cooper makes no such case here. And accordingly, it seems to me that the volume would perhaps be better titled “A Defense of Lutheran Catholicity” or “A Defense of the Classical Christian Tradition.” These points, though, are but minor quibbles. As it stands, Prologomena fills an enormous void in the world of confessional Lutheran scholarship, directly confronting the “existentialist Lutherans” on their own ground and laying out a bracing case for a return to traditional first principles. That is a great accomplishment indeed.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

  • John Ehrett