Virtue in Studying God and Creation

As of late, I’m finishing up my initial study of two massive doctrines: God the Trinity, and creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). In the process, I was well reminded just how incapable I am in studying the infinite God and his powerful act of which no man was when God brought forth being other than himself “in the beginning.” Studying such topics requires both intellectual and moral virtue, which is filled with patience and calmness, and dependence upon divine instruction. What follows is a brief excerpt of some of my labors in this recent study.

For the theologian to know how to act in thought and deed, he or she must understand the nature of dogmatic inquiry—especially in regards to God’s perfect life and creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing)—and how its nature shapes our action and attitude.[1]

We would do well to remember we are treading the waters of mystery when speaking of God and creatio ex nihilo. Now mystery can be taken in the sense of things unknown, but it also ought to be taken in the sense of things revealed (μυστήριον; mystērion) by divine instruction copied down in Holy Scripture. No one exhaustively knows or comprehends the divine essence or can know the divine persons (Matt 11:27), nor can anyone attain God’s grandeur: “his greatness is unsearchable” (Ps 145:3). We even cannot comprehend God’s knowledge, thoughts, and mind (since they are not different than his essence): “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11; cf. Rom 11:33–35). No man was there when God created the world: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). We are entering into deep dogmatics, where we are required to exercise faith of things unseen (Heb 11:1, 3).[2] And so, girded with faith, we ought to practice our discipline not only with intellectual and theological virtues: docility, deference, magnanimity, and studiousness while mortifying intellectual greed expressed in curiosity[3] and calmed with patience.

Theology’s object’s incomprehensibility, however, ought not to cause one to fret over theology’s possibility. The fourth evangelist says, “No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).[4] Jesus says, “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27). Additionally, Paul writes, “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received . . . the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” and “‘Who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:12, 16). And so, “Mirabile dictu: we have the Spirit, we have the mind of Christ,” theology is possible.[5] This not only gives assurance, but also joy because knowing God is possible.

It would be a massive mistake if joy was absent in dogmatics. Indeed, Webster put it well when he discovered and wrote: “positive Christian dogmatics is a wise, edifying and joyful science.”[6] If theology tends to God and all things in relation to God, it is indeed a joyful discipline because “in contemplation of God lies our true happiness.”[7] The attitude, posture, and virtue of theology’s practitioner are not a mere boxes in a checklist, but a call for eager, humble, arduous, teachable effort wholly dependent upon and ready to listen to divine instruction.

[1] This is an adapted section (originally an appendix) from David A. Larson, “Creatio ex Nihilo and the Worth of Unneeded Creatures: ‘Pertractantur . . . Sub Ratione Dei’” (now on Academia).

[2] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” in IJST 141–142; cf. Webster, “Omnia . . . pertractantur in sacra doctrina sub ratione Dei,” in God Without Measure, I:6; St. Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia.1.7; John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 24 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 11.

[3] For a wonderful essay on curiosity as a vice, see John Webster, “Curiosity.” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 193–202; Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?” I:222–224.

[4] Translation mine.

[5] Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?” in God Without Measure, I:217.

[6] John Webster, “Discovering Dogmatics,” in Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2002), 130.

[7] Webster, “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life,” in God Without Measure, II:155.