Franciscus Junius, Old Princeton, and the Question of Natural Theology

Franciscus Junius, Old Princeton, and the Question of Natural Theology

It can be fairly concluded that the entire tradition of Old Princeton stretching back to Geneva understood natural theology as a species of true theology. The theologians we examined all believed natural theology to be an important, separate, and complementary discipline to supernatural theology.

Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) was one of the most influential theologians in the post-Reformation period. His Treatise on True Theology (1594) established many of the categories, and set in place the basic outline, that later systematicians would use in defining and delineating the nature of theology. Junius did not just shape later Reformed prolegomena, in many ways he established Reformed prolegomena in the first place. Not surprisingly, Junius is considered by some to be the quintessential Reformed theologian in the period of early Orthodoxy.[1]

Given Junius’s influence and stature, Nathan Shannon’s recent article “Junius and Van Til on Natural Knowledge of God” (WTJ 82 [2020]: 279-300) makes an important and provocative claim.[2] According to Shannon, assistant professor of systematic theology at Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul, “Junius and Van Til . . . agree that post-fall natural theology, unaided by special revelation, is not theology in any meaningful sense” (279). The singular thesis—and the most important claim of the article—is that for Junius, as well as for Van Til, “relational reconciliation is a necessary condition of true theology” (279). Or to put it even more bluntly: “Since true theology is determined by redemptive relation, natural theology, lacking this redemptive relation is not true theology, not in fact theology at all. Natural theology is in the end anti-theology” (279-80).

This is a bold thesis, as Shannon recognizes. The entire tradition of scholasticism affirmed the existence and importance of natural theology. And yet, according to Shannon, “Junius’s view of natural (as in unregenerate) theology marks a conspicuous point of departure from pre-Reformation scholasticism” (281). More than that, if Shannon’s argument is correct, Junius sounds a different note than virtually every orthodox Reformed theologian to follow in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the tradition of Old Princeton theology that developed in the nineteenth century. Considering the debate in Reformed circles about the legitimacy (or not) of natural theology, to have Junius on the side of nein would be significant—not only for one’s view of the post-Reformation period but for the pedigree of more recent Reformed theology. “This thesis,” Shannon writes, “so far as it is true, enhances the historical credentials of Van Til’s characteristically neo-Calvinist view of natural theology and natural reason.” In other words, if Junius believed that genuine theology is impossible “apart from monergistic establishment of relational restoration” (281), that “the theology of the unregenerate is prolific idolatry” (287), and that “even falsa theologia is charitable nomenclature” for post-fall natural theology (298), then Van Til’s thought has found a significant historical precursor.

My argument, however, is that Shannon’s innovative thesis does not fit the facts. If “the unregenerate must, it would seem, either know God or know nothing at all,” Shannon commends Van Til for betting on the latter (294). But is this the choice early Reformed theologians would have made? For whatever useful elements there may be in Van Til’s apologetic method, his approach to natural theology was a departure from the larger tradition. Mainstream Reformed thought has consistently affirmed that post-fall natural theology can be true theology. The theology of the unregenerate—though marred by imperfections and never saving—cannot be reduced to “prolific idolatry.” Natural theology is, in the end, not anti-theology.

In the first half of this article (Parts I and II), I will focus on Junius, arguing that he did not consider natural theology to be falsa theologia, but rather that natural theology, as a means of divine revelation, could communicate truths about God. In the second half (Parts III and IV) I will focus on Reformed theology after Junius, arguing that the tradition of Old Princeton—from Turretin through to Warfield—also affirmed the possibility of meaningful post-fall, unregenerate natural theology.[3]

I. Reading Junius: A Confusion of Categories

The central problem with Shannon’s thesis is that he has misread Junius, confusing his rejection of the theology of the pagans with a rejection of natural theology itself. A careful reading of Junius demonstrates the opposite conclusion from Shannon’s; namely, that natural theology—while imperfect and unable to save—is nevertheless divine revelation and belongs in the category of true theology.

The first sentences of Shannon’s article lay out his main claim, and they also manifest the main area of confusion. “According to Franciscus Junius (d. 1602),” Shannon writes, “since the fall, true theology is possible only where a redemptive divine-human relationship is established ‘through the communication of grace.’ For Junius this relational reconciliation is a necessary condition of true theology” (279). After Shannon’s first sentence there is a footnote which quotes from the eighth thesis from A Treatise on True Theology. The quotation from Junius reads: “Ectypal theology, whether taken in itself, as they say, or relatively in relation to something else, is the wisdom of divine matters, fashioned by God from the archetype of Himself, through the communication of grace for His own glory.” To be sure, ectypal theology (i.e., the theology God fashions for his creatures) is established through the “communication of grace,” but nothing in Junius’s statement indicates that this language implies redemption or relational reconciliation. For Junius, natural theology is a communication of grace, even though the recipient has not been savingly reconciled to God.[4]

The next two sentences from Shannon are also problematic. He writes, “Outside of this relational establishment, theology—dubiously so-called—may be found, but it is necessarily theologia falsa. There is for Junius no activity of the natural man which may properly be called ‘theology.’” The footnote for this sentence points to pages 95–96, 143, and 145 of Junius’s Treatise on True Theology. But these two sections of the Treatise are not talking about the same thing. The earlier reference (95–96) is about the false theology of the pagans, which is not properly called theology. The latter references (143, 145) are about natural theology, which is not to be confused with the pagan philosophy categorized by Varro and Augustine as superstitious (i.e., mythical), natural (i.e., physical), and civil (i.e., political). Introducing the category of natural theology by revelation, Junius writes, “When we say natural, we do not want it in this passage to be understood by the same meaning as we showed in the first chapter above from Varro and Augustine, but rather by its own sense and taken in itself as we will soon (if God wills) define it.”[5] In other words, Junius uses “natural theology” in two different ways—in a narrow way referring to a branch of pagan philosophy (which is not, strictly speaking, theology at all) and in a more formal way referring to a branch of true theology which is communicated through natural grace as opposed to special grace.[6]

Granted, Junius says about natural theology that “this theology” cannot “be called wisdom according to its genus except equivocally.”[7] But notice, Junius does not say natural theology is not theology; in fact, he explicitly labels it as such. What he posits is that natural theology is not “wisdom” in the same way that supernatural theology is wisdom. The equivocation is not whether natural theology is genuine theology (it is). The equivocation is whether natural and supernatural theology are theology in the same way (they are not).

At the heart of my disagreement with Shannon’s article is his tendency to read Junius’s discussion of pagan theology into Junius’s discussion of natural theology. You can see this confusion in the article’s footnotes which bounce back and forth indiscriminately between page numbers in the 90s (the chapter on false theology) and page numbers in the 140s and 150s (the chapters on natural theology). Shannon collapses two categories that are distinct in Junius—pagan theology and natural theology—and interprets them (like Van Til’s theology does?) as the same thing.

II. Junius on Natural Theology

In order to better understand the confusion at the heart of Shannon’s thesis, we  must understand the basic contours of Junius’s prolegomena. A Treatise on True Theology consists of thirty-nine theses expounded in eighteen chapters. These chapters outline a highly technical, but rather straightforward categorization of true theology.

According to Junius, theology—which can be of God (as its author) or about God (as its subject)—is commonly spoken of in two ways. One theology is true, the other is false and subject to opinion (Thesis 3). False theology is called theology only by equivocation (i.e., it is not genuine theology), for it “rests on opinion alone.” False theology consists of “unalloyed dreams and games in place of the truth, and idols . . .in place of the true God.”[8]

Further, there are two kinds of false theology: “common,” which is not disciplined by the cultivation of reason, and “philosophical,” which is aided by the development of reason (Thesis 4). This philosophical theology, which flourished in the centuries before Christ, was labeled by Augustine, Varro, and Seneca as superstitious, natural, and civil. All of this is labeled “false theology, which is nothing other than opinion and the shadow of wisdom grasping at something or another in the place of divine matters.”[9]

True theology, in turn, is either archetypal or ectypal (Thesis 6).Archetypal theology is the divine wisdom of divine matters (Thesis 7). It refers to God’s knowledge of himself.Ectypal theology is the wisdom of divine matters, fashioned by God from the archetype of himself and communicated by grace for His own glory (Thesis 8). The genus of true theology is wisdom, which includes “all principles both natural and supernatural.”[10] Ectypal theology can be known by the creature because of the capacity of the Creator (Thesis 9). In other words, God makes true theology possible.

Ectypal theology can be communicated, according to the capacity of the creature, in three ways: by union, by vision, or by revelation (Thesis 10). The first is the theology of Christ as God-man. The second is the theology of spiritual beings in heaven. The third is the theology of human beings on earth.[11] This last category is our theology, the theology of pilgrims (Thesis 13).[12]

Continuing with his careful distinctions, Junius posits that the mode of communicating revealed theology is twofold: by nature and by grace (Thesis 14). God is the author of both natural theology and supernatural theology: “The shared principle of nature equally as of grace is God.”[13] To be sure, supernatural theology possesses an entirely different kind of wisdom than natural theology.[14] Even before the fall, natural theology had to be nurtured by reason and perfected by grace (Thesis 17). After human nature was tainted by the fall, those first principles of natural theology remain in us, but they have been corrupted and quite confused (Thesis 18). As such, the light of natural theology after the fall has been rendered more veiled and more imperfect.[15] Natural theology cannot lead to perfection and cannot, in and of itself, be perfected by grace (Thesis 19). Nevertheless, we should not “ignore” or be “ungrateful” for “this grace, although it is natural.”[16]

Natural theology, for Junius, is that which proceeds from principles that are known by the light of human understanding (Thesis 15). Natural theology deals with things that are common (Thesis 16). The knowledge of natural theology and supernatural theology are imparted by the same mode (revelation), but they impart different kinds of knowledge.[17] Supernatural theology, because of its prominence in communicating divine truth, is sometimes called, narrowly, a theology of revelation, even though more broadly speaking natural theology is also given by revelation.[18] The false theology Junius repudiates at the beginning of his treatise refers to the idle musings of the pagans, not to the imperfect theology of the unregenerate man deducing principles from the light of nature.

Junius’s language can be ambiguous—using words like natural, grace, and revelation in different ways at times—but the overall structure of his argument is wonderfully organized. And within this organization we can see clearly that natural theology—though inferior to supernatural theology—is still true theology. Natural theology cannot save; it cannot (post-fall) be perfected; it does not impart the same kind of knowledge or wisdom as supernatural theology. But it is a species of revelation and of grace. In short, natural theology does not belong to the branch theologia falsa. It belongs to the category of true, ectypal theology communicated through revelation by nature.

Shannon’s interpretation of Junius fails to convince because of a fundamental misunderstanding that equates the false theology of speculative pagans with the natural theology of revelation. Writing in the tradition of Junius, Petrus Van Mastricht (1630–1706) insisted that “natural theology must be carefully distinguished from pagan theology as such, because the latter is false and the former is true.”[19] One could try to argue that Junius would have disagreed with Van Mastricht, but we must remember that Van Mastricht borrowed wholesale from Junius’s outline and from Junius’s categories, both of which had become standard Reformed fare by the first half of the seventeenth century.[20] For Van Mastricht to deviate from Junius on such a crucial point would have necessitated a lengthy discussion defending his more sanguine view of natural theology. The simple explanation is to see Van Mastricht’s careful distinction between false pagan theology and true natural theology as the same distinction Junius made at the end of the previous century. Consequently, in so far as Shannon is right that for Van Til true theology is impossible apart from the “monergistic establishment of relational restoration” (i.e., redemption and regeneration), Shannon is wrong to find an antecedent for this idea in Junius. For Junius, natural theology, always imperfect and never saving, is nevertheless a communication of divine grace and a species of true theology.[21]

III. Tracing the Tradition of Old Princeton

If the first half of this article argued that Van Til’s conception of natural theology does not find a precursor in Junius, the second half argues that Van Til’s entirely pessimistic view of post-fall natural theology is not resonant with the tradition of Old Princeton either. I should make clear that I am working from Shannon’s description of Van Til’s theology. In my estimation, Shannon gets Van Til right, but if someone were to argue that Van Til’s thought allows for a robust natural theology that would not undermine the more important point I am trying to make with respect to Old Princeton. My burden is not to repeat Shannon’s exploration of Van Til, but to argue that in so far as Van Til rejected the possibility of post-fall natural theology (as true theology) he is out of step with his own Reformed tradition.

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