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International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 11 doi:10.1111/j.1468-2400.2008.00423.

Number 1 January 2009

Principles of Systematic Theology


JOHN WEBSTER*

Abstract: The Holy Trinity is the ontological principle of Christian systematic theology. Its external or objective cognitive principle is the divine Word, by which, through the prophets and apostles and with the illumination of the Spirit, Gods incommunicable self-knowledge is accommodated to the saints. The internal or subjective cognitive principle is the redeemed intelligence of the saints. Systematic theology is thus ectypal knowledge (derived from Gods disclosure of his archetypal self-knowledge), and a subaltern or subordinate science. Its matter is twofold: God, and all things in God. Accordingly, it is best arranged as a treatment of God in himself, followed by a treatment of the outer works of God, with a theology of the divine missions as the hinge between the two. This arrangement offers a synthetic and conceptual transposition of the primary language of Scripture.

I
A presentation of the genus and tasks of systematic theology has to begin quite far back. Understanding what systematic theology (or any other division of theological study) is about depends upon grasping the nature and ends of theology, and this in turn depends upon an account of the nature and ends of rational creatures; and such an account rests nally upon an understanding of God and the works of God. Systematic theology is an exercise of reason in the domain of Gods saving and revelatory goodness to creatures. Undertaking it well requires that practitioners orient the work of the mind within that domain, in order to receive instruction and assistance in their task. This is why a primary requirement for the pursuit of the task neglect of which is so easy and so disastrous is the condentia divini auxillii of which Aquinas spoke in the prologue to the Summa theologiae. To unfold the matter a little more fully: (1) Determining the possibility, nature and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine.

* School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, Kings College, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3UB, Scotland UK.
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Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology are an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration, and the rest), not a pre-dogmatic inquiry into its possibility.1 [D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.2 The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how innite divine truth can take nite form in human knowing. Prolegomena are, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so. (2) More closely: specifying a theological sense of scientia is a derivative task, one to be undertaken only after clarication of the economy of salvation and revelation within which theological reason fulls its calling. Recall the order of the very rst two articles of the Summa theologiae: Aquinas only asks whether Christian theology is a science (ST 1a.1.2) after asking whether another teaching is required apart from philosophical studies (ST 1a.1.1) and, crucially, the answer which he gives to the rst question is, in essence, an appeal to the saving and revelatory works of God as that by which the human good is secured and made known. It should be urged that human well-being [salus] called for schooling in what God has revealed, in addition to the philosophical researches pursued by human reasoning.3 The setting of theology is thus not simply the immanent sphere of human inquiry, but the transcendent vocation of rational creatures. Schooling in divine revelation is necessary because God destines us for an end beyond the grasp of reason . . . Now we have to recognise an end before we can stretch out and exert for it. Hence the necessity for our welfare [salus] that divine truths surpassing reason should be signied to us through divine revelation.4 (3) A denition of theology and its various tasks thus rests upon teaching about God and the human good; and the deepest disagreements about the nature of theology commonly arise, not simply from divergent conceptions of scientia, but from differing understandings of God and the creatures of God. Adopting this starting point in the context of mainstream Anglo-American systematic theology presumes what Lewis Ayres has called a wider critique of the culture of systematic theology.5 Much might be said by way of analysis of that culture (or cultures: at least on the surface there is not much consensus). One feature, commonly encountered but not often remarked upon, is that of granting a certain

1 2

O. Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 5. H. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1 (Grandville: The Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004), p. 22. 3 Aquinas, ST 1a.1.1 resp. 4 ST 1a.1.1 resp. 5 L. Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 386.
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priority to an understanding of systematic theology as a mode of public engagement over systematic theology as an act of contemplative intelligence. Positioning systematic theology in this way affects not only conceptions of the ends of theology (as, essentially, a practical science of Christian history and action), but also conceptions of its sources, its modes of argument, the virtues required of its practitioners and most of all its material content, for in systematic theologies of this type, rather little tends to be said of God in se. This may go along with disinclination for, even suspicion of, systematic theology as dogmatics, and preference for conceptions of the systematic task as open, free and cumulative learning. A critique of this conception of systematic theology would most properly be undertaken, not in prolegomena, but in the course of material dogmatic exposition, and cannot be pursued at this point. But it is worth remarking that the contrariety of the conception of systematic theology explored in what follows ought not to be allowed to generate an enduring posture of lament for a lost dogmatic culture. Lament is tting on some occasions, but as a permanent attitude it can do damage, breeding intellectual vices such as vanity or pessimism, inhibiting a clear-sighted view of the situation and drawing theology away from its contemplative vocation. Likewise, polemic arrests and coarsens the mind when allowed to become habitual. What should hold lament and polemic in check is a gospel-derived awareness of the necessary pathos which attends theological work, the roots of which lie in the fact that the world is at enmity with the church and is reluctant to learn about the divine wisdom with which the saints have been entrusted. Yet even a due sense of pathos ought not to overwhelm the tranquil pursuit of theology, made possible and fruitful not by the capacities of its practitioners or the opportunities afforded by its cultural settings, but by the innite power of divine goodness shedding abroad the knowledge of itself. That movement, in its boundless depth and its capacity to overcome the minds estrangement from its creator, constitutes the principles of systematic theology.

II
The Holy Trinity is the ontological principle (principium essendi) of Christian theology; its external or objective cognitive principle (principium cognoscendi externum) is the Word of God presented through the embassy of the prophets and apostles; its internal or subjective cognitive principle (principium cognoscendi internum) is the redeemed intelligence of the saints. Before expanding on this, two initial remarks may be made. First, the notion of the principles of theology derives from a sense that in the intellectual act of theology the order of being precedes and is actively present to the order of knowing. Theology has a generative basis.6 It takes its rise in a movement towards intelligence, so that intelligence is not purely original. Put differently: in theology productive intelligence
6 K. Barth, The Gttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 12.
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serves reproductive intelligence. Indeed this must be said with some earnestness theology is not primarily scholarship or study (though it is that also), but reason following Gods perfect knowledge of himself and of all things. The innite divine scientia is not merely of background signicance for considering the nite activity of theology; it is of the essence in any account of how creatures know and speak of God. Second, at an initial glance, the formal conceptuality of principles may seem to lead to the worst excesses of ontotheology an array of supersensible objects imposing themselves on passive intelligence, abstracted from the processes by which knowledge is made. This impression may be reinforced by the association of the language of the principles of theology with that of the causes of theology (God as the efcient cause of theology, Scripture as its instrumental cause, and so on).7 But the idiom of the principles of theology simply schematizes the history of God with creatures in its communicative aspects. Far from lifting theological work out of temporal processes of knowledge, it aims to identify the agents and acts (innite and nite) which together constitute those processes as they are suspended from Gods self-knowledge and shaped by his self-manifestation. The principles of theology are thus a conceptual rendering of the work of divine charity, in which at the Sons behest the Father sends the Spirit to instruct the church (Jn 14:26). In this way, the nite work of theological reason is placed in a domain in which astonishingly it is the case that his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie (1 Jn 2:27; cf. Jn 16:13). This anointing, in its trinitarian depth and its ecclesial reception, is that of which the principles of theology speak. God knows himself and all things: on this rests the possibility and actuality of creaturely theology. How is this so? A skeletal answer would run along something of these lines. Gods knowledge of himself and of all things is innitely deep, boundless; creatures cannot take its measure. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable are his ways! (Rom. 11:33). God knows himself and all things by his own being. That is, God is self-sufcient in this knowledge, which is brought about by no cause outside God, there being no principle of Gods knowledge other than his own utterly replete being. God needs no teacher. Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him? Isaiah asks in his praise of the divine incomparability (Isa. 40:13); or, again, Paul, who quotes Isaiahs statement (Rom. 11:34) as an instance of the great rule of Christian teaching about God (and so of Gods scientia): from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom. 11:36). Gods knowledge is, thus, identical with his perfect essence; it is not accidental to, but is, the actual intelligent being-in-act of God. It is not knowledge acquired through labour or extended by learning over time; it is
7 The language of causality, shaped by the Summa of Henry of Ghent, is given authority among the Reformed scholastics by Junius De vera theologia (1594); for a thorough contemporary rendering of this tradition, see R.A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 ca. 1725, vol. 1, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).

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non-discursive, without logical or temporal succession, simultaneous, eternal, intuitive, uncompounded, the single and simple vision of everything.8 Gods knowledge is the one innite act of his intelligent life as Father, Son and Spirit. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son (Matt. 11:27); The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a mans thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:10f.). Gods knowledge is an aspect of the perfect fellowship of his triune life, in which each knows and is wholly known by each. This innite knowledge is properly incommunicable, known, Matthew and Paul tell us, by no one but the persons of the godhead in their mutual communion. Nevertheless, creaturely knowledge of God and of all things in God theology is a given possibility. By virtue of Gods loving act of communication, there is brought into being a further reality alongside the no one, with all its exclusiveness and inaccessibility. This further reality is a genuine creaturely cognitive history, set in motion, overseen and directed to fullment by Gods own act in the temporal missions of Son and Spirit. No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone else to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. And there does not signify a simple line of continuity between the Sons knowledge of the Father and the knowledge possessed by creatures; rather, it indicates the pure creative wonder of election and apocalypse (the Son chooses to reveal him). No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11). But, Paul continues, we have received . . . the Spirit who is from God (1 Cor. 2:12), the reality of human knowledge resting on this from God. Christian theology is a work of human reason within this movement of communication in which Son and Spirit open to creatures a share in the divine knowledge. This reality Gods perfect knowledge in se and its communication in some measure to creatures is the ontological, and therefore the epistemological, condition of Christian theology. Aquinas puts it thus in a sentence of stunning simplicity: holy teaching (sacra doctrina) goes to God most properly as deepest origin and highest end, and that not only because of what can be gathered about him from creatures . . . but also because of what he alone knows about himself, and yet discloses for others to share.9 The possibility of Christian theology thus lies in what God alone knows about himself and yet communicates by disclosure in God and the Word of God. It must be emphasized: theology is possible; there is a proportion between theologia in se (the divine knowledge) and theologia nostra (creaturely knowledge). Much hangs on characterizing well the conditions for this proportion, that is, with the right kind of Christian determinacy. And so it needs to be said that this proportion is established by divine, not created, capacity. The acts of communication which ensure the linkage of theologia in se and theologia nostra that is, the missions of Son and Spirit in
8 9 ST 1a.1.3 ad 1. ST 1a.1.6 resp.
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their cognitive dimension are free works of mercy, undertaken in fullment of the Fathers will and not at the behest of creatures or in response to creaturely need. There can be no relaxation from the creaturely side of the rule nitum non capax inniti. This, not on the basis of an extrinsicist or separated metaphysics, but because the relation of uncreated and created is irreversible a further rule which holds true for every locus of Christian teaching, including teaching about the nature of theology. Moreover, the divine act of communication is not one which simply reproduces or reduplicates divine scientia in creaturely intelligence, but an act of revelation and condescension for which there is no antecedent readiness in the creature. Once again: Who has known the mind of the Lord . . . ? (1 Cor. 2:16). Yet for all its interim importance this emphasis on nite incapacity is not a nal resting place. The missions of Son and Spirit overrule creaturely inadequacy and make it possible for knowledge of God to take creaturely form. Revelation is an act of accommodation, by which of his charity God tempers knowledge of himself to nite modes of knowing. The Words operation is not a violent denial of the creatures ways. It summons created intelligence; it makes possible words . . . taught by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13); by its gift, it is possible to say without hubris we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). God so tempers his knowledge that it assumes tting created form. This accommodated form is Holy Scripture, and, by derivation, its reception and contemplation by the saints. The characteristic modern temptation has been to secularize Scripture and the reading of Scripture, viewing them as a set of objects and acts for whose description language of Gods action is redundant, and, when deployed, a barrier to grasping Christian faith as temporal process. But not so. What comes to expression in the secularization of Scripture, and of exegetical intelligence, is the baleful maxim innitum non capax niti, a maxim whose understanding of God is unshaped by the divine missions and can make little sense of Gods freedom to temper himself to creatures. For the Christian confession, God is capax niti precisely because he is the true innite who can call creaturely forms and acts into his service without compromise either to his own freedom or to the integrity of the creature. God so uses creaturely forms that they acquire adequacy. Making this case does not require a strong account of the participation of creaturely forms in God;10 quite the opposite. What bridges divine scientia and the work of created intellect is not a theology of ontological methexis, but a divinely-instituted and maintained order of revelation and accommodation in which diverse types of knowledge and knowing subjects are brought into a fruitful, asymmetrical relation. And that is conceptual shorthand for: all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (Jn 15:15) a making known extended now through the work of the Spirit in the inspired prophetic and apostolic word and in the illumination of the saints. The history of revelation is, of course, a thread within the history of reconciliation, of sin and its overcoming. Sin involves forfeit of knowledge of God
10 Such as that set out by Oliver Davies in The Creativity of God: Word, Eucharist, Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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and the replacement of that knowledge by illusion. We are fallen creatures, we do not know, and we do not know what we do not know. Theology takes its rise in the midst of this condition, which is being authoritatively and decisively qualied by the sending of the Son and the Spirit. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 sees the believers cognitive situation as governed by two realities: (1) the contradiction of the spiritual by the unspiritual, which, left to itself, prohibits understanding and discernment of Gods gifts: The unspiritual person does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (v. 14); (2) the effective presence to the saints of a secret and hidden wisdom of God (v. 7), rooted in the eternal divine decree, prepared by God for those who love him (v. 9) and manifest through the Spirit (v. 10) to the spiritual person (v. 15). By this understanding arises in the domain of reconciliation, and with it the possibility of theological thought and speech. So far then, we have spoken of God and Gods self-knowledge as the ontological principle of theology and of the Word of God (revelation in its presence as Holy Scripture) as its external cognitive principle. The idiom of the discussion has a much more direct relation to the unreective language of Christian faith than is customary in presenting the nature of theological science. This proximity is necessary but risky: necessary to acquire distance from modern convention, risky because it invites dismissal as unwissenschaftlich. The offence may, perhaps, be alleviated by shifting to a more formal register, retracing some of the points by talking of the relation between archetypal and ectypal theology, and of theology as a subaltern science. Archetypal theology is Gods self-knowledge; ectypal theology is the knowledge of God possible for nite rational creatures. The former is Gods simple, eternal intelligence of himself, the latter can be described in its temporal unfolding before the defection of Adam as theologia ante lapsum, after the Fall as theologia viatorum, in paradise as theologia beatorum. In effect, these distinctions (which could be elaborated considerably) conceive of the acts of nite theological intelligence in terms of the distinction-in-relation of uncreated and created being. The entelechy of theology is not that of unformed, spontaneous nite reason, but that of reasons partaking of the communicative goodness of God. Three things may be said by way of further explanation. First, the formality or abstactness of the terms ought not to obscure the fact that what is being indicated by them is the history of fellowship between God and creatures. Archetype and ectype are related not ideally and statically but historically in the course of creation, fall, election, reconciliation, glorication. What is proposed is, in other words, a soteriological conception of theology. Second, theology is not a term used univocally of archetype and ectype; this is because the distinction between the two duplicates the distinction between uncreated and created. Unlike uncreated knowledge, nite theology is unoriginal, communicated, non-essential, discrete, mutable and so forth. Yet the discontinuity is not absolute this, indeed, is the force of the category of type. It would be an abuse of the distinction to press it in such a way that the archetype became a blank abyss, entirely inaccessible to creatures; uncreated intelligence is incommensurate with, but not wholly alien to, created intelligence. The connection, however, of type to
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archetype is not established by analogical ascent from creaturely forms, nor by participation in God, but by Gods communicative acts in which he gives himself to be known through the service of creatures to created reason. In this history of revelation, tempered to creatures by divine benevolence, and unfolding as a movement from life in via to life in patria, God is known, theology is possible. Accordingly, third, the distinction-in-relation of archetype and ectype moves beyond the mirror positions of either scepticism which places God outside the range of objects of knowledge or disordered cognitive mastery. Neither non capax nor capax can be rendered absolute; much better to think of theology out of the loving movement from archetype to ectype which establishes a tting proportion between divine and created scientia. Thinking of theological activity in such terms requires us to envisage creaturely reason as within the economy of divine grace rather than as a capacity to transcend that economy. This is why the willingness to make this move, which is dogmatically and spiritually self-evident, is in other respects utterly bafing, and why it seems to render theology defenceless. Something of the same reproach is attached to the related concept of theology as a subaltern or subordinate science. Thomas, once more: sacra doctrina ows from founts recognised in the light of a higher science, namely Gods very own which he shares with the blessed.11 Or again, sacra doctrina assumes its principles from elsewhere [aliunde] . . . the principles of this teaching are suppositions from another place [aliunde].12 This aliunde, we might say, is at the heart of the pathos of theological reason as well of its capacity to persevere. The derivative character of theology is problematic for secular reason because it accords priority to the presence and operation of the object of theological enquiry (God as eminent intelligence) over the operations of the cognitive subject. How is this anxiety met? By further reection upon the doctrine of God, and, in particular, upon divine science, by which as supreme wisdom all our knowledge is governed [ordinatur].13 Theological reason is within the sphere of divine ordinatio, governed (formed, overseen, helped, protected) by the summa sapientia in its self-bestowal. Because the aliunde from which the principles of theology derive is this one not some impassive, motionless other but the divine fountain of life and knowledge then the subaltern state of theological reason is not vicious, but simply the repetition in the eld of knowledge of the creatures nite condition in which created goodness consists. There is, again, an inevitable pathos here: some kinds of demonstration are closed to theology, some modes of certainty are not available. The struggle between worldly prestige and the dependence of faith is an inescapable feature of theological existence and its institutions. But theological reason is not defeated by this situation, as by some unexpected fate. In so far as it takes its Christian confession seriously,

11 ST 1a.1.2 resp. 12 ST 1a.1.6. 13 ST 1a.1.6 ad 1.


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theology has the resources to interpret its pathos as embraced by the divine ordinatio. Theology does not measure its situation in terms of an ideal of rational perfection and security, but in terms of the way in which God conducts the redeemed through time to their homeland, supplying them with what is necessary to bring them to the knowledge of the blessed. In its subaltern and restricted state, theologia in via and aliunde is a human undertaking which may legitimately expect to receive the gifts of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14). This account of the principles of theology may be rounded by a brief indication of the internal or subjective cognitive principle of theology, namely redeemed intelligence. A full treatment would cover both the theology of regeneration and faith, and the theology of church and tradition, both as corollaries of teaching about the Spirit as Lord and giver of life and light. For reasons of space, only the former will be sketched here. Operating in the economy of divine grace, theology falls under the apostolic announcement: You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God (1 Pet. 1:23). Intelligence is regenerated: not simply given further objects for cognition, but in its entirety remade through an agency which is immortal, alive and abiding, namely the divine Word, present in the form of the proclaimed gospel (1 Pet. 1:25). To describe the intellectual work of theology in these terms is to say that it is an aspect of the transformation of creaturely life, which may be spoken of as renewal in the spirit of the mind (Eph. 1:23; Rom. 12:2), purication through obedience to the truth (1 Pet. 1:22). There is nothing arcane here, no suppression of nite intelligence. Created intelligence is just that created. But created does not mean: separated from the presence and action of God the Spirit, but: formed, accompanied and enabled by the Spirit to undertake its creaturely task in the realm of regeneration where Word and Spirit govern and perfect created life and activity. As with Augustines depiction of the study of Scripture in De doctrina christiana as an aspect of our passage through the temporal dispensation to eternal enjoyment of God, so here; theological study originates in the gift of God, is deployed in the movement of the redeemed through time and terminates in the apprehension of God. The corollary of this is that the acquisition of theological knowledge demands spiritual as well as intellectual preparation. Perverse love, hatred of God and creatures, arrogance and despair, evasion of the truth must be set aside; love and fear of God, docility and ardent desire for God must be put on; and all this through the indwelling of Christ and the quickening of the Spirit. It is faith which seeks understanding.

III
From this necessary though somewhat extended preface on the nature of theology in general, we move to some remarks on the nature and tasks of systematic theology, which treat three topics: (1) the object or matter of systematic theology; (2) its arrangement in systematic form; (3) its relation to Holy Scripture. How do the more
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general principles of theological intelligence shape the development of a theological system? (1) As with any area of theological inquiry, the matter of systematic theology is primarily God and secondarily all things in God, the latter being a derivative though no less necessary object of systematic reection. All things are dealt with in holy teaching in terms of God, either because they are God himself or because they are relative to him as their origin and end.14 Put slightly differently: systematic theology treats God and the works of God, doing so in a way which orders this twofold topic sequentially, according to the metaphysical-dogmatic priority of God. The thought which Barth pursued with such immense imaginative power that God is who he is in his acts ought not to be pressed (Barth himself did not press it) in such a way that the external works of God swamp a theological system, turning it into a reective rehearsal of the divine economy in its outer aspect. A systematic theology of this character may achieve resonance by emphasizing that it is only by Gods temporal acts above all, incarnation and cross that we are directed to the eternal being of God; and this may be reinforced by maximizing the dissonance between the Christian God and philosophical theism. Part of the animus here comes from protest against what is taken to be the residue of unconverted metaphysical matter in systematic theologies; for all its frequent exaggeration, the protest has its point. Deus revelatus is not to be treated as a mere epiphenomenon which might be folded back into an antecedent doctrine of God whose main features are settled in advance of consideration of Gods works towards the world. And, further, it is indeed the case that in the ordo cognoscendi, systematic theology ordinarily takes its rise in attention to Gods temporal acts of creation, election and deliverance: Come and see what God has done . . . (Ps. 66:5). Yet the order of knowing is not simply reduplicated in the order of being. If it is allowed to do so, systematic theology may nd itself in a double predicament. First, part of its proper subject-matter may be pushed to the periphery, and the centre of gravity shift accordingly from de Deo to de creaturis et de moribus hominum. One could write an illuminating history of modern dogmatics devoted to tracing modications of this shift. Second, once teaching de Deo recedes as the primary matter of systematic theological reection, the real character of the works of God will remain obscure as the agent upon whom these works depend becomes increasingly elusive, for only in their backward reference to Gods perfect life and counsel can the external works of God be perceived. The rst material object of systematic theology is God considered in himself, the uncreated one eminent over all created being as its innitely generous source and end. Nevertheless, part of the condition of nite theology is that this rst material object is only indirectly accessible. Systematic theological reection de Deo is prompted by participation in the economy as creatures of divine goodness: where else could we begin? To consider ourselves competent to take the measure of God

14 ST 1a.1.7.
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from some vantage point other than our being in medias res would be absurd. But reective participation in the economy of Gods works prompts an intellectual (in a proper sense, speculative) movement which considers Gods works not only as they present themselves in their outer face or temporal structure and effect, but also in terms of the uncreated depth of God from which they ow. There is in the outer works of God an excess which they do not exhaust; to consider them is to be caused, not only to praise God for mercies received (Ps. 66:520) but also to extol the glory of his name (Ps. 66:2, 4) of which his works in creation and salvation are a refraction. This can be phrased in more directly dogmatic terms by speaking of the way in which Gods outer works bring to bear upon creatures the free counsel of God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Or, again, we might speak of the grounding of the temporal divine missions in the eternal divine processions, such that Gods outer works are not real relations between himself and creatures, but the overow of Gods wholly realized life as Father, Son and Spirit. This, indeed, is the ultimate reason why all things in God is subordinate to God as the matter of systematic theology: God in himself limitlessly exceeds his relation to what he has made. This excess of the divine life is ineffable. It is encountered in the act of praise but not available to discursive intelligence, since it is a perfectly achieved reality beyond creaturely ratiocination. What systematic theology may say of it is said because Gods acts in time are transitive, directing theological reason to their agent and his mysterious, antecedent glory (1 Chr. 16:9f.). (2) Because the matter of systematic theology is the ineffable God and the movement of goodness in which he extends towards creatures, an account of Christian doctrine can be only provisionally systematic. Systematic apprehension of the Christian gospel is necessary. An initial justication for this could be that any complex and comprehensive set of beliefs and practices is required to articulate itself in systematic form; rational thought, speech and action strive for coherence and consistency. In more directly theological terms, theological system is rendered necessary by the comprehensiveness and singularity of the object of Christian confession and praise. God is one; all other things are held together and have their several natures in relation to God and are known in that relation. Systematic intelligence is tting, and it is appropriate to attempt a consistent overall presentation of Christian teaching, in which the innite divine archetype is echoed in nite ectypal modes of intelligence. Such a systematic presentation is a work of created reason, and so both productive and reproductive. In ectypal theology, the distinction between production and reproduction, or between invention and discovery, is not fully resolved; all that is available to theology is the possibility of a relative and often temporary ascendancy of reproduction and discovery, a checking of pure poetics. Yet this possibility is available. The theologian would be a fool to claim to have achieved a system from which invention has been eliminated, but a bigger fool to assume that invention is all there is. At least when systematic theology is undertaken repentantly, under the guidance of the prophets and apostles and the tutelage of the saints, and with prayer for the Spirits instruction, it is possible that in forming an account of its
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object systematic theological reection will nd itself preceded and accompanied by the work of the object itself, and that concepts, words and arguments may in their nite way disclose their matter in its unity and scope. The work of systematic intelligence is inevitably surrounded by certain restrictions, though in identifying them we need to exercise care lest we abandon reason to voluntarism by assuming that the systematic impulse is always a mere bid for power; to think in such terms is simply evasion of responsibility. Far better to talk of the limitations of systematic theological intelligence in terms of the nature of its matter rather than the iniquities of its practitioners. God is innite and ineffable, and so indeterminable, not exhaustible by any nite system of manifest objects. In saying this, we are simply following the logic of divine perfection: Gods archetypal scientia is not properly communicable to the created intellect, and cannot be converted into an ectypal scheme of thought; comprehension is possible only in Gods saving counsel itself.15 Further, the matter of systematic theology is not present to creatures in the form of a principle from which all else can be deduced, but as an historically extended set of asymmetrical16 relations between the uncreated God and the creatures whom he draws into fellowship with himself. This set of relations in time is not only the matter of systematic theology but also its setting or historical horizon, the eld within which it occurs. The construction of theological system is an activity within this unnished history, undertaken at one point in the unfolding economy (the late Colin Gunton, in the rst article of the rst number of this journal, suggested that the question of systematic theology is the question of eschatology17). Panoramic perception is unattainable to those still in via, not in patria, especially since they are not yet fully reconciled to the object of their contemplation, still learning how to see and love what they see. Yet these are restrictions placed upon systematic intelligence, not its prohibition. They arise from considerations drawn from dogmatics and ascetics, not out of generalized negativity about the systematic. Little theological prot is yielded by the reduction of systematic thought to false consciousness. Theological self-deprecation along these lines appears modest, but the underlying assumption that there are no systematic intellectual virtues, only intellectual vices betrays lazy trust in indeterminacy to deliver the mind from folly. Excessive systematic pretension is most effectively arrested by dogmatic rules: Gods life is innitely abundant, we are not yet fully the friends of God, a theological system is no more than one stagingpost on the minds ascent to paradise. How is such a provisional and reformable system to be arranged? Arrangement is determined by matter, and, once again, the matter of a systematic theology is God, either in himself or relative to creatures. This is why Aquinas will not allow that the
15 H. Diem, Dogmatics (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), p. 306. 16 That is, real on the creatures side, but not on Gods. 17 C. Gunton, A Rose By Any Other Name? From Christian Doctrine to Systematic Theology , reprinted in Intellect and Action: Elucidations on Christian Theology and the Life of Faith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), pp. 1945.
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centre of gravity in sacra doctrina be such topics as the reality and the signs (God and sacraments), the opera reparationis, or the totus Christus, caput et membra.18 Such themes are proper to sacra doctrina, but only in so far as they are treated secundum ordinem ad Deum, in relation to God. A systematic theology cannot be arranged simply as a string of topics; rather, the formal interest engaged19 that is, the question of the relation of all these topics to the doctrine of God must determine the arrangement. One relatively straightforward principle of arrangement which follows from this is that in an important sense there is only one Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in its inward and outward movements. Whatever other topics are treated derive from the doctrine of God as principium and nis. The fact that God is the subject of this science20 is crucial to questions of proportion and order in systematic theology. No other doctrinal locus can eclipse the doctrine of the Trinity, even (especially) when that doctrine evokes a status confessionis. The Christian doctrine of God excludes any other articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. All other doctrines are simply extensions of teaching about God and Gods works; of themselves they may not function as central dogmas, and attempts to do so must be checked in the interests of proportion. In terms of order, the primacy of theology proper is best reected by treating rst the being of God in se, followed by treatment of the works of God, with the theology of the divine missions as the hinge between the two. Such an order ought not to be judged an abstract scheme in which the economy is deduced from truths about deity. Nor does it suggest that the pre-temporal is the real, the historical a mere shadow. The unity of essence and existence in God does not disqualify created existence or isolate God from the temporal; it suggests, rather, the manner in which God engages time, out of the ceaseless repose of his life which is the rst object of systematic inquiry. To this rst object corresponds a second, the unfolding economy, rendered to us in Scripture. This material is best set out in an arrangement which combines the historical or dramatic and the synthetic, in order to present to best effect the acts which make up the outer movement of this history, the agents by whom they are enacted, and the origin and telos of the whole. The basic plot will ordinarily be supplied by the historical course of the external works of God from creation to the life of the world to come. Into this, topical discussion will be interpolated. Some topics will be especially associated with particular stages in the history of Gods works (major christological and soteriological themes, for example, or topics in eschatology); others (such as election or anthropology) will treat matters distributed across the corpus, and dealing with them will require the insertion of a pause into the historical ow. Much will depend on the lightness and transparency of whatever systematic arrangement is adopted; with this, we turn to the relation of systematic theology to Scripture.

18 ST 1a.1.7. 19 ST 1a.1.7. 20 ST 1a.1.7.


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(3) The divine Word that is, the ascended Son of God speaking to creatures in the Spirits power through the biblical testimonies is the external cognitive principle of systematic theology. Systematic theology must at every point return to this principle as a commentary returns to its text. The synthetic arrangements and conceptual idiom into which for the purpose of analysis systematic theology transposes prophetic and apostolic speech are wholly subservient to the primary modes in which the matter presents itself in Scripture. The end of systematic theology is to reproduce and explicate the intelligence of faith and its authorities, not to ascend beyond it in order to attain the divine by some other route. How is this end best reached? We may consider an example. In an outstanding inaugural lecture as Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Seminary in 1894, Geerhardus Vos gave an account of the nature of biblical theology as a responsibility within the economy of revelation and regeneration. Here is his graceful summary of the ontological and cognitive principles of theology: By the new birth and by the illumination of the mind darkened through sin, a new subject is created. By the objective self-manifestation of God as the Redeemer, a new order of things is called into being. And by the depositing of the truth concerning this new order of things in the Holy Scriptures, the human mind is enabled to obtain that new knowledge which is but the reection in the regenerate consciousness of an objective world of divine acts and words.21 As he works out a denition of biblical theology, Vos identies a group of studies which he calls exegetical theology (p. 5), and which deals with God under the aspect of Revealer of Himself and Author of the Scriptures (p. 6). Exegetical theology he divides into a twofold operation study of the formation of Scripture (historical, textual and exegetical studies), and biblical theology, which discusses both the form and contents of revelation from the point of view of the revealing activity of God Himself (p. 7). In the course of his presentation, Vos elucidates the relation between biblical theology so conceived and systematic theology. Biblical theology is a kind of anatomy of the historical unfolding of Gods dealings with creatures, a rendering of the temporal revealing work of God: God has not communicated to us the knowledge of the truth as it appears in the calm light of eternity to his own timeless vision . . . The self-revelation of God is a work covering long ages, proceeding in a sequence of revealing words and acts, appearing in a long perspective of time. The truth comes in the form of growing truth, not truth at rest. (p. 7)

21

G. Vos, The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), p. 5. Page references in the main text are to this essay.

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And herein for Vos lies the difference between biblical and systematic theology: In Biblical Theology both the form and the contours of revelation are considered as parts and products of a divine work. In Systematic Theology these same contents of revelation appear, but not under the aspect of the stages of a divine work; rather as the material for a human work of classifying and systematizing according to logical principles. Biblical Theology applies no other method of grouping and arranging these contents than is given in the divine economy of revelation itself. (p. 7) Systematic theology abstracts from the temporal character of revelation; its constructive principle is systematic and logical (p. 23). Systematic Theology endeavours to construct a circle, Biblical Theology seeks to reproduce a line (p. 23). Something has gone awry here. Vos separates historical-discursive and analytical intelligence and distributes them between two theological sub-disciplines, and in so doing generates two problems. First, one task of systematic theology (classifying and systematizing according to logical principles) shifts from subordinate to primary status; second, a major component of systematic theology (presentation of revelation in its canonical form) is devolved onto another subdiscipline. As a result, the idiom of systematic theology drifts away from Scripture, and its modes of argument are conformed to those of logical analysis. Indeed, systematic theology becomes a kind of analytical theology, operating at some distance from the idiom of Scripture and heavily conceptual in tone and structure. This, in turn, works against the principles of theology which Vos himself announces at the beginning of his lecture. What is amiss here? Partly it is that the irreducibility of Scripture can be compromised by treating prophetic and apostolic discourse as raw material rather than the interim terminus of systematic theological intelligence. Partly, again, it is allowing too much weight to concepts and logical anatomies as improvements upon Scripture. But there is also a certain neglect of the ineffability of the ontological principle of theology, a reluctance to allow the incommunicability of Gods self-knowledge to chasten analysis, a softening of the distinction between attaining and comprehending, a desire to pass too soon beyond the ectype. Avoiding such missteps is largely a matter of art, informed and directed by the principles of theology, deeply internalized, and by immersion in the texts and thought patterns of the Christian tradition. In terms of the construction of a systematic theology, these principles will be best expressed by the substantial presence of exegesis, showing that Scripture is doing real work, not simply furnishing topics to be handled in a non-scriptural idiom or proofs for arguments constructed on other grounds. Scripture must be the terminus ad quem of systematic theological analysis, not merely its terminus a quo. Similarly, conceptual inventiveness, so central to the systematic enterprise, must go hand in hand with conceptual transparency, since systematic concepts are simply windows through which we may glimpse the biblical landscape and its ultimate horizon in God.
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IV
Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Matt. 16:17). Christian systematic theology takes place in the wake of that breathtaking dominical announcement. Yet it remains an earthly, esh and blood enterprise, far indeed from the theology of the blessed, communicated to the perfected saints by the permanent intellectual light of the presence of God through the mediation of the Son. It is the rational work of the children of Adam who are only slowly learning what it is to be the children of God. This relativizes systematic theology in the present condition of creaturely inrmity after the Fall; yet it is accompanied by a promise of divine wisdom, already given and to be given again, by which creatures can be conducted from ignorance and unhappiness to knowledge and bliss. If systematic theology is to survive in a culture which has been deprived of a sense that rational creatures have a celestial nal cause and which cannot envisage contemplation as a mode of science, it will nd itself turning with some urgency to the divine promise.

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