Is Theology Possible?

In the academy and the household, a common question pervades the minds of man: Is theology possible? Perhaps this may come more often from skeptics and those hostile to the gospel, but surely this question comes from believers. After all, Christians truly know and feel their finitude and fallenness. How could a limited, restricted, finite human understand the incomprehensive and infinite God? Further, how could fallen sinners, who by nature rebel against their God, Creator, and Savior, come to know and love the one holy God? Given these two obstacles, we may again ask: Is theology even possible? We may answer succinctly: indeed it is. How can this be? How can finite sinners come to know and love their infinite and perfect God?

This brief essay is meant to answer that question through biblical reasoning, and so, Christian theology. The format will be in expanded outline form, following theology’s principles and ends. A thesis will guide that which follows: theology is possible because God infinitely knows himself and communicates a share of his knowledge to creatures.

I.1 God’s Self-Knowledge

We may begin with the source of all things: God in himself. “God knows himself and all things: on this rests the possibility and actuality of creaturely theology.”[1] In other words, any possibility, any reality, and any hope for knowing and loving God rests wholly in himself. We do not know unless, first and foremost, God is.

God’s knowledge is simply infinite, independent (and so from himself), immutable, and never able to diminish, decrease, or increase. Hence, God’s very own knowledge is

identical with his perfect essence; it is not accidental to, but is, the actual intelligent being-in-act of God. It is not knowledge acquired through labour or extended by learning over time; it is non-discursive, without logical or temporal succession, simultaneous, eternal, intuitive, uncompounded, “the single and simple vision of everything.” God’s knowledge is the one infinite act of his intelligent life as Father, Son, and Spirit.[2]

And so, Matthew copies down the words of Jesus: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no on knows the Father except the Son” (Matt 11:27). Additionally, Paul writes, “the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:10–11). Therefore, God’s infinite and perfect knowledge is incommunicable. No one knows God truly, except the persons of the Godhead. It is no wonder then that any knowledge of God, any hope for theological inquiry, any possibility of loving God resides in God alone. Happily, God makes an outward movement.

I.2 God’s External Movement: Divine Revelation

Though, as Matthew and Paul say, no one knows God except the divine persons, creatures have a real possibility of knowing their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. How is this so? Because as Matthew goes on to write, “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27), and as Paul says, “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (2 Cor 2:11–12). And so, “by virtue of God’s loving act”[3] he communicates a measure of his knowledge of himself and of all things freely to creatures. How might we say he does this? We can explain principally in two ways.

I.2a The Divine Missions

First, in the divine missions of the Son and of the Spirit, God makes himself known. These missions are not out of obligation as if they were to fulfill a need (God has no need!). Therefore, the revelatory missions are wholly acts of generosity and love, freely giving out of his fullness.

Jesus, the Son made flesh, “the only begotten God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Because the Son and the Father are one (10:30), Jesus says, “whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (14:9). As image of God (Col 1:15), Jesus perfectly reflects the Father (Heb 1:3) and gives what he has heard from the Father (John 15:15). Likewise, the Spirit, Jesus says, “whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things” (14:26). And further, Jesus says,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (14:13–15)

And so, in the revelatory missions of the Son and the Spirit, the divine persons make the twofold object of theology known: God and all things in relation to God. Consequently, “The missions of the Son and Spirit overrule creaturely inadequacy and make it possible for knowledge of God to take creaturely form.”[4] And so, theology is possible.

I.2b Holy Scripture

Second, these works and knowledge of God have been copied down, inspired by God himself (2 Tim 3:16) in an accommodated form: Holy Scripture. Guarded, illumined, and inspired, God’s written word, copied down by the prophets and apostles, gives insight into the mysteries of God and his works. Since it truly has human authors, such a divine subject matter of the biblical text takes on creaturely form that condescends to creaturely adequacy. Nevertheless, this human activity in copying down the divine revelation is nothing other than ambassadorial work. In a more eloquent manner: “ Holy Scripture is the textual settlement of [divine] embassy … Scripture is the availability of prophetic and apostolic ministry beyond its originating occasion.”[5] Further, this ambassadorial work is characterized by the Spirit: “Scripture’s being and function are in this movement of the Spirit. Scripture is ‘inspired’ in the sense that its entire course … is superintended by the Spirit. The movement, of which Scripture is part, is a shedding abroad of the knowledge of God.”[6]

Surely then, since God has revealed himself in the missions of his Son and his Spirit and has given his word to us in creaturely form, God overcomes our finitude that we might know him and his works. And so, theology is possible.

II.1 Redeemed Intelligence: Ignorance and Inability Brought to the Cross

Surely we will be reminded again and again—especially from the Enemy—that we are indeed fallen and futile; we are sinful. Indeed, our intellect is not only created, but also fallen. Holy Scripture, however, reminds us of the missions of the redeeming and sanctifying work of the Son and the Spirit. Salvation is crucial here. So again we say, human reason is created and fallen, but for the elect, it is also redeemed. Webster observes, “Like all other aspects of created being, weakened and rendered dark and futile by sin, reason is encountered by the assurance and creative power of the forgiveness of sins,” and so, “unredeemed reason is one of the ‘things that are’ which are brought to nothing at the cross (1 Cor. 1.28).”[7]

Because Christ the Son’s work really was accomplished, we must honor the reality that God redeems his people. Since God has worked thus, “created intelligence is caught up in the reality of regeneration in which created powers are reborn, ordered to right objects, liberated from self-reliance and so set free to begin to operate to their utmost extension.”[8] And so, theology is possible.

II.2 Redeemed Intelligence: Illuminating Work of the Spirit

In our fallen state, Satan blinds us to this glorious news of salvation in the Son of God. But the darkness cannot overcome the light. Paul writes:

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 4:4–6)

We might ask, how does this happen? Paul again says, “we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). The Holy Spirit transforms us, renews us, and causes us to behold and therefore know theology’s object: God.

With all this in mind, theology’s possibility rests solely on God. Moreover, because God infinitely knows himself and all things, and because this God communicates a measure of his knowledge to creatures in the missions of his Son and his Spirit, copied down in accommodated form, God is known, and therefore, theology is possible. Webster adds:

The possibility of human intellectual acts which are genuinely theological is discerned not first of all by enumerating human capabilities but by attending to the fullness of God’s own life and knowledge and by tracing the outer works of God’s love. Mirabile dictum: we have receive the Spirit, we have the mind of Christ.[9]

Given the fact the God is and God works, theology is possible. 

III.1 Archetypal and Ectypal Distinction

Our theology, that is, theologia nostra is characterized in three ways: created, fallen, and redeemed. It is therefore, ectypal—incomplete and finite. Hence, it requires labor, effort, and dependence. While we truly gain knowledge in time, our theology is in via, on the way and “never fully achieved.”[10] And so, our theology, again, is ectypal, whereas God’s knowledge of himself (theologia in se) is archetypal—full, complete, infinite, and perfect. It is effortless and timeless. He does not come to know, but in trinitarian perfection, he fully knows himself and all things. So while we do have redeemed intelligence, our theology is always distinct in relation to God’s knowledge. This note does not mean to bring us back to question the possibility of theology, but rather, it reminds us of our absolute dependence on God’s loving communication to creatures. And because God has acted thus and still does, theology is possible.

III.2 Theology as More Than an Intellectual Activity

Next, we ask ourselves, What is the end goal of theology? Is it simply to know about things? It is simply to know more about God? If human inquiry goes such a route, then it is not theology. When theology is theological, its goal is to know and to love God.[11]All of God’s acts—creation, providence, redemption, sanctification, consummation—are done not only out of love, but that his creatures would respond in love. Theology, then, is characterized and is for love of God, and thus, love of neighbor.

Here, one may ask again, “If this is the goal, how then is theology possible for us sinners—rebellious haters-of-God?” This comes back to the note that theology’s domain is in the economy of salvation. Christian theology is regenerate theology. Not only is reason’s mode redeemed, but also its desires and ends. Whereas we once rebelled, we now are compelled by God’s love. We feel the weight of the most important command, “love God,” but are now assured by Christ’s active obedience and God’s fulfillment of Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” To quote Webster again: “Mirabile dictum: we have receive the Spirit, we have the mind of Christ.”[12] Theology is possible.

Conclusion

Theology is possible because God is and God acts. Doubting theology’s possibility due to our finitude ultimately questions God’s goodness and power in revealing himself. Doubting theology’s possibility due to our fallenness ultimately is a forgetfulness of the cross and its implications. The well-intentioned mind knows of God and his works, but frets over finitude and fallenness. The theological mind remembers his finitude and fallenness and rests on God’s loving goodness in his works and ultimately the cross. Theology is an ocean of joyful possibilities, and God has given us himself, redeemed reason, and his word so that we might swim in this happy discipline. God is and God acts: theology is possible.



[1] John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 136.

[2] Ibid., 137.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] Ibid., 138.

[5] John Webster, “Biblical Reasoning,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 121

[6] Ibid., 121.

[7] Ibid., 125.

[8] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 1:218.

[9] Ibid., 217.

[10] Webster, God Without Measure, 1:218.

[11] Webster, “Biblical Reasoning,” 117–118, 121, 124, 132; Webster, God Without Measure, 2:160.

[12] Webster, God Without Measure., 1:217.