(Part 2 of Michael Jensen’s “Theological Stuff You Should Know” series. See part 1 here)

Reformed evangelicals claim that it is possible to say things about God that are positively true. 

That may not sound like a radical thing to claim, but there is a great deal of doubt, even amongst theologians, as to whether that claim could possibly be ever a sensible one.

After all, God is infinite, and we are finite. We are limited, and he is limitless. He is holy, and we are not. 

Ineffable God

Is it not fair enough to say that God is largely mysterious, dwelling in unapproachable light – in ‘light inaccessible hid from our eyes?’ Don’t we have words like ‘ineffable’ and ‘sublime’ to categorise him, as ways of saying ‘you simply can’t say much comprehensible about him?’ 

But reformed theology rests on the self-revelation of this God in human history to human ears. It is a claim that God is speaking God – a God who has spoken and still speaks. He discloses himself to us such that we can encounter him – if not fully understand him. 

However, the reaction to the ‘God is mystery’ sort of mysticism that does the rounds has often been, amongst the reformed, to be very uncomfortable with allowing any mystery. If we know him, do we not know him truly? 

Yes, but you can know him truly, without knowing him utterly. 

God for Us

I learnt this from a remarkable reformed theologian of the 17th Century, Francois Turretin.  In the opening pages of his Elenctic Theology – a book used as a theology textbook for almost two hundred years, until Charles Hodge wrote his own in the 19th Century – he writes this:

…when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself (for thus he is incomprehensible to us) but as revealed and as he has been pleased to manifest himself to us in his word, so that divine revelation is the formal relation which comes to be considered in this object. Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of the deity (according to the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God (i.e., covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word not only as the object of knowledge, but also of worship). (1.5.4).

What Turretin wants to show us is that theology deals with the revealed knowledge of God – but that in doing so, it does not claim that that is all there is to know about him. 

So, Turretin shows that theology should be divided into archetypal theology and ectypal theology. 

Huh? Bear with me here:

Archetypal theology is the infinite knowledge of God known only to God himself and the pattern for all true theology.

Ectypal theology is defined as all true finite theology – all knowledge of God to which finite minds have access.

Even Adam and Eve would not have had access to archetypal theology – it is simply not what creatures can have or will ever have. Neither will we in heaven have anything but this ectypal theology. Our knowledge of him will never be comprehensive, even while it is true!

Theology for Pilgrims

But we need to add something to this, too: we now inhabit a sinful and broken world, as sinful and broken human creatures.

Turretin (and others) thus speak of the theologia viatorum – a ‘theology on the way’. Michael Horton calls it ‘pilgrim theology’ – the theology of the journeying Christian as he or she heads towards the heavenly rest, but knows all along that what he or she knows now is not complete, and may even at points be faulty. 

Why should you know about ectypal theology?

Because it helps us to be both confident and humble. We can be confident that what knowledge we have of God is true knowledge – a knowledge that is saving, and personal, and real. We can make meaningful statements about God, because he has made meaningful statements about himself to us. 

But we also ought to be humble. We should be aware of our own capacity for error. We should be aware that whatever we say about God is not a mastery or a limitation of who he is. He is not like some bug in a jar that we could describe all his parts! We speak of God with confidence, but also with fear and trembling, for we are walking on holy ground. 

Photo: GreenZowie, flickr