Introduction: Where Does Theology Come From?
If systematic theology is a method of studying God in order to know, love, obey, and glorify him, what or who do we go to as source(s) for theology? Where should we draw theology from? Moreover, what or who should we look to as the authority in deciding if these sources are valid in their claims on theology? Should we be our own authority? After all, we’re deciding what we as individuals choose to believe, right? Or should our theology come from a particular pastor, priest, or theological tradition that we trust? Where does theology come from and who gets to decide which theology is right?
Throughout history, Christians have typically looked to four sources of theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. However, these four sources are not equal in authority. The Scriptures, being the Word of God, are both the primary source and final authority in Christian theology because if theology is the study of God and the Word of God is God’s revelation of himself, then what God says about himself must take exclusive precedence over any and all other sources of theology. In light of this, tradition, reason, and experience should be understood as helpful secondary sources of theology which aid in attesting to the Word of God rather than supplanting them. Theology must come from the Word of God; if not, we endanger ourselves to manufacturing a god of our own creation, a god made in our own image.
What Is the Word of God?
In identifying the Word of God as the only primary source and authority of theology we need to clearly define what the Word of God is. When I first became a Christian I remember reading John 1:1 for the first time and thought that the Bible itself was God when the Apostle wrote “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thankfully, I later came to find that this is not in fact what John meant when he wrote of the Word of God in his gospel account. So what is the Word of God?
Wayne Grudem helpfully identifies the Word of God in two categories: the Word of God as Jesus himself and the Word of God as God’s speech. First, Jesus is twice referred to as the Word of God in Revelation 19:13 and in John 1 when John writes that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and “as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
Grudem comments on these verses about Jesus being the Word of God that “among the members of the Trinity it is especially God the Son who in his person as well as in his words has the role of communicating the character of God to us and of expressing the will of God for us.” In other words, at least part of the reason why Jesus is given the title of the Word of God is that God has spoken most clearly to us in the person of the Son himself. God’s speech is heard, and it is his Son who we have heard, who we have seen with our eyes, who we have looked upon and touched with our own hands, and who we proclaim (1 John 1:1-4). God has spoken of his holiness, his love, his grace, his mercy, his redemptive plan, his sovereignty, his power, and his nature most explicitly in the person of his Son.
In the second case, Grudem notes that the Word of God as God’s speech is seen in four forms.
- God’s decrees as God creates and sustains his creation by the power of his word (Genesis 1:3, Psalm 33:6, Hebrews 1:3).
- God’s words of personal address as in the cases of God’s dialogue with Adam and Eve and his divine address to the Son at his baptism (Genesis 2:16-17, Matthew 3:17).
- God’s words as speech through human lips such as that seen in the prophets of the Old Testament when God states, “I will raise up for them a prophet… and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command them. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him”(Deuteronomy 18:18-20; also see Jeremiah 1:7, 9).
- God’s words in written form as the Scriptures. This is the form that most evangelicals probably think of when they hear the term ‘the Word of God.’ The Word of God as the Scriptures are seen in several instances, including when Moses is commanded to write the law as a witness against Israel and when Isaiah is likewise commanded to do the same with the words he received from the Lord (Deuteronomy 31:9-13, 24-26; Isaiah 30:8). In the New Testament, Paul can state the epistles and commands which he writes are “a command of the Lord,” (1 Corinthians 14:37) meaning that the letters he writes or not matters of his own personal opinion, but a matter of obedience to the Lord God himself.
We should be absolutely clear to identify that these four forms are not in descending order of authority as if those words spoken by God as decrees possess more authority than those he spoke by his prophets. Each four of these forms are equal in power because it is God himself who is speaking. When a king passes an edict, the obedience of the people of his kingdom is not conditioned by whether they heard the edict by the king’s own mouth, the mouth of the king’s messenger, or by way of a scroll bearing his seal: the people were to obey the edict because by whatever form they heard the king’s edict, it bore the authority of the king himself. Likewise, to disbelieve or disobey any of the words given by the Lord, whether by himself, his prophets, or his apostles, would be to disbelieve and disobey God himself. We read that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). All of the Scriptures are breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16); it is Jesus speaking in the Sermon on the Mount and it is Jesus himself speaking in the epistles (2 Corinthians 13:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 14:37; cf. 2 Peter 3:16).
The Well of Theology
Systematic theology is a method of studying God by which we grow in knowing God, loving God, obeying God, and glorifying God. As a method of knowing God, systematics draws upon the Word of God as the primary source and sole authority of theology because it is God’s own revelation of himself to us. Drawing off of Psalm 1, the Word of God is the well of theology; by the Scriptures we drink, have life, are nourished, and are revived. May we not be like those whom Jeremiah prophesied against who forsook the Lord, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out their own cisterns, broken cisterns that could not hold water (Jeremiah 2:13). There is only one fountain, only one well from which we drink and are satisfied and that is the Word of God. It is the Word of God that makes men wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15), the Word of God which sanctifies men (John 17:17), and the Word of God which is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). Louis Berkhof writes, “The inspired Scriptures constitute the principium cognoscendi, the fountain head, of all our theological knowledge.” Calvin adds that God gives true knowledge of himself to us only through the Scriptures.
Appendix: The Spirit of God Effectually Works Through the Word of God
In tending to the Word of God as that lone well of all true theology, we must identify the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. These thoughts will be developed fully in forthcoming articles, but we may quickly note the marriage between the Word of God and the Spirit of God. When the prophets spoke the Word of God they were carried by the Spirit of God (2 Peter 1:21) and when Paul preached, he dared not empty the cross of its power but rather preached by a demonstration of the Spirit’s power by speaking nothing but the Word of God (1 Corinthians 1:17, 2:1-5). Paul later asks how man can be saved apart from the preaching of the Word of God (Romans 10:13-17)? By this, we see that the Holy Spirit does not ordinarily work without the Word of God and that in the work of redemption the Word of God and the Spirit work in inalienable unison. The preached Word of God in the Scriptures is the instrument by which the Holy Spirit normatively works to save and sanctify sinners.