Where to Begin?

Good morning!

This summer, one of the things I’m reading is a baptist systematic theology by James McClendon, published in three volumes. What’s so interesting about this systematic is that it beings with a treatment of ethics. Most systematics begin either with a discussion of the task of theology, or with theology proper (the doctrine of God), or with a discussion of epistemology (how we can know anything about God). In fact, the systematics that I’ve surveyed (Grudem, Horton, Erickson, Calvin, Berkhof, and Frame, just now) don’t even include a section on ethics, though that is not to say they don’t treat it at all, just that they’ve not devoted a section to it as a sphere of systematic theology.

Realizing this reminded me of a debate we had in one of my doctrine classes last year. We were discussing which is better, to treat systematics in ontologically (beginning with who God is, and then how he reveals himself, and so on) or to treat it epistemologically (beginning with the doctrine of Scripture and natural revelation and moving on from there). McClendon, of course, opted for door number three in this debate, but this got me to thinking- are there more ways to approach systematics? What would be the benefit of these other approaches?

This may be boring to you, and I myself am not convinced of its importance, but I’d like to poll the four people who read my blog to find out what you think. So which is it? I’ve given four options, but feel free to write your own answer in. When we think about theology, where should we start? What’s home base? Doctrine of God, Doctrine of Scripture, Ethics, Doctrine of the Church, or something else?


3 thoughts on “Where to Begin?

  1. Sarah

    I must confess that I never read this blog, but the Almighty Facebook Algorithm put it in my newsfeed this evening (perhaps because it contained the words ‘systematic theology’ and facebook knows me too well?) and I thought that I may as well vote and supplement the thoughts of your regular four readers.

    All that to say: I voted for an Epistemological approach, but it was neck-and-neck with the Communal approach. We were discussing this same issue in my Systematics class this past semester, and my hesitant perspective is that we should not begin a treatment of theology with the broad brushstrokes of the universal (i.e. the Doctrine of God or Ethics), since God seems to express Godself to humanity most often (if not always) through the particular and historical–which leads me to think that it is more useful and accurate to start an exposition of Christian theology with either Scripture or the Church, since both of these are self-admittedly conditioned by history. If that makes sense.

    I would be interested in knowing what it would look like to begin with the doctrine of the Church. That thought intrigues me.

    1. Well, Sarah Jacoby! It’s been a while.

      I appreciate your thoughts. I’ve been thinking for a while about what it would be like to write a systematic which begins with the church, and more specifically the sacraments (the real two). I don’t have very defined thoughts on the subject, but if I ever do they’ll end up here.

  2. Pingback: Worth the Price of the Book | Flotsam and Jetsam

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