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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Categorical Distinctions in the Knowledge of God

Editor's Note: Close the hatches, we are about to go deep into the waters of Reformed theology.

Thanks to Brandon Wilkins at A Pilgim's Theology for pointing us to this quote from Louis Berkhof:
“Alongside of the archetypal knowledge of God, found in himself, there is also an ectypal knowledge of Him, given to man by revelation. The latter is related to the former as a copy to the original, and therefore does not possess the same measure of clearness and perfection. All our knowledge of God is derived from His self-revelation in nature and in Scripture. Consequently, our knowledge of God is on the one hand ectypal and analogical, but on the other hand also true and accurate, since it is a copy of the archetypal knowledge which God has of himself” (Berkhof, ST, 35).
This thought wasn't original to Berkhof; it is reflected in a long line of Reformed thinkers. The distinction was heavily pressed by Cornelius Van Til, while it was minimized by Gordon Clark. Maintaining the "categorical distinction" is important for many reasons, some of which are discussed in the comments at this post on R. Scott Clark's Heidelblog. Some have described "Archetypal Theology" and "Ectypal Theology," or the TA/TE distinction for short. Others have merely discussed Archetypal and Ectypal knowledge. It's the same thing either way. Those who hold the distinction are sometimes called "analogical theologians" because they affirm that our knowledge of God is an analogy of His own higher and perfect knowledge.

Those of a Clarkian mindset (followers of Gordon Clark, not R. Scott Clark) tend to take issue with such distinctions, but we believe the distinctions are essential to the development of an orthodox view of God, revelation and humanity.

Here is a comment I left at the Heidelblog in response to certain criticisms of this doctrine that were leveled by previous commenters:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that some here are building a straw man and not taking the TA/TE distinction at face value.

Aren’t these straw men?
“If the truths revealed in Scripture are not what God really thinks . . .”
I don’t hear analogical theologians saying that. They’re saying the truths of Scripture are a faithful copy of God’s actual thoughts.
“if there is and can be no identity of content between God’s knowledge and man’s . . .”
That’s not what they’re saying, either. It’s not a question of content, but of our ability to humanly comprehend and categorize the content that is only divinely comprehensible.
“If the human words of Scripture are not also God’s own divine words . . .”
Absolutely wrong. No analogical Reformed theologian denies that the Bible is God’s Word.
“If the truths revealed in Scripture are not what God really thinks . . .”
Analogical theologians don’t say this. If there are truths revealed in Scripture (and we believe there are), God thinks them. But He thinks more than that, and He thinks in a different way (a divine way).
“if there is and can be no identity of content between God’s knowledge and man’s . . .”
A totally false inference. Read the Berkhof quote again.

These straw men do not reflect the things I hear those who hold to the distinction saying (e.g. Berkhof). They are simply comparing the intellectual apparatus of man with that of our Creator. These men are saying the propositions we receive from Scripture are a faithful, accurate copy of God’s own thoughts (that’s what ectype means). Hence, we can think some of the same propositional content of God’s thoughts after Him, but we cannot think God’s actual thoughts because we don’t have the apparatus to do so. (It’s like trying to pick up a TV signal through a radio. Even when you get tuned in to the right station, you’re still missing something – a picture). One can think of propositional revelation (the ectype) as 2-dimensional, and God’s archetypal thoughts as 3-dimensional. He sees stereoscopically, with infinite depth, while we see with an eye patch called “creaturehood” makin Truth look flat. Since we are so limited, God reduced His thoughts into language that we can understand (Calvin’s “lisp”), language that is necessarily limited (but not false or uncertain). Guys like Berkhof are simply saying that God Himself cannot be reduced to a mere set of propositions (contra Gordon Clark). Propositions are containable and controllable. God isn’t.

Far from devaluing Scripture, these men are exalting God. Some theologians who have a rationalistic bent etch away at the glory of God by reducing Him to a set of humanly explicable propositions. He’s never going to be that small.

Another comment laying out a Biblical basis for the doctrine:

Perhaps there is a tension between emphasizing the comprehensibility of divine revelation and the incomprehensibility of the One revealed. The comprehensible revelation reveals that the Revealer is too incomprehensible to comprehend … and it does so with amazing clarity.

I think when some Reformed theologians say our knowledge is “different” than God’s, they are referring quantitatively to a reduced content on the one hand (accommodating to our weakness, as in the illustrations above), and qualitatively to a reduced depth of apprehension on the other hand (accommodating to our innate creaturely limitations). I doubt even Van Til would say God knows one thing archetypally and reveals something of a completely different content ectypally. That would make God a liar, or at least a distorter of His own Truth. Ectypal knowledge has to be as true as Archetypal, or else the whole thing falls apart. But I believe there is a Biblical case for the distinction in both aspects, reduced content and reduced depth of apprehension.

In discussing God’s meticulous sovereignty in Psalm 139, David says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful [Heb. pil'iy, incomprehensible] for me, I cannot attain to it.” (Ps. 139:6, NASB). David “knows” the propositions he has just written, yet in some way he is unable to grasp them. The revealed propositions are just the tip of an incomprehensible iceberg.

The only other occurrence of the Hebrew word pil’iy is in Judges 13:18, where the angel of the Lord says he has an incomprehensible name. The name of an angel should consist of the simplest possible propositional statement, yet in this case it is obviously much more. So, the Biblical proposition revealed is not “The angel’s name is ___________,” but instead perhaps, “Things that are simple to God and His angels are way beyond your grasp.” These are two isolated texts, but along with others they point us toward the categorical distinction.

In another comment you mentioned I Cor. 2, which is certainly apropos to this topic. I’m fascinated by a few of Paul’s statements there:
1. No one knows the mind of God except the Spirit of God.
2. We have received the Spirit who is from God.
3. We may understand the things freely given to us by God.

Note that he doesn’t say we know the mind of God directly. He says we have received the Spirit who knows the mind of God. So, the Spirit living in us has exclusive Archetypal knowledge (knows the mind of God), and He shares Ectypal knowledge with us (so that we may understand the things freely given to us by God). He doesn’t say “so that we may understand the mind of God,” but the things freely given to us. Interestingly, unbelievers also have things freely given to them by God, yet they remain willfully ignorant of that fact. Both are recipients of His gifts, but only believers can perceive how greatly they have been “graced.”

Could all of this be evidence that God Himself has carefully preserved the categorical distinction in His Word?

This creates plenty of opportunity for verbal paradoxes, but is there a logical paradox at work here? Or is the categorical distinction intended to solve a logical paradox? I favor the latter, and a good solution it is.

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