We Distinguish: The Importance of Theological Distinctions

If I had my way regarding theological training, I'd attempt to help students master the basic theological distinctions from the era of Protestant scholasticism. Those who think "scholastic" is a bad word probably don't know much about scholasticism. Truth be told, we all need a little - perhaps a lot - of scholasticism in our lives. Indeed, we all use distinctions as a basic way of communicating.

Sinclair Ferguson makes a good point in his book, The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen (p. 47), regarding the helpfulness of distinctions: 

"Scholastic is often used as a theological slur intended to introduce a bad odor. Yet the people who use it thus are sometimes the very people who become hot under the collar if strangers refer to a fastball as a 'slider' (in baseball) or confuse an eagle with a double bogey (in golf) or, for that matter, describe someone living in the Carolinas as a 'Yankee' or a Scot as 'English'! Aren't these merely 'scholastic' distinctions? To ask the question is to answer it. Right understanding always involves making careful distinctions." 

During the Early Modern period, theological students were usually trained to make good and proper distinctions. The point of theological and philosophical distinctions is to disentangle ambiguous words and terms used in theological discourse as well as clarify what is meant or not meant when a phrase, term, or tweet is used (e.g., God's power or God's love). 

Ideally, the distinctions should help, not hinder, exegesis and theology. They need to have biblical support or at least clarify theological language. So, for example, consider the distinction between God's absolute power (de potentia absoluta Dei) and God's ordained power (de potentia ordinata Dei). God's absolute power is that power to do that which he will not necessarily effect (i.e., turning a stone into a child of Abraham). His ordained power involves his decree to do that which he has ordained to effect. Very simply, what God is able to do is not synonymous with what God has chosen to do.

This distinction has biblical support:

God's absolute power: "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Matt. 3:9).

In another place, Christ brings together the absolute power of God with his ordained power: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (Matt. 26:53-54).

God could have sent more than twelve legions of angels to rescue Christ from his passion, but, according to his ordained power, he did not.

In the realm of justification, one must know the formal cause, material cause, instrumental cause, and final cause. One should know the difference between an "aestimatio" (Arminian view) and "secundum veritatem" (Reformed view) or the difference between the right versus the possession of life. 

Various traditions can agree that we're justified by the righteousness of Christ, but distinguishing what is meant by that is the difference between the truth and error. 

The seventeenth-century student of theology would likely know exactly what was meant by:

- justificatio activa et passiva
- habitus et actus fidei 
- unio mystica et unio foederalis
- justificatio ante fidem et post fidem
- impetratio et applicatio
- justificatio a priori et a posteriori
- justificatio in foro dei et in foro conscientiae

The act-habit distinction (see above, habitus et actus fidei) is pretty much the same concept as the act-power distinction. God grants the power, but we perform the act. So John Flavel: "though faith, which we call the condition on our part, be the gift of God, and the power of believing be derived from God; yet the act of believing is properly our act..."

This distinction preserves God's grace in salvation, but keeps us from being "mere blocks" in the scheme of salvation. 

In terms of the atonement, besides understanding the efficiency-sufficiency distinction, a theological student should ideally know the difference between "acceptatio" and "acceptilatio" and the difference between the means of procurement (medium impetrationis) and the means of application (medium applicationis). The application of justification depends on Christ's intercession, not on his resurrection. This helps us to understand the importance of Christ's intercession, which is regrettably overlooked a lot.

Christ's death was a work of impetration that could be understood either as a physical cause or a moral cause. According to John Owen: "physical causes produce their effects immediately," and the subject must exist in order to be acted upon.  Moral causes "never immediately actuate their own effects." Christ's death was a moral cause, not a physical cause. Thus, those for whom he died do not need to be alive at the time of his death in order to receive the benefits of his vicarious sacrifice. Physical causes do not require human acts, but moral causes do.

We also distinguish regarding God's love. The (outward) voluntary love of God has a threefold distinction: (1) God's universal love for all things, (2) God's love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and (3) God's special love for his people. God's voluntary love, understood as an affection, has three major components. Reformed divines have not always expressed these distinctions in the same way; but the following three categories relate to God's love for the elect: (1) God's love of benevolence (amor benevolentiae), understood in terms of God's election and predestination, (2) God's love of beneficence (amor beneficentiae), whereby he wills to redeem his people,and (3) God's love of delight or friendship (amor complacentiae vel amicitiae), whereby he rewards his people according to their holiness.

Theological distinctions also help us in our doctrine of sin. Thus Maccovius argues:

1. Sin is either original sin or actual sin.

Original sin, springing from Adam, is the sin in which and with which we are born and which begins at the moment that we become human beings. 

2. Original sin is either imputed or inherent sin. 

Imputed to us as if we ourselves had committed it. 

Inherent sin is a depravation of our nature, and thus an inclination to all bad.

3. Imputation is a moral act, not a physical act.

It is not required that the person is in existence, but only that the person will be in existence. 

Moreover, a distinction may be made between sin committed out of weakness and sin committed out of full desire. Only those who are Christians can sin out of weakness. 

1. True believers sin more seriously than unbelievers.

A) Because we have greater knowledge
B) Because we have powers to resist.

2. Unbelievers sin more seriously than believers.

A) Because they rush into sin with great desire; but believers with a broken will.
B) The faithful feel sadness (repentance) about their committed sins, but unbelievers do not (only the consequences). 

I've merely touched on a few distinctions from a few theological loci. The works, especially from Roman Catholic theologians, just on distinctions in the Early Modern period are massive (see here for one example). I think the Reformed theological world - not to mention the broader theological world - might be a lot better off today if we were able to make sound theological distinctions. 

As Francis Turretin said, "we distinguish". Ah, the good old days, when theological education was actually that!