My Theological Influences

Admittedly, we have all been influenced by those who have gone before us, whether it appertains to the fields of philosophy, theology, metaphysics, logic, or rhetoric. There are very few pioneers among us today. As I noted in my brief autobiography, I studied under the tutelage of John Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza, from whom I adopted many of my theological convictions. But I also studied the logic of Aristotle and Peter Ramus, without adopting either method wholesale (Aristotelian or Ramist logic).

You may be asking yourself, Who was Peter Ramus? Peter Ramus was born in 1515 near Soissons, and died in Paris near the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572. In Paris, he studied under Johannes Sturm and joined in the humanist reaction against medieval orthodoxy, especially in logic, and became a critic of Aristotle -- humanism being the study of the classics of grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy, poetry and history as studied through Latin and Greek literary authors. 

There is an existing legend to the effect that Ramus' dissertation thesis in 1536 consisted of only one proposition, that all which Aristotle had written was false. His thesis confounded his Aristotelian professors. They dared not to commit the logical fallacy of begging the question; thus they were unable to refute him. It was this feat which catapulted him as one of the leading figures in philosophical disputes and discussions, and this accomplishment was achieved by the time he was only twenty-one years old.

Ramus published two works in 1543, Dialectcae Partitiones ad Academiam Parisiensem, and Aristotelicae Animadversiones (an attack on Aristotelian thought). Francis I. forbade him to teach philosophy, and he commanded that his books were to be burned. He did, however, continue to teach mathematics and rhetoric, and in 1547 became the head of the Collège de Presles. After the death of Francis I. he was able to teach rhetoric and philosophy at the Royal College. Ramus had made many enemies for his opinions of Aristotle. At the Royal College he became intertwined with more controversy by combining rhetoric with logic. His innovations soon involved the entire educational system, as he vied for the practical applications of the subject matter, even spreading to the University itself.


I admit that I publicly affirmed my approval of Ramus' logic and was influenced by his religious teachings. I appreciated the way in which he tried to avoid the rigidity of Aristotelian logic as advanced by others during his time. Ramus tried to make logic a practical science. Moreover, Ramus' method was a much welcomed component of logic to younger undergraduates such as myself who were eager to learn the art of disputation in the shortest time possible. Ramus' tools were later promoted by Ursinus, Piscator, and Calvinist William Perkins (from Cambridge), and by the 1590s his exegetical and theological charts were appearing everywhere. I had quite a number of Piscator's commentaries, as well as the early writings of Perkins. So, if these men were using Ramus' methods, I, too, would follow suit. In 1598, I even had a Ramist chart on the doctrine of predestination, which I enclosed in a letter to my friend, Uytenbogaert.

How Ramus influenced my logic and religious hermeneutic was in the matter of causes. The four Aristotelian causes are efficient, material, formal and final. Ramus proceeded to dichotomize until the sub-causes were multiplied enormously. I, too, followed his method when I wrote on many theological subjects. For example, the causes of repentance includes the primary efficient, the inly-moving, the outwardly-moving, the proximate yet less principal, the external, the internal and inly-moving, the instrumental, and still other minor causes. But these causes themselves were set over against the form, which in turn was dichotomized; and the cause and form together were set over against the fruit and parts. The parts are two. Then repentance itself was contrasted with impenitence, of which there were of course two kinds -- and so on.

Ramus' religious convictions were Calvinistic in nature, as were mine, but with certain modifications, especially in the arena of humanistic sympathies, which caused conflict with my mentor, Theodore Beza. However, I was a disciple of Ramus before I was ever a disciple of Beza, and Ramus certainly carried the greater weight of that influence. Ramus insisted that theology itself was the science of living well. For him, the final purpose of the science of theology was not mere acquaintance with matters relating to it, but the use and practice of it. The scriptures, for him, were the rule of faith, but should never be studied merely for knowledge but for truths to be put into practice. Scholastic minutiae were to be set aside in favor of a plain or practical theology as a basis for action.

As for predestination, which would become a focus of mine in later years, Ramus repeated constantly the usual formulas. Predestination, for him, was that wherein God out of His gracious mercy assigned some to eternal salvation, and out of His justice relegates others to eternal perdition. There was, however, nothing vigorously Calvinistic in the order of the decrees for him. I did not derive my predestinarian views out of Ramus' logic. "Ramism," as some have called it, was not the differentia between my teachings and those of Calvin. Calvinist William Perkins, who charged me with theological error concerning predestination, was no less a Ramist than was I. It was my conviction to use Ramist thought as a fresh, new spirit of logic -- non-dogmatic, open to human values, and mostly concerned with practice.

My theology is a theology of grace, not of glory. This is because God is a God of grace. Though concerned about His own glory, He Himself does not elevate it above His love for the creatures whom He created in His own image. The Object of our theology, that is, Jesus Christ, is not merely to be known but to be worshiped. For this reason we must clothe our theology in such a manner as may enable it to incline us to worship God, and fully to persuade and win us over to that practice.

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Adapted from Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1971), 56-63.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.