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How Can Finite Creatures Truly and Rightly Know an Infinite God?

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Who are we? Where did we come from? How can we interpret reality? The Bible answers all of these questions and delves deep into the nature of God, humanity, our existence, and reality itself. But how do we know what we know and how can we make sense of reality at all? How can we know for sure that we even do exist, that there really is such a thing as reality, and that we’re not just living in an illusion? And most importantly, how can we know that we rightly interpret God’s revelation to us at all?

This question may sound like it has a simple answer, and that’s because it does. Simply put, we can know God because He has revealed Himself to us, and by extension, we can know His creation. However, this philosophical conundrum of epistemology has been debated for as long as humans have walked the earth, but, once again, a Christian worldview rooted in the sound theology of God’s revelation to man provides the only satisfactory answer.

In Christian theology, the field of epistemology, which concerns the study of knowledge, has long been a subject of intense debate. A biblical worldview offers a plethora of insights and answers to various questions surrounding this topic. However, in this article, we will concentrate on two primary forms of knowledge of God: archetypal and ectypal.

The concepts of archetypal and ectypal knowledge have been the subject of profound discourse and deliberation throughout the annals of philosophical history. These two essential notions form the bedrock of understanding the intricate relationship between God and humanity, as well as the very essence of human knowledge.

Archetypal theology, or archetypal knowledge, is the quintessence of divine wisdom, an exhaustive self-knowledge that solely resides within the realm of God Himself. This knowledge is immaculate and all-encompassing, it emanates directly from God, the all-knowing and omnipotent. God’s archetypal self-knowledge is the standard against which every other form of knowledge is assessed and judged. In stark contrast, ectypal theology is the knowledge held by mere mortals. Although this knowledge is indeed derived from God’s archetypal wisdom, it is inherently imperfect and finite, constrained by the fallibility and sinfulness of the human condition.

Francis Turretin drew a distinction between these two referring to archetypal as “the infinite knowledge of God known only to God himself and the pattern for all true theology” and ectypal theology as “all true finite theology – all knowledge of God to which finite minds have access.” The idea is that though our knowledge of God is limited and finite, we can still know God truly because our knowledge of Him is true.

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Richard A. Muller provides a definition for ectypal theology in his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics:

Ectypal theology considered either simply, as they say, or in relation to its various kinds, is the wisdom of divine things given conceptual form by God, on the basis of the archetypal image of himself through the communication of grace for his own glory. And so, indeed, theology simply so called, is the entire Wisdom concerning divine things capable of being communicated to created things by [any] manner of communication.

While these philosophical constructs existed prior to the reformation, the dichotomy between archetypal and ectypal knowledge can be traced back to the intellectual lineage of the Reformation with its origins in the seminal works of theological luminaries such as John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Calvin posited that God communicates with finite creatures by accommodating his knowledge to our feebleness the same way a nursing mother communicates in “baby talk” to an infant. He argues that although God’s essence is spiritual and immense, he represents heaven as his dwelling place and sometimes speaks in anthropomorphic terms in Scripture to make himself understandable to us (Institutes 1.13.1).

Edwards contended that human knowledge is inherently circumscribed by the finite boundaries of the human intellect, and it is solely through the benevolence and grace of God that we can apprehend the profound truths that govern the cosmos.

The demarcation between archetypal and ectypal knowledge, from a scriptural standpoint, is predicated on the conviction that God is the supreme fount of all knowledge and verity. The book of Proverbs elucidates this belief, stating that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). In a similar spirit, the apostle Paul declares in his epistle to the Colossians that “in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

For Christians, the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology has far-reaching ramifications on how we approach the task of deciphering God and His creation. Since all human knowledge is but a faint reflection of God’s archetypal wisdom, we must embark upon the quest for knowledge with humility and veneration, acknowledging our inherently limited and fallible nature. Simultaneously, we can find solace and assurance in our capacity to comprehend and interpret the world that surrounds us in the knowledge that our understanding is anchored in the immutable truth of God’s revelation.

The delineation between archetypal and ectypal knowledge constitutes a fundamental precept in Christianity with significant implications for how we comprehend the nature of human knowledge and our relationship with the divine. By acknowledging the limitations inherent in our own understanding and relying on the enlightening guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can approach the pursuit of knowledge with both humility and reverence, while maintaining confidence in our ability to understand and interpret the world that envelops us. Ultimately, it is through our relentless quest for knowledge that we draw closer to a more profound comprehension of God and His eternal truth, empowering us to fulfill our sacred calling to love and serve Him in all aspects of our lives.

The concepts of archetypal and ectypal knowledge are of paramount importance within the Christian religion, providing a framework for understanding the intricate relationship between God and humanity, as well as the very nature of human knowledge itself. By embracing the duality of these concepts, we can navigate the pursuit of knowledge with a sense of humility, reverence, and confidence, allowing us to grow closer to God and to fulfill our divine purpose in His grand design, and finally, be assured that our knowledge of Him and His creation is true and good despite its finite nature and limitations.


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