Organization Matters

Picked up a systematic theology volume on the new-books shelf in the library the other day, and thought to myself, "starting with creation, again?" I realize I've gotten used to the in medias res way Barth goes about things, but I think it just sets a bad precedent to start with the doctrine of creation as though it were a primary doctrine.

Sometimes I really hate what modernity did to us. We were compelled to fall back on Medieval scholasticism, but on terms it would never have accepted. The result has been that, in many cases, we don't understand why we do the things we do anymore. In Thomas, creation is first because Thomas follows a thoroughgoing teleological arc. And it is first in this way because Thomas is doing apologetics for his prolegomena. Creation definitely has pride of place in apologetics, and for good reason. In the conflict of worldviews, the leading edge tends to be the proof of the worldview, and for us the worldview is inevitably set by our reading of God as creator and the world as creation. This is why Augustine found it so important to hash out, and rehash, and rehash, etc., the material in Genesis 1-3. One sets the stage for the rest of the worldview in this way. But this is not because creation is a primary doctrine—it is simply because apologetics involves wrapping the core doctrines of the faith in a nice candy coating! The consistency of the worldview is the logic that guides the presentation of the articles of the faith.

In dogmatics, however, we are preaching to the converted, and helping them to understand the kinds of natural and logical sequences that let us make sense of the faith internally. Here we are doing Anselm, not Augustine. It is therefore the internal logic by which the faith itself coheres, and not the external logic of the worldview it produces, which is of the greatest importance. In that effort, creation must resume its place among the secondary doctrines.

Now, don't get me wrong—there are lots of things that the doctrine of creation should come before in sequence among the secondary doctrines. Election, for one example. In response to a research question, I recently suggested that one should read the beginning of CD II.2 only after reading III.1 and the first half of III.2, so that you actually understand what's going on. (Yes, really. Otherwise, you might read it as though Barth believed in double predestination, and miss what he's actually doing.) Eschatology, too, obviously. When you're rebuilding a worldview, you start with the nature of the world and proceed logically toward its end. (This is the same reason that creation comes first in apologetics, and generally proceeds toward the eschaton as though by predetermined sequential progress through time. It makes for a coherent worldview!)

Now, that said, I might teach creation and eschatology together in the classroom, because protology and eschatology feed back on one another. Which would, of course, certainly put election/justification and sanctification in their places neatly! But these couldn't be the first things taught, in any case. There's something that must be understood first.

If we really want to teach the right orientations to our students on all the other secondary doctrines that make up a sensible worldview and approach to culture, we have to teach the primary doctrine correctly, and that's soteriology. Not Christology alone, but soteriology in full as an action of God. Everything else follows from God's primary action, the thing that constitutes Yahweh as our god—or anyone's god, for that matter.

That still leaves me with something similar to Barth's arrangement. The act of God for people, beginning with Abraham and proceeding through Israel and Judah, and including its extension to us and the rest of humanity, comes first. This isn't so much a matter of speaking about the divine aseity before handling the economy, as it is a matter of what constitutes the relationship that is basic to every worldview of a people of this God. From there, one may begin with creation and lay out a worldview that accords with the nature of salvation—all the way out to the logical ends of life and the world, as they also accord with the nature of salvation.

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