In the EFCA Statement of Faith, our first two Articles address “God” and “The Scriptures.” Which is ultimate, or which ought to precede the other? Does it matter?
The Protestant Scholastics summarized God and the Scriptures in this way:
principia theologiae, the fundamental principles or foundations of theology, which consist of two principia, Scripture and God:
principium cognoscendi, which states that Scripture is foundational epistemologically for knowing God and theology, as there is no true knowledge of God or theology apart from Scripture;
principium essendi, which states that God is the objective ground of theology, without whom there would be no revelation or theology.
Richard Muller concludes “both are necessary: without God, there can be no genuine or authoritative word concerning God, no theology; without the scriptural revelation, there can be no genuine or authoritative word concerning God and, again, no theology.”*
Kevin Vanhoozer’s answer to the question asked at the beginning is “both.” And this is what he calls first theology.**
should theology therefore begin with God or Word of God? The answer is Neither. I have argued that Christian theologians must resist this pernicious either-or and affirm instead a both-and approach. We interpret Scripture as divine communicative action in order to know God, we let our knowledge of God affect our approach to Scripture.
Vanhoozer intimately connects God and the Word, which is foundational to how we approach biblical interpretation and theology.
Theology, then, is God-centered biblical interpretation. It follows that hermeneutical theology (doing theology by way of biblical interpretation) and theological hermeneutics (bringing Christian doctrine to bear on the principles and practice of interpretation) are equally ultimate. I therefore propose theological hermeneutics as my candidate for first theology. Note well I did not say “hermeneutics” full stop. I am rather advocating a distinctly Christian and theological, which is to say trinitarian, approach to biblical interpretation that begins by recognizing God as a triune communicative agent and Scripture as the written locus of God’s communicative action.
Vanhoozer is “convinced that there is a demonstrable and intrinsic connection between the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Scripture.”
Sandwiched between the Protestant Scholastics and Vanhoozer, Carl Henry wrote something similar a generation ago,: “The Christian’s primary ontological axiom is the one living God, and his primary epistemological axiom is divine revelation.”*** The living God (ontology) and the “living and active” Scriptures (epistemology) are foundational.
In each instance, the focus is on God and the Word and the relationship, which has been and remains the view of the Christian church.
We recognize this in our EFCA 2008 Statement of Faith. Articles 1 and 2 are reversed, so the doctrine of God is Article 1 and the Doctrine of The Bible is Article 2. Both orders are represented in historic doctrinal statements, but this order seemed more appropriate in this statement because of its narrative framework. The Biblical gospel is a story revealed in history—the true story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, with its center found in Jesus Christ. And that Biblical story begins with God (Gen. 1:1) and then tells us that He speaks. The gospel originates in the being and character of God, and God’s revelation of Himself within His creation is itself a part of that story. In effect, we have placed statements of systematic theology in a framework of biblical theology, providing a narrative for that theology.
Implicit also in this order is the recognition that we have no epistemological foundation apart from the living God who has revealed Himself. In other words, our faith in the Bible as a revelation of God is itself grounded in our faith in the reality of the living God.
In addition, our confidence in the Bible as a trustworthy revelation, without error, is ultimately grounded in our understanding of God as One who is truth and thus speaks truly. We believe in order that we may understand.
*Cf. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.vv. “principia theologiae,” “sola Scriptura,” “authoritas Scriptura,” and “testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti.” Cf. also Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Vol. 2, Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 163. Cf. also Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 92.
**Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002), 38.
***Carl F. H. Henry, Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 49.