Systematic Theology – Prolegomena (4) – Principium Cognoscendi Internum

SystematicToday marks the end of our prolegomena. Like most Systematic Theologies, we will be finalizing our preliminary thoughts with a brief discussion of our final principium. Today we will discuss the principium cognoscendi internum. This discussion, like the discussion of the principium cognoscendi externum, will touch on many topics that will be covered more in depth later, so today’s remarks are intentionally brief and non-comprehensive.

Restoring Our Vision

As we discussed previously, our ability to know the object of our study is limited by the fact that we cannot directly observe and interact with God. As such, God has graciously revealed himself in in nature, the Bible, and in the Incarnation. While nature is corrupted by the Fall, the Bible and the Incarnation are perfect and unfailing. That being said, they are still accommodated revelations. Because God is infinite, and what we can know is only finite, God’s communication to us is necessarily incomplete. However, to add to the difficulty, our ability to understand these three loci of revelation is damaged. This damaged vision is called the noetic effects of sin. These noetic effects turn us in on ourselves, and cause us to read wrongly. However, our final principle helps to mitigate these issues.

Today’s principium is the principium cognoscendi internum, or the internal principle of knowing. This principle is that which makes it possible for us to properly understand the external principle which teaches us about the subject of theology.

Illumination – The Holy Spirit’s Aid

As fallen creatures, our sin gets in the way. We often understand things with us at the center, even if we are not. We interpret things in a way that is advantageous to us, even if that is not accurate. When we come to the Bible it is no different. This accounts, at least in part, for why two people can read the same text and come to vastly different interpretations. This is not something wrong with the inspired scriptures, but with our ability to understand them.

A similar phenomenon happens when visit the eye doctor. Invariably a chart is placed in front of us, with large letters at the top and smaller rows of letters descending. In most cases, we do not see the letters clearly. And as our vision degrades, we often see them wrong. Put two people in front of the same chart, and they may think that an O is a Q, or a G is a C. However, we all recognize that the deficiency is not in the chart, but in the eyes of those seeing.

However, God graciously assists those who are his in understanding the revealed doctrines in the Scriptures. This is not to say that there are not some scriptures that are understandable without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. However, in order for us to understand and appropriate the doctrines for ourselves requires the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough for the text to be put in front of our eyes. The Holy Spirit must also illuminate that text for us. Just as a book may be open on a table in a dark room, but without a light it is impossible to read, so also is the Bible present before us.