White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

God Alone is the Most Perfect Theologian

Published Wednesday, November 18, 2020 By Seung-Joo Lee

Who is a theologian? What should a theologian do? Or, more fundamentally, what is theology? These are some of the most basic questions that theologians can grapple with, but they are never insignificant questions. Kevin Vanhoozer, for example, helpfully showed in his Letter to an Aspiring Theologian that answering those questions requires a deep awareness of anthropological as well as ecclesial realities. Yet, Vanhoozer insisted, what theologians need the most is the awareness, wisdom, and insight about God Himself. “Theology is the study of how to speak truly of God and of all things in relation to God… Becoming a theologian means following God’s Word where it leads with all one’s mind, heart, soul, and strength.”

If theology is fundamentally about the wisdom of God and all things in relation to Him—and it is—then a follow up question might be this: who knows God most perfectly? Who knows God most exhaustively? And who can give the wisest counsel about the things divine? The questions of this sort are not meaningless, as they were particularly helpful to the development of early modern Reformed theology. For instance, Amandus Polanus (1561–1610), one of the most accomplished dogmaticians in the Reformed tradition, stated that “Theology therefore most properly is that knowledge of divine things which is in the divine mind, so that God alone is called Theologian: and accordingly, God is understood to be the first, highest, and most perfect theologian.”[1]

This is not just a clever play on words; it is a profound insight into what the late John Webster has called “theological theology.” God, understood in this way, is not a static object passively waiting to be discovered by human reason, but the very active subject who perfectly knows all the things in Himself. In this framework, theology refers primarily to what is in the divinemind, and only secondarily to what is in the human mind.

Despite the depth here, however, Polanus was certainly not the first one to conceive God as the most perfect theologian. Before Polanus, for example, Franciscus Junius (1545–1602)—Calvin’s famous pupil—endeavoured to show that God alone is the most pure, perfect, and profound theologian. And his reasons are also profound.

God Exists Most Perfectly

First of all, Junius believed that God exists most perfectly, because He exists most simply. Junius described God as a “pure, unadulterated act” or “a simple actuality on whom, as the universal principle, entirely all things depend.”[2] God, in other words, is the “most simple essence” and the “essence beyond essence,” in whom there is no distinction and composition.[3] There is no distinction and composition in God because God is not composed of matter and form; of parts and whole; of essentia and esse; and of subject and accident. These points are undeniable indicators of Junius’s use of scholastic concepts, in which both metaphysical and physical compositions were denied to exist in God. God, expressed in other terms, is both the unadulterated pure actuality (purus putus actus) and the simple actuality(άπλή ἐνέργεια), and these terms captured what was at the heart of the classical doctrine of divine immutability: God is full of actuality, devoid of potentiality, and free from mutability.

So, Junius clearly believed that God’s way of existence is the most perfect way of existence, as God, and He alone, exists as a pure and simple actuality. This is radically different from the way creatures exist—unlike the simple and pure God all creatures are mixed and composed, and this “divine mode of existence” surely sets God apart from all the creatures. In this regard, God alone possesses the most perfect ontological condition for theological knowledge.

God Knows Himself Most Perfectly

Secondly, Junius believed that God knows Himself most perfectly. What is notable in Junius’s conception of God is that, just as there cannot be any real distinction in God between His essence and existence, there is no real distinction between His knowledge and His being. This is to say that, in Junius’s theology, the knowledge that God has of Himself in Himself bears “an essential characteristic of the divine essence,” and he located that divine self-knowledge in “the very essence of God, just as God is most simple in all respects, whose being and understanding and knowing is the same thing, although we distinguish these in our own minds according to reason” (110). Similar to Aquinas who asserted that “[God’s] existence is His act of understanding,”[4] Junius argued that “[divine theology] exists with His essence simultaneously, indivisible and immutable. By the same evident reason, His eternal wisdom is devoid of parts, and succession, and of all motion” (110).

This, again, indicates his reception of one of the fundamental tenets in the classical expression of God: God’s eternal being as well as knowledge are characterized by simultaneity. God knows all things simultaneously, not discursively or progressively, because God can comprehend all the conclusions in their principles, and all the effects in their causes—a sequential and gradual mode of conception is a mark of rational creatures, not of God. Junius therefore believed that divine knowledge is God’s essential knowledge as He knows everything through His essence.

What does this imply then? This implies that the “divine mode of knowing” is so different from the creaturely mode of knowing such that God alone—yes, He alone—can perfectly grasp the things of God. Everything about God is known by Him perfectly and therefore God alone possesses the most exhaustive knowledge of Himself. God, in short, perfectly knows Himself by Himself in Himself.

God Communicates His Self-knowledge Most Perfectly

Lastly, Junius believed that God communicates His self-knowledge most perfectly. He defined God’s communicative act as a “προφορικός discourse” because it “flows from God Himself, and through a sort of effluence or procession from it (as we would say) produces its own effect in those who hear” (202). The προφορικός or enunciative discourse was understood by Junius as a method by which “a person communicates with others the concept of his own mind, or something that was engendered in his intellect, or what was perceived by reason externally” (201–02). By using this method of discourse God communicates the “images” or “traces” of His self-knowledge to human creatures, and hence its category was deemed to have sufficient utility in capturing the essential nature of God’s archetypal knowledge as well as the vestigial nature of human’s ectypal knowledge. In fact, Junius used various words to describe the nature of that discourse: it is an act of transmission, impression, or even emanation, not in the sense of extending the divine essence, but in the sense of communicating the radiance and the fragment of eternal wisdom. It is also an act of stamping—Junius argued that in ectypal theology one finds “a kind of relief image stamped by the essential theology” (106).

In addition to these verbs that expressed different nuances of God’s communicative actions, he also contended that God “tempered His revelations to our condition and accommodated Himself voluntarily to human reason and to the salvation of His own church” (165). These verbs—transmitting, impressing, emanating, stamping, and tempering—stand therefore in the background when Junius described the nature of divine accommodation, because Junius used the verbs to describe how eternal knowledge was “adumbrated in nature or expressed in his word.”[5] Hence when Junius accentuated that God is a communicative Being, he meant to convey that God does not only know the things of God, but also shares that knowledge, so that human creatures may also know Him according to God’s own revelation. And this “divine mode of communicating” indicates that God mercifully accommodated His eternal, transcendent, and unbounded self-knowledge to the capacity of finite humans, and in that sense God alone is the most perfect teacher of theology.

Conclusion

These are just surface treatments of Junius’s understanding of God and His communicative actions. Junius certainly believed that God alone is the most perfect theologian, not only because of His perfect mode of being and knowing, but also because of His perfect mode of communicating. God alone is the most perfect theologian who exists perfectly, who knows perfectly, and who teaches perfectly. And this catholic (i.e., universal) truth demands all theologians to pay close attention to the manner of God’s being, knowing, and communicating, because only by maintaining this Godward focus can theologians truly arrive at the wisdom of “God.” So, as we endeavor to learn from many great theologians in history, let’s not forget that God is actually the most perfect theologian. To use Étienne Gilson’s words, God is not merely “the supreme Intelligible,” but also “the supreme Intelligent.”[6] Let’s therefore remember that God is first known by Himself before He is known by us—we are only wrestling with the vestigial traces of God’s own knowledge, and we are summoned to think God’s thoughts after Him.

Seung-Joo Lee holds an M.A. degree from Westminster Seminary California and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Seung-Joo is married to Daisy, and is working at Reformed Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, as Personal Assistant to the Principal.


[1]. Amandus Polanus, Syntagma, I.iii. The translation is from Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 1.233.

[2]. Franciscus Junius, The Mosaic Polity, 42. Translated by Todd M. Rester. 

[3]. Junius, A Treatise On True Theology: With the Life of Franciscus Junius, 105. Translated by David C. Noe.

[4]. Aquinas, Summa Theologica,Ia, q. 14, a. 5.

[5]. Junius, The Mosaic Polity, 29 & 31.

[6]. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 111.

  • Seung-Joo Lee