The question of where to begin in one's theological method has always haunted any systematic arrangement of theology. Should one begin with evidentialist arguments stemming from first principles? Should one begin with natural theology in defending the existence of God from pure reason? Or should one begin solely with the presupposition of God's existence? Or should one begin with the nature of Scripture as the means to knowing God, thus leading to a description of the God who exists?
Erickson uniquely handles the problem by suggesting that we begin the theological task by both assuming God's existence and God's self-revelation. In other words, 'God is' and 'God has spoken'; or as Francis Schaeffer put it, "He is there and He is not silent." Erickson whittles these two assumptions into a single presupposition: the "self-revealing God". When explicated to the full, Erickson's starting presupposition expands to the following statement:
There exists one Triune God, loving, all-powerful, holy, all-knowing, who has revealed himself in nature, history, and human personality, and in those acts and words which are now preserved in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
I don't think Erickson gains any epistemological ground in combining the two assumptions into one proposition. Furthermore, his starting point (as stated in the definition above) appears to be thoroughly developed and initially packed with Christian theology before he even begins the theological task.
The Limits of Reason
In my opinion, Erickson doesn't adequately defend his view of the relationship between reason and revelation. As stated in Dr. Sanders' lecture, Erickson's critiques of other's views fail to recognize that his own critique is grounded in a philosophical position. For better or for worse, it does not appear that one can escape rooting a systematic presentation of doctrine in some philosophical foundation. Perhaps this highlights how a systematic theology is always at least two-steps removed from revelation. Or perhaps it merely underscores the fact that any worldview developed in light of Christian revelation will have philosophical underpinnings in order to sustain one's systematic framework -- a framework both foreign to and supported by Scripture.
The Christian life begins with grace and faith, not reason. In seeking to properly relate reason to revelation, the weakness of unaided human reason is exposed.
Reason may play a role and be an instrument in God's call, but one never becomes a Christian simply by reaching the end of a purely human chain of reasoning and concluding, "Well, I guess if I want to be reasonable I have to believe in God and Jesus Christ." No, the genesis of authentic Christianity may include a process of reasoning, but it cannot be reduced to that. Faith is that mysterious element which involves personal conviction, an insight from somewhere else, a transformation of heart that inclines one toward God in a new way.
In spite of the philosopher's best attempts, the relationship of reason to revelation cannot be thoroughly harmonized. They are at odds at certain points. Donald Bloesch addresses this conflict of intentions: "Philosophy is necessarily anthropocentric or homocentric. Even when a place is made for God, God is there to crown the human quest for wisdom and security." Bloesch concludes by stating that
Philosophy is neither a preparation for theology nor a handmaid of theology� Instead, it is a potential rival of theology, for it represents a world view that must invariably conflict with the biblical view of God and the world. Yet it is not necessarily an enemy of theology, for the Spirit of God works in the world as well as in the church. The partial truths that it stumbles upon can be brought into the service of theology.
The Value of Tradition
In regard to tradition, Erickson quickly brushes aside its significance as a true source for theology. According to Erickson, "History is theology's laboratory, in which it can assess the ideas that it espouses or considers espousing." Thus, he gives tradition an experimental and advisory role, but not an authoritative position. Indeed, it appears that tradition is no more than another name for experience.
From an evangelical perspective, I agree with Erickson's Scripture-centeredness in his theological method. I also agree with Erickson's attempts to relate theology to other sources of authority. As far as I can tell, Erickson does not consider reason, tradition, and experience to necessarily be at odds with the theological task.
My main difference with Erickson centers around his use of tradition as a theological source. I would accord tradition much greater significance than Erickson. In the hierarchy of available sources I would assign it second place, with reason and experience tied in third place. Our experience and reason can be very misleading (and faddish, being bound to contemporary standards) if not interpreted through the grid of Holy Scripture as seen in and through the historic traditions of the Christian faith.
I agree with Vincent of Lerins that all authentic and binding Christian teaching must be established in light of what "has been believed everywhere (ecumenity), always (antiquity), and by all people (universality of consensus)." I believe that this is summarized in the first four ecumenical creeds and the historic "rule of faith". Evangelicals are none the stronger for abandoning or forgetting these authoritative sources.
Evangelicals are suspicious at best and forgetful at worst when it comes to tradition. I do not believe that tradition is bad in and of itself. Indeed, a common received tradition is the very tie that binds Christians together. When ancient traditions are abandoned, we are not left tradition-less. Rather, new traditions are developed to replace them. In the process, the new traditions are usually faddish in nature, having no context outside the present moment in which to analyze their relative value. The test of time is the best test of truth and the traditions of the past have either passed this test or revealed their inadequacies. Either way, they are a stable point for engaging in the theological task.
I believe a distinction must be drawn between tradition and traditionalism. Traditionalism views tradition as the highest authority and thus relegates Scripture to equal or lesser authority. On the other hand, to consider tradition as a source of authority in the theological task, is not to succumb to the error of traditionalism. When tradition is properly viewed as a valid, yet a lesser, authority than Scripture, it proves very helpful and illuminating.
The Priority of Biblical Revelation
In short, I view tradition, reason, and experience as valid authorities in the development of Christian theology. But the final authority is Holy Scripture. An analogy could be drawn from our court system. We have lower and higher courts in our land. The ultimate court is the Supreme Court. When contentions arise, people appeal to the proper authorities. Initially, they take their conflict to a lower court. If the lower court cannot reach an authoritative decision, then the appeal must be taken to a higher court. Ultimately, the disagreement may have to be heard in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will then have the final say, since it is the ultimate authority.
I believe that this is the essence of the historic understanding of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura does not teach that Scripture is our only authority, rather it teaches that Scripture is our highest authority. Thus, tradition, reason, and worship are important authorities, but not the final court of appeal. That place is reserved for Scripture alone.
Thus I agree with Millard Erickson in affirming that the primary source of theology is the canon of Scripture. His definition of theology confirms this to be the case: Theology is that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily on the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life.
This does not negate the great value of tradition or the use of reason in the theological task. Rather, it accords Scripture primacy of authority over these two helpful sources. In the process, Scripture is interpreted in a context that allows all valid sources of authority -- tradition, reason, and even experience -- to form and shape our theological system.
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 34.
 Ibid., 34.
 Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 17.
 Donald Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 40.
 Ibid., 49.
 Millard Erickson, 28.
 " Now, with regard to this rule of faith�that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend�it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen �in diverse manners� by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics." (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 13)
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 23. Italics added.
© Richard J. Vincent, July 25, 2000