If theology is to be radically Trinitarian, where then must theology begin? The standard answer to the beginning point of dogmatics has long been a contentious question for Christian theologians. Do we begin with the Doctrine of God or of Scripture? It seems we should begin with God, because after all, God is at the center of everything Christians believe and do. “For from him, and through him, and to him are all things, to him be the glory forever!” (Rom. 11:36).
But, of course, as some evangelicals are quick to point out, how do we come to know God? The answer on the tip of their tongues is always and everywhere: the Bible! But this of course unleashes a herd of methodological problems of its own. First of all the church has not always had the Bible, but it has always been busily doing theology that bears witness to the gospel. Secondly, there is of course the issue that the Bible needs to be interpreted and as such constitutes at best an ambiguous and difficult starting point for theology. Indeed, one of the key aims of theology is to guide the church into the right interpretation of Scripture, to believe for example that Jesus’ teachings about not taking vengeance are more central to the Christian life than the war-making methods of ancient Israel.
These conundrums are all to well known, and frankly, utterly boring. Both take their impetus in a foundationalist approach to theology seeks to derive either an ontological bedrock from God upon which our metaphysical claims can securely rest, or an epistemological beachhead in Scripture which can be an incontestable foundation for our claims about God. Both of these impulses are at once ahistorical and non-confessional. Christian theology, I contend is thoughtful reflection on the confession of the Christian church regarding Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the definitive revelation of the God of Israel. Thus, the starting point of theology is Christology. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ (Jn. 5:39-40), in whom is life. And God is revealed in Christ and indeed, primordially and exclusively in Christ (Jn. 1:18).
Thus, Christian theology begins with the confession of Jesus Christ both as the Messiah of Israel’s Yahwistic promises, and as the definitive embodiment of the divine identity in the world. Christian theology begins with the confession of Christ as internal to the divine identity thus seeing the relationship between Christ and the Father as definitive of the nature of the God of Israel. The nature of Christ’s relationship to the Father, as it is unfolded in the narrative of Christ’s person and work, is likewise a narrative which depicts Christ and his Father as existing in a relationship of ontologically definitive intimacy. The relations between Christ and the Father as revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are shown to be definitive of the identities of Christ and the Father, and thus of the nature of the God of Israel.
It was impulses such as these, grounded in the narrative of Jesus and his relationship with the Father that led the church to develop the various forms of the regula fide, the rule of faith. These early creeds shaped the church’s interpretation of Scripture in such a way as to orient their understanding of God to the trajectories of the gospel, namely in showing the Christ’s person and work are internal, not external to the identity of God, and coterminous with this assertion soon came the confession that the Spirit of the Father and Son, whom Christ sent upon his followers after his resurrection and ascension is likewise internal to the mystery of God.
Christian theology begins in the disciple’s confession that Christ is the Son of God. Christian theology is the working out of the confession that the divine identity of the God of Israel is what we are given in Jesus as attested to by the Spirit, Scripture, and ecclesial Tradition. The genesis of theology is in the reality of the church’s being incorporate, by the Spirit into the Son’s relationship with the Father. And thus, Christian theology is Trinitarian theology. It is theology which, precisely by confessing Christ as the incarnate God, finds itself located within the same sphere of relations which define Christ and those who make up his body. Theology then is to be radically Trinitarian, because its ultimate context is the Trinity itself. Theology exists as our human attempt to understand and rightly participate in the depths of the divine love into which we have been drawn by the Spirit of Christ. Christian theology begins with the confessional narrative of the history of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecostal breathing forth of the Spirit of the Father. And Christian theology begins thusly because the church (and thus, the theologian) is a participant in this ongoing drama of the Triune God’s redemption of the world.
All of this, of course will not satisfy everyone. Many theologians feel the need for a more secure footing upon which to do theology than the contingencies of confession and history. To found one’s theology upon a confession is an act of epistemological vulnerability (which is not the same thing as epistemological recklessness). On this point, and in all the doing of theology we must remember that we cannot be more concrete or definitive than God has revealed himself to be in Jesus. We follow a God who was tortured to death, and as such, why should needing to submit our thinking about God to the contingencies and vulnerabilites of a particular history and confession surprise us? If theology is a practice of discipleship (and it is), then we should expect it to take the same shape as its subject matter. If God is the Triune One who kenotically pours himself out into the world in the history of Jesus Christ, through crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost, then why should theology expect to be able to practice its task an a non-kenotic, secure, invulnerable manner? The theologian, above all must remember the words of Jesus of Nazareth who is the Trinitarian Son of the Father:
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matt. 10:24-25)