Zacharius Ursinus Posts
October 19, 2010 by Matthew Mason
The familiar modern pattern arranges theology by a four-fold division into biblical, historical, systematic-doctrinal and practical theology sub-disciplines. Ursinus himself mapped the theological task in a quite different way. There are, he says, ‘three parts of the study of Divinity’. First, there is ‘Catechetical institution’, defined as ‘a summary and briefe explication of Christian doctrine’. This is followed by ‘an handling of Common places’, which is differentiated from ‘institution’ not in terms of its subject matter, but in terms of depth. The study of commonplaces covers the same ground as ‘institution’ and differs only in that it offers ‘a larger explication of every point, and of hard questions together with their definitions, divisions, reason and arguments’. Finally, there is ‘the reading and diligent meditation of the Scripture, or holy Writ. And this is the highest degree of the study of Divinity, for which Catechisme and Common places are learned; to wit, that we may come furnished to the reading, understanding, and propounding of the holy Scripture.’
Three things might be noted about Ursinus’ map. First, the distinctions he draws are not between different sub-disciplines but between different modes of engagement with the same unitary subject. Second, Holy Scripture is not simply one concern of theology, but that towards which all studies in divinity move. Third, the end of studies in divinity is clear: ‘For Catechisme and Common places, as they are taken out of Scripture, and are directed by Scripture as by their rule; so againe they conduct and lead us as it were by the hand into the Scripture.’ (John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch [Cambridge University Press, 2003], 120-1; the paragraph division is mine).
In Webster’s words,
…doctrine serves Scripture, rather than the other way round. Scripture does not provide warrants for doctrinal proposals, simply because in Ursinus’ model of theology, there is no such thing as a doctrinal proposal separate from exegesis. The nearest he comes to anything like a formal doctrinal statement is—as we shall see—in the idea of commonplaces. But there is little room in Ursinus’ ‘Oration’ for dogmatics, and still less room for a conception of doctrine as an improvement upon Holy Scripture. There is simply the task of reading Holy Scripture, learning and teaching Scripture in such a way that godliness is promoted and the church more truthfully established as the kingdom of Jesus. (115)
Strikingly, although it wouldn’t always have been mapped in precisely this way, this kind of integrated, Scripturally focused approach to theology was the common practice of the Church for hundreds of years, not just following the Reformation, but also in the Patristic and Medieval periods, and, more recently in the theology of Karl Barth.
And there are encouraging signs of some sort of return to this attitude to theology. One thinks of the current renewed interest in theological exegesis, and of the work of Webster himself, and among others, of John Frame, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Peter Leithart among evangelicals. It’s also there to some extent in a more mainline theologian such as Robert Jenson and in the writings of Pope Benedict. It’s certainly helped me frame more clearly what I want to accomplish in the time I devote to theological study and writing.0 Comments