Turretin, Mapping Out Theologies, and Spiritual Map-Making

I just wrote about my 2014 theology reading project through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It was a formative experience that I still haven’t fully processed, but after a week or two out, I found I needed to begin my new endeavour: Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Throughout 2015, I aim to knock out Turretin’s masterpiece through a very imprecise reading program that will be likely of no use to anybody else but myself. I picked Turretin’s work on the recommendation of theologian type friends I trust, the fact that it was one of the standard Reformed textbooks in theology since its writing up until Hodge cranked out his magnum opus, and the itch to finally jump into one of the Post-Reformation Dogmaticians and see what all the fuss is about.

A few pages in, it seems the fuss is justified. I’ve only just begun, but I can tell this is going to be challenging, strenuous, but ultimately fruitful undertaking. Or so I hope. While the air is much different here in Turretinville than it was in Bavinck-land (denser and more Latin), it’s bracing in its own way. The elenctic method of question and answer and polemic edge should be a broadening change of pace.

But I didn’t write this post just to chat about my new project. So let’s talk theology. Or rather, types of theology.

Francis-TurretinA Typology of Theology

True to scholastic form, after some more effusive introductions, Turretin gets down to business asking about the nature of theology, whether we should even use the term, defining it, and so forth. In his second question on the subject, he asks whether there is such a thing as theology and, if so, what are its divisions. The first section is interesting simply because many of us would never even think to ask the question, much less argue for it. The part I want to talk about is his division of or mapping out of the types of theology there are, moving along in a logical order, whittling things down to the type of theology you and I participate in. In what follows I’ll try to briefly summarize and explain.

1. False. First, comes the division between false and true theology. Which, intuitively makes sense. If there is true theology, there’s bound to be false theology–theology that gets the truth of God wrong. But before moving on to discussing true theology, Turretin notes different types of false theology.

a. Gentile Myth.  While Turretin doesn’t give them these names, in the first type of false theology, he lumps things like pagan philosophies, mythologies, and cosmogonies recounting the birth of gods, and so forth. The pagans themselves have even subdivided their own theologies into categories like symbolic, mythical, and philosophical.  Whatever their source or mode, these are wholly divorced from the revealed truth of God.

b. Heresy. The second category is that of “infidels” and heretics. First are those who reject Christ, whether Jews or Muslims; they acknowledge one God, but not his Word. Or, there are those heretics who hold on to a great many Christian truths, but are so mixed in with error that in ruins the whole batch like Socinians, “papists” (Turretin’s words, not mine), and so forth.

2. True. Second, we come to true theology. As you might imagine, this can be broken down into categories. And actually, it turns out there are quite a few. 

a.  Archetypal, Or God’s Theology.  First, there is the distinction between “archetypal” and “ectypal” knowledge he inherited from Fransicus Junius. Archetypal knowledge consists of God’s own infinite, perfect, self-knowledge that he alone possesses. That’s right, even God has a theology. It is the “archetype”, the original copy of all knowledge of God.

b. Ectypal, or Creature Theology. From there, we get “ectypal” theology. This second category is finite, creaturely, analogical, derivative, yet true theology. It is “picture” knowledge, or “reflection” knowledge, in that it is drawn from God’s archetypal knowledge, and given to creatures on a level that they can receive it. It is a copy of the original, but a good copy nonetheless. Now, even this knowledge can be split up further in three types.

i.  Vision. First, is the knowledge of “vision.” This is is the kind of knowledge or theology of God that created beings have by direct sight of God. In other words, this is what angels and saints in heaven have, and we will have upon God’s return. It’s perfect, ectypal theology.

ii. Union. Second, there is a unique, middle kind of ectypal knowledge had by way of “union”, and it’s only possessor is the Godman, Jesus Christ. In other words, this is the theology that Jesus had in his human soul, by way of the hypostatic union of natures. Jesus was fully human, and yet, fully God, so it figures he’d have his own arrangement concerning knowledge of God going. Also, this is perfect, ectypal theology too. (And, just to be clear, on top of this, in his Divine nature, the Son continues to possess archetypal knowledge too.)

iii. Pilgrim or Revealed. Finally, we get to the kind of theology you and I as Christians have, which can be termed either “pilgrim” theology, or a theology of revelation. It’s a pilgrim theology because it’s the kind of theology, or knowledge of God, you pick up along the way. It is “revealed” theology because it’s the kind that you get by God revealing himself, showing you himself and you taking by faith. This is imperfect (but not inaccurate), ectypal theology. It’s a theology of promise, not fulfillment. We know in part, not in whole. Or, we may say that compared to the theology of “vision” had by sight, this is theology we have by faith or trust.

Now, as you may have begun to suspect, there are even further subdivisions.

1. Natural. Alright, next, there is what we can call “natural” theology. Note, even before I begin, this is still a subdivision of the theology of revelation. Even “natural” knowledge of God, is revealed to us by God himself. The question is the way God goes about revealing himself. This kind of theology comes about through an “innate” capacity to know and understand God, as well as process of receiving and acquiring it through experience and reason. This is the kind of theology is the kind that Adam had in the Garden before the fall. We currently can have this, but it’s extremely confused, and disordered through sin and idolatry. Think of it as light refracted through a broken mirror. It’s there, but it’s mangled.

2. Supernatural. Second, is “supernatural”, or special revelation. Somewhat obviously, this is the kind of theology and knowledge we come by through God’s supernatural means. It is beyond our natural grasp (reason, experience, etc.) and can come to us only through the special action of God via prophecy, inspiration of Scripture, theophanies, and so forth. This is the kind of knowledge that saints in the Old Testament had, Israel’s ‘revealed’ religion, as well as the special revelation of the New Testament. It is a “divine revelation strictly taken and made through the word, not through creatures.”

Turretin goes on from there to speak of even a couple further subdivisions of supernatural theology, the modes of acquiring theological knowledge, it’s nature as a science, and the overall unity of theology’s subject matter.

mapsTheology as Spiritual Mapmaking

Now, I summarized all of this, yes, because it’s kind of fun to lay everything out in a chart like that, but also because I think it’s helpful for us in our thinking about what exactly we’re doing when we’re writing and thinking through our theology. It helps clarify where we’re situated as theological thinkers and what we can and should expect of the process.

If we look at the whole chart, we’re reminded of a few realities. First, our theology is not God’s theology. There is a boundary between infinite and finite, Creator and creation, which ought to humble us in our endeavors to speak of God and his works. What’s more, of the created theology we do have, we have the theology suited to pilgrims. We do not yet see what we might, or what we will, but only what God gives us for the journey.

As I think of the idea of pilgrim theology, I’m reminded of the work of two thinkers who both suggested we ought to think of theology as a sort of map: C.S. Lewis and Kevin Vanhoozer. Lewis famously wrote of this metaphor in Mere Christianity. In response to the challenge that the science of theology seems like turning from something more real (God himself) to something less real (our ideas of God), he readily conceded some truth to it. Yet, the same thing is true when turning from the ocean, to a map of the ocean and continents. Undoubtedly, the ocean is more real than a piece of coloured paper. And yet the map is still quite valuable, as it is a guide to understanding, navigating, and moving about the ocean.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map.

In The Drama of Doctrine (pp. 295-297), Vanhoozer went a bit further and took the metaphor of “following maps” as a good one for thinking about thinking, especially about God. Very roughly, instead of picturing our knowledge as a series of bricks built one upon the other, we should think of it as maps of reality. Maps are a useful picture in that they have to correspond to reality, they retain the basic shape of things, they are coherent and consistent within themselves, but there is recognition that they’re situated, not extensive photographs of things. They are good, limited, representations of reality that function as guides, orient us to reality, and lead us where we need to go. The metaphor of the map, then seems quite suited to describe the character of our pilgrim theology.

Vanhoozer goes on to point out that God has, in Scripture, given us a divinely-authored collection of maps, an atlas of sorts, that directs us to a proper knowledge of God, salvation, and reality. The practice of systematic theology is our attempt to read the maps, and not only read them, follow their direction towards their proper end. Vanhoozer says, “To walk in the Christian way is to employ the biblical maps so that they direct one to Christ” (297). Theology, then, is spiritual map-making, and, more importantly, map-following. As Turretin will later point out, theology is a mixed discipline that is both theoretical and practical; our theoretical study of God pours forth in our practical worship of God.

May we continue to study the Scriptures, as pilgrims, with grateful humility, attempting, not only to become adequate map-readers and map-makers, but map-followers, as we journey towards Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria