Some Specific Features of the Post-Reformation Doctrine of God

Elsewhere it has been noted that the Reformed Orthodox were not monolithic in their theologies; this section fleshes out some of those diversities.

This is really a “for-what-it’s-worth” compendium of how the Reformed Orthodox thought about God. However, it was interesting to see the areas where there was some flexibility, and kinds of things that were held to be inviolable.

The doctrine of God taught by Reformed Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries presents a diverse and varied trajectory. Examination of the materials of the history demonstrates that, contrary to the typical perception of the secondary literature, the orthodox or scholastic theology of the era did not have a monolithic structure.

Given the diversity of the materials, moreover, the trajectories that lead from the later Middle Ages through the Reformation into the era of orthodoxy also manifest diversity and subtleties in transmission and development—a point that appears to have been lost on much of the older scholarship….

Theologians within the Reformed orthodox camp also differed concerning the order and organization of the divine attributes—as they did concerning the nature and character of the attribution itself.

Specifically, they neither universally followed the pattern of incommunicable and communicable attributes typically identified as the standard older paradigm nor did they agree among themselves on the nature of the distinctions within the Godhead indicated by the attributes and the persons of the Trinity. There was not universal agreement over the meaning of divine simplicity.

There are also a series of issues related to the doctrine of God on which there was a high degree of consistency among the Reformed orthodoxy but also on which the standard wisdom of the secondary literature has entirely missed the point of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discussion….

The doctrine of eternity expressed by the Reformed orthodox does not readily characterize as a doctrine of divine timelessness, under the terms of which an everlastingly changeless and atemporal being does not relate directly to the temporal order.

The older orthodox doctrine of eternity not only posits a radical relationship of God to the world, it also assumes the immediate and intimate relationship of God to temporal beings. Rather than identifying God as “timeless,” it argues that God encompasses time.

On an equally striking note, the Reformed orthodox conception of divine impassibility does not argue a God who lacks love, mercy, anger, hate, or (indeed!) pleasure, but who has all of these relations to the world order. The exclusion of “passions” from the divine being never implied the absence of “affections.”

Not only does the older orthodox assume the relationship between eternal God and his world, and argue it in terms of a substantial series of divine affections, it also assumes (contrary to much received “wisdom”) that God is utterly free in his willing—fully capable of not willing to create the world and, willing to create, fully capable of willing a world entirely different from the one that we have, albeit equally good.

This conception of the radical divine freedom is certainly part of the late medieval heritage and, as in the case of the medieval language of potentia Dei absoluta, it carries with it epistemological as well as ontological implications, notably the limitation of the powers of reason to deal with questions concerning the nature and the work of God.

Finally, in virtually all aspects of the doctrinal exposition, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed writers evidence a significant interrelation, even interplay, between the doctrine of God and the other topics of their theology. The identification of God as the principium essendi of theology, far from generating a theological system deduced from the doctrine of God, actually produced a theological system in consistent dialogue with the doctrine of God, often to the extent that aspects of the doctrine of God derive from concerns at the heart of other loci, notably Christology, soteriology, and eschatology.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 3: The Divine Essence And Attributes (pp. 32–33). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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