Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 4

Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 1 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 2 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 3
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 4    

So where do we begin when formulating a systematic theology? That's a big question. Outside of the introductory material covered under the subject of Prolegomena, theologians have debated whether theology should begin with Theology Proper or Bibliology. As Erickson points out, both are dependent on the other: If, on the one hand, one begins with God,the question arises, How can anything meaningful be said about him without our having examined the nature of the revelation about him? On the other hand, beginning with the Bible or some other source of revelation seems to assume the existence of God, undermining its right to be considered a revelation at all. (31-32)

For those who say that we should begin with Theology Proper they argue:

1.  God exists (this point is assumed as a first truth or established by an empirical proof).
2.   God has specially revealed himself in the Bible.
3.  This special revelation must be investigated in order to determine what God has revealed. (32)

What is assumed here is that God exists and that the doctrine of God can be established without establishing the doctrine of Scripture. After all, how does the Christian speak of God apart from what that God has revealed of Himself of Scripture? The opposite is problematic as well. It seems that either way a systematician goes, some basic assumption must be given.

So what is the solution put forward by Erickson? He offers a sort of combined approach:

Instead of beginning with either God, the object of knowledge, or the Bible, the means of knowledge, we may begin with both. Rather than attempting to prove one or the other, we may presuppose both as part of a basic thesis, then proceed to develop the knowledge that flows from this thesis and assess the evidence for its truth.

On this basis, both God and his self-revelation are presupposed together or perhaps we might think of the self-revelation God as a single presupposition. This approach has been followed by a number of conservatives who desire to hold to a propositional or informational revelation of God without first constructing a natural-theology proof for his existence. Thus the starting point would be something of this type: "There exists one Triune God, loving all-powerful, holy, all-knowing, who has revealed himself in nature, history, and human personality, and in those acts and words which are now preserved in the canonical Scriptures of the Old an New Testaments." From this basic postulate we may proceed to elaborate an entire theological system by unfolding the contents of the Scriptures. And this system in turn will function as a worldview which, like all others, can be tested for truth. While no specific part is proved antecedent to the rest, the system as a whole can be verified or validated. (34-35)

I'm not sure middle-of-the-road this is the best approach. Certainly one must enter theology with some basic assumptions and the presuppositions on Theology Proper and Bibliology is central. But the question he is seeking to answer is practically, where do we begin? Erickson cannot simply offer a middle of the road approach, but must begin his own theological textbook somewhere and he does.

The second section of the book begins with revelation - both General and Special - and then discusses Bibliological issues of inspiration, infallibility (which is only given a brief treatment), inerrancy, and authority. In other words, outside of dealing with natural theology and common arguments for the existence of God, Erickson begins his systematic theology with Bibliology. Erickson makes his choice and I believe it is the best choice. 

We must admit that this is a problem for the systematician. I agree with the approach of men like Erickson, Wayne Grudem, Louis Berkhof, and others that Bibliology is the best place to begin all the while acknowledging this difficulty.* When picking up a Christian theological textbook, one should be at least be able to assume that the writer is a theist and a monotheist. One could probably safely assume that the author is a trinitarian since the Trinity is a unique Christian doctrine. Thus when approaching a Christian systematic theology, basic assumptions are already present, thus I find it best, admitting some of the limitations, to begin with Bibliology because everything that follows is rooted in what is revealed in Scripture and the gospel.

We could also add another problem here. The debate is rightly limiting between Theology Proper and Bibliology, but we could expand that. Why not begin with anthropology? Our prolegomena discussion admits that we are finite and God is infinite, thus we can only look through the glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13). Thus perhaps we ought to begin with some real humble honesty - theology is a science, but a humbled science. We are engaged in the most important subject in the world, but we are limited. We could also begin with other theological issues (Soteriology, Christology, or even Eschatology), each with its own obvious problems, but the challenge of where to begin is a real one and an important one. Every theology and worldview begins with some basic presuppositions - presuppositions that can and ought to be defended but are presuppositions nonetheless - and thus I find it best that in Christian systematic theology we need to begin by defining and articulating what we believe about the Bible and why.  That, then, will allow us to more fully discuss Theology Proper, Anthropology, Harmitology, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, etc.

* There are several theologies that begin with Theology Proper but fail to really interact with this question. See Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, Mark Driscoll, Doctrine as a sample.
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