Most Reformed systematic theology starts with what is known as Theology Proper or Doctrine of God. This reflects a common methodology that has a venerable history and pedigree. This theology attempts to start by discussing in an abstract fashion the divine attributes which the three persons share.
This is, I would argue, a fundamentally flawed way to go about the enterprise of Systematic Theology. Today’s post will be a brief explanation of why I think the aforementioned method is a problem, and a brief defense of my proposed methodology.
Theology as Relationship
Theology is fundamentally a pursuit of relationship. We strive to know the persons of the Trinity, not some abstract set of attributes. While it is true that Systematic Theology is academic and involves the life of the mind more than it does the affections, the ultimate purpose is to increase our love and service of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In some senses, a fully orbbed theological account shares many of the same features as a good biography. It will include historical details about the life of its subject. (Biblical and Historical Theology) It will make assessment of how various personal characteristics play out in the life of its subject. (Systematic Theology) It will explore the recorded contributions of its subject. (Exegetical Theology) It will also make commentary how God has influenced and continues to influence the daily life of his people, corporately and personally. (Practical Theology) Systematic Theology is simply one aspect of this biography.
Since theology is fundamentally about understanding persons, it makes sense that we would begin our inquiry with a person.
Why the Father
Many who take this approach might choose instead to begin with the Son. This is not altogether unreasonable given that the bulk of the historical testimony in the New Testament is centered on Christ. Less likely, but still possible, would be to begin with the Holy Spirit. Although it is true that the New Testament has less to say regarding the Spirit than it does regarding the Father or Son, the Spirit is the person of the Trinity who is most active in the Church and accounts for the ongoing immediate presence with the people of God.
However, I think that both of these starting points, although not inappropriate or irrational, are not the most appropriate or rational.
Instead, I will begin my inquiry into the divine persons with the Father. There are two primary reasons for this.
The Use of θεός | theos in the New Testament
Many, if not most, evangelicals reading the New Testament understand the word God in the New Testament to be a reference to the one God. That is, they do not read the word and think it is a reference to any one particular person of the Trinity. However, exegetically this does not bear out. While I do not have the time to engage in a full exegetical defense, it is clear that when the New Testament uses the word God in an unqualified way, it is an unambiguous reference to the first Person of the Trinity. Here are two examples that prove the point.
John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” Which makes more sense? The Trinity gave his only Son, or the Father gave his only Son?
Romans 1:1-3 – “… Set apart for the Gospel of God… concerning his Son who was descended from David…” Which makes more sense? That this is the Gospel of the divine nature… concerning the divine nature’s Son, or that this is the Gospel of the Father… concerning the Father’s Son.
These are only two of many possible examples.
The Testimony of the Early Church
The Early Christian community almost universally understood the word theos to be a reference to the Father. They followed the New Testament usage very closely in this way.
Most explicitly, and significantly, we see this come to a head in the Nicene Creed. The first line reads: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” The second noun phrase in this sentence (the Father Almighty) is what is known as an appositive phrase. It is a way to give further explanation to a word by repeating the grammatical structure with a synonym or explanatory parallel. So the sentence can also read “I believe in the Father Almighty” and mean the same thing. Thus, we see that in the Nicene Creed the word God in this sentence is synonymous with Father Almighty. The creed continues to elaborate that the Son and Spirit are also God, but does so by associating them with the Father in various ways. I will explain those further when we get to our section on Triadology.
I know that there are still some who would object to my beginning point. Having taught Systematic Theology in the past using the progression I am advocating, I recognize that there are some difficulties. How can we speak of what Scripture has revealed regarding the Father without having first spoken of how Scripture functions? How can we speak of the Father’s nature, when it is only in the Son that the Father’s nature is made apprehendable? Doesn’t beginning with Persons make the hypostases more ultimate than the divine ousia?
These are all fair questions, however in a Newtonian twist of providence there are equal and opposite questions that obtain from competing approaches. How can we speak of the nature of Scripture, without first discussing its ultimate author? How can we first speak of the Son when it is the Father who speaks to us in the Son? Doesn’t beginning with the divine nature make the divine ousia more ultimate than the divine hypostases?
No systematic theology is without methodological snares and pitfalls. Rather than a pyramid or tower, with layers laid upon foundations… Systematic Theology is more like a web. Each subject is connected to every other subject, and no matter where you start… you will necessarily have to make reference to other subjects, and in many ways will make use of theological capital that you have not formally developed yet in the sequence.
Because of this reality, I would ask that the reader give me the benefit of the doubt as our web comes together. Rather than dismiss me because I started in a different location than you would have (or than your favorite theologian did), understand that there are reasons that each theologian draws on in this most holy task which dictate where they begin.