A Year in PRRD (Week 7)

Every Wednesday in 2018, Michael Lynch (PhD candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary) and our own editor Danny Hyde (PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) will be blogging through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

These volumes are currently out-of-print but used copies can be found online here. For a schedule of weekly readings, go here

Week 7 (2/12-2/18): I.2.6 (pgs. 270–310)

In last week’s reading, Muller investigates the role of natural theology in the theology of the Reformed orthodox. (Nota bene: You may want to read Muller’s most recent review of Scott Oliphint’s book on Aquinas touching on this very topic in relation to Thomism here) Like last week, instead of simply summarizing Muller’s chapter, I want to focus on two different early modern Reformed expositions relating to natural theology from two different angles. First, we will look at Johann Heinrich Alsted’s brief treatment of natural theology in his Method of Sacred Theology. Then, we wish to summarize John Davenant’s treatment of Colossians 2:8 (ESV: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”).
In his Methodus, Alsted lays out 14 Canons relating to his definition of natural theology. Alsted defines natural theology as “the wisdom of divine things which can be known by the natural light of the intellect.” Nature is the first of three ways by which God communicates theology (the others being by grace and glory). In his second Canon, Alsted quotes straight from Aquinas: “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” It is not of the nature of subordinate things (like natural theology) to undermine superior things (like supernatural theology): “Nature commends grace and grace emends nature” (Canon 4). Grace is not contrary to nature but above it (Canon 3). Alsted, like Aquinas, denies double truth. God is not contrary to himself. What he reveals in nature and what he reveals by grace must agree; “that which is philosophically true is also theologically true and the contrary.”
Interestingly (Canon 6), against the scholastics and various scientists, Alsted claims that natural theology falls under the discipline of theology, rather than metaphysics or natural science. Nevertheless (Canon 9), the beginning (fundamentum) of natural theology is twofold: reason and the experience of nature. The Bible itself (Canon 10) touches upon natural theology chiefly in the beginning of Genesis, the book of Job, Psalm 8, 19, and 104, and finally in the Book of Wisdom. Also corresponding with Aquinas, because natural theology is subjectively the product of the human intellect and is thereby imperfect and obscure, such theology must be perfected by grace (Canon 11). If this was true even for prelapsarian Adam, then it is especially true after the fall (Canons 12 and 13)! Hence (Canon 14), natural theology does not, nor cannot, lead to perfection.
Consonant with Alsted’s scholastic treatment of natural theology, Davenant’s discussion of Colossians 2:8 explains the way in which philosophy is a handmaid to theology. He admits that philosophy can and has been used “beyond its proper bounds” (391). Still, that which has been “discovered, spoken, or written, by the light of right reason” is properly called philosophy and has a legitimate role in sacred theology (390). Davenant enumerates three ways in which philosophy can be abused and five ways it can be used in the cause of religion (394-399). First philosophy is abused when the fundamentals of true religion are reduced to the common principles of philosophy, resulting in the absence of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity, incarnation, and justification by faith. Reason simply cannot reach to those doctrines which are to be apprehended by faith. Second, philosophy goes beyond its bounds when it applies its principles to things far above the order of nature. Just because people do not rise from the dead in the ordinary course of nature, does not mean that God cannot or does not do such a thing! A third abuse of philosophy is the subjection of theology to false philosophical conclusions, which leads to all manner of heresy. 
Philosophy, however, can be of great use to the theologian. First, true philosophy helps one understand Scripture. After all, without lexicons, the knowledge of the natural sciences, etc., how could we even interpret Scripture rightly? Second, true philosophy teaches us the rules and art of reasoning well. Supernatural theology is not irrational, even though its teachings ascend above where reason can reach. Third, philosophical knowledge can be both a tool to initiate one into the Christian religion as well as to fight against false theology. In other words, true philosophy has both a positive and negative apologetical role, commending the true religion and undermining objections to Christianity. Fourth, true philosophy and literature enriches our treatment of divine things. As Justin Martyr said (Cap. XIII), “whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.” We should feel free to plunder the Egyptians. Finally, good philosophy flavors, as it were, our theology. Reading theology is simply better when the classical authors are used to illustrate and illuminate. 
Evident especially in Davenant’s treatment of philosophy is his belief that the discipline of philosophy is not only legitimate but plays a crucial role (albeit as a handmaiden) in the discipline of theology. Even so, both Alsted and Davenant recognize that philosophy and natural theology have their own principia cognoscendi (first principles of thought) and need supernatural theology to perfect their own imperfections. After all, as Aquinas once wrote: “Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” 
Join us next Wednesday as Danny blogs through the reading for Week 8 (2/19-2/25): I.2.7 (pgs. 311–359).

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For previous posts in this series, see:

Week 1: I.1.1.1 (pgs. 27–46) 

Week 2: I.1.1.2–3 (pgs. 46–84)

Week 3: I.1.2 (pgs. 85–146)

Week 4: I.2.3 (pgs. 149–176)

Week 5: I.2.4 (pgs. pgs. 177–220)

Week 6: I.2.5 (pgs. 221–269)

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