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Hemmingsen’s Principium of Theology (2)

Last time we noted that Niels Hemmingsen finds two “prefaces” (prooemia) to the Decalogue: “And God spoke all these words, saying” and “‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery'”).

In the first, the (inspired) authorial comment that precedes God’s speech reported in direct discourse, Hemmingsen claims to find the principium, or first principle, of all theology: it must be based upon the Lord speaking. God reveals what he wishes his people to know, and they are to adhere to that Word of his, and to that only. The first preface of the Decalogue can be seen as synecdoche for the preface to the authoritative source of Christian theological reflection as a whole.

The second preface contains two parts, one a declaration of God’s being and the other a statement of his mighty acts–the salvation worked for Israel by his hand. One advantage (for me, at least) of reading older writers like Hemmingsen is that they, through close and sustained attention to the details of the text, encourage the reader of Scripture to slow down, and his discussion here is a case in point. Each part of this twofold statement can be analyzed on its own, and matched respectively to the categories of word (verbum) and testimony (testimonium), and these are the two ways in which we know God: namely, through his statements of who he is and his declarations of what he has done, his essence and his acts.

Finally, one finds in the second preface a “threefold confirmation” of the authority of the Law of God.

The end of all of this discussion, and of theology in general, is summed up in his conclusion that reminds us of the importance of keeping practical piety always in view: “Let us apply these things to ourselves, so that we, moved by the kindnesses of God, may more zealously offer true worship to him.”

Text and Translation

Alterum prooemium Domini est: “Ego sum Iehova Deus tuus, qui eduxi te de terra Aegypti, de domo servorum.” Hoc DOMINI prooemium duo continet. Primum enim modum cognoscendi Deum monstrat, nimirum per verbum et testimonium. Verbum est: “Ego sum Iehova Deus tuus.” Testimonium, “Qui eduxi te de terra Aegypti.” De hoc modo cognoscendi Dei, supra in primo capite primae classis copiose dictum est.

Deinde continet hoc Domini prooeumium confirmationem triplicem autoritatis legis divinae. Primam a potestate, qua sibi ius imperij vendicat, cum dicit: “Ego sum Iehova.” Est enim hoc nomen Dei proprium, quo essentia, potentia et maiestas ipsius significatur. Potentia enim et maiestas τῇ αὐτοφυεία divinae necessario coniuncta sunt. Secundam a promissione Dei, cum inquit: “Deus tuus, et Dominus tuus.” Est enim haec relatio diligenter observanda, et est sensus: “volo tuus Deus esse, et tu eris meus populus.” Tertiam a beneficio, cum inquit: “Qui eduxi vos de terra Aegypti,” quo brevi dicto totius historiae, atque adeo beneficiorum suorum admonet. Haec nobis applicemus, ut beneficijs Dei moti, ardentius ei cultum verum praestemus.

The other preface of the Lord is: “I am Jehovah your God, who led you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” This preface of the LORD contains two things. For first it shows the way of knowing God, viz., through the Word and the testimony. The Word is: “I am Jehovah your God.” The testimony, “who led you out from the land of Egypt.” I spoke fulsomely about this way of knowing God above under the first head of the first class.

Next, this preface of the Lord contains a threefold confirmation of the authority of the divine law: the first [confirmation comes] from the sovereignty [potestas] by which he lays claim for himself to the right of dominion, when he says: “I am Jehovah.” For this is the proper name of God, by which his essence,1 power [potentia], and majesty are signified.2 For his power and majesty are necessarily jointed to his self-existent nature. The second [confirmation comes] from the promise of God, when he says: “Your God, and your Lord.” For this relation must carefully be marked, and its meaning is: “I will to be your God, and you will be my people.” The third [confirmation comes] from his kindness, when he says: “Who led you out from the land of Egypt”: in this brief statement he reminds [us] of the whole history, or rather of his kindnesses.3 Let us apply these things to ourselves, so that we, moved by the kindnesses of God, may more zealously offer true worship to him.4 (Enchiridion Theologicum, p. 148)

  1. It cannot be stressed enough, in contrast to caricatures or overly broad statements regarding Protestant accounts of divine and natural law, how closely Hemmingsen connects power and dominion to the essence of God. Radical separation of “essence” and “will” has no place in his conceptualization of law.
  2. It is presumably no coincidence that Hemmingsen lists three things that are signified by the “proper name of God”; nor, more broadly, that the confirmation itself is threefold (sovereignty, promise, kindness).
  3. That is, beneficiorum suorum seems to strike Hemmingsen as a more precise and appropriate term for God’s dealings with his people than historiae–which is not to say, of course, that an account of those dealings is unhistorical, but that that history is the preeminently the story of God’s kindness to his people.
  4. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.