The Categorical Distinction (Archetype/Ectype) in Lutheran Theology

I have written on the categorical distinction before.  Here I introduced Schilder’s thoughts on it.  Here you can find what S. G. De Graaf and F. M. Ten Hoor wrote on this subject.

The Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper discusses this as well in Volume 1 of his Christian Dogmatics.  This is how he introduces it:

Nothing must be injected into the corpus doctrinae [body of doctrine] of the Church which is not contained in Scripture.  And in order to accentuate this characteristic feature of the Christian doctrine, they have called objective theology theologia ektupos, ectypal, or derived, theology, that is, a reproduction, re-presentation, of the theologia archetupos, the archetypal, or original, theology, which is that knowledge of God and divine things originally found only in God, but which God has graciously communicated to man through His Word. (58)

It is interesting that Pieper locates archetypal theology in God’s Word, thereby making it accessible to human beings.

Against theologians like Bretschneider who argued that this terminology serves no purpose and is outmoded, Pieper insisted that this distinction is thoroughly scriptural.  Up till this point in his dogmatics, he has been adamant that nothing can be introduced into theology that does not come from the Word of God.  This is his big complaint about the Reformed: at key points they abandon Scripture for reason.  So, to be consistent, one would expect that Pieper would defend his formulation of the categorical distinction from Scripture.  And so he does, building on the work of older Lutheran theologians such as Rudelbach, Scherzer, Gerhard, and Quenstedt.

So, what kind of biblical evidence does Pieper marshall for the categorical distinction?  The starting place is Matthew 11:27, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father.  Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”  Things develop further from there:

  • Only God knows God; God dwells in a light which no man can approach unto (1 Tim. 6:16; 1 Cor. 2:10-11; John 1:18a; Matt. 11:27).
  • God stepped out of this unapproachable light and revealed himself to man, so that man can, in a measure, know God.  He reveals himself to man in the realm of nature and through his Word.  God’s self-revelation in nature (Rom. 1:19ff, 32; 2:14-15; Acts 14:17; 17:26-27) is the source of natural theology, of the natural knowledge of God. God’s revelation of himself in the Word (John 1:18b; 8:31-32; Eph. 2:20) is the source, and the only source, of Christian theology, of the saving knowledge of God.  Since man can know God only as he has revealed himself, and since he has revealed himself as the God of salvation in the Word, Christian theology must be ectypal; it cannot be anything else than an exact replica of the divine doctrine contained in Scripture. (58)

So, in Pieper’s theology, the distinction serves to draw theologians back to the source.  Our goal is to conform our theology to God’s.  Our aim is to bring our thoughts in line with the thoughts of God revealed in Scripture.  This seems to be somewhat of a different formulation than in many Reformed writers.  For instance, Scott Clark writes in Recovering the Reformed Confession, “So, in Reformed theology, archetypal theology s theology of the first order or original theology, and the revelation we have from God and our account of that revelation is theology of the second order or derivative” (143).  In other words, Clark (and other Reformed theologians would concur, I think) describes Scripture as being ectypal, whereas Pieper seems to say that it is archetypal.

I do not know if Pieper represents the consensus in confessional Lutheran theology on this point.  He has a footnote in which he quotes the post-Reformation Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard,

The archetypal, or prototypal, theology is in God the Creator, inasmuch as God knows himself in himself and knows the universe through himself by one immutable act of knowing.  Ectypal theology is the outgrowth of archetypal theology (a copy, so to say, of it), communicated to man through God’s grace. (59)

That sounds more like the Reformed formulation.  Scripture is part of ectypal theology.  However, he also has another footnote in which he quotes Scherzer:  “So far as it [the theology of the ‘pilgrims’] reproduces and expresses the archetype revealed to us in the Word, it is true theology” (59).  And that sounds more like Pieper.

The categorical distinction grows out of biblical soil and two related biblical convictions:  the creator/creature distinction, and the distinction between God hidden and God revealed (Deus absconditus/Deus revelatus).  I can see why Pieper formulated it the way he did, but I am inclined to think that the Reformed formulation does more justice to that last distinction, one which was key not only for Luther, but also for Calvin.  However one might formulate it, there can be no question (at least in my mind) that it is biblical to distinguish between the things of God that are hidden and those which are revealed (Deut. 29:29).  Recognizing that in theology keeps us humble.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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