The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Reformed Theology: Affective Theology and Evangelical Calvinism, Highlighting their Reality and Charting New Ways

In the last post we spoke of a development in Reformed theology known as Affective Theology. I was first introduced to this thread of Reformed theology in seminary by my professor (who also became a mentor of mine as I served as his TA for a couple of years, and then beyond my graduate studies as well), Dr. Ron Frost—a Historical Theologian with special focus in the area of Puritan theology bonaventure(his PhD dissertation was on Richard Sibbes with reference to William Perkins, among others). The antecedents to this type of Reformed theology, just as with all traditions within Reformed theology, come from earlier theological developments found in the medieval period, and even into the Patristic era. Richard Muller underscores a development of this style of theology for us in Roman Catholic medieval theology:

The great Franciscans, Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure, insisted on the affective, experimental, and moral character of theology and argued that this character of the discipline prevented it from being considered as a scienta in the Aristotelian sense of a rational or demonstrative discipline. Thus Alexander could write that there is “one mode of certainty in scientia taught according to the human spirit and another in scientia taught according to the divine Spirit” and that this latter mode, a “certainty of speculation” or the “certainty of experience” belonging to other sciences. For Alexander, theology could never be a rational or demonstrative science, because its certainty rests on the work of the Holy Spirit rather than on rational conclusions drawn from its principles. This is not to say that theology must not develop doctrinal formulations and defend them by rational argument or must not draw conclusions from principles, which is the very nature of a scientia, but only that its certitude lies elsewhere.

Bonaventure, even more than Alexander, stresses inward illumination as the source of theological knowledge rather than a scientia resting upon the perception of externals. Bonaventure had already distinguished between the theology of the sacra pagina, that is, Scripture, and the theology of his commentary on the Sentences. The former follows a “revelatory, perceptive mode” whereas the latter adopts a “ratiocinative or inquisitive mode….”[1]

This Affective mode is in contrast to the mode that Thomas Aquinas (and later scholasticism Reformed) would develop, the “ratiocinative mode.” Just to illustrate this contrast here is the beginning clause of the next paragraph just following where we left off with Bonaventure:

That step of defining the character of theological scientia among the various sciences was taken by Thomas Aquinas, who joined the concept of theology as a ratiocinative discipline characterized by definition and division of the subject for purposes of debate to the Aristotelian concepts of scientia and scientia subaltern, subalternate science….”[2]

What I am hoping to illustrate are not the fine details (yet) of the differences in theological methodology between these two approaches to doing theology (both formally and materially), but simply to demonstrate that these trajectories are available in the history itself.

Interestingly the affective approach, if you are tracking so far, might seem at odds with the approach of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; Barth and Torrance might seem to adopt the ratiocinative or a posteriori approach to doing theology, following a scientific kind of almost positivist mode to doing theology. Whereas in contrast the affective mode seems to be focused more on experiential knowledge of God, and more of maybe an Augustinian a priori even mystical approach toward knowing God. If you were tracking thusly; very perceptive of you!

Even though there might be some variance between an affective mode and a Barthian or Torrancian mode to doing theology I think the point of some convergence between them is that they both seek to focus on revelational theology that is non-speculative and kataphatic or positive in character. I would like to bring these two modes together further in constructive dialogue and see what happens (since I am influenced greatly by both). A point of contact between them could very well be to bring Kierkegaard into the discussion, since Kierkegaard played a big role in the development of the respective theologies of Barth and Torrance; I think the affective might be at play there.

So we have been discussing things revolving around prolegomena (theological methodology), but where all of this gets even more interesting is when we start getting into theological anthropology; this is where I would like to do most of the nuancing and work in regard to bringing the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ (so important and centraldogma to Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies) into discussion with affective theological-anthropological categories. This will implicate much, not to mention how we conceive of ethics, which I would rather really call personal holiness, which for the evangelical Calvinist is grounded and conditioned by Jesus Christ’s life for us–in other words we participate in and from His holiness for us from His heart which is aligned with the Father’s heart by the Spirit’s heart (which is a shared heart in perichoresis) in Triune life.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1500 to 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 91-2.

[2] Ibid., 92.


Written by Bobby Grow

October 4, 2015 at 12:46 am

6 Responses

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  1. For this reason, maybe Aquinas doesn’t deserve all the lumps. He was a scholastic, but he did have an affective and devotional side that transcended any arid bookishness (something the Reformed Orthodox could not escape). I know Barth had some kind things to say about Aquinas and his method, especially in contrast to Schliermacher who, some might say, is the apotheosis of the affective (I disagree).

    The latter point is something to beware of: How do you prevent yourself from tipping into Schliermacher and liberal Protestantism? I think it has something to do with the corporate identity of the Church, but I digress.

    I look forward to your posts.


    Liked by 1 person


    October 4, 2015 at 4:22 pm

  2. I’m not sure I understand your point on Aquinas? He represents the ratiocinative approach that is at odds with the affective in very pointed ways. Even if there are elements of that in Barth/Torrance they end up reifying, I would argue, even those elements with their focus on a personalist/relationalist understanding of God etc. This is why I think there is a substantial point of contact between Barth/Torrance and Affective theology. The analogy of faith and relation, for example sits well with Affective mode whereas the analogy of being and Thomas’ approach does not.


    Bobby Grow

    October 4, 2015 at 5:39 pm

  3. My point was to dispute if Thomas really taught that. It’s a debate, especially in Rome, over the legacy of Thomas and whether resulting Thomists really accurately understood him (i.e. I’m thinking of Henry McCabe, Terry Eagleton (an atheist!), Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar etc.). I’ve not read Thomas, only those propping up a resourced and renewed reading. Even Barth did not trash Thomas.



    October 5, 2015 at 6:38 pm

  4. I don’t think whether or not Thomas was a so called ratiocinative theologian is under dispute by anybody, he clearly does not fit into the Affective mode. My prof Ron Frost did thorough research on Thomas in his PhD studies and clearly demonstrates the type of impact that Thomas had on conception of God, sacraments, theological methodology etc and then my former prof contrasts that with the Affective mode.


    Bobby Grow

    October 6, 2015 at 2:36 pm

  5. Bobby, have you commented on this? And what would an EC correction to Warfield’s famous chart look like?

    Liked by 1 person

    Bowman Walton

    October 13, 2015 at 10:24 am

  6. Thanks for the heads up, Bowman! I just went over and made a couple little comments.


    Bobby Grow

    October 13, 2015 at 12:35 pm

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