Treasure Worth Seeking

This monthly blog series is dedicated to exploring the depths of God’s Word as summarised in the 2nd London Confession. Each article will cover some aspect of confessional Baptist doctrine.

The Focus of Theology

In our first two reflections on systematic theology, we considered what the word ‘theology’ means and how the two-fold ground of theology (God and his Word) provides the proper context within which to understand the theologian’s work. This month we will reflect on the subject matter of theology.

What is the focus of theology? The reformed theologians of the post-reformation period answered “God and divine things”. Francis Turretin describes God as primary and divine things as secondary. Divine things, according to Turretin, include things “done by God or to be believed and done by men”, the works of God, God’s creatures and the duties of man. This twofold object of theology – God and divine things – approaches God directly (God considered in himself) and indirectly (divine things are considered in relation to God). Turretin says, “Thus that all things are discussed in theology either because they deal with God himself or have a relation (schesin) to him as the first principle and ultimate end.” [1]

John Webster, a modern theologian who led the way in recovering a theological understanding of the discipline and task of theology, describes the twofold object of the theology – God and divine things – in the following way:

Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold object. This object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and second and by derivation, all other things relative to him.” [2]

Picture of Dr John Webster (1955-2016)

Dr John Webster (1955-2016)

Webster was an English Anglican who championed the modern return to classical trinitarianism and its theological implications.

The first focus is theology proper; God considered in himself (his life ad intra) and in his outer operations; his divine nature seen through his acts of creation, redemption and consummation. Topics include God’s incommunicable divine perfections, communicable attributes and his triune life.

The second focus derives from the first. The things of God include the purpose, nature and obligations of creation and creatures to God, the covenantal structure of God’s relationship to his image-bearers and creation, obedience to God, repentance, faith, fellowship with God, the life of the church, worship etc. These things are studied in their proper relation to God in himself and his outer operations. They are to be approached in the context of the economy: God’s outer works of creation, redemption and consummation through which he brings creatures into fellowship with himself in Christ.

The twofold focus has a material order to it, which must be reflected in our understanding and teaching of the sequence of doctrines and their inter-relations in terms of derivation. In other words, there is a reality of God in himself and then his acts of creation, redemption and consummation that must control our grasp of the sequence and relationship between doctrines. Economy flows from theology proper and not the other way around. The economy of God’s actions towards his creatures does not constitute God, for his being does not flow from his outer actions. God’s outer actions, which constitute the economy of creation and salvation, flow from his being and, therefore, reveal him. Webster again:

Christian divinity is characterized both by the scope of its matter — it aims at a comprehensive treatment of God and creatures — and by the material order of that treatment, in which theology proper precedes and governs economy. All things have their origin in a single transcendent animating source; a system of theology is so to be arranged that the source, the process of derivation and the derivations may in due order become objects of contemplative and practical attention.” [3]

In Christ, we come to know the one true God of self-sufficient life and light and love in himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the economy of redemption, God offers light and life and love to his fallen, spiritually dead and darkened creatures through covenantal fellowship in Christ.

Doctrines have a correct order to them, dictated by the material reality of God in himself and his outer operations. The material order does not have to dictate the cognitive order (the order by which we become aware of doctrines and teach them) of a curriculum. A theologian can contemplate any doctrine. However, he or she should always do so by articulating that doctrine in relation to God in himself and in his outer works.

One of the tasks of good systematics is not only to identify doctrines but also rightly relate doctrines and see them in terms of their place governed by the principle that theology proper (the doctrine of God’s life ad intra) precedes and governs economy. For instance, the doctrine of the church does not control or produce our doctrine of God. However, just as good systematics must always be aware of the placement of doctrines in relation to God in himself, so also, theologians have not completed their task of articulating the doctrine of God, for instance, if they do not also show how God who is life in himself is also life for us in the works of creation, redemption and consummation in Christ.

God and all things in relation to God – theology proper and economy – as the twofold focus of theology belong together and in proper relation. This means that while the economy of creation and salvation derives from God in himself, and must not materially be taken to constitute God’s a se life in himself, nevertheless theology proper is revealed to us through the economy. Therefore, theology has a redemptive shape to it.

The Bible is not a textbook of facts about God. Contrary to some caricatures of systematic theology, no decent systematic theologian has ever thought that it was! The Bible is the account of God creating, redeeming and perfecting a people for himself. God is supremely revealed in the sending of the Son and the Spirit in the work of redemption. The focus of the Scripture is the revelation of the one, triune, creator God, who sends his Son to redeem a people from sin and judgment to give them new life in the Spirit to walk in faith and obedience in fellowship with him.

The Bible reveals God and his nature through the unfolding story of the covenants culminating in the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Hebrews 1:1-3 explains the bible story in a nutshell. In the past, God spoke through the prophets. Now, God has spoken through his incarnate eternal Son with the sending of the Son in the flesh. The nature of God is revealed in and through the gospel events in the person and work of the incarnate Son and the sending of the Spirit. In Romans 1:1-4, we read that God promised the gospel concerning his Son through the old testament scriptures. Eternal life means knowing the one true God and the one whom he sent, Jesus Christ (John 17:3).

The scriptures reveal theology proper in and through the economy of the covenants and the sending of the Son and the Spirit. In Christ, we come to know the one true God of self-sufficient life and light and love in himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the economy of redemption, God offers light and life and love to his fallen, spiritually dead and darkened creatures through covenantal fellowship in Christ.

Theology must approach God and the things of God in light of the story of redemption, which is focused on Christ. To summarise, we can make five observations about the nature and focus of theology:

1- The ground of theology is God himself and his word.
2- Theology is the study of God and the things of God.
3- Theology has a material order (the order in which things exist in reality). The “things of God” follow after “God himself.” This should be reflected in the order of teaching in three ways:

  • by making sure topics in the economy are related back to theology proper,
  • by showing how they make sense downstream of teaching about God, or,
  • by starting the order of doctrines with God and his revelation.

4- Theology must study the revelation of God and the things of God with the focus on redemption in Christ.
5- The goal of theology is the worship of and fellowship with the triune God, knowing him and the one whom he sent and walking in his ways.

17th century confessions such as the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration, and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677) reflect these five points. In particular, in their content and structure, they reflect the material order of God and the things of God – including the life of the Christian in obedience to God – within a redemptive-historical covenantal structure. More on this in later blogs.

[1] Muller, Richard A. Post – Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.) Volume I, pp 319.

[2] J. B. Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, vol. I, God and the Works of God (London, 2016) 3.

[3] ibid 3.

Picture of Jonathan Woodrow

Jonathan Woodrow

Minister of Christ Church Herbert Street, Loughborough