Revisiting Martin Luther’s Philosophy

A Review of Prolegomena: A Defense of the Scholastic Method, by Jordan Cooper (The Weidner Institute, 2020)

By James Clark

Over the past several decades, scholars have begun giving due attention to Protestant scholasticism in the centuries following the Reformation.[1] Such treatments have helpfully exposited both the methodology underlying many post-Reformation systematic works and the substantive theological systems that were developed using these methods. Indeed, many have argued that the Protestant scholastics were true theological and philosophical heirs of the earlier Reformers—despite differences in method—and, by extension, that these scholastics continue to have relevance for Protestants today.

Lutheran theologian Jordan Cooper has taken the next logical step and published the first volume in a new scholastic theology, appropriately called A Contemporary Protestant Scholastic Theology. In traditional fashion, this first volume, titled Prolegomena: A Defense of the Scholastic Method, establishes the theological and philosophical methodology on which the rest of the series will be based. And, as the title makes clear, the book also defends the scholastic method against objections and criticisms.

Cooper notes from the outset that “this work is self-consciously Lutheran, though the title simply describes itself as a Protestant scholastic theology” (2, emphasis original). That said, this first volume should be of interest to all Protestants because the Lutheran and Reformed churches “both retain a common heritage in the scholastic approach to doing theology in the seventeenth century” (3), even though theological differences led their respective scholastic works in different directions. As such, “This work…is intended as a defense of the scholastic method as a whole, thus speaking to both the Lutheran and Reformed communities” (3).

Cooper observes that many Lutherans today believe “Lutheran scholasticism represents a departure from the theology of Martin Luther” (43). Specifically, the self-described Radical Lutherans—represented here by Gerhard Forde, Oswald Bayer, and Steven Paulson—hold that the scholastic method is inadequate for theology because it is based on “abstract ideas…heavily influenced by Greek philosophy” (41), especially Plato and Aristotle and their use of “essentialist categories” (10).

Instead, according to the Radical Lutherans, “Theology should be exposited from a linguistic perspective” (76), drawing in particular on speech-act theory. By embracing a “linguistic turn in Christian theology” (28), contemporary theologians can “return to Luther’s own thought rather than the corrupted ideas of his theological descendants” (77), for on this account Luther himself “functioned on the basis of linguistics rather than ontology” (41).

In addition to the Radical Lutherans, there are others, including William W. Schumacher, Robert Kolb, and Charles Arand, who “have a firm adherence to the entirety of the Lutheran Confessions” (43), yet have also been influenced by “the underlying methodological convictions of Radical Lutheran thought” (56). This influence is manifest in their belief that “essentialist categories (though not rejected altogether) are an insufficient philosophical basis upon which one can exposit a theological system” (77). Cooper defines essentialism (here synonymous with metaphysical realism) as “the conviction that there are distinct essences which unite things of a common kind together. They have real existence, whether in the Platonic forms or in the things themselves, as in Aristotle” (80–81).

Against this, Cooper argues that Lutheran scholasticism is actually an extension of Luther’s approach to theology and philosophy. Luther “was influenced largely by Neoplatonic thinkers” (192), as evidenced by how frequently he cites them (92). Furthermore, Cooper contends that Luther showed himself in his writings—particularly his philosophical theses in the Heidelberg Disputation, which, Cooper remarks, to this day are not included in the English edition of Luther’s Works (140)—to be an essentialist, rather than being “devoted to the nominalist ideas of his teachers” (192), as is commonly believed.

Following Luther, the Lutheran scholastics “utilized a form of essentialist philosophy which borrowed elements from both Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism” (197). Therefore, as Robert Preus has argued, “The general trend is one of continuity between Luther and orthodox writers” (66), contra the Radical Lutherans.

But Cooper’s case for the scholastic method does not consist solely in an appeal to tradition, or more precisely to the true nature of the Lutheran tradition. He also maintains that the anti-essentialism of the Radical Lutherans goes against Scriptural witness. Moreover, what Cooper calls the “linguistic-existential metaphysic” (79, emphasis original) of the Radical Lutherans is “inadequate in explaining necessary theological truths” (198) concerning topics such as the order of salvation, classical theism, and theological anthropology, “which are more properly explicated through older metaphysical categories” (198). In sum, “The scholastic method is a viable method of doing theology in the modern world, and is superior to alternative approaches” (328).

The preceding overview is far from comprehensive, but it suffices to show that Cooper’s defense of the scholastic method argues for seeing continuity, rather than disjuncture, between Luther and his successors. Just as Richard Muller has criticized the “Calvin versus the Calvinists” thesis for erecting a false wall of separation between John Calvin and his Reformed successors, so too does Cooper argue that the Radical Lutherans have erroneously set up a sharp division between Luther and the Lutheran scholastics. Much of Prolegomena, then, is spent determining whether it is the Radical Lutherans or the Lutheran scholastics who faithfully uphold Luther’s legacy, which in turn leads Cooper to inquire into the true nature of Luther’s relationship to philosophy and metaphysics.

“Cooper’s defense of the scholastic method argues for seeing continuity, rather than disjuncture, between Luther and his successors.”

Cooper makes a strong case that it is the Lutheran scholastics who have the superior claim to continuity with both Luther and the larger catholic tradition of “both patristic and medieval dogmatic theology” (11). By contrast, “Radical Lutherans function on categories that either are present only in Luther (often not significantly so) or are modern constructions” (11). He thus stands alongside such figures as Richard Muller and Robert Preus, rendering a great service for all Protestants by refuting the unhistorical notion that to draw on Plato and Aristotle is a betrayal of Christianity in general and the Reformation in particular.

Regarding the practical benefits of adopting scholastic methodology, Cooper rightly observes that the scholastic method “offers a robust approach to philosophy and theology which aids in the apologetic task” (307). I would add that it can serve as an equally robust foundation for catechesis, and thus perhaps play a small part in keeping people in the church, which is just as important as reaching out to those who have left the church or were never part of it to begin with. The substance and richness of the Protestant scholastic tradition has the potential to exert a greater attraction to unformed minds and hearts simply by virtue of better aligning with eternal truth.

Future volumes in Cooper’s systematic theology will undoubtedly take sides in the longstanding theological disagreements among Protestants to which he briefly alludes in this first volume. Even so, his Prolegomena is a welcome resource for the church catholic, and it indicates that future volumes, no doubt more polemical in their treatment of other Protestant traditions, will nevertheless contain much of value for all Christians.

James Clark is a student at Yale Divinity School. His writing has appeared in Themelios, Front Porch Republic, and The North American Anglican, as well as other publications. Find his work at

[1] Examples include Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics by Richard A. Muller, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism by Willem J. van Asselt et al., and The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism by Robert D. Preus.