The Twofold Ground of Theology
This week we continue our back to basics reflections on systematic theology. In our last post, we considered the word theology. We concluded with Turretin that it refers to the word of God or words concerning God. Turretin shows that theology must therefore rest on a twofold foundation: God and his word.
“…as Thomas Aquinas not at all badly explains, Theology is taught by God, teaches of God and leads to God. Thus the twofold ground of theology is embraced by this usage: the one, the ground of being (essendi), which is God; the other, the ground of knowing (cognoscendi), which is his Word.”
When Turretin speaks of the ground of theology, he means the foundational principles on which theology is based. Foundational principles do not rest on anything else; everything else rests on them. If theology comes from God and is a body of knowledge that teaches about God, then its twin foundation must be God himself (since he is the one who reveals himself) and what God has said about himself, i.e. his word. There must be a revealer and a revelation. This is what Turretin means by ‘the ground of being…which is God’, and ‘the ground of knowing…, which is his Word’.
God is the first principle since he is the one who reveals himself; his word is the second key principle because his revelation of himself is in the word. God is the ground of theology’s being since theology cannot exist without him; theology arises out of his act of self-revelation. The scriptures are the ground of knowing since the bible is the means by which we come to know God as he has revealed himself. Without the bible, we cannot know God savingly or fully.
In summary, the twofold ground of theology and theological system (duplex Theologiae principium) is:
- God himself — the ground of being (essendi);
- God’s word — the ground of knowing (cognoscendi).
Theology in the presence of God in Christ.
The twofold principle of theology, God and his word, summarise the gracious movement of the triune God towards us in the gospel. Who is the God who exists? He is the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What is the bible? It is the word of the Father about the Son (the Word of God), spoken and written down through the prophets and apostles by the work of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Romans 1:1-7). It is the word of the Son (1 Peter 1:8-12) who came to display the Father and reconcile his people to himself (John 1:12, 18). The bible announces the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of the Son of God. It is the means by which the risen and reigning Christ calls sinners to repentance and rules his church (e.g. Ephesians 5:25-27). In other words, to speak of the God who exists and who speaks through his word draws our attention to the God who shares himself with us in the economy of grace. Therefore, to say that the foundational principles of theology are God and his word indicates that the proper grounds and context for doing the work of theology are God himself and his acts of revelation and reconciliation in the Son.
In this way, theology itself, the bible and the church do not exist, first and foremost, in the domains defined and studied by social sciences. Theology does not need to rest on permissions granted by other sciences to exist or have a voice. Theology is not a subspecies of sociology or the study of religious experience. God’s word is not first and foremost a collection of written artefacts from particular socio-cultural, economic and historical settings. Theology does not achieve a voice, arrive at an internal coherence or form the church’s life only and in so far as other disciplines like sociology, cultural studies, archaeology or philosophy grant it permission to speak on their terms. Instead, the study of theology takes place in the primary context of the presence of the triune God with us in his acts of self-revelation and reconciliation in Christ.
None of this means that other disciplines in the academy have nothing to offer the work of theology. However, it does reverse the relationship of God to the disciplines that have been set in modern academia. Rather than theology being viewed within the social sciences, we must view the social sciences in the context of the economy of grace that flows from the self-sufficient, sovereign, holy, triune God of life and love. All disciplines are called to the bar of scripture and into the Lord’s divine presence. Philosophy is called upon as a handmaiden to theology: God’s self-revelation to us in his word demands that we find and transform language and concepts from other disciplines in order and faithfully communicate what we hear in God’s word.
Why raise this point in a back to basics reflection on the nature of systematic theology? It is precisely this context of God and his acts of revelation and reconciliation that theologians are prone to forget as they so often seek to try and connect with their social context and other disciplines by setting up camp for their work on the grounds of other disciplines. Ivor Davidson says,
“Christian theologians are prone to forget the setting of their work. Supposing it their task to secure a cultural space for themselves, they obsess about the circumstances and strategies with which to address them…Where we are however, is not reducible to those conditions. Theology’s primordial setting is not its socio-cultural environment, significant as that must be, but a far more important reality: the sphere of God’s grace, the field of divine generosity announced in the gospel. Whatever else is to be said about context, we have, that Word declares, been brought to think, speak and act in the transformative presence of God himself. Where we are, first and foremost, is in his hands.”
When we recover God and his self-revelatory and reconciling acts towards us in the economy of grace, as the proper context for understanding the nature of theology, we rediscover the privilege of studying theology. We are in God’s hands, “studying in the field of divine generosity”. The work of theology – reading the word, interpreting the text articulating the confession of the church – takes place in the domain of the Word, the risen and ruling Son of God. It is in this domain, the kingdom of the risen Son who regenerates people by his Spirit, that the work of theology flourishes. As John Webster writes,
“The Bible, its readers and their work of interpretation have their place in the domain of the Word of God, the sphere of reality in which Christ glorified is present and speaks with unrivalled clarity. As he speaks, he summons creaturely intelligence to knowledge and by his Spirit bestows powers of mind and will so that they may be quickened by that summons to intelligent life under the Word.”
The twofold principles of theology supply not only the content of theology and its grounds for existence but also describe the recovery of the divine-human relationship within which creaturely intellectual life is renewed by the Spirit in order to cause creatures to listen and obey.
In summary, we can see how the twofold ground of theology, God and his word, means that the study of theology takes place in the gracious movement of the triune God towards us in the economy of grace which flows from who God is in himself. We are called into the domain of the risen and reigning Christ, where we are taught by God, of God and led to God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
 Turretin, Inst. theol. I.i.7. cited in 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 154.
 See for example the excellent work done by Craig A. Carter on recovering Christian Platonist tradition in C. A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, 2018).
 I. J. Davidson,’ Divine Sufficiency: Theology in the Presence of God’ in R. D. Nelson, D. Sarisky, J. Stratis (eds.), Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster (London, 2015), 55.
 J. B. Webster, The Domain of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London, 2012), viii.