Turretin’s Institutes: First Thoughts

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I

This will be my first post (of many, I hope) on Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology,  a three volume set which totals over 2,000 pages; my plan is to read these volumes in the course of one year, though I’ve already allotted a large portion of grace for myself in the inevitable event that it takes much longer. My plan is to write brief posts as I read through the Institutes, sharing my thoughts on Turretin’s thoughts. For those who don’t know (like I didn’t until I bought this set), elenctic is an adjective which means “refuting an argument by proving the falsehood of its conclusion.” I have to admit that while I love old books, and I love old, Reformed books even more, a book that is primarily combative in nature like this is not one that would normally pique my interest, I prefer books that are more irenic in nature, but Turretin is a giant in the Reformed tradition and his works have been incredibly influential, so as a Reformed believer, I basically consider it my Christian duty to read these volumes. I hope you enjoy.



First Thoughts

As I write this post I’m drinking oolong tea at my dining room table while my seven month old daughter is clinging to my knee, drooling everywhere, reaching for my electronics. These are not peripheral observations, silly though they may seem.  The way we make tea is influenced by theology in some way; the simple acts of brewing, pouring, and drinking tea brings up countless theological queries. The way I respond to my daughter when she drools down my leg, or puts my iPhone straight into her mouth, is theological. Do I make and drink tea to the glory of God? Do I respond to my daughter in anger or kindness, selfishness or selflessness? My responses are determined by my theology, they are determined by the way I think about God and the world and if actions as simple as these are influenced by our theology, how much more are the larger decisions in life? It’s because of these types of questions that I’m reading these Institutes and it’s why you should read them too, but in order to answer these questions, in order to begin to build a theological framework in which these questions can be rightly answered, we have know what theology actually is.

And it is with this question that Turretin begins his work: “What is theology?” In this, he is incredibly precise. I can see why Reformed readers love him– he caters to the mind which longs for precision in every minute detail in theological discussion. He does not even begin his work of theology without not only defining theology, but defending its very use, thus showing the care and thought he put into this work. He offers several uses of the word “theology” but says that “in the third and most proper sense, it denotes ‘a system or body of doctrine concerning God and divine things revealed by him for his own glory and for the salvation of men,’” and this is the sense of the word, this definition, that he uses. He goes to make a further distinction between theology which is infinite and uncreated, that is, “God’s essential knowledge of himself,” and theology which is finite and created, that is, “which is the image and ectype of the infinite and archetypal.” This second type of theology is that which we, men and women created in the imago dei, are able to participate in; this finite theology is only received by revelation “which is made to travelers.” This revealed theology, often called pilgrim theology, is also divided into two parts: The natural and the supernatural. The natural is innate, or observable in nature, while the supernatural is from Christ and is found in his Word.

The man himself, Francis Turretin.

The man himself, Francis Turretin.

At first a person might think that making these distinctions are awfully close to splitting hairs, but they are actually very helpful and useful. It’s incredibly important to realize that all of our theology is derived from revelation by God and the only theology that leads to salvation is supernatural. This should prompt us to greater study of nature because it teaches us a lot about God, and further study of Scripture because only in it’s pages do we find salvific truth. Usually, however, Reformed Christians (myself included) don’t struggle with inadequate study of Scripture, instead we might spend too much time in works of theology and not enough time outdoors. Or maybe we read only Christian authors and ignore the good, true things to be found in works written by non-believers. It is a helpful reminder that natural revelation, while not conclusive, is still given by God and while non-believers may have a skewed and warped view of the world, God’s glory is made manifest all around us in plain sight and sometimes they see things we miss because we simply aren’t looking.

As to the purpose of theology, Turretin says that all things are discussed in theology because they either deal with God himself or have a revelation to him as the first and principal end of all things. He says, “We cannot speak concerning God without God.” True theology is that which seeks to know God, know right things about him, but not simply as an object of knowledge. Intellectual assent is not the goal of the work of theology, we study God and divine revelation so that we can know God personally and so that we can worship him rightly. We seek to study theology so that we may know the truth of God, but it is impossible to make any headway in this endeavor if we aren’t speaking with God as well as about him. That means prayer and regular corporate worship are just as much a part of theological study as reading, writing, and studying old or dead guys. 

Finally, Turretin makes this fundamental point which I’ve found very helpful: theology is partly theoretical and partly practical. Turretin even claims “it is more practical than theoretical.” And it is here that I think many students of the Reformation have become slightly derailed. We, and I say “we” because I am often guilty of the same sin, regularly pursue knowledge of God for the sake of knowledge itself, as if being “right” were the end-goal of human existence. Yet this knowledge of God cannot be “true unless attended by practice.”

It becomes clear that this is the driving force behind Turretin’s work; it is not simply a desire to separate the right from the wrong, the true and false, the sheep and the goats, but it is a desire to know God so that we can worship, love, and enjoy him. While we must ever be in pursuit of theological precision, and by implication, linguistic precision, theology is not one discipline and holiness another. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not individual ideas, nor are they even two sides of the same coin, they are not in conflict at any point. Rather, I think we ought to view them as two elements making up one image. Maybe orthodoxy is the rough outline of a portrait, giving structure and form, while orthopraxy is the coloring and the shading, giving vibrancy and authenticity.

As travelers through this world, pilgrims on our way to the Celestial City, we are tasked with not only thinking right things about God, but doing something about it. Every step of our journey is energized by our theology; it is not only theoretical (learning the mechanics of walking, defining what it is “to walk”) but practical (learning how to actually put one foot in front of the other). To wrap it all up: If your theology isn’t prompting you to live a holy life, you’re doing it wrong.