The Doctrine of God

Its Place in Christian Dogmatics

Introduction

As we start our long series of posts aiming to create a complete systematic theology, we begin by giving an introduction about the placement and position of the doctrine of the triune God in systematic theology amongst all other Christian doctrines. Now, when most people think of God (or the doctrine of God), they immediately think of God in time, that is, God working in the creaturely realm (known as the economic Trinity); however, when we speak of the doctrine of the triune God, we are speaking of God as he is and who he is in himself (i.e., immanent Trinity). This study is often known as “theology proper,” which focuses on God’s attributes and triune nature. So this article will ultimately discuss how the doctrine of the triune God himself (theology proper) relates to all other doctrines in Christian theology.

Thesis and Aim

A thesis will guide the rest of the discussion: The doctrine of the triune God––namely, the doctrine about who God is in himselfstands above all other Christian doctrines and furthermore, determines how all other Christian doctrines are. Consequently, all other doctrines are dependent on and derived from the doctrine of God and ought to be subsumed under and studied in light of the doctrine of God.

The Two Parts in Christian Dogmatics

There are two constituent parts in Christian dogmatics: God and the works of God (i.e., God in himself and everything else in relation to him). John Webster explains and expounds these two parts:

The content of the first part is the doctrine of [God’s inner] triune life … that of the second is the doctrine of God’s [external] acts … and thus the doctrines of creation, providence, salvation, the church and consummation. In one sense, there is only one Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the triune God because in following that doctrine to its end theology will treat all the topics customarily brought together in a systematic theology.[1]

What Webster is saying here is this: there are two topics in Christian theology––God in himself, and God’s works in creation (and thus God in time). All of God’s works flow forth from God and are dependent on God. Since the works of God are dependent on God, we can speak of all the doctrines in Christian theology in relation to the doctrine of God. They have a connection. Since all the works of God––e.g., creation, incarnation, salvation, consummation—are worked out by God himself and can be traced back to him as their source and starting point, we can say that the primary topic of Christian theology is ultimately God himself because it is God who brings about all things. This means that the doctrine of God is a very unique doctrine.

The Place of the Doctrine of God in Christian Theology: The Determinative Doctrine

The doctrine of God is unlike any other doctrine in Christian theology. Unlike the doctrine of justification, for example, the doctrine of God does not merely hold a special place amongst other doctrines. Rather, it is a doctrine that stands above and before all others. Michael Allen puts it this way, “the most fundamental matter in Christian theology is the character of God,” and further, “the nature of God is determinative for all theological reflection….”[2] Because God is the source of all things and determines how all things are, the doctrine of God is the foundation, ruler, and determining doctrine of all other doctrines in Christian theology.

The doctrine of the triune God is “the ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines” and “is not one doctrine among others; it is foundational and pervasive.”[3] Put differently, all doctrines are but an explication of the doctrine of God and are studied and subsumed under him. As Herman Bavinck wrote, “All the doctrines in dogmatics … are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God. All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point.”[4] All topics in Christian theology that are not God—namely, the works of God—“are relative and subordinate to the being of God—there was a time when he, and he alone, was; all else flows out of this triune fullness.”[5] In other words, all other doctrines in Christian theology are derivative and dependent on the doctrine of God. With this in mind, we must be careful how we “do” our theology.

How Then Shall We Study Other Doctrines?

How then does this impact the manner and method of our theology? Because this doctrine of God is foundational and primal, all other topics should be understood as they are in their relation to God. For example, creation, salvation, and the consummation—works of God—should be understood in light of who God is in himself. Now, this may seem superficial, as Gilles Emery observes, but it is absolutely crucial if we want to study other doctrines with great care. Emery says it in this manner:

Here, what may look superficially like an approach which is detached from the economy [i.e., realm] of creation and salvation, turns out in reality to be a teaching which contains a deep-seated window into the divine foundations of the economy [i.e., created realm]. For St Thomas, creation and salvation are illuminated from within the doctrine of God himself. One does not take God’s action seriously by allowing his relations to the world to condition him, but, rather, one discovers the source of the economy [the created realm] by contemplating the immanent and transcendent being of God.[6]

In other words, if we want to better understand all things—meaning everything that is not God (i.e., creation)—we must then be patient to first understand the doctrine of the triune God with our minds saturated in Scripture, for “theology talks about everything by talking about God.”[7] However, a caveat must be given. This does not mean that one must first expound the doctrine of God and then explain their topic of discussion. The starting point of formal exposition (i.e., presentation) of a derivative topic is “arbitrary,” “provided that the full range of material is covered, without disproportion or distortion, and provided also that the material order is recognized even when the order of exposition may run in a different direction.”[8] Here is its recognition: “The topic of God is materially (and so logically) prior to the topic of God’s works, because these works are grounded in God’s being in and for himself.”[9] Though the starting point is in a sense “arbitrary,” in our systematic theology section, we will employ the order of being in our articles, that is, begin with God, and then move outwards and understand God's works and created things by derivation, that is, as they are in relation and under the light of God.

Conclusion

Just as God is uniquely in his own class and rules over all things, similarly, the doctrine of the triune God stands above all other doctrines in Christian theology. If we really want to see particular topics like creation, man, incarnation, justification, and others clearly and mine them for all they are worth, then we must first be patient and take time to understand who God is. John Webster nicely states the ruling role of the doctrine of the triune God in Christian dogmatics: “the only Christian doctrine which may legitimately claim to exercise magisterial and judicial role in the corpus of Christian teaching is the doctrine of the Trinity, since in that doctrine alone all other doctrines have their ultimate basis.”[10] Necessarily then, the doctrine of God is unlike any doctrine in Christian theology: it is magisterial and massive. The next number of articles in the systematic theology category (as of now, posted every Monday) will cover the doctrine of God and thus talk about God’s nature, attributes, and triunity.

Here's a tentative schedule for the posts in the systematic theology category aiming to try to explain the divine attributes and life:

  1. The Proper Name of God: Yahweh
  2. Divine Aseity: “Life in and of Himself”
  3. Divine Immutability “I YHWH Do Not Change”
  4. Divine Impassibility
  5. Divine Infinitude: Eternality and Omnipresence
  6. Divine Simplicity (Part I): “God without Parts”
  7. Divine Simplicity (Part II): Five Implications

After these, we shall turn to the triunity of God.



[1] John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology vol. I God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 160–161. Brackets are used in the stead of Latin terms such as ad intra and ad extra. Also see, John Webster, God without Measure, 117.

[2] Michael Allen, “Divine Attributes,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 57. Emphasis added.

[3] Webster, God without Measure, 159.

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 29.

[5] R. Michael Allen, Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 6–7.

[6] Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St Thomas Aquinas trans. Francesca Aran Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42–43. Emphasis added.

[7] Webster, God without Measure, 117. Emphasis added.

[8] Ibid., 152.

[9] Ibid.161. Emphasis added. Because God is the ground for the works of God, it is thus logical to conclude that the works of God are subordinate to God.

[10] Ibid., 161.