“What God Knows” and “What He Reveals”

What is “theology”? Richard Muller shows how the Reformed Orthodox began to define the term in using some pre-existing categories; in doing so, he also fleshes out the difference between an epistemology of Thomas Aquinas and that of other writers.

A. To “define theology”: Muller writes:

The theologies of the Reformers, particularly those that took the form of loci communes, did offer a finely conceived approach to the extraction of topical materials from Scripture and to the gathering of these materials into the topics or loci and did offer a refined sense of method and order for the organization of the loci, in accord with the humanist models of the era.
Still, there remains a formal difference between the large scale theologies of the second generation Reformers and the major dogmatic compendia of their successors, a difference identifiable in part by an increasingly detailed theological definition of the task of theology. Whereas all of the writers just mentioned devoted some attention to the issue of the human knowledge of God and to the issue of scriptural revelation, none of them saw fit to discuss the character of theology as an intellectual discipline set in the context of a finite world and accommodated to the forms of human knowing: none, in short, define theologia (Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 221–222). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).

One may note that the earliest “systematic theology” of the Reformation, Philip Melancthon’s 1521 work, was named Loci Communes.

B. “Early Orthodoxy” begins to define “theology”:

In the decade following 1590, a distinction between theologia archetypa, God’s knowledge of himself and his works, and theologia ectypa creaturely knowledge of God and works, entered the systematic conceptuality of early Reformed orthodoxy. Althaus correctly points to Franciscus Junius’ De theologia vera (1594) as the first work to employ this distinction and to make a threefold division in the theologia ectypa: the theologia unionis, visionis, and viatorum.

Junius was certainly the first major thinker to pose these definitions in a Reformed context and it was his treatise that was used consistently by the theologians of his generation and the next several generations of Reformed theology as the model for theological prolegomena. In early orthodox theology, particularly in the works of Junius and Polanus, these categories are all discussed at some length—despite the fact that only the theologia viatorum is accessible to man.

This terminology, although it appears somewhat curious to the twentieth-century mind, is in fact the avenue chosen by early Reformed orthodoxy to clarify both the definition of the church’s theological task and the nature of the discipline of theology itself. The terminology echoes traditional distinctions between the pilgrim believer (viator) and the blessed (beati) in heaven, between the church militant and the church triumphant, and between the light of grace (lumen gratiae) given to believers in this life and the light of glory (lumen gloriae) given in the life hereafter.

This terminology, in its distinction between a divine archetype and a variety of temporal ectypes, also allows theology to identify both the relationship and the disjunction between God’s knowledge of himself and man’s knowledge of him.

Now, here’s where the “metaphysical” twist comes in that I commented upon yesterday. Here is a point at which Thomisim is challenged:

Althaus argues that these formulations mark the entrance of Thomistic epistemology into the Reformed system. Two considerations, however, weigh against this argument. In the first place, Thomist epistemology was present in Reformed thought from the time of Vermigli and Zanchi, not to mention the admiration of a Genevan like Daneau for Aquinas’ thought.

Secondly, the distinction between God’s knowledge of himself and creaturely knowledge of him was such a commonplace in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century scholasticism that its subsequent adaptation by the orthodox does not necessarily point to a Thomistic understanding of the nature of theological epistemology. The Reformed use of this distinction seems, in fact, to draw more heavily on the Scotist distinction between theologia in se and theologia nostra and, like its Scotist predecessor, to hark back to the even more fundamental distinction between potentia Dei absoluta and potentia Dei ordinate.

Du Moulin’s variation on this theme points to a God who transcends the virtues and capacities of human beings by “an infinite distance,” to describe whose majesty is like staring into the sun: the “excellency” of the subject both “instigates the endeavour” and “cumbers the success.” This is no Thomistic conception of theological language as analogical. Indeed, the presence of what Congar has termed “the constant intervention of disjunctions between the order in se and the order of fact” is the hallmark of the Scotist critique of Thomism (Muller, pp. 222–223).

As I’ve written earlier, Aquinas “failed to maintain the Creator-creature distinction” (however so subtly – leading to a “chain of being” ontology), and that has led to all sorts of problems down the line.

I’ll have more on this next time, Lord willing.

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7 Responses to “What God Knows” and “What He Reveals”

  1. Stephen Wolfe says:

    Muller writes: “Du Moulin’s variation on this theme points to a God who transcends the virtues and capacities of human beings by “an infinite distance,” to describe whose majesty is like staring into the sun: the “excellency” of the subject both “instigates the endeavour” and “cumbers the success.” This is no Thomistic conception of theological language as analogical. Indeed, the presence of what Congar has termed “the constant intervention of disjunctions between the order in se and the order of fact” is the hallmark of the Scotist critique of Thomism (Muller, pp. 222–223).”

    John, as I said in your previous post, I cannot see how this fits with the first five chapters of Calvin’s institutes. General revelation would naturally produce knowledge of God. It does not cumber success. Only sinful man suppresses it, not unfallen natural man. It only makes sense to say that creation is, in some way, an analogy of the divine attributes and adequate to communicate knowledge of God to his creatures. The statement that the “excellency” of the subject “cumbers the success” does not fit. Also, I cannot see how analogical theology must lead to the chain of being theology. Creation is an analogy of the divine attributes and we are not to transcend this creation. We seek only what is plainly revealed.

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    • John Bugay says:

      Stephen, it’s been a while since I read Institutes (it was a long time ago and I probably wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable about these things as I am now). As far as DuMoulin, I’m merely citing Muller on this, but I see the challenge: The sun is “plainly revealed”, and yet if you spend any amount of time at all looking at it, it will fry your eyes out. I think that was Luther’s point in quoting Exodus 33:20 (“you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”). There IS some sort of hindrance. I’ll have to go back and check how that fits with Calvin, but again, the larger framework is the archetype-ectype distinction that the Reformed Orthodox were using.

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  2. Stephen Wolfe says:

    If you’re saying that Thomas’ unique understanding of analogy supports the chain of being, then that is a different story. Horton and Oliphant offer good reasons for a Protestant view of analogical thinking, as I’m sure you’re aware.

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    • John Bugay says:

      Hi Stephen, I’m not trying to muddy things, but yes, I do see Aquinas’s ontology as a problem, stemming from his epistemology. I guess I could be more clear about that. I do hope to sort that out as I go along.

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      • Stephen Wolfe says:

        I’m reacting less to you and more to Muller. What he’s saying is surprising and I’m trying to understand how it all fits with what I know.

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  3. Pingback: Warfield on Calvin: General and Special Revelation | Reformation500

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