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First Principles in Doing Theology

I'm currently going through First Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer with a friend of mine, so you'll see a few sporadic posts on the book over the next several months. This first post is drawn from the first chapter, which is programmatic for the rest of the book.

When doing theology where do you start as a matter of first principles, do you start with God or with Scripture? Throughout the history of the church we've seen people come down on both sides of this question. Some have said that we must be able to prove God first apart from Scripture, and following that proof we can utilize Scripture, because Scripture's authority is derived from God's authority. Others have argued the other way around, saying that one cannot know God apart from an authoritative Scriptural text and then we develop a picture of God on that basis. We've also seen some who have answered that we need to consider both God and Scripture together, noticing that it's impossible to consider one apart from the other.

While Vanhoozer lies in continuity with this last group he goes beyond them. One key observation that he makes is that one's view of God and Scripture are correlated. How you see one usually impacts how you see the other. This is evidenced in people as opposite as B.B. Warfield and Rudolf Bultmann. Warfield takes the Bible as doctrine and sees God as the revealer of truth. Bultmann sees Scripture as myth and expressing the self-understanding of faith. His understanding of God is not of one who acts in history but as the power behind a new human possibility. The approach Vanhoozer suggests is to see God as a communicative agent and to see Scripture as God's mighty speech acts.

While within the vicinity of Warfield, Vanhoozer's approach has a major advantage. Namely, by seeing Scripture as God's speech act, you avoid the tendency, common in theology, of flattening out Scripture, either by favoring particular portions of the Bible (e.g., Paul's letters or narratives) or turning the entire Bible into one mode of communication (e.g., all propositions or assertions). Vanhoozer claims that we need to understand Scripture as God has spoken it. Each genre needs to be allowed to speak for itself and every voice needs to be heard. This leads to the observation that in fact our duo of Scripture and God needs to become a trio. We must take God, Scripture, and hermeneutics as one problem, and then, at the level of first principles, our starting point should be theological hermeneutics, a hermeneutical method appropriate to the subject studied.


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