Few of us will ever be in a position where we’ll need to lay out the details of an entire theological system. Most of the time, we’ll be content to rely on our confessions and the work of good theologians past and present.
Where do we begin in our theology? The answer may seem obvious: We begin with God. Theology, after all, is talking about God; that’s literally what the word means. But things get a little more complicated when we get around to developing a formal theological system.
Let me illustrate. We recently had a new driveway poured at our house. But, of course, this meant that we first had to get rid of the old one. We assumed this would be something of an ordeal, but it turns out that a mini-forklift made short work of it. In a matter of minutes, great chunks of cement had been levered out, removed, and piled up for disposal.
God forbid we ever have to remove the new driveway laid in place of that old one. If we do, the job won’t be nearly as easy. This time, workers laid down steel rebar before they poured concrete, to reinforce the slab and increase its tensile strength. Any attempt to move (or remove) it will meet with stiff resistance.
As in driveways, so in theology, not all foundations are equal. (I know, a driveway slab isn’t really a foundation but work with me here.) When we preach we begin where our passage begins and point to Christ as we expound the Scriptures. When we evangelize we may start with someone’s felt needs in order to expose their heart’s deep longing for fellowship with God. When answering theological questions informally we will probably connect the question asked with the bigger picture of who God is and what he’s doing. But when we lay out a system of theology, whether in print or in the classroom, where and how we begin affects everything else that we say. First words call for care and precision.
And if we want care and precision, we do well to listen to the Reformed scholastics. During the era of Protestant orthodoxy (1560 to 1725 or thereabouts), Reformation theology underwent a process of translation. The message that had been preached in pulpits and debated both in public and in print now had to be formalized and organized in such a way that it could be confessed by congregations and taught in classrooms. As theologians took up this gargantuan task, they had to make sure that a well-laid foundation was in place before they tried to build anything on it. (If you want the details, read Richard Muller’s four-volume magnum opus Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.)
So, when Reformed scholastic theologians taught and wrote about theology, how did they lay the foundation? More specifically, how did they formulate their first words in such a way that the project didn’t collapse under its own weight? The answer is, they started with Scripture… and with God.
Calvin, from whom the Reformed orthodox inherited a great deal, famously began his Institutes by discussing the relationship between knowledge of God and of humanity. “No one,” he suggests, “can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves.’” It is impossible, however, for anyone to achieve “a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face.” Only then can he “descend from contemplating God to scrutinize himself.” But here’s the trick: because of human finitude and fallenness, we need Scripture to arrive at true knowledge of God. (We also need the Spirit, of course, but let’s stay focused.)
The scholastics followed Calvin’s lead as they developed the notion of the dual foundation of our theology—God and Scripture. It was standard fare (for example, in the Leiden Synopsis , Turretin’s Institutes [1679-85], and van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology [1698-99]) to begin with Scripture before discussing God. Let’s take Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590) as an example of these Reformed orthodox thinkers.