Because of piety's penchant for taking itself too seriously, theology does well to nurture a modest, unguarded sense of comedy. Some droll sensibility is required to keep in due proportion the pompous pretensions of the study of divinity.
I invite the kind of laughter that wells up not from cynicism about reflection on God but from the ironic contradictions accompanying such reflection. Theology is intrinsically funny. This comes from glimpsing the incongruity of humans thinking about God. I have often laughed at myself as these sentences went through their tortuous stages of formation. I invite you to look for the comic dimension of divinity that stalks every page. It is not blasphemy to grasp the human contradiction for what it is. The most enjoyable of all subjects has to be God, because God is the source of all joy.Working Assumptions
The subject matter that we cannot finally evade if we pursue a reflection on faith's understanding, is the incomparable Subject, the Living God, the insurmountably alive reality whom Moses heard addressing him as "Yahweh."
Yahweh is a name-significantly, a personal noun, not an impersonal noun describing an object. Yahweh is the name used to address an incomparably encountering personal Subject who breaks through and circumscribes all our category systems (Gregory of Nazianzus, First Theol. Orat. 27; Calvin, Inst. I.13). The Christian community speaks of a conscious, personal reality who meets us in personal terms as companionable divine Subject, as Thou, or in familiar terms: You. The reason you do not say you-all in triune teaching is that God is one.
If we must use some pronoun to point to this reality, it can only be
Thou, the solemn personal form of the second person singular address, or the more problematic
Note carefully the limited choices: Thou, you, him, her, he, she-all fundamentally based on three forms: Thou, him, and her. The neuter, it or It, cannot adequately convey personhood. We must say either Thou, Him, or Her because we cannot say It if the One with whom we finally must deal is indeed incomparably personal, and if that One's Word speaks to us as a personal address (John 4:1-26; 9:1-12; Augustine, Tractates on John 44.5-6; Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q. 13).
This makes it difficult to use language in an ordinary way about Yahweh. It would be as if one looked at a list of three courses called mathematics, political science, and George. Instantly you can tell that you cannot study a person as you would a thing. The names we have for God (Gott in Teutonic languages and, before that, Adōnaī, El, Theos, Deus) all point to a personal reality that cannot finally be reduced to objective, descriptive sentences or abstract ideas, just as George is always something more than our sentences or ideas about George.
This is why Christian teaching about God is a different sort of study than any empirical science that deals with measurable objects. Yet theology is not thereby less organized; nor is it lacking in method or wholly without language (Augustine, On Chr. Doctrine 1; Calvin, Inst. 1.6), any more than our interpersonal relations are without language when we are speaking to Miriam or George-for this is where we need language most.
God has left a trail of language behind a stormy path of historical activities. That language is primarily the evidence with which theology has to deal-first with Scripture, then with a long history of interpretation of Scripture called church history and tradition, and finally with the special language that emerges out of each one's own personal experience of meeting the living God (Augustine, On Chr. Doctrine, I; John of Damascus, OF 4.17; Catherine of Siena, Prayers, 6; Thirty-nine Articles 6, 20, 21, 34). This free and personally revealing God is the unavoidable subject matter of Christian teaching. The object investigated is faith's view of God. But to say that alone may be to neglect the more decisive point: the divine Subject who is constantly confronting us in this study is none other than the holy One present in our midst, the living God who calls forth and enables our responses.
What the Study of God Studies
The object of study in theology must be carefully stated. It is God as known in the faith of the worshiping Christian community. This study seeks to know an investigatable reality and thus is not merely speculation. For there actually exists in history a community of persons who hold steadfastly to faith in God. Yet since God is not an object, it is inexact to assert that God is directly, flatly, or empirically viewable as an object of theology. God does not, for our convenience, become a direct object of scientific investigation, since God by definition is not finite and thus not subject to the measurements required by empirical sciences (Gregory of Nyssa, Answer to Eunomius' Second Book; Augustine, CG 10.13; Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q1).
Nonetheless, Christian theology has a definite subject matter to which it devotes disciplined and sustained reflective attention: that knowledge of God as understood in the faith of the community that lives out of Christ's resurrection (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 4.1-17). The basis for the study of God becomes confused if theology is presented strictly as a privatized, individual credo, or as a limited confessional statement of a particular faction that views itself as the arbiter of Christian truth for all other communions. Theology is not primarily the repeating of confessional assertions but, rather, the investigation and clarification of the internal consistency of those assertions, their reasoning about their ground, and the way they relate to the problems of daily life. Hence Christian theology has a particular area of research: the worshiping community's understanding of God, viewed consensually from its earliest beginnings and sources. The subject of investigation is not God as such or God as viewed by himself. Rather it is God as known in the faith of the worshiping Christian community.
In this sense the study of God attempts to sustain the greatest possible objectivity insofar as it seeks to understand its object (God as known by faith). The goal is to know God as accurately as possible without emotive distortions or hidden projections (Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q1). God, as viewed by Christian teaching and worship, can and has become the central interest and concern of an academic inquiry. Christian faith as classically understood inquires into its own practical self-understanding, as attested by texts of Scripture and tradition. The modern university was spawned in the medieval period by the all-inclusive seriousness of this inquiry (Bonaventure, Breviloquium; J. H. Newman, The Idea of a University; H. Rashdall, UEMA). There is no history of the university that can fail to name Alexandria, Padua, Paris, Oxford and Heidelberg. Faith's inquiry is not merely into itself but also into its ground and enabler-God, the source, subject, and end of faith's understanding of itself-and into all things as they relate to God (Augustine, Enchiridion; Calvin, Inst. 1. 1.1).
Only God can reveal God (Hilary, Trin. 1. 18), just as a person can only become known when that person decides to reveal his or her inner feelings, spirit, will, or intention to another. For who among us knows the thoughts of another, Paul asked, except as that person chooses to reveal him or herself: "In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:10-13). Yet even prior to hearing the gospel of God in Jesus, "what may be known about God" through human reasoning and moral awareness was plain to everyone because "God has made it plain" (Rom. 1:19). "If something is revealed it must be brought to our notice from something we have not yet noticed" (Origen, Comm. on Rom. 1.19).
Paul was convinced that "the wisdom of this age," which "comes to nothing," must be sharply distinguishable from the "message of wisdom among the mature" who know of "God's secret wisdom" (1 Cor. 2:6,7). He implied that a profound inquiry was proceeding among the faithful in Corinth concerning the "deep things of God" (ta tou theou, 1 Cor. 2:11; the "thoughts of God") as understood by faith (1 Cor. 2:9-11; Tertullian, Ag. Marcion 2.2). "Only the Spirit can search everything. The human soul cannot do this, which is why it needs to be strengthened by the Spirit if it is ever going to penetrate the depths of God" (Origen, Comm. on 1 Cor. 1.10.6-10).
In these passages, Paul suggests and anticipates the complex relationship that would later develop between these two tendencies in theology: revealed theology, which speaks of God's revelation in history, and natural theology, which is given by divine grace as a longing for divinity that develops out of human natural reasoning and moral awareness (Clement of Alex., Stromata 2.1-4; Origen, Ag. Celsus 6; Augustine, CG 10.32). Following the classical Christian consensus, we will be primarily concerned in this study with revealed theology, yet always with respect for human reasoning.
Defining the Study of God
The study of God is an attempt at orderly, consistent, and reasoned discussion of the Source and End of all things (John of Damascus, OF 1.1-5). The term theology is itself a rudimentary definition, indicating discourse about God.
Theology (from the Latin theologia, which comes from two crucial Greek root words: theos, God, and logos, discourse, language, study), is reasoned discourse about God gained either by rational reflection or by response to God's self-disclosure in history (Augustine, CG 11.2; Conf. of Saxony 9). Christian theology is the orderly exposition of Christian teaching. It sets forth that understanding of God that is made known in Jesus Christ (Augustine, On Faith and the Creed 2; Concerning Faith of Things Not Seen 5). It seeks to provide a coherent reflection on the living God as understood in the community whose life is "in Christ."
Theology presupposes the study of Scripture and of the history of the community's reflection upon Scripture. It seeks to provide a fit ordering of scriptural teachings and of central themes of the history of Scriptural interpretation (Jerome, Ag. Rufinus 12-16; Calvin, Inst. 1.13). Systematic theology provides resources for apologetics, Christian ethics, pastoral theology, and the study of comparative religion (Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 3.24, 4. 20), but in no case may it be reduced to these disciplines. Subsequently when we use the term theology we will refer to Christian theology.
The essential purpose of theology is to study and bring into a fitting, consistent expression the truth of the Christian faith (Jn 1:14-17; Theodore of Mopsuestia, Comm. on John 1.1.14). The primary task is neither logical demonstration nor normative proclamation of established truth, nor the refining of rigorous proofs for faith, but rather clarification of faith's understanding of itself and its ground (Anselm, Monologium; Belgic Conf.). This clarification asks for fair-minded analysis, critical reasoning, tolerance, and logical coherence, as well as active listening to Scripture and tradition (Jn 16:13; Hilary, On Trin. 12:55-57; Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q1).
If we begin by assuming the existence of God and the authority of Scripture, we are open to the charge that we have not credibly established those assumptions. Hence the first chapter will take only those necessary preliminary steps that are required in order to begin naming God. For classical treatments that provide models for the sequence of topics that we will follow, see Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech. Lect. 4.15, 5.12), John of Damascus (OF 1.1-3), Thomas Aquinas (ST 1 Q1), and Calvin (Catechism of the Church of Geneva, SW:245-66).
Natural and Revealed Theology
Revealed theology focuses on God's search for humanity; natural theology focuses on the human search for God. We will follow the central ecumenical stream found in Irenaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, John of Damascus, Melanchthon, Calvin, and Wesley. It does not rule out all possibility of natural reasoning concerning God, yet focuses on consistent reasoning out of Scripture's revelation.
Classical Christianity teaches that by grace God has provided a natural inclination in human consciousness to seek God (Lactantius, Div. Inst. 4.1-4; John of Damascus, OF 2.30). Humanity has a natural hunger for God and a tendency to religious awareness (Minucius Felix, Octavius 17-19; Tertullian, Apol. 17; Fulgence, Letters To Theodore). A limited reasoning toward God can proceed without direct reference to the history of revelation on the basis of natural human intuition, moral insight, and reasoning, whether it is called natural theology or the philosophy or psychology of religion (Ps 19:1; Rom 1:20).
The term theology had been in use prior to its being adopted by Christian teaching, as is evident from ancient writings (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.3; Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3.212; Augustine, CG 6.5). Such natural reasoning about God is distinguishable from that knowledge of God that lives out of God's own self-disclosure, God's self-manifestation in the history of Israel and Jesus (Irenaeus, Ag. Her. 2,3I; Calvin, Inst. 1.14; Chemnitz, LT 1.20-22; Belgic Conf. 9).
Jewish and Christian forms of theology proceed as a reflection upon God's own self-disclosure as God becomes known through historical events. Such an inquiry in the Christian tradition has usually been called revealed theology, in so far as it responds to the ways in which God chooses to become self-revealed. In some established Christian traditions this is called symbolic or confessional theology, because it grounds itself in the symbols and confessional statements of the community of faith, or dogmatics because it states the dogmata, the irreducible tenets of Christian religion.
The truth, wherever it is to be found, is God's truth (Justin Martyr, Address to the Greeks 7-9; Clement of Alex., Inst. 10; Augustine, On Chr. Doctrine 2.40). God is revealed in history in a way that corresponds to the fundamental hungers of the human soul (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 6.6; Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. 38.17, 31; Augustine, CG 11.29).
The Fairness Issue
There is one sensitive issue in current Christian theology that merits special preliminary attention. This concerns the frequent use by traditional Christian teaching of masculine names and pronouns in referring to God. I am treating that question deliberately at numerous points along the way (especially on the question of naming God, on analogy, on the Holy Spirit, and on human existence). I intend to hold as closely as possible to the classical Christian affirmation that neither of the gender types-"He" or "She,"-adequately reflects the fullness of the divine being (Gregory of Nazianzus, First Theol. Orat., Orat. 27; John of Damascus, OF 1.4-8).
Yet it is not possible to speak of God as if the distinction between male and female could be ignored. That would require giving up personal pronouns which are necessary to express the intensely personal reality of God as known in the faithful community. There are times when the tradition has thought it fitting to transcend personal metaphors with terms like the Eternal or the Holy One. While this pattern is available within the ecumenical consensus, it is not followed at the price of forgoing all personal pronouns, since God is so much more frequently viewed through personal metaphors in Scripture (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 6.8, 9.1). Since naming conveys power, the naming of God normatively or exclusively as "he" tends to limit the idea of God by human sexual categories. Even when its intent may have been generic, the tradition's language has sounded exclusionary to many, who regrettably may then too readily dismiss the tradition on the grounds of language alone before allowing the tradition's reasoning a fair hearing. I can only ask that the reader not prejudge the fairness of classical Christian language without seeking to understand it. These are not problems that can or should be addressed in detail in an introduction, but I appeal to the reader to withhold predisposing judgment, letting each of the language issues develop organically. Meanwhile I remain indebted to both male and female partners in dialogue who have carefully combed this text both for unbalanced language and fidelity to ancient ecumenical Christian teaching.
One way I have sought to redress the balance practically is by not neglecting to quote, where texts have been preserved, those important women contributors to the classic Christian theological tradition. There are many: Melania the Elder and Melania the Younger (in Palladius, Lausaic History, ACW), Amma Theodora, Amma Sarah (among the Desert Ascetics, SDF), Macrina (sister of Basil, whom Gregory of Nyssa called "the Teacher"), Paula of Bethlehem, Clare of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Genoa, Julia of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila. By this means it is evident that the voices and writings of astute, learned, and faithful women have been important in the life and witness of classic Christianity (Amma Sarah 4, SCD:193).
The crux of the language fairness issue hinges on whether Father-Son language, with the reference to God as "he," is primarily the result of male-dominated social structures, and is therefore degrading to the dignity of women and men, or whether such language is a part of the scandal of particularity that accompanies all claims of historical revelation -that is, that God is made known through a particular history, and that the Word of God is spoken through the life of a man born of woman (Gal. 4:4; Theodoret, Epist. Gal. 4.4-5) This incarnational event remains an intrinsic feature of God's historical self-disclosure honoring both men and women as participants in the history of salvation. In view of our central purpose and method (allowing the classical Christian tradition to speak for itself), we will maintain faithfulness to the historic language of the church but, in doing so, seek fairness and balance in our contemporary use of language.
Knowing from the Heart
The study of God and delight in knowing God requires a depth of understanding that surpasses simple empirical data gathering, logical deduction, or dutiful organization of scriptural or traditional texts into a coherent sequence. The Christian study of God intrinsically involves a mode of knowing from the heart that hopes to make the knower "wise unto salvation" (2 Tim. 3:15-a knowing grounded in the "sacred writings which have power to make you wise and lead you to salvation,"), to save the soul, to teach the sinner all that is needed to attain saving knowledge of God (Clement of Alex., Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?; Catherine of Siena, Prayers 7; Baxter, PW 2: 23-25; Wesley, WJW 8:20).
Faith's knowing is distinguishable from objective, testable, scientific knowledge, although not necessarily inimical to it. It is a form of knowing that embraces the practical question of how we choose to live in the presence of this Source and End of all (Clement of Alex., Exhort. to the Heathen 9; Teresa of Avila, CWST, 3:219-22; Calvin, Inst. 1.11-13).
It need not be demeaning to faith that it humbly remains a logos, a word, a way of speaking and reasoning through words-"just talk," in a sense, yet talk concerning almighty God. These are our human words-limited, fragile, inadequate-pointing beyond themselves to nothing less than Theos, the Source and End of all things. Christian teaching lives out of a conversation that is found in a living community of people who pray to this incomparable One. It is our reasoning about the mystery of the One from whom we come and to whom we return (Chrysostom, Comm. on 2 Tim. 8; Augustine, On the Profit of Believing; H. R. Niebuhr, RMWC:122).
Christians who first said credo ("I believe") did not do so lightly, but at the risk of their lives under severe persecution. We listen carefully to those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for their belief. To say credo genuinely is to speak from the heart, to reveal who one is by confessing one's essential belief, the faith that makes life worth living. One who says credo without willingness to suffer, and if necessary die, for the faith has not yet genuinely said credo.
Christians have a right and a responsibility to know the meaning of their baptism. This is the purpose of Christian theology and of this study: to clarify the ancient ecumenical faith into which Christians of all times and places are baptized. It is expected of all who are baptized that they will understand what it means to believe in God the Father Almighty, in God the Son, and in God the Spirit (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catech., prologue; Luther, Sermons on the Catech.).
The Apostles' Creed is the most common confession of Christians. This ancient confession will serve as the scaffold for the architecture of this book. Like other ancient baptismal confessions, it is divided into three parts, corresponding with the three Persons of the one God (Luther, Small Catech. 2.44; Brief Expl., WML 2:368). The first part confesses trust in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, the subject of this first phase of this Systematic Theology.
Other early ecumenical confessions, such as the Nicene Creed (325), the Constantinopolitan Creed (351), and the Athanasian Creed (c. 500) were organized in the same three-part way, to teach inquirers and the faithful the significance of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Earlier creedal prototypes, such as the Letter of the Apostles (c. 150), the rule of faith known to Justin Martyr (c. 165; CC:18), the Balyzeh Papyrus (c. 200 or later), the Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (c. 214), the Oriental Creed, and the Creed of Caesarea all follow this threefold pattern. As early as about 190, Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. c. 175 to c. 195) summarized the faith of Christians in the following concise way, which plots the trajectory of this entire volume:
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles, and their disciples, this faith:
[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them;
and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation;
and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God. (Ag. Her. 1. 10.1)
Scripture itself provides the structural basis for the organization of the baptismal teaching, and of that basic Christian instruction (catechesis) preparing for baptism. The same sequence for summarizing Christian teaching appeared in Matthew 28:19, the climactic point of Matthew's Gospel, in the formula for baptism. There the resurrected Lord concluded His earthly teaching with this summary charge: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matt. 28:19, 20).
In this way, Jesus forever linked the two key actions of baptizing and teaching. In subsequent periods of Christian history they have remained intimately interwoven. Implicitly included in the instructions for baptism is the charge to teach its significance. This is why the Christian study of God has been so often organized into these three triune divisions. Christian teaching is baptismal teaching. Christian baptism has required clarification of itself as faith in God the Father, Son, and Spirit. Christian theology came into being to explain Christian baptism.
Topics of Christian teaching are not taken up in a disconnected way: "The teaching of all doctrine has a certain order, and there are some things which must be delivered first, others in the second place, and others in the third, and so all in their order; and if these things be delivered in their order, they become plain," so that "he who enters rightly upon the road, will observe the second place in due order, and from the second will more easily find the third" (Clementina, Recog. 3.34). The classic way to "enter the road" is by dealing first with the opening affirmation of the creed-"God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth."
The earliest summaries of Christian teaching were lectures to put feet firmly on this road, to prepare people for baptism. Our organization of key themes of Christian teaching will depend heavily upon the thought-sequence of those most influential early summaries by Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures), Gregory of Nyssa (The Great Catechism), Chrysostom (Baptismal Instructions), and Augustine (Catech. Instr. and On Faith and the Creed).
Classic teachers as varied as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther have held that the Apostles' Creed remains the best condensed statement of Christian faith and the most reliable way to learn the heart of faith. In professing the Creed, Cyril explained, the believer is helped to keep closely to the center of faith as delivered by the apostles, "which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures":
For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered from the knowledge of them by lack of learning, and others because they lack leisure to study, in order that the soul should not be starved in ignorance, the church has condensed the whole teaching of the Faith in a few lines. This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it, and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart, taking care while you rehearse it that no catechumen may happen to overhear the things which have been delivered to you. I wish you also to keep this as a provision through the whole course of your life, and beside this to receive no alternative teaching, even if we ourselves should change and contradict our present teaching. (Catech. Lect. 5.12, is here slightly amended)
During the perilous times prior to Cyril, there was an evident reason for memorizing the creed: persecution, torture, imprisonment, including the seizure of the sacred books by the authorities, and the lethal prosecution of those who followed them. Thus a tight summary of scripture had to be memorized before baptism.
Throughout the succeeding generations, key scriptural teachings have ordinarily been grouped by classical Christian exegetes under these three triune headings: The first article teaches of God the Father Almighty, creation, and providence. The second deals with Christ's redeeming person and work. The third teaches of the Spirit that enlivens the church and the Christian life (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect. 6-18; Hilary, On Trin. 1-13; Luther, Sermons on the Catech.; Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; Helvetic Conf. 1,2).
The creed in all its classic forms is a "short word" summarizing biblical faith, approved by the apostles as "standard teaching to converts," "a badge for distinguishing" those who preach Christ according to apostolic rule, constructed "out of living stones and pearls supplied by the Lord" (Rufinus, Comm. on Apostles' Creed, Intro.). Rufinus (345-410 AD), among the earliest of many commentators on the Creed, taught that the Holy Spirit had superintended its transmission in order that it "contain nothing ambiguous, obscure, or inconsistent." Poignantly, he explained why it must be committed to memory: "The reason why the creed is not written down on paper or parchment, but is retained in the believers' hearts, is to ensure that it has been learned from the tradition handed down from the Apostles, and not from written texts, which occasionally fall into the hands of unbelievers." That sentence echoes directly from the tragic horrors of the Diocletian persecution. Rufinus based his commentary on the personally remembered "text to which I pledged myself when I was baptized in the church of Aquileia."
The ancient creeds all begin with "I believe" (credo) or "We believe" (credimus). What does it mean to believe? "And what is faith?" the Letter to Hebrews asked. "Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see" (Heb. 11:1). "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb. 11:6; Chrysostom, Comm. on Hebrews, 22.6-7). Just as no farmer sweats to plant a field without some faith that the seeds will grow, and no one sets out to sea without some confidence of being able to survive, so: "In fact, there is nothing in life that can be transacted without a preliminary readiness to believe" (Rufinus, Comm. ACW 20:32). In entering the pathway of belief, the inquirer must first listen with empathy to what the worshiping community is saying about the One who makes belief possible.
The Living God is the first of three major divisions of this study. Succeeding divisions deal with The Word of Life and Life in the Spirit, so as to reveal the inner structure of theology as triune.