Etymology tells us theology just means “the study of God.” But defining theology has not always been so simple. Giving a definition of the term according to etymological considerations alone leaves questions open such as, “Does theology only have to do with the study of an object?” “Is theology distinctly Christian?” “Can any religion have a proper theology?”
The Reformed and the Reformed orthodox understood theology to mean not only the study of an object (God) but also the practice of living rightly unto God. William Perkins, William Ames and others would formulate definitions straddling both theoretical and practical disciplines. Yet, the seventeenth century Reformed seemed to lean strongly toward more of a practical definition rather than a theoretical one. One could say the either/or question of whether theology was mostly theoretical or mostly practical was unresolved. On one hand, to make theology mostly theoretical is to neglect its purpose, or teleology, that is, to be conformed to the image of Christ. On the other hand, to make theology mostly practical is to neglect the knowledge (scientia) and wisdom (sapienta) which grounds religious practice.
With this background information in mind, let’s follow the definition of the high orthodox and say theology is the wisdom of living blessedly unto God forever. This definition maintains both the theoretical and practical nature of theology. There are two kinds of theology with respect to source, those are natural theology and supernatural theology. Following from this, we shall now discuss various forms of theology.
True & False Theology
The way I’m using the term “theology” in this article is in reference to system, not individual principles or facts all people can know, like what we might get from natural theology (theologia naturalis). The Reformed have historically distinguished between true and false theology. True theology (theologia vera) is possible only as a result of supernatural revelation as it is made available in the Scriptures. False theology (theologia falsa) is pagan theology, estranged from the Scriptures. Pagan theology is broken and leads only to idolatry.
Throughout this article, we are assuming theologia vera as it is substantiated by the Word of God.
Archetypal & Ectypal Theology
In addition to true and false theology, Protestants have also distinguished between two different orders of theology, or genera. Archetypal theology (theologia archetypa) is God’s theology. This is theology as God knows it, or God as He knows Himself and His effects in a simple and eternal act. While we can speak about this theology (analogically), we cannot have this kind of theology ourselves. We cannot know God as He knows Himself. The question, therefore, becomes, “What kind of theology can we have, if any?”
The Protestant Reformed held to a very important principle which states that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. Thus, if we are to know God, we cannot know Him as He is in Himself since He is infinite. Because of this, God has revealed Himself to us in an accommodated way.
Because God has determined to reveal Himself in creation and through His Word, we can know Him. But, what is the nature of our knowing Him? Because revelation is accommodated, what God reveals of Himself is an image or a similitude of Himself. It’s a reflection of the divine which creatures can know. This accommodated revelation, or image of the archetype, is known as the ectype, or ectypal theology. Ectypal theology, therefore, is human theology, our theology (theologia nostra).
There are distinct kinds of theologia nostra. Those are: theology of union (theologia unionis), theology of the blessed (theologia beatorum), and theology of the pilgrim (theologia viatorum). All three types of theologia nostra rests on divine revelation by Word and Spirit, apart from which they would not be possible.
I have listed these three in order from greatest to least since that is the traditional flow. Theology of union is Christ’s theology. This is not to be confused with archetypal theology which is the theology the Son, according to the divine image no doubt has. Rather, theology of union corresponds to the theology of Christ has according to His human nature in light of the hypostatic union. For the Reformed, contra the Lutheran model, there is not communication of the archetype to the human nature (communicatio idiomatum). Instead, theology of union entails the immediate ectypal revelation of the archetype to the human nature. It is a clearer, immediate theologia nostra. Though this is an ectypal theology, it is available only to Christ since only Christ was a divine Person hypo statically united to a human nature.
Theology of the blessed is the theology of the angels and the glorified saints. This will not be our theology until we are in heaven with Christ for eternity. This is a theology untainted by sin and the effects of sin. It is the theology we have when our faith becomes sight, the theology of vision (theologia visionis). Finally, theology of the pilgrim is the theology regenerate saints have prior to glorification. This is an imperfect and fallible theology. Nevertheless, it is the only theology sufficient unto salvation.
Given the above consideration, if regenerate but not glorified, we have pilgrim theology (theologia viatorum); if glorified, we have theology of vision (theologia beatorum); and, in the case of a hypostatic union between divine and human natures, a state proper only to the Son of God, then there is a theology of union (theologia unionis).
Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I.