Systematic Theology – Prolegomena (3) – Principium Cognoscendi Externum

SystematicNow, as we said on our discussion of the principium essendi, the three Persons of the Trinity are the only persons who have archetypal knowledge of each other and themselves. Beyond this, these Persons exist beyond our reach in terms of observation and inquiry. Theology is thus a revealed science, meaning that we can only know that which God tells us. This leads us to our second principle. That is the principium cognoscendi externum.

The Means of Knowledge

The principium cognoscendi externum, or the external principle of knowing, is the term used to describe what external means we have available in order to know the principium essendi. Another way to explain this is to say that this refers to the data we have available from which to construct our system of theology. In many of the other sciences, the essendi and cognoscendi externum are one and the same. We base our system of biology on direct observations of the object and subject of our study. However, in our pursuit of God we must base our system on that which God has told us. In Christian theology, this takes two primary forms.

General Revelation – Nature

While it is sometimes thought that Reformed theology is entirely opposed to making theological conclusions based on our observations of the created order, this is not entirely true. While it is true that the majority of Protestants, and Reformed Protestants especially, affirm the noetic effects of the Fall and our ongoing sin, this does not mean that we reject that nature still bears the imprint of its Creator. However, in general, it is problematic to rest our theological system upon our observations of nature.

Even those who are regenerate and progressing in sanctification are still works in progress. We look at the world through sin tainted lenses. We see things in a way that often revolves around us. We are, by definition, at the center of our own universe and our theology often reflects that. This sometimes leads to a theology which elevates the importance of humanity in unhealthy ways, and conversely it can sometimes lead to a theology which degrades the uniqueness of humanity. As our sin curves our vision inward toward our belly we begin to corrode our foundations and this leads us to faulty and frail conclusions.

Beyond that, the very created order itself was changed by our sin. What originally was meant to be a symbiotic relationship between Adam and the Earth was distorted into an adversarial and grudging partnership. Rather than submit to Adam and provide its fruit in proper response, the Earth itself resists him in thorns and thistles. The same can be said of humanity itself. Although the imago dei was not utterly erased, it is distorted and fractured. When we look at ourselves and reflect upon God, we often make a God in our own image.

However, the created order does still cry out in testimony to the greatness of God. Namely, his divine nature and power. We look around and recognize that the complex systems and intricate balance that exists in the robust ecosystems across the planet, and even within our own bodies, demand a Designer who orchestrates their ebbs and flows. We recognize that an Entity so great also demands our worship, and that there are just consequences for our refusal to bow. Finally, we recognize that such a competent Architect has woven moral laws into the very fabric of reality, and to violate those laws draws rightful condemnation and punishment.

At the end of the day, we are fallen and corrupt creatures… studying a dented and decaying creation… hoping to catch a glimpse of the immutable and impassible Creator. It is no wonder that we get it wrong without something more stable.

Special Revelation – The Bible and Jesus Christ

However, we are not left to our own devices to grope in the dark after the one who is Light.

The Father spoke to his people in vast and sundry ways, first through the Prophets, and in these latter days in his Son. He also, by his Spirit, gave us an infallible and inerrant witness by which to know his Son.

In the incarnation of the 2nd Person of the Trinity, we truly know the Father as he is revealed by his Son. As full as this is, it is still an accommodation. The knowledge we can gain of God by knowing his Son is still finite, still a copy. However, when we know the Son, we know the Father and his Spirit as well.

While we will someday know in full, we currently only know in part. We only know about the Son because of the Bible. However, we have been told is sufficient for our salvation, for the good works we are expected to accomplish, and to correct our errors and sins.

While it is true that we still suffer the noetic effects of our sin, the revelation given in the Bible is vastly superior to the revelation given in creation. Where creation itself is broken and tainted, the Bible is unbreakable and pure. The words we read in Scripture are the very words of God. We know that when the Bible stands in judgement over us, it does to as the true and faithful judgement of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Next week we will discuss the mitigation of the noetic effects of our sin when we turn to our final principium, the internal principle of knowing.