Archive for the ‘Prolegomena’ Category

Anselm of Canterbury

The first thing that struck me when reading Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (free!) was his humility. Funny enough, the same humility struck me in just the same way when I picked up St. Augustine’s Trinity. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of that same humility in myself. The great teachers always have more to teach than merely what they write.

Anselm’s is asked by Boso (his dialog partner in the book) to discuss the incarnation with these words: “I desire that you should discover to me, what, as you know, many beside myself ask, for what necessity and cause God, who is omnipotent, should have assumed the littleness and weakness of human nature for the sake of its renewal?” Anselm answers thusly:

You ask of me a thing which is above me, and therefore I tremble to take in hand subjects too lofty for me, lest, when some one may have thought or even seen that I do no satisfy him, he will rather believe that I am in error with regard to the substance of the truth, than that my intellect is not able to grasp it. CDH 1, 2

Two things stand out: 1) He recognizes the vast loftiness of the subject and is rightly reticent to take it up. As I mentioned, I found the same humility in Augustine when he took up the subject of the Holy Trinity. This, by itself, is commendable and worth emulating. 2) He’s concerned that his poor articulation may have a negative effect upon someone else. This is a lesson I don’t know that I’ve ever learned. One wonders how many one’s turned off this or that doctrine simply by speaking poorly about it. All that’s in God’s hands, to be sure, but it’s still a gut check for a guy like me.

As to Anselm’s faith, that is (not so surprisingly) in the Augustinian tradition, too. Anselm’s faith seeks understanding. He does not turn that on its head and have understanding seeking faith. He holds to that most excellent principle (which was his motto): “faith seeking understanding.” This concept is, to me, a no brainer. For example, one of the first things we learn about God is that he’s infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. Intellect: *POOF* – is that to be understood unto belief? Impossible. But it can be received in faith and pursued to understand more deeply. Anselm’s a great example for us that Christianity is always faith seeking understanding; it couldn’t be any other way.

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Get a load of this:

The theological prolegomena of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are, arguably, the most exhaustive and most finely tooled prolegomena in the history of theology. The intense polemics of the century following the Reformation forced all parties in the theological debate to examine, clarify, and defend their presuppositions more carefully than ever before. This generalization is as true of the Roman Catholic systems of the day as it is of the Protestant ones. In the case of the Protestant theologians, however, the construction of prolegomena was a twofold or even threefold endeavor involving the statement of views of the theological task grounded in the experiences of the Reformation, the appropriation and the modification of the earlier tradition of prolegomena, and the polemical and apologetic defense of Protestant theological presuppositions over against Roman Catholic attack. The resulting prolegomena manifest a mastery of the issues and debates underlying the theological enterprise that has seldom been achieved in the history of theology either before or since. Without exaggeration, the theological prolegomena of the seventeenth-century Protestant scholastics provide a model for the development of a distinctively Protestant but nonetheless universally Christian or catholic theology — a model that Protestant theology today can ignore only at great risk. (Muller, PRRD, 1:109)

Go ahead and read that again. Muller’s speaking specifically of prolegomena, not of all the theological loci (all the many topics of theology). That said, I think that Protestant theology today can ignore the great scholastic theologians (on all the loci of theology) only at great risk. Back to the point: have you ever read any theological prolegomena? Have you ever grappled with those questions? If not, I’d suggest getting yourself familiar with some of the topics and issues by taking the first course in systematic theology at a seminary like this. Short of that, read the notes for that class. As you pursue the issues raised, you’ll find that most inquiries will end up landing you smack dab in the middle of the scholastic theologians. Moral of the story? It’s well worth being familiar with our own history.

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Kris Kord‘s post got me thinking. He’s been working through some of the issues that divided conservative Presbyterians in the early 20th century. His most recent post touches on the incomprehensibility of God and the overall difficulty of language (a creation, after all) to convey divine truth. The debate ‘twixt Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark is not an isolated one; that discussion (in one way or another) had been going on for centuries. Below, I’ll give a thumbnail of that extended discussion from Richard Muller’s PRRD and then float a couple questions out there for our discussion… here goes.

Muller traces the development of theological prolegomena to the early twelfth century. (Get a gander over here for a brief discussion of what prolegomena are.) The discussions of the nature of theological language came into their own in what’s called the High Middle Ages, and were tied in with the recovery and reception of many of Aristotle’s philosophical works (specifically his Metaphysics and Ethics). “The latter document,” according to Dr. Muller, “is of particular importance since it is the place where Aristotle delivered his arguments for the classification of the forms of knowing: understanding (intelligentia), knowledge or science (scientia), prudence or discretion (prudentia), and art or technique (ars)” (Muller, PRRD, 1:90). Science (scientia) must, according to Aristotle, rest upon its own self-evident first principles (principia). Thus, if theology is rightly to be called scientia, it also must rest upon its own principia. This notion caused successive theologians to place the discussion of these issues prior to the discussion of theology itself. It’s in this way that theological prolegomena were developed as a separate and, eventually, a highly technical collection of considerations.

The theological tradition handed down from Augustine preferred to call theology sapientia, or widsom, as it viewed theology as knowledge of goals or ends, specifically of God, the highest good. This terminology, however, didn’t jive the best with the revived Aristotelian terminology of the High Middle Ages, which preferred scientia to sapientia, as scientia tended more toward an academic discipline. Built into this development is the discussion of the nature and certitude of theological knowledge. Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), anticipating in some degree what would become the Reformed Protestant position, argued that theology was not properly called scientia, as it didn’t rest upon first principles (principia) in the same way as other human knowledge. Theological knowledge, he argued, was rational and experiential, but drew its certainty from neither of those sources, but from the Holy Spirit. Then along comes the Dumb Ox, who maintained that theology is scientia, but more properly scientia subalterna, or subalternate science, in that its principia were not self-evident to men. These principia (upon which scientia was built, you’ll remember) were self-evident to God, but had to be revealed by him to humanity and were found in the Scripture and the great creeds of the church. So, we see that by the time of Aquinas, theological knowledge is already quite distinguished from other human knowledge. Theological language and certitude is distinct from that of other scientia.

Duns Scotus

Okay, grab your socks and hose and pull, cuz it gets stickier with the late-Medieval theologians. Take John Duns Scotus (d. 1308). Scotus, based on the very rational concept that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, radically limited human knowledge of God. He did not like there Thomistic terminology of scientia subalterna, but preferred to call theology praxis, focusing on the practical instead of the theoretical. For Scotus, the principles apprehended by humans through divine revelation cannot approach God’s self-knowledge. Thus, for Scotus, there’s a radical disjunction between God’s theology (or theologia in se) and our theology (theologia nostra), which yields “no proportion” between the two. How, indeed, could there be “proportion” between infinite and finite knowledge? The theology following Duns Scotus was duly influenced by his thinking. William of Okham (d. 1348), for example, contributed to the discussion by reworking the definition of theology from a unified knowing of a single object (i.e., God) to a collection of knowings of various truths. Thus, our “theoretical” knowledge of the Trinity can substantially differ from our “practical” knowledge of how to love the triune God.

So, by the end of Medieval period, we have highly refined discussions of human knowledge of God and the relation of human language to the divine reality. The Reformation stands upon this Medieval foundation and the Reformed orthodox (and even some of the early Reformers) pick up these discussions again. To make full circle, these debates were revived in Presbyterian circles in the discussions between Van Til and Clark.

As to our discussion, how are we to think about the relation between God’s self-revelation in human language to God’s self-knowledge? Further, how about our knowledge of God (our understanding of his revelation) relative to his own self-knowledge? Certainly, we can agree that God’s revealed himself so that he can be known, at least insofar as sinners can be saved. We’d want to stop short of saying that we know God in himself, or as he knows himself. So, what are your thoughts?

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Scripture and Tradition... in one volume!

A while back I published a small ditty on Reformed Catholicism, in which I asserted that Reformed provincialism is dangerous, and that a correct catholicism is important. Well, I’ve been working (slowly) through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (check out the great price!), which I still think is an awesome work. I happened upon this little passage that offers an assessment of the intent and effect of the Reformation:

The Reformation, in spite of its substantial contribution to the history of doctrine and the shock it delivered to theology and the church in the sixteenth century, was not an attack upon the whole medieval theology or upon Christian tradition. The Reformation assaulted a limited spectrum of doctrinal and practical abuses with the intention of reaffirming the values of the historical church catholic. Thus, the mainstream Reformers reconstructed the doctrines of justification and the sacraments and then modified their ideas of the ordo salutis and of the church accordingly; but maintained the Augustinian tradition concerning predestination, human nature and sin. The reform of individual doctrines, like justification and the sacraments, occurred within the bounds of a traditional, orthodox, and catholic system which, on the grand scale, remained substantively unaltered. (Muller, PRRD, 1:97)

All this is very near and dear to my little heart. The Reformation was not a revolt, but it was a reformation. The Reformers were reforming the church according to the Word of God, to be sure. That, however, was no reason to throw away the great ecclesiastical conversation. The interpretations and applications of the Scripture that the church had made through the ages were (and still are) important. Sola Scriptura is not a denial of tradition and history – we believe in the ministry of the church, but we hold to the primacy of Scripture itself. The Spirit speaking in the Bible judges our traditions, but does not erase them. Tradition hangs in the balance and is judged by Scripture, but tradition is still there, and it’s still important.

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What is theological prolegomena? Let’s face it, prolegomena is a big word. Literally, it means “to say beforehand”; it refers to the pre-questions of theological work. That is, before theological work can be done or theological statement can be made, a whole host of questions need, nay, beg to be answered. Questions about how human language relates to divine truth, how human theology (knowledge of God) relates to God’s own knowledge of himself, how reason relates to revelation, and many more.

The magisterial Reformers did not provide much in the way of explicit prolegomena. They articulated a great deal of theology, of course, but didn’t explicitly deal in a direct way with prolegomena. Thus, the Reformed orthodox, organizing Reformed theology to be taught in schools, leaned heavily upon the scholastic methods of the Middle Ages.

Thomas Aquinas - Doctor Angelicus

The famous Schoolmen of the early Medieval period were seminal in isolating and beginning to answer questions of prolegomena. The church Fathers, like the Reformers later, passed down a lot of detailed theological writing, but very little in the way of prolegomena. So, the early Schoolmen, such as Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141), Peter Lombard (d. 1160), Gilbert de la Porree (d. 1154), and Alain of Lille (d. 1202), began to isolate prolegomena and place them at the beginning of their written systems of theology. This continued into the high scholastic period of the thirteenth century. The famous Franciscans, Alexander of Hales (d.1245) and Bonaventure (d. 1274), and the famous Dominicans, Albert the Great (d.1280) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), further developed and refined theological prolegomena.

By way of summary: “Although the development of doctrinal formulae had been going on for centuries, surely since the age of the second-century Apologists, we now have, for the first time in the history of doctrine, a formally defined model for the construction of a body of doctrine beyond the simple discursive presentation of the results of exegesis” (PRRD, 1:92-93). It was on these highly developed theological systems that the Reformed orthodox drew in order to present the theology of the Reformation in the Reformed schools. Thus, when we examine Reformed orthodoxy, we find Reformed doctrine cast in something very similar to Medieval mold.

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Friends, loved ones, bitter enemies:

Below is my summary statement of the discussion I’ve been having with Tim Troutman, a Roman Catholic over at Called to Communion, an apologetic site for Roman Catholicism against the Reformation. In addition to seeing how he handles Scripture in his article (part III specifically), I invite you to read through the comments. I think you’ll find them interesting. I hope to move the discussion along to part IV of his article next week… we’ll see. In any event, here’s my summary:

I’ll be brief and keep it to the main point. Discussions like this tend to go 20 different directions and get caught up in a bunch of sub-points. Basically, I want to summarize what’s gone on so far in our interactions.

You affirm that the monepiscopacy is of apostolic origin, but you cannot prove it. You can show that the basic notions of your system are there early in church history, but you cannot show that from the writings of the apostles themselves, that is, from the NT. (This, incidentally, is quite strange. Since so much hangs on this point, don’t you think the NT would be crystal clear on such a key point of polity?) In other words, you’ve shown no *necessary* connection, but only a historical connect to them. Further, you cannot even show from the NT that the bishop is a distinct office from the elder, let alone showing that it’s a higher office. You can appeal to church history and find support for your suppositions there, but you cannot draw your conclusions from the preserved (unchanged) teachings of the apostles – the teachings they committed to writing, that is, the inspired Word of God.

Rather than show your doctrine is from the apostolic writings of the NT, you have tried to show that the NT is not at odds with (or, using your terminology, does not contradict) the RC doctrine of monepiscopacy. I have offered counter evidence from the NT. I’ve attempted to show that, since “bishop” and “elder” refer to the same office, the distinction and elevation of the “bishop” in your system is actually at odds with the NT. To defend against my counter-arguments, you’ve consistently appealed to the lack of technicalization in the NT, and thus blurred the NT language to the point where NT language could not possibly contradiction to the RC doctrine.

So much for my view of the summary. I am excited to read the part of your article on ordination and especially the sacrificial priesthood. So far (even if the feeling’s not entirely shared, Tim), I’ve appreciated our interactions, and I’ve learned a great deal. I’ll cross signals with you next week. Happy Independence Day to you and all the Americans here at CtC. Non-Americans are welcome to have a happy Independence Day, too… I don’t want to limit that. 🙂

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Muller's PRRD - 4 Vols of Glory!

I’m continuing to enjoy Richard A. Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. It is such a wealth of information. I really dig it. As mentioned in a previous post, it was the Reformed confessions that set the boundaries for what was “Reformed.” What’s impressive is that within those boundaries there was a good deal of variety. The long quote from Muller below demonstrates the vast international scope of Reformed orthodoxy and also the impressive doctrinal breadth of the same.

Whereas, therefore, some distinction can be made between various lines of development within Reformed orthodoxy, such as between the Swiss orthodoxy of the line of Turretin and Heidegger and the Academy of Saumur, between the northern German Reformed of Bremen or the Herborn Academy and the rather different approach of Franecker theologians in the tradition of Ames, between the Cocceian or federalist line and the Voetian approach, between the British Reformed theology of Owen and that of Baxter, or between the British variety of Reformed theology in general and the several types of Reformed teaching found on the continent, there is no justification for identifying any one of these strains of Reformed thought as outside of the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy…. All of these branches of the Reformed tradition stood within the boundaries established by the major national confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches. (PRRD, 1:79-80)

By the early 18th century, orthodoxy (or, simply Christianity in general) was under attack from new philosophies. Also, the later proponents of Reformed theology were all to ready to believe what their fathers believed, but were unwilling to contend for it. When inward conviction cannot contend with outward intellectual pressure, it won’t be long until that inward faith is no more. Again, an extend quote from Muller:

The Reformed theology of the era [of late orthodoxy] occupies an intellectual spectrum running the gamut from a fairly traditional orthodoxy to a theology actively searching for roots in newer philosophies and exegetical methods and intent on loosing itself from the moorings of a strict confessionalism…. The latitudinarian theologians presumed Christian orthodoxy and held against the ancient heresies, but refused to become embroiled in the niceties of post-Reformation confessional thought.” (PRRD, 1:81-82)

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