• Keith Mathison

One of the Greatest Works of Reformed Theology Now Complete in English

In 2014, Brill published the first volume of an English translation of the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae (Synopsis of a Purer Theology), It is also known as the Leiden Synopsis because its authors taught at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. This work resulted from a series of academic disputations held at Leiden in the 1620s. It is a master class in classical scholastic Reformed theology.

Sadly, many students of Reformed theology have been given a wrong impression of the nature of scholasticism and think that it is contrary to Reformed theology. Thankfully, more and more works of scholastic Reformed theology from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are being translated and published every year, revealing the error of this claim. In their introduction to Volume 1 of the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, the editors do a good job of explaining what scholasticism actually is (a method, not a content). They observe that there were various genres used in early modern scholastic works. They then explain what these various genres had in common.

"These genres share certain important features: a clear demarcation of the topic under discussion; a keen interest in definitions; a comprehensive treatment of relevant aspects by means of a topical structure; frequent usage of distinctions, partly to anticipate a treatment of the subject’s various elements, partly to solve difficulties that are implied in the initial, undifferentiated statement; explicit statements of proofs and arguments supporting one’s own position, and a corresponding refutation of counter-arguments. In fact, the ‘question’ structure, as the elementary tool of medieval scholastic inquiry, is recognizable in its application throughout the various genres of scholastic texts. Even when the ‘question’ structure is not followed explicitly, the techniques of definition, distinction, logical reasoning and refutation of objections are typical of scholastic discourse. The differences between the aforementioned genres consist in the degree of sophistication and detail and in the purpose of the work, which may be either didactic or polemical” (Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, Vol., 1, p. 4).

This is one of the clearest and most helpful explanations of the nature of the scholastic method in print. Unfortunately, as Richard Muller explains, the rejection of scholasticism was one of the factors that ultimately led to the decline of Protestant orthodoxy:

“The decline of Protestant orthodoxy, then, coincides with the decline of the interrelated intellectual phenomena of scholastic method and Christian Aristotelianism. Rationalist philosophy was ultimately incapable of becoming a suitable ancilla [an aid] and, instead, demanded that it and not theology be considered queen of the sciences. Without a philosophical structure to complement its doctrines and to cohere with its scholastic method, Protestant orthodoxy came to an end” (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 84).

The older scholastic method used by the classic Reformed theologians needs to be critically re-appropriated in contemporary Reformed theology. One of the ways we can begin to do this is by learning from these past masters, by learning from the authors of works such as the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae. Thankfully, the translation of this work is now complete. The English translation of volume 2 of this work was published in 2016. Now, finally, in July of this year, volume 3 was published. We now have the entirety of this great classic work of Reformed theology translated into English with the original Latin on the facing pages.

Because they are published by Brill (a Dutch word which, being translated, means "very expensive because our paper is made from the pulp of trees taken from the elvish forest of Lothlórian"), each of the three volumes is almost as costly as a standard college textbook. They are worth it. If you can obtain copies, take the time to read and study them. This work is one of the greatest works of classic Reformed theology.

Information on each volume from the publisher's website may be found here:

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3