Within the Limits: John Calvin on Positive Theology with Reference to Sonderegger and Webster

Back in the day there was what was called the via positiva or the positive way of doing theology, and attempting to think God. This f593a-calvinsladderway of doing theology was anti-speculative (which is what the so called via negativa or negative way was known for), and wanted to solely focus upon what was ‘revealed’. Now, I have often lifted up Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance as advocates of this style of theologizing, but someone else from the early Reformation period who was a strong advocate of this ‘way’ was John Calvin (which is one reason both Barth and Torrance were such fans of Calvin). Here is what Calvin has to say about all of this in his Institute:

… Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation; let us use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends. For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it? Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God’s essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. For, as Hilary says, he is the one fit witness to himself, and is not known except through himself. But we shall be “leaving it to him” if we him to be as he reveals himself to us, without inquiring about him elsewhere than from his Word. On this question there are extant five homilies of Chrysostom Against the Anomoeans; yet not even these could restrain the presumptuous Sophists from giving their stuttering tongues free rein. For in this matter they have behaved no more modestly than they usually do everywhere. We ought to be warned by the unhappy outcome of this presumption so that we may take care to apply ourselves to this question with teachableness rather than with subtlety. And let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word. But if some distinction does exist in the one divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit–something hard to grasp–and occasions to certain minds more difficulty and trouble than is expedient, let it be remembered that men’s minds, when they indulge their curiosity, enter into a labyrinth. And so let them yield themselves to be ruled by the heavenly oracles, even though they may fail to capture the height of the mystery.[1]

If you have never read any Barth or Torrance you might be surprised at how much Calvin sounds like them rather than the theologians post him; theologians who get deep into Aristotelian theology (Thomism).

This does bring up a question; I am currently reading Katherine Sonderegger’s new Systematic Theology (Vol. 1 Doctrine of God), and I have been a reader of John Webster (for some years now), and both of these theologians have moved back into a Thomist mode for doing theology and thinking God. There is aesthetic pleasure and poetics involved in reading both Sonderegger and Webster (and I am a major fan of Webster, and quickly becoming one of Sonderegger), but beyond the aesthetic pleasure and doxological value involved in the production of their respective theologies I would have to wonder how much of it Calvin would be willing to go along with?

The section of the Institute I quoted from above is a section where Calvin is discussing the doctrine of the Trinity; in that section Calvin quotes and brings up both Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus, both Patristic theologians who excelled at providing trinitarian grammar that appealed to philosophical grammar of their day, but in the end they seem to do quite well at ‘evangelizing’ it (the philosophical grammar), and avoid allowing it to dictate the terms of God’s Self-revelation. My guess is that if Calvin read Sonderegger and Webster, he would probably feel pretty good about appealing to them as well.

I am still in the air on this. But one thing I am grounded on is that along with Calvin, Barth, and Torrance I am a firm and even dogmatic advocate of the via positiva and the positive way of doing theology; revelational theology rather than philosophical; even confessional theology as Calvin has been noted for (by Charles Partee).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I, I/XIII.21, p. 145-46.

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