The Starting Point of Theology and Justifying the Starting Point

Author’s Note: This essay was originally a response to a discussion forum question I answered for a graduate level theology class on prolegomena. I have made some small revisions to it in posting it here.

One of the questions that is faced in theology is where is our starting point. In an early chapter of his systematic theology called Christian Theology, Millard Erickson discusses the point at length (3rd. Ed., pp. 16-18). He compares starting with God versus starting with his revelation (i.e. the Bible). The conclusion that Erickson makes is that we don’t have to choose either/or, but that we can say that the self-revealing God is the starting point. I first read his discussion a little more than four years ago, and musings have continued in the intervening years about this issue and its relation to the source of theology and how we establish the validity of our starting point for theology. At this point, I do not think I am satisfied by this presupposition as the starting point, but would advocate that we need to include the defense of this justification before beginning to study theology.

As far as Erickson’s presentation is concerned, it consisted of a comparison of the two sides and related issues, but then offers a solution without adequately defending why that is superior. The discussion did present the Bible as the self-revelation of this self-revealing God. However, the presupposition can be shown to be insufficient by pointing out that as such, one can assume that the self-revealing God exists but conclude that it is Allah who exists and has revealed himself through his prophet Mohammed. Thus, I would argue that to some degree the matter of a starting point of theology can be chosen based on prior commitments. It can even be directly related to how one defines the task of theology, such as the following definition: “Theology is the study, organization, and harmonization of God’s truth revealed in Scripture so that God’s children can obey that truth and grow in grace.” (unpublished class notes on prolegomena by Larry Oats and Fred Moritz from Maranatha Baptist Seminary. Their definition seems to presuppose that the Bible alone is the starting point).

The point of all this is that I think the matter of the starting point of theology is something that really needs to be encompass more than just the starting point but include decisions about the source of our theology and how we justify that source. To Erickson’s credit, his discussion does not entirely ignore the matter. However, I would add to the discussion that one can establish the validity of the starting point of theology without starting from that actual starting point. (see a post by Christopher Cone on questions regarding worldview and how to answer them). The reason in essence is that humans can posses means to enable us to see in truth that God exists and has revealed Himself in the Bible. Yet, one can also take a different approach and subsume all these prior issues under the idea of theology, viewing the task as worldview building that has to include all knowledge possible to man (e.g. Mike Stallard, who espouses the “Queen of Sciences” view and compares it to worldview building in his notes on systematic theology). It is possible, and in fact deemed necessary by some for the theologian to assume the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures as an essential requirement for doing theology (c.f. Lewis Sperry Chafer in Systematic Theology, Vol.1, pg. 7). Practically speaking this is advisable once one begins a distinctively Christian theology. I only think that more needs to be done to develop the true basis for this starting point of theology, and thus one really has to start before he can actually choose a starting point for theology that will enable the task to begin. Also, the issue of whether to include other forms of divine revelation in theology are also really important to deal with as well. One questions whether the Scriptures would support an elaborate list of philosophical preconditions as necessary in this enterprise (c.f. Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, which enumerates several such preconditions). However, there are significant issues involved that are forced on us, and surely our times have contributed to the realities. It would seem that the concept of a starting point for theology in most contexts is not as useful as a statement of the starting point for theology and justification for that starting point’s truthfulness. We need the self-revealing God of the Bible who reveals Himself in the Bible and sufficient justification of this belief in order to be truly ready to study the Bible and systematic theology.