Laying the Foundation…. Twice 

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 [1625], 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. 

Along with a lot of other great stuff, Zanchi produced a 500-page Confession of the Christian Religion (1585). This work is the fruit of his desire to summarily testify, before the entire church, what “I have believed in my heart and have confessed with my mouth and, indeed, publicly taught in the church for many years, both by words and in published books.” Five-hundred pages of theology is heavy load—and not just metaphorically—so, Zanchi definitely needs that dual foundation.

In Chapter One of the Confession, he begins with Scripture, which he calls “the foundation of the whole Christian religion.” But there’s more going on here than a naive biblicism. It’s not that Zanchi takes a blind leap of faith and decides to commit himself to believing what the Bible says about God. Rather, like other Reformed theologians, he accepts Scripture as foundational because of what underlies it. Here’s how he begins his confession of faith:

I. With regard to God and those things pertaining to religion, we are to believe God alone unconditionally.

We believe that no one can teach us better or with more certainty about God and divine matters that pertain to Christ’s kingdom and our salvation than God Himself, who can neither be deceived nor deceive. “No one has ever seen God; the Son, who is in the Father’s bosom, He has declared Him to us” (Jn. 1:18) (Confession of the Christian Religion §I.i).

In other words, Zanchi actually begins his discussion of revelation by talking about God, who is the source of revelation. This makes all kinds of sense. In order for us to say anything about God, we must have (true and intelligible) revelation—whether general revelation (in nature, for example) or special revelation (in visions, dreams, writings)—that tells us something about the God who makes himself known. Otherwise we’re just guessing or making stuff up.

This is why Reformed scholastic theologians often described Scripture as the principium cognoscendi theologiae, the cognitive foundation of theology, which reveals the principium essendi theologiae, the essential foundation of theology (that is, God). Richard Muller puts it like this: “Without [Scripture], theology could not know the truth of God—without [God], there could be no theology, indeed, no revelation” (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2:151).

In Scripture, God himself is both the revealer and the revealed. And we can trust his revelation because, being who he is, God never gets mixed up or hoodwinked and he never lies or obfuscates. He reveals the truth precisely as he intends to. Following the lead of Ambrose, the 4th century bishop of Milan, Zanchi emphasizes that no one communicates better than God, who maintains complete control over the flow of information. 

Divine revelation, then, is the foundation of our theology, yet even it is built upon this essential bedrock: God is the one who makes himself known. So far, so good. But notice that Zanchi makes one more big move in the opening paragraph of his Confession. The purpose of revelation isn’t primarily to teach, for example, biology (how does a dorsal fin work?) or sports trivia (who won the Series in 1919?). Rather, the special subject of revelation is (as the heading of §I.i puts it) “God and those things pertaining to religion.”

In fact, when it comes right down to it, even “things pertaining to religion” winds up being too broad, because that doesn’t directly confront the problems we face: a broken world and sinful hearts. It’s not enough to recognize that everything points to God in a general way. What we need to hear about is “Christ’s kingdom and our salvation.” On our own and in Adam, we are creatures out of fellowship with our Creator. Abstract information about the God who made us does nothing to resolve that predicament. What we desperately need is good news

Zanchi responds to this need by emphasizing that God doesn’t reveal himself to us so that we can learn theological trivia, as if what our hearts crave is abstruse metaphysical speculation about who God really is. As if the thing that keeps us awake at night is whether (to be really silly about the whole thing) God is blue or green. Who cares?

Scripture doesn’t answer those sorts of questions because that’s not what it’s for. Instead, it provides critical answers to life and death questions, need-to-know information. This is why Zanchi naturally turns our minds to the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The Son, who alone knows his Father fully, is the great Revealer. He did not make his Father known by shouting down from heaven but by becoming incarnate for us and for our salvation. The divine Word became flesh (Jn. 1:1, 14) in order to proclaim and accomplish God’s saving work on behalf of his people. Divine words and divine works go hand in hand and are aligned in purpose.

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. But all of us will be in situations where we need to explain some element of our faith—whether to instruct a brother, correct an error, or defend against attack. It’s particularly during those moments that we want to remember that our doctrines of Scripture and God reinforce one another and support everything else. 

Why do we confess our faith? Because the God who gave us Scripture makes himself known to us therein as a trustworthy God whom we can know in his Son and by his Spirit. This first point of Zanchi’s Confession certainly isn’t all that he has to say. In fact, there’s still 499 and one half pages left. But this solid opening move readies his readers to face the challenges that lay ahead on this side of the New Heavens and the New Earth.

©Patrick O’Banion. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!