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a biblical and systematic introduction
By Michael F. Bird
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Michael F. Bird
All rights reserved.
Prolegomena: Beginning to Talk about God
§1.1 What Is Theology?
§1.2 What Do You Have to Say Before You Say Anything?
§1.3 What Is the Gospel?
§1.4 The Necessity and Goal of Theology
§1.5 Is Theology Possible?
§1.6 Sources for Theology
§1.7 Toward a Gospel-Driven Theological Method
§1.8 A Final Word
Prolegomena is where you clear the deck on preliminary issues and show how you intend to set up a system of theology. It is what you say before you say anything about theology—in other words, a type of pre-theology, or a first theology. Topics dealt with here include defining theology, giving a definition of the gospel, stating the purposes and goals of theology, and outlining a theological method. These chapters lay the foundation for the rest of the volume that will explore the subject of God according to the gospel of God with its accompanying witness of the Holy Scriptures and Christian tradition.
"We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! ... And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the word, to the scripture that has been given to us."
"Where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and conversely, where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church's Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation."
"An evangelical theology is one which is evoked, governed and judged by the gospel."
§ 1.1 WHAT IS THEOLOGY?
What exactly is theology? If the question is posed in a multiple-choice format, we could choose from the following options.
a. The name of the eighth full-length album by Sinead O'Connor, released in 2007.
b. What my father tells me to stop doing and to get a real job.
c. The study of God.
d. All of the above.
The answer is option (d), "All of the above." However, option (c), "The study of God," is technically the more correct answer, and we can unpack that a bit more. The Compact Macquarie Dictionary defines theology this way: "The science which treats God, His attributes, and His relations to the universe; the science or study of divine things or religious truth." Saint Augustine in the fifth century defined theology as "rational discussion respecting the deity." Charles Ryrie, a dispensationalist theologian, says theology is "thinking about God and expressing those thoughts in some way." According to Baptist theologian Robert Culver, "Christian theology is study or organized treatment of the topic, God, from the standpoint of Christianity." The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath asserts that "theology is reflection upon the God whom Christians worship and adore." The Swiss theologian Karl Barth contended: "Dogmatics is the self-examination of the Christian Church in respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God." All of these definitions are generally correct; however, a more precise and robust definition of theology is given by Jaroslav Pelikan, who regarded theology as, "What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the word of God: this is Christian doctrine."
To put things simply, theology is the study of God. It comes from the word theos, which is Greek for "God," and from logos, which is Greek for "word." It is the attempt to say something about God and God's relationship to the world. It is thinking about faith from faith. In a sense, theology is very much akin to the study of philosophy, worldview, religion, ethics, or intellectual history; it is a descriptive survey of ideas and the impact of those ideas.
But there are at least two key differences that distinguish theology from other intellectual disciplines like philosophy and religion. The first difference is that theology is not the study of ideas about God; it is the study of the living God. Christian theology, then, is different from the study of seventeenth century French literature, ancient Greek religion, and medieval philosophers because the Christian claims that he or she is in personal contact with the subject of study. It is one thing to discuss William Shakespeare in the classroom, but it would be quite another thing to do that if Shakespeare was standing in the classroom with you. Theology, then, is not an objective discipline (i.e., a detached study of an object) like the physical sciences, nor is it a descriptive discipline like the social sciences. Theology is speaking about God while in the very presence of God. We are intimately engaged with the subject of our study.
Second, theology is studied and performed in a community of faith. Theology is something that is learned, lived, sung, preached, and renewed through the dynamic interaction between God and his people. Theology is the conversation that takes place between family members in the household of faith about what it means to behold and believe in God. Theology is the attempt to verbalize and to perform our relationship with God. Theology can be likened to the process of learning to take part in a divinely directed musical called "Godspell." To do theology is to describe the God who acts, to be acted upon, and to become an actor in the divine drama of God's plan to repossess the world for himself.
Evangelical theology, then, is the drama of gospelizing. By "gospelizing" I mean trying to become what the gospel intends believers to be: slaves of Christ, vessels of grace, agents of the kingdom, and a people worthy of God's name. Dedication to the art of gospelizing is crucial because "evangelicals need to recapture a passion for biblical formation: a desire to be formed, reformed and transformed by the truth and power of the gospel." To pursue Kevin Vanhoozer's image, the task of theology is to enable disciples to perform the script of the Scriptures, according to advice of the dramaturge the Holy Spirit, in obedience to the design of the director, Jesus Christ, with the gospel as the theme music, and performed in the theater of the church. The company of the gospel shows what they believe in an open-air performance staged for the benefit of the world. The purpose of gospelizing is to ensure that those who bear Christ's name walk in Christ's way. Consequently, theology is the task for disciples of Jesus to begin excavating the manifold truth of the gospel and to start reflecting the spiritual realities that the gospel endeavors to cultivate in their own lives.
§ 1.2 WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY BEFORE YOU SAY ANYTHING?
1.2.1 INTRODUCTION TO PROLEGOMENA
18.104.22.168 DEFINITION AND TASK
For Christians, theology is studying God as he is known according to the perspective of the church's faith. Now if you are going to engage in a study of God, before you formally begin, you need to say something about how you intend to undertake such a study. This is what theologians call "prolegomena." The designation "prolegomena" derives from the Greek word prolego, which means "things spoken in advance." So theological prolegomena is what you say before you begin to say anything about God.
Prolegomena is a type of pre-theology theology. It lays the groundwork for engaging in a systematic study of God. The task of developing a prolegomena has a long and distinguished history. When many of the Christian apologists in the second and third centuries tried to talk about Jesus and God to Greeks, they did so by appealing to a shared theory of knowledge in philosophy in order to commend the Christian faith. Justin Martyr appealed specifically to Plato and Stoic philosophers as containing wisdom that agreed with Christian beliefs. This established a common ground for a discussion about God between a Christian leader and a philosophically minded pagan. For many early Christian thinkers their main task was apologetic, defending and commending the faith, rather than constructing a preface to a system of doctrine. Yet the idea of establishing a theory of knowledge, often called "epistemology" (i.e., the study of knowledge and knowing), has remained at the forefront of prolegomena. A prolegomena ordinarily addresses questions like "Is there a God to be known?" and "How do we know God?"
22.214.171.124 PROLEGOMENA IN CHURCH HISTORY
The form and function of prolegomena has usually been driven by the reigning philosophical framework of the day. For instance, in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1224–1275) held to a view about there being "portals of the faith" in philosophy, which gave access to Christianity, and dealt with "the Nature and Domain of Sacred Doctrine." Aquinas was writing at a time when Europe was experiencing a fresh encounter with Aristotle's philosophy. Aquinas's ideas were built on that philosophy, and by switching the default background philosophy from Plato to Aristotle, Aquinas precipitated the need for a different prolegomenon couched in the terms of the new philosophy. For example, Aquinas used philosophical proofs taken from Aristotle to argue for the existence of God. Philosophy established that there was a God to be known; Christian theology then explained what this God was like.
During the Reformation there was a concerted effort to make Scripture the bedrock of all knowledge of God rather than to rely on philosophical specters or humanly devised systems of thought. Martin Luther spoke ferociously against any reliance on philosophy in Christian theology. John Calvin began his theological textbook with an account of the "knowledge of God." The first thing Calvin did in his Institutes of the Christian Religion was to ascertain how it is that persons can actually know God. His answer referred to the revelation of God through nature, Scripture, and the testimony of the Spirit. Calvin emphasized, predictably, the Scriptures: "If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture."
The key Reformation contribution to the subject of theological prolegomena was the assertion that theology should commence with a description of the mode of God's self-communication of himself to his creatures. We have to remember that the Reformers themselves were not immune from the philosophical currents washing over Europe at that time. The return to Scripture as an authority was possible only amidst the politics of emerging city-states, was indebted to budding rationalistic philosophies, grew out of a new humanism with its penchant for critical history, and was arguably an acute expression of medieval nominalism that was skeptical toward religious authority.
While the Reformers claimed to have thrown off the weighty yoke of medieval philosophy (esp. Platonic and Aristotlean realism), they had done so only by smuggling in a more anthropocentric philosophy that would eventually flower into a refined philosophical rationalism. While exposing the weaknesses of making ecclesiastical authority the ultimate ground of truth and moving religious authority to the sphere of inscripturated revelation, the Reformers paved the way for the same attacks on ecclesiastical authority to be leveled at Scripture as part of the questioning of religious authority. Thus the Reformers' return to Scripture did not remove the problem of philosophical imposition on theology; in fact, it eventually yielded an even more antireligious philosophy in succeeding centuries.
Although the Reformation brought about a spiritual renewal in both the Protestant and Catholic churches, it was largely based on a crisis of authority, specifically, religious authority. Earlier, the Renaissance had been a movement of cultural rebirth within segments of medieval Europe, where new intellectual forces in science, literature, and art began to flourish. The explosion of learning combined with new discoveries in science led to a questioning of the source of intellectual authority. One feature of the "Northern Renaissance," in contrast to the "Italian Renaissance," was that it was interested in deepening religious convictions. The intellectual tools of the burgeoning humanities were rigorously applied to religious matters, which led to a questioning of religious authority with specific skepticism leveled at many claims of the Roman Catholic Church. The most immediate result was, of course, the Protestant Reformation. However, post-Reformation intellectuals began not just questioning the claims of religious institutions like the Catholic Church, but they started questioning the very notion of a religion of revelation. Beliefs that did not purportedly align with the scientific method or looked as if they were rooted in myth and superstition were regarded as unreasonable. This "Age of Reason," otherwise known as the "Enlightenment," marked a period characterized by rationalism, empiricism, the advance of human learning, and the questioning of religious dogma.
The Enlightenment eventually established the intellectual period that is commonly called "Modernity." We could say that Modernity lasted from the fall of the French Bastille in 1789 to the Fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Modernity had several philosophical characteristics. First, reason itself was viewed as universal and unassailable. Truths ascertained by way of reason—as opposed to beliefs derived from tradition or superstition—were universally and incorrigibly true.
Second, the two main schools of thought within Modernity were "rationalism" (knowledge is arrived at by building on self-evident truths) and "empiricism" (knowledge is attained by building on sense data). Both schools assumed a certain foundation for all knowledge. It was on the basis of these foundations that one could establish further truths.
Third, there was a large emphasis on intellectual and cultural progress. It was thought that the world could be made better through reason. Once we got the foundations right, once we refined our methodology, there would be no limits to what humanity could discover or achieve. This could be seen in the way that people spoke of the "assured results" of science, philosophy, medicine, and so on. Progress was the great "meta-narrative" or big story of Modernity that saw itself as leading Europe out of the so-called darkness of the Middle Ages and into a time of intellectual light.
Fourth, Modernity also led to "naturalism," which is distinguished by the rejection of all supernatural explanations and the belief that the universe is a closed system of cause and effect. The upshot of Modernity was that it resulted in religious skepticism, deism, and atheism. Symbolic of this age is that during the French Revolution, Notre Dame was rechristened as the "temple of reason" and a Parisian courtesan was enthroned as the goddess of reason. God had been displaced by a human-centered reason. Ironically, Christian theology, once queen of the sciences in the great universities of Europe, now struggled to sustain its existence in the wake of criticism and neglect.
In the post-Enlightenment era, Christian theology had to find a way to do theology in light of the modernist critique of religion based on divine revelation. Before theologians could even begin to do theology, they had to establish that there was a God to know, that Christianity was reasonable, and that Christianity was scientific. Many theologians retreated from the challenge and embraced the modernist perspective in relation to religion. It was possible to salvage Christianity by adopting basically one of two options.
First, one could become a deist and believe that God created the world but thereafter left it to its own devices thereby eliminating the supernatural altogether. Or, second, one could adopt a more "liberal" approach, where Christian theology was the attempt to provide a grammar and philosophical explanation for the religious feelings that people experienced. That led to a denial of key doctrines like the incarnation, it required a reinterpretation of miracles as symbolic myths, and it altered what was meant by redemption. Not all theologians bowed the knee to Modernity. Some theologians attempted to meet the challenges of Modernity by using the very weapons that Modernity was employing against Christianity. It is here that we enter the golden age of the prolegomena, when theologians in the modernist era strove to demonstrate the rationality of Christian theism as part of their preface to Christian theology.
Excerpted from Evangelical Theology by Michael F. Bird. Copyright © 2013 Michael F. Bird. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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