Systematic Theology – Prolegomena (2) – Principium Essendi

SystematicEvery entry into Systematic Theology must begin by discussing the object of our study, how we come to know about this object, and how this information is to be verified. Today we’ll briefly discuss what is called the principium essendi. That is, the principle of being.

The Object of Theology

This principium, is fundamentally the object that we are studying. If you were to ask what the principium essendi was for biology, it would be living organisms. For geography, it is the natural makeup of the Earth. For Christian Theology, the principle in view is no less than God the Father, as revealed in God the Son, and as illuminated by God the Holy Spirit. That is, theology is about God. He is the object of our study. This makes it different from other sciences in that God is not a static object with no response or interaction. Rather, God deeply interacts with us.

However, God’s ways are not our ways. As we will see as we progress into our study of Paterology, God has a variety of attributes. Some of these attributes can be communicated to creatures, some cannot. However, even the communicable attributes can only be communicated analogically. Everything about God that can be expressed in finite language, even when God is the one expressing those things, is only ever a partial explanation. It can never be the whole truth. When Scripture says that God is love, it means that God is love in an uncreaturely way, where we only know creaturely love. When Scripture says that God is powerful, it means that he is powerful in an uncreaturely way, where we only know creaturely power. That is to say that God’s power is not just greater than ours in a quantifiable way, but that God’s power (or knowledge, presence, etc) is of an entirely different kind.

The Limitations of Theology

This does not mean that we do not know, or cannot say, true things about God. It is to say that our knowledge is analogical.

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are the only persons who can truly know each other. They are the only ones who can speak in infinite ways, and even then only to each other. They are the only ones who have true knowledge. This true knowledge is what theologians know as Archetypal knowledge. This just means that their knowledge is the original and complete knowledge. Thus any knowledge we might have, albeit it true and accurate, is only ever impartial. A copy of God’s archetypal knowledge of himself, which we call Ectypal.

The Goal and Aim of Theology

Finally, a brief comment on the task of theology. John Calvin is famously known to have said that God speaks to us in baby talk. The image is that of a parent who holds their child and coos at them. God, as Athanasius once said, meets us half way in revealing himself in his Son through the incarnation. The Spirit then inspired men to record the human earthly life of the Son in the pages of the Scripture. In this way God speaks to us, and the task of theology (any theology but in our context especially Systematic Theology) is to work hard at learning that language, and to faithfully and accurately speak what God has said back to him in praise.

While Systematic Theology is certainly an academic discipline, a science, and an exercise of the mind. It is also, perhaps primarily, a devotional exercise. We strive to know God, in his Son, by his Spirit, because we love him and want to know him in increasing truth. In this life we can only ever see in a mirror, dimly. However, Systematic Theology allows us to polish that mirror a bit, to see a little more clearly.