Monday, June 21, 2004

Peter Ramus 

This is a book that I would like to read sometime. I have often wondered about the degree to which the philosophy of Peter Ramus shaped Reformed thought. Some have argued that the influence of Ramist ‘logic’ was a key contributive factor in the delay of the development of biblical theology. In The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, Rich Lusk writes:—
In fact, careful inquiry into the precise origins of federalism shows it grew out of a rather narrow strand of British Puritanism that deviated considerably from Calvin’s more pastoral, organic approach to biblical theology. While there were certainly political factors in the rise of federalism, William Benton suggests that the key motivating factor was the rise of Ramist rationalism. Peter Ramus (1515-1572) developed an alternative to Aristotelian logic, based on a dichotomizing method that arranged ideas in two’s, e.g., law vs. gospel, nature vs. grace, faith vs. works, reason vs. revelation, wrathful God vs. merciful Christ, covenant of works vs. covenant of grace, etc. The Ramist system rapidly became master rather than servant of the biblical revelation, fragmenting the unity of the Scriptural narrative. Ramism gave the Reformed scholastics an easy method for categorizing biblical texts, but often at the expense of dealing with those texts in their broader canonical and historical contexts. The Bible came to be treated as a collection of propositions rather than an unfolding drama. [p.119]
Ramism is also the target of the ire of the well-known Calvin scholar Ford Lewis Battles in his book, Interpreting John Calvin. Battles writes in a footnote to his discussion of Calvin’s use of dichotomy:—
Even a superficial comparison of Calvin’s use of the dichotomy in elucidating theological truth over against Ramus and his Reformed imitators in England and elsewhere will demonstrate the utter difference of purpose, method, intent, and religious tone of the two. An examination of the adaptation of the Ramean dichotomy by the English Puritans to the teaching of Reformed theology (Ramus devoted only one of his sixty-odd works to theology!) would probably reveal a displacement of the scriptural-historical-experiential dichotomy of Calvin by a philosophical-rhetorical form that could hardly prove a worthy vehicle for Calvinian piety in later generations. [p.179]
Peter Ramus was, of course, greatly appreciated by the Puritans, although I am aware that there were at least a couple of Puritans who disliked Ramus’ dichotomizing approach intensely and wrote strongly against it. What particularly piqued my interest in this subject, however, was coming across the following two passages in Caspar Brandt’s Life of Arminius:—
Of all philosophers … the celebrated Peter Ramus, formerly professor in the University of Paris, pleased him [Arminius] best. So thoroughly did he imbibe his system of philosophising, and method of reasoning, that he might have passed for another Ramus. My impression, however, is, that Arminius acquired the elements of this philosophy under his teacher and guardian, Rudolph Snellius, of whom the distinguished Meursius remarks, that ‘at Marburg he first laid his hands on the logic of Ramus, and was so enraptured with it, that from that day forward he shook himself clear of all the shackles of the Aristotelian philosophy, to the acquisition of which he had formerly devoted three whole years in the colleges at Cologne.’
After going to study theology under Beza in Geneva:—
But Arminius, having rather keenly, and with too great ardour, defended publicly, as well as privately, the philosophy of Ramus, which he had formerly embraced, and impugned that of Aristotle; nay, further, having allowed himself to be prevailed upon, by the request and earnest entreaties of many of the students (of whom Uitenbogaert was one), to teach the logic of Ramus privately, and in his own study, he soon succeeded, by that step, in arraying against himself the fierce jealousy of some of the rectors of the academy at Geneva. Of these, no one resented the attempt so keenly as the professor of philosophy in that academy—a Spaniard by nation, and, moreover, a most strenuous defender of Aristotle. By his influence, erelong, Arminius was publicly, and by name, interdicted the liberty of teaching the Ramean philosophy. Disconcerted by this affair, he resolved to yield somewhat to the exigency, and abandon Geneva for a time.
Ramus’ own efforts to join the faculty at Geneva had been blocked by Beza in 1570. Whilst, as Richard Muller and some others argue, Ramus had far more of an effect on Arminius’ logic than upon his theology, Arminius’ interest in Ramus is still interesting nonetheless. Catherine Pickstock relies on Ong’s critique of Ramus’ philosophy in a number of places in her treatment of Ramus in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. She speaks of the manner in which Ramus’ philosophy ‘presupposed that every subject is already and to the same degree “there,” simply waiting to be mapped and divided, and excludes the temporal aspect of knowledge as an “event” which arrives.’ Ramism ‘[construes] knowledge as consisting in discrete items “contained” as objects in distinct and homogenous topoi.’ Ramism sought to map knowledge onto various diagrams and charts — to spatialize thought. By spatializing thought, temporality and personality were both compromised. Temporality was compromised as reality was perceived as an ‘undifferentiated given.’ In the Ramist system, Pickstock claims, memory becomes mere ‘stocktaking’ or ‘enumeration’ of objects — the repeated glance — rather than ‘an act which testifies to the temporality of knowledge and which facilitates the judgement of analogy between instances, ensuring the continuity of the knowing subject.’ Pickstock writes:—
Previously, knowledge had been associated with mythical and iconographical figures such as statues and allegorical illustrations, regarded as derived from a transcendent and constantly arriving source. The “reading” of these devices was as much part of the narrative of that arrival as the artefacts themselves, and was by no means dependent upon a singularly attestable “content.” By contrast, the printed words of Ramist “reading” were connected to one another by lines in simplified binary patterns forming dichotomized charts of methodized noetic material, designed precisely to foreclose any such open-ended interpretation.
It should be clear that a Ramist approach is an approach that is deeply unfriendly to a sacramental view of reality. It should also be clear that a Ramist approach will radically affect one’s reading of Scripture. The Ramist method is ill-equipped to deal with the biblical drama, where an understanding of organic development over time is very important. Also, when interpreting scriptures, it will be more inclined to approach them as a closed and circumscribed revelation. Scriptural knowledge will be categorized in a timeless system that pays little attention to the dynamism of redemptive history and the continuing voice of the Scriptures in the Church. It should also be recognized that by spatializing and detemporalizing knowledge and employing a particular approach of categorization with the Scriptures, the impression is given that the more narrative structure of the Scriptures themselves is somehow chaotic and needs to be reconfigured. The more rationalized form of the catechism, carefully organized according to discrete loci is to be privileged as the ideal means of learning scriptural truth. Ramism also compromised personality. The text was made normative over against the spoken word, rhetoric being denigrated to ‘mere elocutio’. The Ramist approach is suspicious of the spoken word, downplaying spoken dialogue in favour of textual monologue. Furthermore, by the Ramist methodology a supposedly objective reading of reality is produced, a reading that seemingly avoids the ‘flow of reality on the part of the subject.’ The fact that this is produced by a methodology that is really very subjective should be apparent to any who have studied the manner in which Ramist logic is occasionally used in exegesis by some of the Puritans. However, the sheer depersonalized order of the logical structure can easily fool one into thinking that one is dealing with ‘objective exegesis’. The Ramist approach, applied to exegesis, will tend to result in the exegete ‘interrogating’ the text with the Ramean methodology, seeking to categorize its distinct essence. Rather than following the leading of the text itself, the text must submit to the preconceived rhetorical system. When the text is approached in such a manner the text is easily manipulated by the exegete. The text is seen as closed and is largely depersonalized, understood more in terms of objects of knowledge to be cerebrally grasped, than as a living Word. Knowledge of God’s Word is primarily arrived at by applying the Ramist methodology correctly to the passive (dead) text, rather than liturgically dialoguing with the dynamic voice of the Scriptures in the Church. When we seek to evaluate the legacy that has been bequeathed to us by our Reformed forebears it is important to have a knowledge of the manner in which they were influenced by Aristotelianism, Ramism, Scottish Commonsense Realism and other such philosophical movements (just as we are influenced in different ways by the philosophical movements of our own day). If anyone knows any helpful treatments of the effect that Ramist philosophy has had on the development of Reformed preaching, exegesis and theology, I would be very interested to hear about them.

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