Understanding and Misunderstanding in the Conversation of Karl Barth and Amandus Polanus. The Main Characteristics of the homo viatorin the Ectypal Theology


Understanding and Misunderstanding in the Conversation of Karl Barth with Amandus Polanus


The Main Characteristic of the homo viator in his Ectypal Theology


Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer


1.      Introduction

When Karl Barth, after the discharge from his professorship in Bonn and the apparent lack of any prospects at all regarding other theological appointments in Germany, accepted the hastily created function of a professor at the university of his native town Basel in June of 1935, he decided in the first years of his teaching and research there to give special attention to several post-reformation theologians who had worked in this city before him. So his inaugural address on the 6th of May 1936, was on Samuel Werenfels, one of the local representatives of the so-called ‘rational orthodoxy’ of the early 18th century. And in three semesters in 1937 and 1938[1] he and the students in his ‘society’ focussed on the two-part Compendium theologiae Christianae of Johannes Wollebius (1626) that had then just been newly edited by Ernst Bizer.[2] But the most important outcome of Barth’s turn to Basel theology seems to be his ongoing conversation with his distant but also, in his own words, ‘illustrious’ predecessor[3] Amandus Polanus a Polansdorf (1561-1610), whose Syntagma theologiae Christianae[4] is present in nearly every volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics that came into being in the latter’s years in Basel.[5]

Amandus Polanus[6] was born in the Silesian town of Troppau. He visited the St. Elisabeth-Gymnasium in Breslau (where the didactic methods of Melanchthon were followed and where Ursinus had taught). He then studied in Tübingen, Basel, and finally in Geneva, where he followed the lectures of Beza, who considered him to be the most promising member of the next generation of Reformed theologians. For many years he served as an Ephorus (tutor) to the sons of several noble families from Moravia, mainly the house Von Zierotin, while they were taking educational trips. At the end of his life he dedicated his Syntagma to the head of this family, Karl von Zierotin. In 1596 he was appointed professor of Old Testament at the university of Basel. Besides a series of commentaries, he wrote books on logic, including a Syntagma logicum Aristotelico-Ramaeum (1605) and he conducted and published many disputationes. His Partitiones Theologicae, a presentation of Christian doctrine and Christian ethics in the form of a series of theses, was published as early as 1589. In fact, the Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, which appeared just before his untimely death due to a plague epidemic in Basel in 1610, should be regarded as a voluminous extension of this earlier work.[7] One of its characteristics is the fact that it gives much more room to polemics. Many disputationes, mainly against the newer Roman-Catholic theological schools (Robert Bellarmin), have been inserted into the framework of the dogmatic exposition. Note that apart from these disputations the doctrinal discourse here is not the fruit of his ordinary lectures. An older Reformed theologian is always primarily a Biblical scholar.

As the title of his revised Logic indicates, Polanus, as was the case with most members of his generation, did not see ‘Ramism’ and ‘Aristotelianism’ as contradicting one-another. The new logic of Petrus Ramus was seen to be useful for stressing the practical tenor of holy doctrine and above all to provide the teacher with a didactic scheme by which to arrange his instructional material. In addition to this the Aristotelian tradition with its syllogistic strength – including its spread throughout Mediaeval scholastics, about which Polanus was very well informed – makes it possible to be victorious in all confessional disputes. It is, so to say, the ideal of scientific research of that age. The subtitle of the Syntagma, ‘iuxta leges ordinis Methodici conformatum’, suggests ‘follow this way of clarity, transparency, and logical consistency and you will win all debates with your Roman-Catholic or Lutheran opponents’. ‘Ramism’ or ‘Aristotelianism’ is not intended, it seems, to represent a position that touches the content of doctrine.[8]


2.      The Multiplicity of the Predications and the Simplicity of God

As an example of the conversation that has been taking place between Barth and Polanus, we will first analyze in detail a passage from the doctrine of God in the Church Dogmatics II/1. It is the place where Polanus speaks of the proprietates Dei essentiales in genere and Barth of ‘the possibility, legitimacy and necessity of speaking of… the glory of God as a multiplicity of perfections’.[9]

After giving his definition of the essential divine properties, Polanus presents eleven axiomata in his (short) chapter on this issue. They state (in an abbreviated rendering): 1. These properties are the essence of God Himself and they do not differ from this essence or from one another 2. In God there is no essential difference, for all things that are in Him are the one and indivisible and most simple essence. 3. The divine properties are not distinguished in reality or in the nature of the object, but in our reasoning, or rather in a certain manner, according to our conception, our comprehension, our understanding. [In italics:] We don’t mean this in the way of Gabriel Biel or William of Occam, who assert that the propositions of our mind are only imaginative or fictional; but we do it in the way of Aristotle and Aquinas, who assert that definitions and divisions in our mind are provoked by the object of our thinking itself, so that the differences we make – as the difference between the mercy and the righteousness of God – are actually related to this object. 4. The divine properties are not parts of the divine essence, but every essential property as a whole is an integral divine essence, in such a manner that the divine essence and the divine essential property are not two different matters, but one and the same. 5. The essential divine properties can in reality not be separated. [In italics:] This is said against Gilbert of Poitiers, who was of the opinion that the attributes of the divinity could be separated from God Himself, as accidents from the subject and who was condemned for that by pope Eugenius at the synod of Reims. 6. What God is or does in Himself in one and the same act, which is his own essence, is what He is or does in Himself; so at the same time and in one act he is simple, infinite, unchangeable and He lives, understands, wills, loves etc. 7. The divine properties are eternal, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’, although He does not always explain them as such in His external works [italics:] which in some respect happen in time. 8. The essential properties are not posterior to the divine essence, for they are in reality the essence itself. 9. The essential properties are not accidental forms in God nor are they accidental matters, but they are ideas or essential forms. For there is nothing in God that has no subsistence in itself. 10. The essential properties are actions, for God is the most pure action and the most simple being. 11. God cannot exist without his essential properties. Therefore He Himself is the most proper wisdom, goodness, power and so on. [After a division into two groups of properties the warning again follows in italics:] Properly said there is no multitude of properties, but only one, which is no other than the divine essence; but with respect to ourselves we need to distinguish many properties, for they are many in our mind. For our intellect is not able to know all other things and thus also to know God in one simple act, but it needs many and distinct acts in order to do that.

Barth’s argument is as follows. First he notes, speaking of divine perfections in the plural is not at all self-evident (CD II/1, 327). In an excursus he then distinguishes two lines of thought. The first one is that of extreme nominalism. For that position all our predications of God are purely subjective ideas or concepts, and the reality of God then disappears as a ‘nude essence’ behind our predications. In this context he mentions the names of Occam and Biel – perhaps he found them in Polanus (after axiom 3). The second line of thought is what Barth calls a ‘semi-nominalism’ in the mainstream of theological tradition. With the nominalists this position acknowledges the limitations of human understanding vis-a-vis its object, but on the positive side it stresses that this is a form of understanding. Here quite a lot of theologians are quoted, and among them also Aquinas and Polanus. Barth refers (328) to the italics of Polanus’ axiom 3 to show the concession to nominalism, but then to axioms 7, 8 and 11 as propositions ‘in which the basic nominalism is apparently – but only apparently[10] – transcended (‘gesprengt’)’. The italics at the end of Syntagma II.7 are cited to stress, how limited this transcending is. Barth fears, that ‘starting from the generalised notion of God, the idea of the divine simplicity was necessarily exalted to the all-controlling principle, the idol, which, devouring (“verschlingend”) everything concrete, stands behind all these formulae’ (329). German theologians from the 19th century have encouraged Barth to search for a different way of arguing (330).

Therefore again Barth proposes three theses in the main text. 1. ‘The multiplicity, individuality and diversity of the divine perfections are those of the one divine being and therefore not those of another divine nature allied to it’ (331). In the excursus Barth rejects the position of Gilbert of Poitiers.[11] He could have referred to Polanus’ fifth axiom here, but he doesn’t. 2. ‘The multiplicity, individuality and diversity of the perfections of God are those of His simple being, which is not therefore divided and then put together again.’ (332). In the excursus Barth here first quotes axioms 4 and 6, but then he apparently fears that these propositions could lead to the conception of a fully undivided, and therefore unspecified and in the end nude and empty divine simplicity and so by way of counterbalance he quotes axioms 7, 8 and 11 (quoted for the second time here, without noting that). For ‘we must reject out of hand the semi-nominalistic reservation that in the last resort we can speak of the proprietates Dei only improprie, that the most characteristic inner being of God is a simplicitas which is to be understood undialectically. If we refuse to do this and to recognize that God’s being transcends the contrast of simplicitas and multiplicitas, including and reconciling both, it is hard to see how we can escape the view of a God who is extremely lofty in His pure simplicity but also quite empty and unreal’ (333). 3. ‘The multiplicity, individuality and diversity of God’s perfections are rooted in His own being and not in His participation in the character of other beings’. In the excursus (334) this thesis is illustrated by the orthodox assertion, that the divine properties are no formae accidentales seu accidentia – Polanus’ ninth axiom could have been quoted here, but that doesn’t happen. Instead there is a reference to axiom 10, with the addition: ‘all this would be excellent, so far as it goes, if it were not for the cloven hoof (“Pferdefuß”) of semi-nominalism which at once appears and obviously compromises everything again with the explanation:… ’ – and then follows the final passage in italics (which strictly speaking doesn’t belong to the whole of the axioms) already quoted on page 329 (did Barth remember this himself?): ‘Properly said…’.[12] ‘On the one hand’, Barth comments, ‘they (the orthodox) falsely defined the being of God, which they were supposed to be defining proprie, in such a way that it did not transcend but was subject to this notion of unity. On the other hand, they made the multiplicity of the divine attributes, which they wanted to ascribe to God only improprie, dependent on the discursiveness of the human intellect and the manifoldness of the created world’ (335). ‘But’, according to Barth’s conclusion, ‘the whole point was that they should not have subsumed the idea of God at all in either case, but that they should have done justice conceptually to His revealed being as such’. ‘One should not subsume the idea of God at all’ – presumably in this charge here we find Barth’s own description of the simplicity of God (Deut. 6, 4).[13]

We can observe that Barth has some sympathy for the efforts of Polanus. He thinks that the orthodox theologian tries to speak of the divine perfections in Gods acts ad extra as well as in His essence in a Biblical way and tries to find a dialectical balance between respecting the fundamental difference between God and man on the one hand and speaking realistically of the one and simple God in the multitude of His properties and His acts on the other hand. Nevertheless Barth sees that Polanus, in agreement with a long theological tradition (perhaps rooted in the Neoplatonism of late antiquity), identifies the simplicity of God with one of the poles in the dialectic of individuality and multiplicity, namely with the pole of the one being behind the multitude of phenomena. And this identification, Barth fears, presents an obstacle to a realistic speaking of the plurality in God. And it prepares the way for a nominalistic or semi-nominalistic reduction of speaking of Gods properties to the human subject’s work of predication.

Now we may suppose that this so-called obstacle is not a very acute problem, as long as the idea of doing theology is embedded – as it is in Polanus, according to the model of Franciscus Junius and others – in the difference between an ‘archetypal’ and an ‘ectypal’ theology, a difference that Willem van Asselt has persistently reminded us of.[14] ‘Archetypal’ is the theology of the essential and uncreated knowledge that God has of Himself. ‘Ectypal’ theology is communicated first to the human nature of Christ, to the angels and to the saints in heaven. In its higher forms there can be a way of knowing by intuition; the multitude of forms can be conceived uno simplici actu, in one simple act. But as long as man is wandering on earth (‘theologia ectypa’ as ‘our theology’) and not yet in his heavenly country, he must – being subject to a lower form of ‘ectypal’ theology – reconcile himself to the limits of his faculties as an intellectual creature, i.e. of his discursive mind. Now in the course of the 17th century the pressure of nominalism became ever stronger. Socinians and later on also Cartesians (not to mention the Spinozists) stressed the human nature of naming attributes of God. At the end of the century the scholastic distinction of archetypal and ectypal theology had become but an old-fashioned rudiment. Therefore one should not be surprised that Barth thought he could not go back to the solutions of an orthodox theologian like Polanus and that he had to propose other solutions. But before we embrace these solutions (or not, as the case may be), it is our task to ask: did Karl Barth really understand the intentions of Polanus?

3.      A Thesis and its Elaboration

Ramist formal logic limited itself to defining and dividing.[15] General definitions were followed by ever increasing dichotomies into their refined particularities. The advantage of this logic was its attractiveness from a didactic perspective; it simplified things and was easy to visualize. Many lesson-books in philology, philosophy, physics but also theology were provided with fold-out schemes, full of bifurcations that could be identified by brackets (in stead of this one finds the ‘Synopsis totius Syntagmatis’ tables at the beginning of the gigantic Syntagma[16]). An intense Renaissance need for method – in a pre-Cartesian sense – was being expressed here, as well as an intense need of ordering life (which made this method especially attractive to the Reformed tradition, but not exclusively). This method was undoubtedly deductive in character, but this deductivism only had a methodological, not an ontological status.

Scholars who have studied Polanus thus far characterize him as a eclectic thinker who was wonderfully able to take up and develop methods and insights of other theologians before him, but who did not try to systematically bring together the influences he underwent from different sources that sometimes diverged among themselves, and to justify their cohesion in his own work.[17] Regarding the issue at hand, we may remark that Polanus structured his Syntagma as a continuous series of Ramist dichotomies, each of which was used to throw light on one aspect of the same reality which is found in Holy Scripture, without trying to describe the reality, which both sides refer to, in an unequivocal way that gives no occasion for misunderstanding.[18] One may ask whether Karl Barth succeeded in recognizing the ramistic approach in Polanus anyhow (the name of Petrus Ramus does not appear at all in the index of the Church Dogmatics!). And to the extent that Barth observed (not being aware of them) the traces of Ramism in the many dichotomies which give structure to the Syntagma, he distrusted these dichotomies, because he feared that they actually represented a dualistic view of reality (although, we may remark, he could have recognized in this ‘speaking with two words’ some features of his own dialectical method). But as far as Polanus is concerned this suspicion does not seem to be justified. For he didn’t want his arrangement of doctrinal materials to suggest a chain of dichotomies in terms of theological content, but only in terms of their formal presentation. Apparently for him human creatures cannot think and speak in only one way about the one reality to which both sides refer. Above we examined the way Polanus speaks of the relationship between the one divine simplicity on the one hand, and the multiplicity of predications with regard to the essentiales proprietates of God on the other hand. Here again we found a dialectical way of speaking. Polanus shares the ‘semi-nominalistic’ opinion of mainstream theological tradition that our discursive mind cannot really grasp the reality of divine simplicity and in its speaking has to keep separate what is actually one and undivided in the one and simple God. But at the same time he is not saying that the divine reality is a totally undifferentiated identity, which would be a very abstract and pale idea of oneness.[19] The multiplicity of our predications is good enough when referring to a reality in God. Polanus himself does not combine these two lines of thought, one originating from his Ramism and the other from his semi-nominalism. And neither does Karl Barth. But in our opinion the real difference between Polanus and Barth is not so much situated in Barth’s objections against the supposed dualities of the Ramist dichotomies in Polanus (which are at least partiallly due to a misunderstanding on the part of Barth), but rather in their divergence in speaking of the reality of human speaking of the simplicity and the multiplicity in God. When there is more clarity on this issue, the difference regarding the function and nature of the dichotomies can be explained more clearly as well.

To verify this thesis we will now look at three issues in the Church Dogmatics about which Barth is in conversation with Polanus. We can then check, whether there too the divergence between the two theologians appears at the same point. Therefore we will discuss three dichotomies in the Syntagma: that of creation and redemption, that of body and mind  and that of reason and revelation. After this we will hopefully be able to formulate our thesis in a more satisfactory fashion.

The dichotomy of Creatio and Providentia actualis.

At the beginning of Volume III/2 of the Church Dogmatics, which is on the creature, Barth asks himself, whether this doctrine should really be limited to the doctrine of man, as Barth has done, or whether it should be expanded into a doctrine of the entire created cosmos (as, we can add, is an option again in contemporary ecumenical discussions on ‘the integrity of creation’). In an excursus he stresses that tradition has suggested to do the latter, i.e. to offer a worldview on the totality of being, but in actual fact would concentrate on the former, the creation of man on the ‘sixth day’. Barth, however, wants to mention Polanus here as an exception. For ‘in the fifth volume [Liber] of his Syntagma we do in fact find an attempted exposition of the cosmos’.[20]

‘Nothing’, Barth concludes this account, ‘or very little, seems to have been forgotten, and the skill with which contemporary biblical knowledge, philosophy and science were bound into a whole is remarkable.’ The presupposition of this ‘binding’ for Polanus is, of course, that ‘Biblical knowledge’ on the one side and ‘philosophy and science’ on the other side can never contradict each other. Both give evidence of the one truth, of the one creation. But the ‘world view’ that results from that for its part can never contradict the insights of faith, as the knowledge of the world of God the Creator, which the Bible offers, can ultimately never contradict its character as a proper doctrine of the knowledge of God the Redeemer. Since (in the Synopsis) Book V (‘De Creatione rerum omnium’) and Book VI (‘De Providentia Dei actuali’ = the doctrine of Redemption) of the Syntagma are connected by a bracket, they have to be seen as two sides of one reality, grounded in the one and simple God.

Therefore Barth is both right and one-sided at the same time, when, at the beginning of his doctrine of creation, he enthusiastically refers to Polanus’ sentence, that ‘the true and sure knowledge of creation has to be considered as received not from philosophy but from theology, not from nature but from faith, not because of the acuteness of the human mind but from the divine light, not from human reasoning but from divine revelation, not from arguments and proofs of physics but accepted from authorities and divine witnesses’.[21] When we look at the context of this sentence in the Syntagma (Chapter V.3), we see that Polanus says this in connection with a polemic against the heathen philosophers of antiquity. That there is a God as causa efficiens of creation they could have known from their own reasoning (as is underlined by texts like Rom. 1, 20); but that this God did his work by way of a creatio ex nihilo according to his will and command at a particular point in time, they could only know by faith (as he would consider Hebr. 11, 1 to say).[22] What Barth is quoting here is actually only formulated as a conclusion of the second assertion. It is true that this is the most important assertion, insofar as Polanus is speaking about creation and creatures as a theologian, so that this speaking is accomplished behind the bracket that indicates the externa opera Dei. But as far as the range of this ‘faith in God the Creator’ as an actual expression of faith is concerned, both theologians differ considerably.[23] Polanus can give some autonomy to the realm of faith in creation, as not being quite the same as faith in redemption, because of his confidence in the ultimate unity of creation and redemption grounded in divine simplicity.

Man as corpus and anima

Regarding the second issue, man, Polanus does not divide the material into a dichotomy. Instead he works – as he frequently does as well – with the Aristotelian division, namely definitio (hominis) [V.27], causa efficiens [V.28], materia [V.29-31], forma [V.32], and finis [V.33]. The body is then, of course, the matter, the soul the form of human being.

Barth speaks on Polanus’ definition of man in the paragraph ‘Phenomena of the Human’. That is already an indication of his objections against this definition. Although Polanus qualifies it (after the analysis of the nomen) as the beginning of a contemplatio theologica hominis, Barth cannot see the real theological point in it and considers it to be a description of the mere phenomenon of a human, which does not point to the real man.[24] ‘Polanus opens with the [in Barth’s eyes] clear-cut Aristotelian definition: homo est animal ratione praeditum. He explains it as follows: ‘man belongs to the genus animal, i.e. he is a substanti corpore organico et anima vegetante atque sententie & loco movente constans’. The differentia specifica from other animals is that he is gifted with reason. By this we are to understand the vis intellectus, qua is , ratiocinatur et [ut Scholastici loquuntur] discurrit, hoc est ex uno aliud [deducit] vel aliud post aliud ordinat. Hence the opus seu officium of reason consists in discursus, i.e. in the swiftness [celeritas] with which his mind moves from one thing to another, from causes to effects, from effects to causes, and therefore to the knowledge of all things. This vis intellectus is not given to any other animal…’[25] It is indisputable, Barth comments, that one here sees a phenomenon of the human. But the definition is already doubtful from a philosophical point of view,[26] and still more so with regard to the theological quality of it. What is the relationship between this result of (classical Greek-dualistic[27]) human self-understanding, namely an understanding of the own vis intellectus, andthe knowledge of God as a knowledge of the covenant? We can understand why Barth is asking this. But as far as his conversation with Polanus is concerned, it is striking how rapidly he passes over this characterization of the human mind as a discursive mind (with its deductive and ordinal abilities). Above we have seen how crucial this characterization in particular was for Polanus’ theological epistemology. Discursivity for him is the main characteristic of the mind of the homo viator in the ectypal theology on earth. It causes the limits to our predications with regard to the divine names and attributes. It also explains the necessity of speaking in dichotomies, since it is impossible for the human mind to offer a direct representation of the simplicitas Dei. Therefore we conclude that Barth is right in wanting to overrule Polanus’ definition of man for his own 20th century reasons, but that he is also too quick to ignore the specific reasons[28] why Polanus insisted on precisely this point.[29]

Patefactio tum naturalis, tum supernaturalis

The third dichotomy, which we will use to verify our thesis, can be found in the chapter on revelation in the sixth book of the Syntagma. Barth discusses it in (the first part of) his doctrine of sin, which, as is well known, he has incorporated into his doctrine of reconciliation.[30]

In an excursus Barth illustrates the danger of searching for other sources of revelation than Holy Scripture with references to several Reformed orthodox theologies. About Polanus the following is said: ‘He too, as was now the general custom in Protestantism, allowed quite definitely and eloquently for a twofold patefactio: tum naturalis, tum supernaturalis. In the first of these all men have a share qua homines. Apart from the liber naturae, i.e., the visible external works of God in creation, it includes the liber conscientiae or the lex naturae, i.e. the naturalis notitia in prima creatione cordibis hominus impressa, tradens discrimen honestorum et turpium. Polan accepts this lex naturalis, which being identical with the vera philosophia, cannot contradict the Word of God.’

Barth here has collected several utterances that are rather spread out in the present chapter. It makes sense here to pay attention to a link in Polanus’ argument that Barth has omitted. The liber naturae, Polanus says, canreveal some attributes of God to the non renati, but not the Trinity or its vestigia. For the accurate knowledge of God it is insufficient, although at the same time it does not contradict supernatural revelation. And then we hear a variant of a famous Thomist sentence: ‘nam gratia non tollit naturam, sed eam perficit, & naturam supra naturam evehit: tum gratiae subordinata est natura’. True philosophy is therefore that philosophy, which functions within the framework of this subordination.

Barth then continues his account as follows: ‘But against it (against the former sentence), and he (Polanus) obviously means this seriously, he sets the statement that the unregenerate man (by reason of his native blindness and corruption) can deduce from this natural revelation only false ideas of God.[31] What is left is a warm defence of the legitimacy of a formal use of the recta ratio [which offers us notiones communes in the field of logic as well as in the field of ethics]. But materially theology must keep strictly to Scripture.’

Two points are relevant here. 1. For an unregenerate person natural reason (after the fall) has no power at all. But when one is reborn, it has a useful function of its own at its own level. This means, that here too we have to take the bracket that connects book V and VI of the Syntagma very seriously. There is one faith, and only the one who is faithful can also read the book of nature in addition to the book of grace. This is a completely different type of ‘natural theology’ – as Willem van Asselt would stress – than that of the period after the year 1700. And it is so much in line with the other brackets of the Syntagma that it is difficult to isolate it from the whole framework of this theology. 2. In this chapter Polanus gives the foundation for the methodology he employs in quite of lot of the chapters of his Syntagma. With many issues he starts out by giving arguments for his main thesis on the basis of Scripture. After that he underscores his point (mostly in a polemic context) using logic, often in the form of a series of syllogistic proofs. Both methods, the Scriptural and the logical argument, can remain next to each other, because both actually speak of the same truth, and this truth is always one. Of course, as Barth says, in the end a subordination of logic to Scripture is presupposed here, but it is not necessary to stress that. For it is unthinkable that the result of logical reasoning should differ from the result of Scriptural study – and in fact that means: differ from the content of the Reformed confession, right? Indeed: ‘the vera philosophia can not contradict the Word of God’, as this God is a one and simple God.

4.      Conclusion

We come to a conclusion now. We will try to explain our thesis in light of its validation in the three dichotomies we have dealt with in this paragraph.

1. Polanus lived in an atmosphere, where the experience of the unity was still very strong, or was supposed to be very strong. What Scripture says and what logic says (to the regenerate), what the confession believes and what reason proves, in the end it is all the same. Of course, Scripture and confession have priority, but this priority does not always have to be visible and in some contexts it even is obvious that logic dominates the stage. Against the background of these more formal dichotomies, the more content oriented dichotomies can also be understood. Dogmatics and ethics, theological and economical speaking of God, divine attributes and divine persons, creation and redemption, human body and human soul – in each of these dichotomies two ways of saying may appear, two methods of treatment, two areas of subject matter, and it is not always clear how the two can possibly be harmonized. But perhaps it isn’t necessary to do that anyway, because again, in the end it’s all the same. In fact, the homo viator with his discursive mind must even accept this situation, for he may know that the position where both sides of the one reality are seen together at a glance is a position in heaven, which is not his situation. So he may be comforted by this and leave the real knowledge of the unity to God, his angels, and to glorified man.

In the time of Karl Barth the situation has completely changed. The fields of Scriptural exegesis and of natural (and also of historical) science have become completely separate and all Polanus’ formal dichotomies have increasingly been experienced as dual realities in the course of later modernity. Therefore Barth takes radical measures. He feels compelled to abandon the pious skepticism of what he calls ‘seminominalism’ and deems it necessary to only make statements in theology that – in a certain exaggerated epistemological boldness – can be said to be truly derived from God in his ‘revelation’. For otherwise it is impossible to maintain that certain propositions are really theological propositions. This methodological shift also means that, where for Polanus some parts of theology can have a certain autonomy, Barth now also has to justify the insertion of these parts into the development of the main lines of thought in theology. Thus the doctrine of the divine essence had to be developed from the doctrine of the Trinity, the divine theology from the divine economy, creation from the covenant of grace, the doctrine of man from the doctrine of the Son of man, the ethics of the Law from the message of reconciliation in the gospel, and so on. Therefore for Barth theological method acquired an inner connectedness with theological content to an extent that a man like Polanus could never have dreamt of.

2. The specific point of this contribution now is to see what consequences this methodological shift has for speaking of divine simplicity. Polanus never intended to give a pale and abstract idea of the oneness behind the living fullness of God in his proprietates and his opera. But he had no need to think through these affirmations as being truly present in God himself. For Barth, on the contrary, human speaking of God must correspond with the inner being of this God. And therefore it is important that also the multiplicity in human speaking of God truly corresponds to a multiplicity within God himself – of course, not the multiplicity of an unqualified plurality as such (‘anything goes…’), but the multiplicity of the divine virtues, and corresponding with this the multiplicity of his acts of salvation. This implies that the traditional attribute of divine simplicity also acquires a new sense. It is no longer an assumed abstract idea of oneness behind the multiplicity of the forms of appearance, which was at least a danger in Polanus, but it becomes a characterization of the freedom of God to realize his decree time and again in new ways and in new respects. It is clear that Barth is not saying things in the same way as his ‘illustrious predecessor’ did, but, we can ask – and we have frequently done so in our lively and always very intense ongoing discussion with Willem van Asselt – doesn’t it belong to the progressive character of Reformed Theology that it is not necessary for us to say the same things in the same way when the times and the places are changing?[32]

[1] Cf. E. Busch, Karl Barths Lebenslauf nach seinen Briefen und autobiographischen Texten (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1975), 277-279.

[2] The first edition appeared in Basel in 1626, the new edition in Neukirchen in 1935. In 1958, in his ‘historical introduction’ to his new edition of H. Heppe’s Die Dogmatik der evangelisch-reformierten Kirche. Neu durchsehen und herausgegeben von Ernst Bizer (Neukirchen: Kreis Moers, 1958), XLVII, Bizer remarks in a footnote: ‘I fear, I vastly overestimated the importance of Wollebius at the time’. With some remarkable exceptions Wolleb offers a very clear summary of the Syntagma of Polanus.

[3] Cf. Kirchliche Dogmatik (Zürich: EVZ, 1932ff.; henceforth: KD) III/2, 457; in the English translation, Church Dogmatics – henceforth: CD (Edinburgh: Clark, 1952ff.) –  III/2,382. Barth had become acquainted with Polanus during his Reformed Theology professorship in Göttingen (1921-1925), when he was getting himself oriented for his first lectures in dogmatics using H. Heppe’s textbook on Reformed orthodoxy.

[4] Karl Barth owned a copy of the first edition of the Syntagma Theologiae Christianae (Hanoviae = Hanau, 1609/1610; more than 4500 columns). We are using a copy of the second edition (Hanoviae, 1615), a text containing 699 pages with two columns each. In the following text both editions will be referred to.

[5] We counted 131 references to Polanus in the Church Dogmatics: I/2: 34x; II/1: 47x; II/2: 14x; III/1: 5x; III/2: 14x; III/3: 1x; III/4: 1x; IV/1: 6x; IV/2: 5x; IV/3: 3x. In IV/4 (fragment) Polanus is missing. The only reference in I/1 (Bonn, 1932) is a quotation from the textbook of Heinrich Heppe. In I/2 (1937) Barth is already quoting from the first edition of the Polanus’ Syntagma that he had apparently acquired for himself.

[6] See Ernst Staehelin, Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf (Basel: van Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1955).

[7] For a comparison of the Partitiones with the Syntagma see Robert Letham, ‘Amandus Polanus: a Neglected Theologian?’, in: Sixteenth Century Journal XXI (1990)3, 463-476.

[8] So far the only major study on the theology of Polanus has been that of Heiner Faulenbach (Die Struktur der Theologie des Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, Zürich: EVZ, 1967). Although he is looking at the structure of Polanus’ theology and has a chapter on its logic, his presentation in fact completely disregards the Ramist shape Polanus gave his Syntagma. One wonders whether an author is really taken seriously, if treated in this way. Quite contrary to this Richard A. Muller, in his voluminous Post-Reformational Reformed Dogmatics (IV Volumes, Second Ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, Mich., 2003), takes the Ramist framework of Polanus very seriously. He frequently quotes the Synopsis totius Syntagmatis, which Polanus opens with an overview of the entire work (for quotations from the Synopsis see, for instance, Vol. III, The Divine Essence and Attributes, 159, 227, 255, 271, 366, 381-382, 384, 444). This attention to the formal structure of the work undoubtedly shows progress in the research of Reformed orthodoxy. Unfortunately, however, Muller is in danger of walking away from the theological duty of ‘historical theology’ to challenge ‘systematic theology’ in its constructive task.

[9] Syntagma II.7, 21615, 141; KD II/1, 368-376; CD II/1, 327-335 (§ 29, ‘The perfections of God’). Cf. Faulenbach, op. cit., 138-140. Polanus is present in the treatment of almost all of the dozen divine ‘perfections’ Barth has chosen to deal with in paragraphs 30-32 of the Church Dogmatics. Only once Polanus is missing. Namely in the treatment of the divine property of unity, which is about the simplicity and uniqueness of God, and which opens the sequence of the ‘Perfections of the Divine Freedom’ (in § 31.1). Instead of this, Barth deals with the simplicity of God according to Polanus in the place about the ‘proprietates Dei essentiales’ mentioned here.

[10] Barth says (CD II/1, 329): ‘an explanation of what is to be understood by the “fundamentum” (of the human predication of properties in God Himself) has never been vouchsafed’. It is the opinion of Richard Muller, op. cit. III, 287, that Reformed orthodoxy seriously sought to find such a ‘fundamentum’.

[11] The former numbers 389-392 in Denzinger’s Enchiridion symbolorum etc. (Freiburg: Herder 1854ff.) are deleted in the newer editions, because ‘Gilbertus vero subtiliter se defendendo ita successit (sc. at Reims in the year 1148), ut papa istis capitulis nullam haeresis notam inusserit’.

[12] We may conclude: Barth quotes Polanus’ axiom 3, 4, 6, and 10 once each, and axioms 7, 8, 11 and the italics at the end of chapter II.7 twice; the axioms 5 and 9 are referred to indirectly; and, of course, axioms 1 and 2 could have been quoted too. Barth has carefully studied Polanus!

[13] Cf. K.H. Miskotte, De praktische zin van de eenvoud Gods (Amsterdam: Holland, 1945).

[14] Synopsis Libri I, Syntagma I.3 and I.4 respectively. Cf. W.J. van Asselt, P.L. Rouwendaal, Inleiding in de gereformeerde scholastiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1998), 108-109.

[15] See the lemma Ramus, Petrus in Theologische Realenzyklopädie 28 (1997), 129-133 (Christoph Strohm) and the literature mentioned there.

[16] In the Dutch translation of the Compendium of Wollebius, Kort begryp van de christelicke Godts-Geleertheydt, Amsterdam 31664, on the other hand, we find two fold-out tables for the two parts De Deo cognoscendo – de Deo colendo (‘Van Got te kennen – Van Got te dienen’).

[17] E.g. Bizer, op. cit. XLVII: ‘He was really a conserving epigone, to a large extent also a compiler’.

[18] The main dichotomies, which give structure to the Syntagma, are the following: (Synopsis of Book II🙂 1. ‘There are two parts in Christian Theology: the first one is on faith [Books II-VII], the second one is on good works [VIII-X]’; 2. ‘There are two parts of the doctrine of faith: the first one is on God [II-VI], the second one is on the Church [VII]’; 3. ‘There are two parts of the doctrine of Faith on God: the first one is on the Essence of God [II-III], the second one is on his works [IV-VI]’; 4. ‘There are two parts of the doctrine of Faith on the Essence of God: the first one is on the Attributes of God [II], the second one is on the Persons of the Godhead [III]’; (Synopsis of Book IV:) 5. ‘The Works of God are internal [IV], or external [V-VI]’; (Synopsis of Book V🙂 6. ‘There are two External Works of God: Creation [V] and actual Providence [VI]’; (Synopsis of Book IX🙂 7. ‘Good Works are twofold: some are of the immediate [IX], others are of the mediate Cult of God [X]’.

[19] In his study Divine simplicity (Kampen: Kok, 1987), F.G. Immink tries to show that it was never the intention of classical theology to hold this type of idea of an abstract identity with regard to God.

[20] KD III/2, 3-4; CD III/2, 5 (§ 43.1, ‘Man in the Cosmos’).

[21] KD III/1, 2; CD III/1, 4 (§ 40,’Faith in God the Creator’). Reference to Polanus, Syntagma V.3 (11609, 1700; 21615, 264 c. 2.

[22] The first assertion can be found in Thesis X, the second in Thesis XI of Chap. V.3, ‘de creationis causa efficiente’. Cf. Meijering, Von den Kirchenvätern zu Karl Barth. Das altkirchliche Dogma in der ‘Kirchlichen Dogmatik’  (Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1993), 387.

[23] Cf. Paul Althaus (Die Prinzipien der deutschen reformierten Dogmatik im Zeitalter der aristotelischen Scholastik, Leipzig: Scholl, 1914, 232-233): ‘faith’, as an activity of ectypal theology, makes propositions here on earth that are derived from and can be proved only by the higher, original science in heaven. By doing so Polanus follows the Thomist tradition.

[24] KD III/2, 88-90; CD III/2, 76-77 (§ 44.2). Reference to Polanus, Syntagma V.27 (11609, 1987; 21615, 308 c. 1). Cf. Meijering, op. cit., 277. See also Barth’s remark: ‘the animal ratione praeditum in itself is a ghost’.

[25] Barth continues: ‘… and it is here that there is to be sought the distinction and particularity of man in relation to all other animals and therefore to all other beings in general’. The last words are not those of Polanus, however. How could Barth forget here the angels, who actually are ‘other beings’, but not ‘animals’!

[26] CD III/2, 77: ‘It is not at all self-evident that the concept animal really ought to be the subject of the definition and human ratio only a predicate, only a kind of ancillary to the mainly animal being of man. Both the naturalism of this view of the subject and the intellectualism of the understanding of reason could and necessarily did bear evil fruits later’. Apparently Barth sees in such a resumption of Aristotelianism the preparation of the Cartesian concept of the absolutist self with all its effects in shaping modernity.

[27] So in KD III/2, 456; CD III/2, 380 (§ 46.3, ‘Soul and Body in their Interconnection’). Reference to Polanus, Syntagma V.32 (11609, 2060; 21615, 319).

[28]Barth finds another reason for this in Polanus: ‘The purpose of this definition has always been clear. It is to define the most general features of man in order to proceed securely to the particular. But what is overlooked is that it is precisely the most particular thing about man, namely, his existence in a history determined by God’s attitude to him, which is the most genuinely universal and decisive feature…. (of man as a creature)’. This sentence says more about Barth’s own theology than that of Polanus.

[29] These objections against Polanus’ approach, however, are fully compensated in a certain sense by a beautiful passage further on in Barth’s doctrine of the creature, where he speaks about the way Polanus develops an Anatomia theologica partium humani corporis: KD III/2, 457-458; CD III/2, 381-382 (§ 46.3). Reference to Polanus, Syntagma V.30 (11609, 1900f.; 21615, 310 c. 2). Barth wrote this passage out with perceptible pleasure and the reader will experience these pages of the Church Dogmatics in the same way.

[30] KD IV/1, 408-409; CD IV/1, 369-370 (§ 60.1, ‘The Man of Sin in the Light of the Obedience of the Son of God’). Reference to Polanus, Syntagma VI.9  (21615, 348 c. 1ff.).

[31] E.g. Polanus, op. cit. 348 c. 2, G.

[32] With thanks to A.F. den Exter Blokland, Ph.D., Chicago, USA for the correction of the English.

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R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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