Prolegomena, the title of this section, simply means prefatory or preliminary remarks. It furnishes the author with the opportunity to let his readers know something of the general plan he has in mind, both its extent and limitations, as well as some of the presuppositions of his thinking and the procedures he plans to use. Prolegomena serve to orient the readers to what the author has in mind for the book.
That a book is a work on theology says something at once about extent, focus, and limitations. The word “theology,” from theos meaning God and logos meaning rational expression, means the rational interpretation of religious faith. Christian theology thus means the rational interpretation of the Christian faith.
At least three elements are included in that general concept of theology.
(1) Theology is intelligible. It can be comprehended by the human mind in an orderly, rational manner.
(2) Theology requires explanation. This, in turn, involves exegesis and systematization.
(3) The Christian faith finds its source in the Bible, so Christian theology will be a Bible-based study. Theology, then, is the discovery, systematizing, and presentation of the truths about God.
Theologies can be cataloged in various ways.
(1) By era: i.e., patristic theology, medieval theology, reformation theology, modern theology.
(2) By viewpoint: i.e., Arminian theology, Calvinistic theology, Catholic theology, Barthian theology, liberation theology, etc.
(3) By focus: i.e., historical theology, biblical theology, systematic theology, apologetic theology, exegetical theology, etc. Some of these distinctions are very important to anyone who studies theology.
Historical theology focuses on what those who studied the Bible thought about its teachings either individually or collectively as in the pronouncements of church councils. It shows how the church has formulated both truth and error and serves to guide the theologian in his own understanding and statement of doctrine. A student can be more efficient in coming to his own understanding of truth by knowing the contributions and mistakes of church history. When it seems appropriate I shall include some history of doctrine in this book.
Though the term biblical theology has been used in various ways, it serves to label a specific focus on the study of theology. In a nontechnical sense it can refer to a pietistic theology (in contrast to a philosophical one), or to a Bible-based theology (in contrast to one that interacts with contemporary thinkers), or to exegetical theology (in contrast to speculative theology). Some contemporary biblical theologies from a liberal perspective fall under this latter category, exegetical, though the exegesis does not faithfully represent the biblical teaching. Often too their works consist of a running commentary through the Bible held together by some large category like kingdom or covenant or God (if Old Testament biblical theology), or categories like the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and primitive Christianity (if New Testament biblical theology).
Technically, biblical theology has a much sharper focus than that. It deals systematically with the historically conditioned progress of the self-revelation of God in the Bible. Four characteristics emerge from this definition.
(1) The results of the study of biblical theology must be presented in a systematic form. In this it is like other areas of biblical and theological studies. The system or scheme in which biblical theology is presented will not necessarily employ the same categories systematic theology uses. It does not have to use them, nor does it have to avoid them.
(2) Biblical theology pays attention to the soil of history in which God’s revelation came. It investigates the lives of the writers of the Bible, the circumstances that compelled them to write, and the historic situation of the recipients of their writings.
(3) Biblical theology studies revelation in the progressive sequence in which it was given. It recognizes that revelation was not completed in a single act on God’s part but unfolded in a series of successive stages using a variety of people. The Bible is a record of the progress of revelation, and biblical theology focuses on that. By contrast, systematic theology views revelation as a completed whole.
(4) Biblical theology finds its source material in the Bible. Actually orthodox systematic theologies do too. This is not to say that biblical or systematic theologies could not or do not draw material from other sources, but the theology or doctrine itself does not come from anywhere but the Bible.
Systematic theology correlates the data of biblical revelation as a whole in order to exhibit systematically the total picture of God’s self-revelation.
Systematic theology may include historical backgrounds, apologetics and defense, and exegetical work, but it focuses on the total structure of biblical doctrine.
To summarize: Theology is the discovery, systematizing, and presentation of the truths about God. Historical theology accomplishes this by focusing on what others throughout history have said about these truths. Biblical theology does this by surveying the progressive revelation of God’s truth. Systematic theology presents the total structure.
Consciously or unconsciously everyone operates on the basis of some presuppositions. The atheist who says there is no God has to believe that basic presupposition. And believing it, he then views the world, mankind, and the future in entirely different ways than the theist. The agnostic not only affirms we cannot know God, but he must believe that as basic to his entire outlook on the world and life. If we can know about the true God then his whole system is smashed. The theist believes there is a God. He mounts confirmatory evidence to support that belief, but basically he believes.
The trinitarian believes God is Triunity. That is a belief gleaned from the Bible. Therefore, he also believes the Bible to be true.
This stands as the watershed presupposition. If the Bible is not true, then trinitarianism is untrue and Jesus Christ is not who He claimed to be. We learn nothing about the Trinity or Christ from nature or from the human mind. And we cannot be certain that what we learn from the Bible about the Triune God is accurate unless we believe that our source itself is accurate. Thus the belief in the truthfulness of the Bible is the basic presupposition. This will be fully discussed under inspiration and inerrancy.
If our source material is so crucial, then we must be concerned how we approach and use it. Accurate theology rests on sound exegesis. Exegetical studies must be made before theological systematization, just as bricks have to be made before a building can be built.
Though a more thorough discussion of hermeneutics will appear in section III, we need to state here the importance of normal interpretation as the basis for proper exegesis. In giving us the revelation of Himself, God desired to communicate, not obscure, the truth. So we approach the interpretation of the Bible presupposing the use of normal canons of interpretation. Remember that when symbols, parables, types, etc. are used they depend on an underlying literal sense for their very existence, and their interpretation must always be controlled by the concept that God communicates in a normal, plain, or literal manner. Ignoring this will result in the same kind of confused exegesis that characterized the patristic and medieval interpreters.
All Scripture is inspired and profitable, but the New Testament has greater priority as the source of doctrine. Old Testament revelation was preparatory and partial, but New Testament revelation is climactic and complete. The doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, while allowed for in the Old Testament, was not revealed until the New Testament. Or, think how much difference exists between what is taught in the Old and New Testaments concerning atonement, justification, and resurrection. To say this is not to minimize what is taught in the Old Testament or to imply that it is any less inspired, but it is to say that in the progressive unfolding of God’s revelation the Old Testament occupies a prior place chronologically and thus a preparatory and incomplete place theologically. Old Testament theology has its place, but it is incomplete without the contribution of New Testament truth.
Liberals and Barthians have often criticized conservatives for using proof texts to substantiate their conclusions. Why do they complain? Simply because citing proof texts will lead to conservative, not liberal, conclusions. They charge it with being an illegitimate, unscholarly methodology, but it is no more illegitimate than footnotes are in a scholarly work!
To be sure, proof texts must be used properly, just as footnotes must be. They must actually be used to mean what they say; they must not be used out of context; they must not be used in part when the whole might change the meaning; and Old Testament proof texts particularly must not be forced to include truth that was only revealed later in the New Testament.
The difference between exegesis and theology is the system used. Exegesis analyzes; theology correlates those analyses. Exegesis relates the meanings of texts; theology interrelates those meanings. The exegete strives to present the meaning of truth; the theologian, the system of truth. Theology’s goal, whether biblical or systematic theology, is the systematization of the teachings under consideration.
In a word, the limitations of a theological system must coincide with the limitations of biblical revelation. In an effort to present a complete system, theologians are often tempted to fill in the gaps in the biblical evidence with logic or implications that may not be warranted.
Logic and implications do have their appropriate place. God’s revelation is orderly and rational, so logic has a proper place in the scientific investigation of that revelation. When words are put together in sentences, those sentences take on implications that the theologian must try to understand.
However, when logic is used to create truth, as it were, then the theologian will be guilty of pushing his system beyond the limitations of biblical truth. Sometimes this is motivated by the desire to answer questions that the Scripture does not answer. In such cases (and there are a number of crucial ones in the Bible) the best answer is silence, not clever logic, or almost invisible implications, or wishful sentimentality. Examples of particularly tempting areas include sovereignty and responsibility, the extent of the Atonement, and the salvation of infants who die.
One should also be able to presuppose certain matters about the student of theology.
Of course unbelievers can write and study theology, but a believer has a dimension and perspective on the truth of God that no unbeliever can have. The deep things of God are taught by the Spirit, whom an unbeliever does not have (1 Cor. 2:10-16).
Believers need to have faith also, for some areas of God’s revelation will not be fully understood by our finite minds.
Ultimately the believer must try to think theologically. This involves thinking exegetically (to understand the precise meaning), thinking systematically (in order to correlate facts thoroughly), thinking critically (to evaluate the priority of the related evidence), and thinking synthetically (to combine and present the teaching as a whole).
Theology and exegesis should always interact. Exegesis does not provide all the answers; when there can legitimately be more than one exegetical option, theology will decide which to prefer. Some passages, for example, could seem to teach eternal security or not; one’s theological system will make the decision. On the other hand, no theological system should be so hardened that it is not open to change or refinement from the insights of exegesis.
Intellect alone does not make a theologian. If we believe in the reality of the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, then certainly this must be a factor in studying theology (John 16:12-15). The content of the Spirit’s curriculum encompasses all the truth, focusing especially on the revelation of Christ Himself which is, of course, found in the Scriptures. To experience this will require a conscious attitude of dependence on the Spirit, which will be reflected in humility of mind and a diligent study of what the Spirit has taught others throughout history. Inductive Bible study is a beneficial way to study, but to do it only is to ignore the results of the work of others, and to do it always can be an inefficient repetition of what others have already done.
Studying theology is no mere academic exercise, though it is that. It is an experience that changes, convicts, broadens, challenges, and ultimately leads to a deep reverence for God. Worship means to recognize the worth of the object worshiped. How can any mortal put his mind to the study of God and fail to increase his recognition of His worth?