Preface: Getting Started

Classic Consensual Ecumenical Teaching
The System of References

Book One

The Living God

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

Part I

The Living God


The Name of God

Every inquiry has its postulates. No scientific inquiry proceeds altogether without assumptions. Nothing can be studied scientifically without postulating the intelligibility of the universe-an assumption that itself is, strictly speaking, not subject to empirical verification.

Like every other inquiry, theology proceeds with postulates, out of which its data gathering and induction of facts proceed (Origen, OFP 2.1-4). Chief among the postulates of Christian teaching is the assumption that God has taken initiative to encounter humanity in and through human history (Origen, Ag. Celsus 1.11). "Therefore as is only reasonable, we grasp the undemonstrable first principle by faith, and then we receive abundant proof of the truth of the first principle from the first principle itself" (Clement of Alex., Stromata 7.16).

The shorthand term for this primary postulate is revelation. Revelation may be viewed either in a general or a specific sense.

The Joy of Studying God
Whether God Is Revealed
Whether God Can Be Defined
Whether God's Character Can Be Ascertained
Knowing God by Negation and by Analogy


The Nature of God

Christian Scriptures and tradition view God as independent of all else that exists, that is, as:










necessary being

the life of all that lives

To grasp these crucial terms, we show them in slow motion, making clear precisely how they are attested in Scripture, interpreted by tradition, organized by reason, and celebrated in a worshiping community. These are defining characteristics of the divine life.

God Is Before Time
The Divine Sufficiency
The Unity of God
The Living God
The Majesty of God


The Character of God

The personal attributes are divine qualities, such as life, spirit, will, and freedom. God enjoys these perfectly, and communicates them to human beings in proportion to their capacity to receive them (Hilary, On Trin. 1.19, 4.2, VI.9; Augustine, Trin. 15.42; Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q29). Each step toward the clarification of divine attributes leads to greater personalization. With each step we move ever closer to discerning features of divine-human interaction.

God is free, living, active, spiritual, and personal, while not ceasing to be God-unsurpassably present, knowing, and influential. The consensus is searching for characterizations of God that are adequate to the divine reality attested in scripture (Tho. Aq., ST 1 Q6; Quenstedt, TDP 1:288).

To this point we have been considering only those characteristics of the divine life that are attested by Scripture (1) as intrinsic to God alone without reference to creatures-in that God is necessary, infinite, eternal, one, and alive-these are known as primary or essential attributes; and (2) as displaying God's way of being present to, knowing, and influencing the cosmos generally (omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence), known as relational attributes, conceivable primarily in relation to the world of creaturely beings. But in this chapter we are speaking of those attributes of the character of God that manifest qualities analogous to (3) human personality, freedom, and will.

The Divine Thou
The Freedom of God
The Divine Goodness
The Holiness of God
The Constant Goodness of God
The Compassion of God

Part II

The Reality of God


Whether God Exists

It is evident that God exists as a conception in our minds. The larger question remains for Christian teaching and moral decision-making as to whether that One who exists in our minds also exists in reality.

Does a being exist whose counsel is infinitely wise, whose power surpasses all temporal powers, whose actions are such that they are worthy of being called infinitely good? (Anselm, Monologium; Proslog.; Calvin, Inst. 1.1.3; Descartes, Method 4, Meditations 3; Witsius, ESS 4: 33).

The question of the existence of God hinges on whether that necessary, eternal being remains merely a conceptual idea that we imaginatively project toward reality, as Feuerbach and Freud thought (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, Freud, The Future of an Illusion; whose arguments were anticipated by Gregory of Nazianzus sixteen centuries ago, Second Theol. Orat. 18.15) or whether our idea of God's being is derived from God's actual being (also Orat. 30; Anselm, Proslog. 2-4; Descartes, Meditations 5). How we answer this determines all that follows in classic Christianity.

Whether the Existence of God Can Be Reasonably Argued
How to Reason from Order or Design
How to Reason from Human Nature: Mind, Human Nature, and General Consent
Arguments from Change, Causality, Contingency, and Degrees of Being
Arguments from Conscience, Beauty, Pragmatic Results, and Congruity
Argument from the Idea of Perfect Being


Whether God Is Triune

The idea that the one God meets us in three persons is thought to be among the most mystifying of all Christian teachings. Yet we must speak of Trinity, as Augustine knew, not because we are able to fathom it, but because we cannot keep silent on a matter so central to biblical faith (Augustine, Trin. 1.2, 3).

The mystery of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit may seem to introduce a new theme into our thinking. But we have been referring to it all along, by speaking of

God as Father Almighty, the source of life, who makes Himself known in

Jesus Christ by the power of

the Spirit of God who is present throughout the historical process, working to transform it according to God's purpose.

Thus we are not veering away from previous subjects in dealing now with the triune God, but only seeking to provide increased clarity on how the living God comes to dwell with us in broken human history.

In all Christian traditions, baptism occurs in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence Christian teaching is best thought of as a commentary on baptism. It has the happy task of trying to explain what baptism in the triune name means. This is no elective, nonobligatory task, no subordinate duty that Christian theology can either choose or refuse. For God appears constantly in the New Testament as Father, Son, and Spirit. "When I say God," remarked Gregory Nazianzus, "I mean Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" (Orat. 33.8).

The triune confession summarizes the essentials of Christian teaching. For almost two millennia the Christian community has been using this language as a means of bringing together its most irreducible affirmations concerning God. Modern readers are urged not to reject prematurely trinitarian thinking on the wrong assumption that it amounts to worshiping three "gods"-a heresy called tritheism, consistently rejected by the classical Christian writers (Gregory of Nyssa, On "Not Three Gods").

Salvation History in Triune Faith
Faith's Experience of Trinitarian Reasoning
Scriptural Roots of Trinitarian Reasoning
The Triune Structure of Christian Teaching

Part III

The Work of God


God the Creator and Creation

It is inevitable that the truth about ultimate origins, which lies beyond direct human experience, will remain a mystery (Basil, Hex. I; Calvin, Inst. 1.14). What is known of the meaning of creation is only partially understood through reason, but known more abundantly through the Creator's personal self-disclosure through the revealed Word (Justin Martyr, First Apol. 13; Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 2).

Christian faith in God the Creator relies primarily on Scripture's witness to divine revelation. Partial insight into the truth of revelation may also occur through scientific investigation and rational inquiry (Augustine, Catech. Instr. 18).

"God has placed the knowledge of himself in human hearts from the beginning. But this knowledge they unwisely invested in wood and stone and thus contaminated the truth, at least as far as they were able. Meanwhile the truth abides unchanged, having its own unchanging glory. . . . How did God reveal himself? By a voice from heaven? Not at all! God made a panoply which was able to draw them more than by a voice. He put before them the immense creation" (Chrysostom, Hom. On Rom. 3).

Creator of All Things
The Biblical Perspective on God the Creator
Covenant Creation and the Covenant People of God
The Triune Creator
The God of Creatures


God's Care for the World

Providence is God's own act by which God orders all events in creation, nature, and history, so that the ends for which God created them will be in due time realized. The final end is that all creatures will, in God's own time, manifest God's glory and reflect the divine goodness as they are capable.

John of Damascus defined providence as "the care that God takes over existing things." "Providence is the will of God through which all existing things receive their fitting issue." (OF 2.29).

The Meaning of Providence
Divine Preservation and Cooperation with Natural Causality
Divine Governance of the World
Sin and Evil Viewed in the Light of Providence
God's Care for the World
General and Special Providence

Part IV

The Study of God

The classical Christian exegetes did not ordinarily begin their writings (homilies, essays, books, Scripture studies) with detailed discussions of theological method. Nonetheless they were keenly aware of how they were proceeding. They were more likely to plunge into the substantive clarification of the sacred texts attesting the being and activity of God, and only subsequently consider and examine their method of knowing. This classic approach indicates:

that reflection on method best occurs as a retrospection upon the actual practice of the study of God, rather than an arbitrary limitation upon practice before study has begun;

that the study of the knowledge of God is best derived from the life-long practice of the Christian life rather than vice versa;

that the living God is prior to and more crucial than our methods of inquiry.

Early Christian teachers first addressed the fundamental question of the Subject of the study of God, and only later and subordinately the questions of method. Among those who proceeded conspicuously from subject to method were: Ignatius of Antioch, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Hilary, and Ambrose. None set out first with a deliberate account of method. It was not until Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Vincent of Lérins in the late fourth and early fifth centuries that the operative method of the ecumenical theologians became increasingly clear. By the time of Gregory the Great and John of Damascus, these methods were thoroughly integrated into exegesis, preaching, and theological debate, but often referred to only obliquely.

Having already asked the foundational questions of who God is, whether God is, and whether God is triune Creator and Provider, we are now to the point of being poised to pursue six practical questions about the method of study of classic Christian teaching:

whether the deliberate study of God is necessary to faith;

whether the revelation of God requires written texts, traditions, reasoning, and histories of experience to enable its reception;

whether church tradition is an authoritative source of theology;

whether the study of God is a science;

whether the right study of God requires a particular temperament; and

whether the study of God can be viewed as an academic discipline that corresponds with other disciplines.


Whether God Can Be Studied

Is the Study of God Possible?
Revelation Requires Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason
Creedal Tradition as an Authoritative Source for the Study of God
Scripture and Tradition
Whether the Study of God Is a Science
Whether the Study of God Requires a Special Temperament
The Study of Religion and the Study of God
The Reasoning of Revelation
Reason and Certitude
How Faith Reasons

Book Two

The Word of Life


Why Christ?

An Unforgettable Life
Person to Person: His Question to Us
The Subject
The Gospel
The Ascription of Lordship
Key Definitions: Person, Work, States, and Offices
Surveying the Christological Landscape in Advance

Part I

Word Made Flesh

The Map of the Road Ahead

Four classic questions encompass the classic teaching the person of Christ:

1.Quis (who)?

2.Quid (what)?

3.Quomodo (how)?

4.Ad quid (why)?

Who assumed humanity in the incarnation?

What nature did the eternal Son assume?

How are deity and humanity united in one person?

Why did the Son become flesh?

Modern journalism quotes this sequence as the essence of good reporting (who, what, how, and why), unaware that it derives from classic Christian teaching, which itself sought to report the best of good news.

The answers to these four questions may be summed up in advance: (1) the divine Logos assumed, (2) human nature, (3) so as personally to unite deity and humanity in Christ, (4) for the redemption of humanity (Athanasius, Incarn. of the Word, 3-30; Pohle-Preuss, DT 4:5; Bellarmine, De Christo 1.1). This is a high altitude map of the spectacular territory we are now to traverse on foot, traditionally called "the Person of Christ."


The Body Language of God

The core question focuses upon the identity of Jesus. Who is this itinerant teacher? Why is he so incongruously called "Mary's son"? There is little doubt that such a question was beginning to be asked already during Jesus' own lifetime. It emerged early in Jesus' ministry, continued steadily, and remains puzzling to us today. "Who do you think you are?" (John 8:53; Augustine, Tractates on John 43.14-15), they asked of him.

Such questioning was a response to the words and deeds of Jesus and not merely made up and projected upon him decades later by ignorant and fanciful disciples. This question always arises necessarily out of concrete meeting and dialogue with Jesus of Nazareth.

The Deity of Christ
Scriptural Reasoning About Christ's Deity