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A Treatise on True Theology by Franciscus Junius: A Review Article

John V. Fesko

A Treatise on True Theology, by Franciscus Junius. Translated by David C. Noe. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014, lii + 247 pages, $40.00.

Seldom do I get giddy about the release of a new book, but the translation and publication of Franciscus Junius’s A Treatise on True Theology is certainly an exception to my otherwise dispassionate appreciation of books. Many Reformed readers are likely unfamiliar with Junius’s work and instead come into contact with its substance through the writings of other theologians, such as Herman Bavinck or Louis Berkhof. In their respective treatments of theological prolegomena (the presuppositions to one’s theological system) Bavinck and Berkhof both employ the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.[1] Archetypal theology is God’s perfect, infinite knowledge of himself and ectypal theology is the true but finite shadow or copy of the divine archetype. But Bavinck and Berkhof were not the first theologians to employ this distinction. Rather, they gleaned it from seventeenth-century Reformed Scholastic theologians. Franciscus Junius first borrowed the distinction from medieval theologians and employed it in his treatise, On True Theology. In the past, anyone who wanted to learn more about the distinction could only access it through Junius’s Latin original or the small body of English-language secondary literature.[2] But this has all changed with the translation and publication of Junius’s treatise.

Given the fact that much of the twentieth-century spotlight has fallen disproportionately upon John Calvin and his theology, other important contributions from the likes of Junius have been forgotten or ignored. Yet Junius was one of the most esteemed theologians of his day, evident by how widely his archetypal-ectypal distinction was employed among the Reformed as well as even among Lutheran and Remonstrant theologians (xi). Theologians such as John Owen, Richard Baxter, Jacob Arminius, Francis Turretin, Johannes Wollebius, Petrus van Mastricht, Johannes Cocceius, Gisbert Voetius and many others employed Junius’s distinction (xliii–xliv). In fact, Willem van Asselt notes that the archetypal-ectypal distinction was “assumed by nearly every Reformed author” (xlii–xliii).

This new translation offers several beneficial features, such as a preface by Richard Muller and a historical-theological introduction by Willem van Asselt, two of the most accomplished authorities on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theology. Van Asselt’s introduction, one of his last published writings before his death, offers a first-rate overview of Junius’s life and influence as well as the significance of this treatise. Beyond the preface and foreword, the translator, David Noe, professor of classics at Calvin College and OPC ruling elder, has done a tremendous job translating this work. He offers a very readable annotated translation. Moreover, along the way Noe provides readers with very helpful editorial annotations that explain the classical references and allusions that Junius makes throughout his treatise.

As far as the treatise itself, its form is likely a bit foreign to readers used to the discursive pages of Calvin’s Institutes. Junius presents his treatise in thirty-nine separate theses that he then defends at greater length. For example, thesis 5 states: “Theology is wisdom concerning divine matters” (85). In thesis 11, Junius writes: “The theology, which we call that of union, is the whole wisdom of divine matters, communicated to Christ as God-man, that is as the Word made flesh, according to His humanity” (86). Junius, therefore, argues and defends the claim that wisdom about God (theology) is chiefly revealed through the incarnation. These two theses form part of the logical foundation in Junius’s later claims that supernatural theology (revealed theology) is a mode of knowledge beyond human reason (88). These theological points rest, of course, upon the archetypal-ectypal distinction. In thesis 10 Junius explains the significance of the distinction vis-à-vis revelation to finite human creatures: “But theology that is relative is the wisdom of divine matters communicated to things created, according to the capacity of the created things themselves. It is, moreover, communicated by union, vision, or revelation” (86). Junius’s point is that God has designed human beings to receive revelation—a knowledge that is appropriately suited to their finite capacity. While some of Junius’s theses may seem obscure, one of his chief goals is to defend the idea that “the primary or highest end of theology is the glory of God, for theology shows this glory for all to behold, and also all good men by a right use of this wisdom render that glory confirmed, just as wisdom is justified by her children” (207). Hence, as technical as some of his points are, Junius’s goal is ultimately practical and pastoral. His goal is to give doxology to our triune God and these presuppositions act as guardrails to keep his theological system on an exegetical and orthodox path.

Beyond these observations three reasons commend the purchase and study of this treatise: (1) the importance of understanding theological prolegomena, (2) the crucial nature of one of Reformed theology’s most fundamental and classic distinctions, and (3) recognizing the connections among contemporary Reformed theology from Bavinck and Berkhof, to seventeenth-century Reformed expressions, and their medieval predecessors.

First, for many fans and students of classic Reformed theology, Calvin’s Institutes constitutes the definitive theological statement. But when readers compare Calvin’s work with others, such as Turretin’s Institutes (1679–1685), or Bavinck’s Dogmatics (1881), or Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (1932, 1939, combined edition 1996), there is a noticeable difference—Calvin does not treat prolegomena, whereas the latter three do. What is theology? How is theology defined? Is theology a speculative or practical discipline? What is the relationship between faith and reason? How can finite creatures relate to an infinite God? What is the nature of language about God? Is it univocal, equivocal, or analogical? These are all typical questions that fall under the category of prolegomena.[3] Pastors and theologians often do theology but do not give explicit thought to these important theological presuppositions. The sixteenth-century Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, never gave great attention to these questions, so subsequent generations addressed them. Some might think that such questions are pedantic or unnecessary, but they become quite relevant when someone in your church asks, “What does the Bible mean when it says that God is love?” Prolegomena assists pastors to think through these knotty issues so they can answer in what way God is love.

Second, understanding the archetypal-ectypal distinction is one of the most fundamental presuppositions to doing sound theology. We must recognize that there is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between God’s knowledge of himself and our knowledge of God. As finite creatures we cannot comprehensively know God otherwise we would be God. But just because we cannot comprehensively know God does not mean that we cannot have a true but nevertheless finite apprehensive knowledge of him. The archetypal-ectypal distinction guards the idea that God is the creator and we are creatures and that all of our knowledge about him is divinely revealed. This distinction acted as a bulwark against both rationalism and mysticism. In the recent past, apologetes such as Cornelius Van Til employed this creator-creature distinction but appears to have been unaware of the classic archetypal-ectypal distinction.[4] The archetypal-ectypal distinction would have been helpful, I believe, in assisting the OPC in the Clark-Van Til debate, which was chiefly about the nature of our language about God—matters that relate directly to prolegomena.

Third, the popular narrative that I often hear in the church is that the Reformation was a complete break with the theological past. The Reformers started with their Bibles and a blank slate. The real story, however, is significantly different. When Junius was writing his treatise on prolegomena, he raided the Catholic Church’s treasury of knowledge. He went back to medieval theologians because they had done extensive work on prolegomena. Junius did not merely seek these medieval works for pragmatic reasons but wanted to learn from them and expose others to good theology. This does not mean that Junius believed that all medieval theology was orthodox, lock, stock, and barrel. Rather, he gleaned valid and true insights and employed them in his own theological work. Junius’s treatise is an excellent exercise in studying Catholic theology. In this vein, Herman Bavinck once wrote:

Irenaeus, Augustine, and Thomas [Aquinas] do not belong exclusively to Rome; they are Fathers and Doctors to whom the whole Christian church has obligations. Even the post-Reformation Roman Catholic theology is not overlooked. In general, Protestants know far too little about what we have in common with Rome and what divides us. Thanks to the revival of Roman Catholic theology under the auspices of Thomas, it is now doubly incumbent on Protestants to provide a conscious and clear account of their relationship to Rome.[5]

Junius interacts with numerous sources from antiquity and a diverse cross section of theological voices to construct his treatise.

There is much to learn from Junius’s engagement of sources. Moreover, Junius’s work just might encourage readers to conduct their own theological raids to plunder our Catholic heritage. Sadly, the twentieth-century Reformed tradition took a decidedly negative opinion regarding our common theological heritage, and this was often done apart from consulting primary sources. Scholasticism of every stripe, medieval and Reformed, was written off as speculative and syncretistic. At a bare minimum, readers can now wrestle first-hand with the exegetical and theological claims in Junius’s work and determine whether his thought is genuinely speculative or syncretistic. My hope is, however, that readers will come away with a different evaluation, one where they have a greater appreciation for Junius’s clarity, insight, and orthodoxy. Such was the appraisal of Bavinck and Berkhof, among others. In fact, Abraham Kuyper believed that Junius’s work was so important that he edited a modern edition of his select works in Latin.[6] In addition to this, with Junius in hand, readers can explore the connections, for example, between Bavinck and Junius on their respective prolegomenas to see to what degree the former employed the latter.

Anyone interested in studying Reformed theology should purchase a copy of Junius’s treatise. I especially encourage seminarians and pastors to purchase a print edition of this work. Read it, mark it up, enter into a dialogue with Junius in the margins, and even tuck it under your pillow at night. The church owes David Noe and Reformation Heritage Books many thanks for making this influential work available in English translation. Maybe this new translation of Junius will foster a second-wave of influence among Reformed theologians to the edification of the church. Given his theological acumen, the widespread influence he had in his own day, the use of his insights by twentieth-century Reformed theologians like Bavinck and Berkhof, and the exegetical-theological importance of the archetypal-ectypal distinction, students of the Bible would do well to study carefully Junius’s treatise.

Endnotes

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols., ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003-08), 1:212; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (1932, 1938; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 94.

[2] See, e.g., Willem J. van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 319–35; Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 1:229–37.

[3] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:86.

[4] On the affinities between Van Til and the classic archetypal-ectypal distinction, see Jeffrey K. Jue, “Theologia Naturalis: A Reformed Tradition,” in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, eds. K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007), 168–89.

[5] Herman Bavinck, “Foreword to the First Edition (vol. 1) of the Gereformeerde Dogmatiek,” trans. John Bolt, Calvin Theological Journal 45 (2010): 9–10.

[6] Franciscus Junius, Opuscula Theologica Selecta, ed. Abraham Kuyper (Amsterdam: apud Frederium Muller, 1882).

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as professor of systematic and historical theology and academic dean at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, February 2015.

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