Does Systematic Theology need 'Prolegomena'

Before we enter the domain of Systematic Theology and proceed to address the great doctrines of Christianity, are there certain Prolegomena that must be addressed first?  There is certainly a tradition to that effect.  Bavinck, for example, devotes the whole of the first volume of his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics to Prolegomena,[1] and Barth likewise concerns himself with ‘The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics’ at the very beginning of his Church Dogmatics.[2]  Barth is acutely conscious, however, that the term is ambiguous.  At one level ‘Prolegomena’ means what theology has to say first.  It pauses to introduce itself, declares its presuppositions, announces its intentions, identifies its sources and lays down its norms.  But at the same time it makes clear that it is beholden to no other discipline, and rests firmly on its own foundation and its own first principles.  In such Prolegomena the method itself is theological.  The existence of God, for example, and the authority of scripture, are not first established on philosophical grounds and only then explored theologically.  Instead, theology proceeds on its own foundation, taking its very first step on the basis of faith in divine revelation.

Truths of reason?

It is in this sense that both Bavinck and Barth speak of Prolegomena.  But the word can also bear another meaning: ‘that which must be spoken before theology can be allowed to speak’. 

The classic exponent of this approach was Thomas Aquinas, of whom F. C. Copleston wrote that one of his principal aims was to show that the Christian faith rests on a rational foundation.[3]  Aquinas was fully aware that in the order of experience faith often came before any analysis of its logical foundation, but he nevertheless began his Summa Theologica with a series of truths which could be proved by reason alone; or, alternatively, such truths as ‘were known to wise men among the Gentiles, who were guided only by the light of natural reason.’[4]  Among these truths were the existence of God, along with such attributes as his unity, perfection and infinity.  Only after he had completed this exposition of ‘truths of reason’ did Aquinas then then proceed to consider the truths of revelation.

This approach was continued by many Protestant theologians, though the terminology differed from that of Aquinas.  Turretin undertook to prove that the existence of God could be irrefutably demonstrated against atheists;[5] Shedd similarly devoted a whole chapter to the traditional arguments for the existence of God; and Thomas Chalmers offered an extensive treatment of Natural Theology (including ‘Proofs from External nature for the Being of a God’) before eventually proceeding to the ‘Subject-Matter of Christianity’.[6]

But the most fascinating approach is that of B. B. Warfield, who argues that Theology can speak only after Apologetics has spoken first.  ‘Apologetical Theology,’ he wrote, ‘prepares the way for all theology by establishing its necessary presuppositions without which no theology is possible’.  These ‘necessary presuppositions’ included the existence and essential nature of God, the religious nature of man, and the authenticity of Scripture as divine revelation.  By establishing these, Apologetics lays down the grounds on which a theology is possible.  Granted, Warfield warns both against setting natural and revealed theology over against each other, and against the rationalism that accepts only those tenets of Christianity which can be established by pure reason.  Nevertheless he allows himself to say that it is Apologetics that ‘places the Scriptures in our hands for investigation and study.  Exegetical Theology receives the inspired writings from the hands of Apologetics and investigates their meaning’.[7]

It would be premature to identify Warfield with the school of Aquinas.  He accepts Calvin’s view that a knowledge of God is naturally engraved on the hearts of human beings and is, indeed, part of their very constitution.[8]  He also speaks of the Scriptures having the evidence of their divine origin in themselves, and offers what is probably the best exposition in the English language of the doctrine of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit: ‘faith in God’s Word is not man’s own work, but the gift of God; and man needs a preparation of the spirit, as well as an exhibition of the evidences, in order to be persuaded and enabled to yield faith and obedience.’[9]     Ambiguities remain in Warfield, however, and over against these ambiguities theology has to state clearly that it does not depend on any other discipline to establish the existence of its subject-matter (God); or to authenticate its sources; or to validate its methodology.

This does not mean that these points do not need to be established.  But they cannot be established prior to faith or as a prelude to faith.  Even less can they put theology on such a footing that faith is no longer required.  On the contrary, Apologetics is itself an activity of faith,[10] which is what Anselm meant when he spoke of Fides quaerens intellectum (‘Faith In Quest of Understanding’, the original title of his Proslogion, written in 1059).[11]   Belief in God can give reasons for itself.  But it exists before these reasons.

This is in perfect accord with what we find in Scripture. The Bible nowhere undertakes to prove the existence of God.  Instead, its very first words are, ‘In the beginning, God’.  He is there before us: before creation, before the existence of man, before every human activity: and, supremely, before the theologian and before our Prolegomena.  Not even those biblical passages which come closest to ‘natural theology’ focus on the question of God’s existence.  For example, Psalm 19:1-6 does not tell us that the heavens prove that God exists.  They tell us that the heavens declare his glory.  Similarly, according to Romans 1:20 the ‘made things’ do not serve to prove that there is ‘a god’, but to give a clear revelation of his eternal power and God-ness (theiotēs).  Belief in God’s existence is not, then, the result of the sort of non-theological (or pre-theological) arguments represented by the famous Five Proofs of Aquinas.  Indeed, Aquinas himself believed that the existence of God is self-evident, and quoted approvingly the words of John of Damascus, ‘the knowledge of the existence of God is implanted in us by nature.’[12] Simply because we are human God has already made himself plain to us (Rom. 1:19).  It would be imprecise to describe this knowledge as ‘innate’, as if the new-born child began to cry for God as soon as she began to cry for her mother.  What Paul is laying down here is that every human being is surrounded by divine (not ‘natural’) revelation, is born with the seed of religion in her heart and will develop an awareness of God (Calvin’s sensus divinitatis)[13] as naturally as she develops a sense of time and space.  What she will do with this knowledge is, of course, another matter.  Unless the Spirit renews her mind she will suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).

It would be wrong describe this sensus as faith, because it is not naturally accompanied by trust and appropriate worship.[14]  Nevertheless, it means that awareness of God is there in the beginning, long before we are in any position to deploy Aquinas’s theistic proofs.  It is not a conscious logical inference from observed facts.  Yet it can give reasons for itself, and the quest for such reasons is entirely legitimate, provided we remember that they are a posteriori, coming after ‘faith’, not before it.  Traditionally, these reasons have had a philosophical cast, showing the coherence between biblical faith and the nature of the world we live in.  Here Apologetics meshes with another dictum of Anselm’s, Credo ut intellegam (‘I believe in order that I may understand’).[15]  Biblical faith helps us understand, for example, why it is that people everywhere have what C. S. Lewis called ‘this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way’,[16] why religious practices are to be found in every human society and how it has come about that we live in a cognitively friendly universe (an argument to which modern science, and particularly micro-biology, has given a new cogency).  There has been a comparative neglect, however, of the kind of historical argument commonly deployed in Scripture, particularly in the great narrative psalms (Pss.74, 77, 78, 105, 106) where Israel recalled the mighty deeds of Yahweh.  Abraham had an experiential, objective reason to believe, because God had spoken to him; Jacob, because he had met him at Bethel; Israel, because she owed her very existence to the mighty acts of the Exodus; and the apostles because they had seen the divine epiphany in the face of Jesus Christ, culminating in the glory of his resurrection appearances.  From this point of view, faith is rooted in empirical, historical evidence.

These mighty acts, revelatory as well as redemptive, are the presuppositions of all theology: the prolegomena spoken by God himself, and facing us there in the very beginning.


The authenticity of Scripture

But, presupposing God’s existence, do we still need a prolegomenon, a non-theological word which puts the Bible in our hands, assuring us that it is the word of God?  This was certainly the traditional approach.  The ‘authenticity’ of Scripture was proved using, for example, the argument from fulfilled prophecy, corroboration from archaeology, and the attestation of the biblical writers by their performance of miracles.  However, just as Scripture never undertakes to prove the existence of God, so it offers no formal proof that the Bible is his word.  The prophets simply announce themselves as prophets, and declare, ‘Thus says the Lord!’  The apostles announce themselves as servants of the risen Lord and write on the basis that they have the mind of Christ (1 Cor.  2:16); and the people they write to have already received their word as the word of God.  It was certainly not from Apologetics that the Thessalonians received Paul’s word when, as he tells us, they accepted it ‘not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God’ (1 Thess. 2:13).  They believed it, not because they had been furnished with objective, universally cogent logical proof that his message did indeed come from God, but because the Holy Spirit bore witness to his word.  The gospel came to them ‘not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy spirit and with deep conviction’.  This parallels what we read in Acts 16:14.  Lydia received the apostles’ message because the Lord opened her heart.  What this means (and only the briefest summary is possible here) is that not only is faith in general the gift of God (Eph. 2:8), but the specific faith by which we believe the Bible to be his word is also his gift.  It is entirely due to the work of the Holy Spirit that we believe to be true whatever is revealed in the Word (Westminster Confession, 14:20); and this is precisely what Calvin meant when he spoke of the inward or secret (arcanum) testimony of the Holy Spirit.[17]

It needs careful definition, however.  In the case of the apostles’ preaching, it was not a change wrought in either the message or the messenger at the point of delivery.  Nor, in the case of the modern reader, is it a change wrought in the Bible itself, as if it suddenly ‘becomes’ the word of God when it hits home with power.  As in the case of Lydia, it is a change wrought in the Bible-reader or the gospel-hearer herself: the change which Jesus described as being ‘born again’ (Jn. 3:3) and which immediately transforms us into ‘spiritual’ men and women (Jn. 3:6) able to ‘see’ the kingdom of God and able to receive the things of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13-16).

Yet, though faith in scripture has its genesis in an act of the Holy Spirit it, too, can give a posteriori reasons for itself, as Calvin does in Book I of the Institutes.[18]  Only to a very limited extent, however, are these reasons ‘external’.  One can argue, for example, that the apostolic authorship of New Testament books can be confirmed from contemporary sources; that the writers themselves were close to the events they were describing; that they were natives immersed in the culture in which Jesus lived and moved; and that as contemporaries of the events which they were reporting they were always open to being exposed as fraudsters.

But the main force of the evidence lies in the internal characteristics of the Bible itself.  Just as the nature of the world around us coheres with our faith in God as the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, so the believer recognises that the features of the Bible cohere with the fact that it is the word of God.  We may use these features as the basis of our certainty, but what is more important is that the Holy Spirit uses them.  It was he who imparted these characteristics to Scripture, and it is through these characteristics that he bears witness to it as his own word, in the same way as the Mona Lisa bears witness to its own genius not by a summoning of witnesses and the presentation of evidence, but by itself.  In the case of Scripture, its crowning glory, and the feature by which above all it bears witness to itself, is the Christ it proclaims: a Christ than who (to adapt Anselm once again) ‘a greater cannot be conceived’.[19]  There are good reasons for giving this accolade to Christ, and we are fully warranted to explore these reasons in our preaching.  Yet, without the concurrent work and witness of the Holy Spirit not even the most brilliant presentation of the matchless divinity of the gospel message will ever by itself bring un-renewed men and women to confess with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God!’  (Jn. 20:28)

In his 1879 Encyclical commending ‘The Restoration of Christian Philosophy according to the Mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Leo XIII laid down that, ‘if philosophy be rightly and wisely used, it is able in a certain measure to pave and guard the way to the true faith’.  The problem with this is that it requires us to start outside the Christian faith and to adopt a neutral position, unprejudiced and unbiased, from which we may proceed to lay the foundations of the Christian faith.  But there can be no neutral position.  The human mind is enmity against God (Rom. 8:7) and to seek in human reason a warrant for faith is to contradict at the outset one of the cardinal insights of Christianity: the spiritual blindness of the human mind.  Aquinas was fully aware of the problem that this created: since Scripture ‘has no science above itself’ it can dispute with an opponent who denies its principles only if that opponent accepts some at least of the truths obtained by revelation.  However, ‘If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning’.[20]  In the absence of common ground, the most we can hope for is to answer his objections.[21]

In sum, the discussion with philosophy (and particularly with atheism) would have to proceed without any agreement as to what we mean by ‘God’, it would have to exclude any in-put from special revelation (the Scriptures) and it would have to assume that there is a line of argument which is equally acceptable and equally cogent to believer and unbeliever alike (which there clearly is not).  Christian theology cannot accept this starting-point.  On the contrary, it has to take its very first step from a position of commitment: ‘in the beginning, God’.  It begins with faith, not as an alternative to knowledge but as the starting-point for knowledge; and it proceeds from there both to expand its knowledge and to give reasons for its faith; and that means giving reasons not for the position that ‘there probably is a god,’ but for the Christian belief that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is most assuredly the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth.

We should not be deterred from this approach by the objection that it amounts to no more than wishful thinking: we had wanted a certain conclusion, we had already come to it, and we had come to it on quite different grounds to those we are now putting forth.  This may very well be true, but even in the natural sciences the hypothesis often comes before the evidence.  Someone who has believed in God since childhood may very well ask himself in later life whether his belief is reasonable and, as Copleston points out, ‘if he offers what he considers to be rational evidence, it ought to be considered on its merits and not dismissed from the start on the ground that it cannot be anything more than wishful thinking.’[22]  After all, the physicists who verified the existence of Higgs Boson were already convinced it was there, and were desperate to prove it; and Einstein’s Theories of Relativity were cherished as mathematical predictions years before they were verified by experimental proof.

A proposition is not necessarily false simply because we wish it to be true.



[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena (ed. John Bolt, tr. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I:I (tr. G. T. Thomson; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936), pp. 26-47.

[3] F. C. Copleston, Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker (London: Penguin, 1955), p. 11.

[4] From the Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII (1879), On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy according to the Mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor.

[5] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (tr. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennsion, Jr.; Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 3 Vols. 1992-1997), Vol. 1, pp. 169-177.

[6] W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (3 vols., 1889-94.  Reprinted Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.;), Vol. 1, pp. 221-248.  Thomas Chalmers, Institutes of Theology (2 vols.; Edinburgh: Thomas Constable, 1856), pp. 71-126.

[7] From the article, ‘The Idea of Systematic Theology’ in B. B. Warfield, Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), p. 64.

[8] See the article, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God’ in B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956), pp. 33-37.

[9] From the article, ‘The Westminster Doctrine of Holy Scripture’ in B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), pp. 211-224.  The quotation is from p. 212.

[10] Cf. the words of Herman Bavinck: ‘Apologetics cannot precede faith and does not attempt a priori to argue the truth of revelation.  It assumes the truth and belief in the truth.  It does not, as the introductory part or as the foundational science, precede theology and dogmatics.  It is itself a theological science through and through’. (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 515).

[11] For the ‘Proslogion’ see Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, pp. 82-104.

[12] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 2, Article 1.  John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, I:III.

[13] Calvin, Institutes I:III, 1.

[14] Cf. the words of Calvin, ‘we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety.’ (Institutes, I:II, 1).

[15] Proslogion, 1.

[16] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Signature Classics Edition; London: Collins, 2012), p. 8.

[17] Institutes I:VII, 4.

[18] Institutes I:VIII.

[19] Anselm, Proslogion, 2.

[20] Cf. Barth’s comments on Anselm’s apparent presupposition that it was possible to have a discussion on the unbeliever’s ground: ‘is he not deceiving himself when he thinks that his “proofs” could ever be understood by the unbelievers, by those who quaerunt, quia non credunt [enquire because they do not believe]’.  Barth is here protesting against the possibility of a ‘theologia irregintorum [a theology of the unregenerate], a theological, non-Christian impartiality.’ (Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm’s Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of his Theological Scheme; London: SCM Press, 1960, p. 69).

[21] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Pt. 1, Q. 1, Article 8.

[22] Copleston, Aquinas, p. 20.