Two Distributive Doctrines

Trinity and Creation

In the discipline of systematic theology, there is an ordering of doctrines. Among the ordering of the Christian corpus, two doctrines clearly stand out as distributive, that is, they are not restricted doctrines, but often determine how other doctrines are shaped and understood. The first doctrine is the Trinity. The other distributive doctrine in mind here is creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). But first, we must know what the two topics of theology are.

Two Topics in Christian Theology

There are two constituent topics in Christian theology: God and everything else in relation to God. The former primarily focuses on God’s inner life (or works) as perfect Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. But it also considers God relatively in his outer works.[1] The second topic contains everything that is not God. This includes creatures, but it does not stop talking about God.

Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity claims magisterial rule over all Christian doctrines. In other words, “the ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others; it is foundational and pervasive. To expound any Christian doctrine is to expound with varying degrees of directness the doctrine of the Trinity.”[2] As ruler of Christian doctrines, all other doctrines are shaped and determined by the doctrine of the Trinity. Put another way, we speak about “everything by talking about God.”[3] Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity stands above all other doctrines as the principle, foundation, and ruler.

Creation

The second distributive doctrine in Christian theology is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.[4] However, because the doctrine of creation specifically is restricted to God’s outer works (opera Dei ad extra), the doctrine of creation’s “distribution is less comprehensive than that of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[5] Hence, the doctrine of creation is always subordinate to the doctrine of the Trinity. Even the doctrine of the Trinity shapes the doctrine of creation. Nevertheless, creation really is a distributive doctrine because it has something to say about everything that is not God. That is, it is not limited to one point of theology, “but provides orientation and a measure of governance to all that theology has to say about all things in relation to God.”[6] The doctrine of creation then acts as a bridge from God’s perfect, inner life (in se) to the contemplation of God’s outer works (ad extra). The act of God necessitates that theological inquiry not stop at God’s being, but continues to consider his works ad extra. Thus, this doctrine helps us know dogmatics is double themed: God and all things in relation to their source.

What may this then mean about the doctrine of creation? “Teaching about creation ‘opens the logical and theological space for other Christian beliefs and mysteries,’ because contemplation of that teaching enables discernment of essential properties of the relation between God and created things which will be further displayed when considering the history of their interaction as it unfolds in the economy.”[7]

Conclusion

If we were to do dogmatics well, we would let the actual content of theology determine the shape of how theology is practiced. A well-informed and structured theology would then consistently consider how all things are by their relation to God, and thus we would speak of all things by first talking about God, and then by speaking about all things under the aspect of being created. This is not to jettison other informative doctrines (the eternal decree, sin, salvation, consummation), but to say that to understand God’s outer works and those things that are not God, we must see them in light of God (sub species divinitatis) and in light of their most basic nature—created.



[1] John Webster, God Without Measure, 1:214.

[2] Ibid., 1:159.

[3] Ibid., 1:117.

[4] Ibid., 1:117.

[5] Ibid., 1:117.

[6] Ibid., 1:117.

[7] Ibid., 1:118, quote of R. Sokolowski, “Creation and Christian Understanding,” in God and Creation, 179.