First Things First – The Doctrine of God or the Bible?

John Calvin

John Calvin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your thoughts on the foundational grounds of a doctrinal statement? This is where doctrinal statements (and creeds) begin. Is the Church better served by a statement which flows from the doctrine of God as foundational (exemplified by the Gospel Coalition statement) or the doctrine of Scripture as foundational (such as the one adopted by my own fellowship–which is very typical of Evangelical statements as far as initial points go even if it is quite distinct to Pentecostalism in its latter points)?
D.A.Carson and Tim Keller write concerning their approach in developing the Gospel Coalition‘s statement:

“This is significant. The Enlightenment was overconfident about human rationality. Some strands of it assumed it was possible to build systems of thought on unassailable foundations that could be absolutely certain to unaided human reason. Despite their frequent vilification of the Enlightenment, many conservative evangelicals have nevertheless been shaped by it. This can be seen in how many evangelical statements of faith start with the Scripture, not with God. They proceed from Scripture to doctrine through rigorous exegesis in order to build (what they consider) an absolutely sure,
guaranteed-true-to-Scripture theology.
The problem is that this is essentially a foundationalist approach to knowledge. It ignores the degree to which our cultural location affects our interpretation of the Bible, and it assumes a very rigid subject-object distinction. It ignores historical theology, philosophy, and cultural reflection. Starting with the Scripture leads readers to the overconfidence that their exegesis of biblical texts has produced a system of perfect doctrinal truth. This can create pride and rigidity because it may not sufficiently acknowledge the fallenness of human reason.
We believe it is best to start with God, to declare (with John Calvin, Institutes 1.1) that without knowledge of God we cannot know ourselves, our world, or anything else. If there is no God, we would have no reason to trust our reason.”

I, for one, appreciate the greater embracing of the relational nature of doctrine (“subjectivity” in its most positive sense) as foundational and find it to be a better indicator of this thing we call being disciples of Christ. It speaks to the inner relation and being of God (as unity in trinity and trinity in unity) as the grounds of all else. All that can and must be said of God flows from God’s self-revelation in His Word and Spirit. For a terrific reading on how D.A.Carson develops his theology check out the article “D.A.Carson’s Theological Method” by Andrew Naselli in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 29.2 (Autumn 2011): 245-272.

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14 Responses to First Things First – The Doctrine of God or the Bible?

  1. Jim says:

    i think that the practice of discussing scripture before God has some merit; but then again so does the practice of discussing God before scripture. they both have their reasons and all of them are good. so, for me, it’s adiaphora.

  2. Rob says:

    To avoid circular definitions, one should be consistent in whichever you choose to address first. That is not to say that anyone else has to follow your scheme, of course.
    There are positives and negatives in whichever choice you make. It is not that you cannot switch them around at some point, but then you are in danger of creating circular definitions and arguments.
    But in starting with the Bible as foundational, we would already be assuming that God exists and that He has communicated to us through His word. Since the existence of God is already assumed in the Doctrine of Scripture, it would definitely be best to start with God.
    Now, one could begin the Doctrine of God by deciding to assume from the beginning that the Bible is God’s word. But if we work it this way, we are using the Bible is God’s word as an axiom in the Doctrine of God and then when we got to the Doctrine of Scripture, we would be using the axiom that God inspired the Word. (Although, these things may not be specifically mentioned.) The problem is that this leads to circular definitions, where one axiom is assumed in the argument for what becomes an axiom in the other argument.
    So even realizing that we need to begin with the Doctrine of God does not automatically make everything smooth. Because we then have to start somewhere other than the Bible to begin our argument. But Natural Theology can only take you so far. I would use this to develop a beginning picture of God from what can be naturally determined or assumed. Eventually the Bible would have to be tied in, but it would need to be done in such a way as to not lead to the circularity we are trying to avoid in the first place. But, this is not the place to lay all of this out.
    I think the best argument for starting with the Doctrine of God is that God should be our foundation. The Bible is not what we worship; it is only our best source of information about God.
    Anyway, those are some of my thoughts.

    • Rob,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Do you think that some sense of circularity is bad? Is there really a way to avoid this or is it possible (even better) to recognize in some sense we may be brought into a divinely revealed circularity other than our own conceived circularity? I bring this up because I’ve found myself more and more persuaded by presuppositionalist epistemology. And I wonder how the dead can get anything redemptively right (or even do anything, but be dead)? I wonder in what sense regeneration is necessary to enter the proper circularity of knowing God as God has revealed Himself to be? I know often we do not like (or even appreciate) circularity, but I really do wonder if we can escape such or even if it is necessarily helpful to think we are doing so. I’m certainly open to discussion on this and just trying to feel my way along.

  3. Rob says:

    I don’t know if we can ever totally avoid circularity. But I do think it should be minimized as much as possible. In a way, circular reasoning doesn’t do anything for you, because it just takes you right back to where you already were. It has the added problem of posing logical problems that can totally overthrow your propositions.
    For instance, starting with a given premise A, we begin our logical construction, only to wind up back at A. While this may indicate that our construction is consistent with itself, it does not actually prove that A is valid. The validity of everything we construct is contingent upon that first foundation and the construction cannot really show if A is valid or not.
    So, circularity doesn’t necessarily add anything to our systems and may in fact hide unstable foundations. In this respect, getting back to your post, I think it is best to start with God and build everything else up from there.
    As mentioned above, I would probably start with Natural Theology to show that God’s existence is reasonable and that we can deduce a few things about what He is like. I would then try to show that such a God would communicate and then show that the Bible matches what the God of Nature would reveal. So, partway through the development of the Doctrine of God, I would probably start laying the foundations for the Doctrine of Scripture and then develop them simultaneously from there. But the foundation of it all would be the existence of God.
    In the midst of this, it would probably not be possible to completely avoid circularity. (Some scholars have posited that it is impossible to avoid circularity.) But I would avoid as much of it as I could.
    Now, in the above, I haven’t thought through all of the consequences, so there could be some holes I haven’t spotted.
    One of the things that I don’t like about circularity is that it kind of removes an absolute starting premise. After all, if the circle returns to its beginning, who is to say that what we thought was the beginning was actually the beginning? So, the circle kind of becomes absolute, I suppose. But in this case, God is the absolute and the beginning. So I prefer to think of building up from an absolute foundation. Everything is in relation to that foundation, but that relationship is more linear than cyclical. If it were cyclical, there is no foundation per se, but rather everything supports everything else. All is foundation. And that starts to sound a lot like pantheism if taken too far. (Not that I am accusing you of thinking in such terms.)
    A parting thought: circularity should probably be avoided in the foundation, but may be useful further up in the structure. It does not pose the same problem higher up, because we can always appeal to the foundation (hopefully) without circularity.

    • Is a “spiral” a better analogy? šŸ˜‰ It is still essentially circular, but not closed circularity. It can function in much the same way, but as a progression (allowing a sense of development without simply returning to the very beginning point). Also, in all of this we are talking about a living relationship with the Living God who speaks and acts (even now, though to be sure not in precisely the manner of His speaking and acting in times past, yet with developing continuity) and so in that sense there can never be a “closed” circularity of theological development.

      • Rob says:

        Once again I forgot to reply to your reply. Ahhhhhh! See my response below.

      • David says:

        I appreciate this article. VERY refreshing to hear the Gospel Coalition confronting this issue. I have one thought related to these respones: the idea of ‘circular’ arguments, I think, still keeps us in the modernistic mindset – we’re still trying to determine the chicken or the egg. But, like I think you’re saying- we have behind the scriptures, a real history. We have a real Jewish people, a real man Jesus who died and was resurrected. And then, perhaps most pertinent for us, we have the apostles and early church without a NT. SOme might say we can only know of God through the scriptures. While most of us DO only know of God through the scriptures this isn’t how God called Abraham, promised Abe, etc. God’s revelation, his calling, story all preceded the scriptures. This doesn’t lessen our view of scripture but puts it under God, like everyone is saying here.

      • David, I completely agree and I like how you have framed that.

  4. Rob says:

    Interesting. One thing I like about this analogy is that a spiral has a definite beginning. This would satisfy my thought that there must be an absolute foundation. Perhaps a good way to envision this is a spiral staircase leading upwards.

  5. TC says:

    Just read and reviewed Carl R. Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative (review link: here)
    Trueman contends that “Jesus is Lord” is what got things going.

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