We at the Reformed Forum have a burning desire to see Christ as preeminent in all things. We believe that the Scriptures reveal to us Christ, from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore, the ministry of the pulpits of Christ’s church are always best served when the minister of the Word brings forth Christ from all the Scripture so that He is central to the sermon and the church’s ministry. This is part of the reason why we named our flagship podcast Christ the Center.
But, while we believe in the centrality and primacy of Christ in all the church’s mission and theology, there is a sense (an all-important sense) in which we do not mean to speak of the centrality of Christ. Van Til points this up in his An Introduction to Systematic Theology:
Again, there is much in the Scriptures about Christ. After the entrance of sin into the world, Christ is the only way through whom God can be known. He is not only the one through whom we can more fully than otherwise know the Father; it is through him alone that we can come to the Father. Furthermore, Christ is God, so that when we know him we know God. In spite of all this it should always be remembered that Christ’s work is a means to an end. Even if we think of the fact that Christ is the second person of the Trinity, we ought still to remember that it is the full Godhead with whom we ultimately have to do and about whom, in the last analysis, we wish to know. Hence, theology is primarily God centered rather than Christ centered. (p. 16)
I think this is absolutely correct, and is a word of exhortation that theologians—especially today—need to heed. Especially in light of some contemporary attempts to find a new prolegomena and new starting point for doing systematic theology. Usually, these theologies purport to begin with the works of God—whether that be election, creation, the incarnation, or the Gospel, or even eschatology. But theology in general, and systematic theology in particular, must not begin with the works of God.
The intentions of those who want to begin somewhere upon the field of history and the works of God therein are admirable and understandable. Regular listeners of Christ the Center have heard us say time and again how important eschatology is, even invoking Vos’ great maxim: eschatology precedes soteriology. Listeners have heard us harp on the idea that pastoral and preaching imperatives must always be grounded in the indicative of the Gospel. So, why is theology not to be Christ-centered, or Gospel-centered, or grounded in eschatology?
Here Van Til’s answer is as helpful as it is simple: “Christ’s work is a means to an end.” We cannot confuse the absolute, necessary triune being of God with redemptive history. We need to understand both God’s necessary nature AND his works in redemptive history. But the two are not equally primal or important.
That is because God existed—as triune—before he elected, created, or was incarnate. God is necessary, we are not. With all reverence and fear we must even say that not even Jesus Christ—understood as the God-man—is necessary. The God-man is not necessary because creation and sin and redemption were not necessary. The God-man presupposes all those things. Likewise, God did not have to decree to do anything outside of himself (ad extra), he was perfectly content in himself (ad intra). Why was he content? He was content because, without even a thought about us, he is and enjoyed perfect love in the perichoretic relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If he never chose to elect or create or become incarnate he would have been perfectly content in and with himself. Everything he does ad extra is contingent and unnecessary. That means every work of God is always and only to the greater end of his own self-glorification. It is all to serve the triune God.
Therefore, we begin with God himself. He, as triune, is the ground of everything. He is the ground of election, creation, the incarnation, the Gospel, and eschatology. Without the self-contained ontological Trinity there can be no intelligible understanding of anything: not election, not creation, not the Gospel, not eschatology, nothing! So once again from An Introduction to Systematic Theology:
God, as self-sufficient, as the One in whom the One and the Many are equally ultimate, is the One in whom the persons of the Trinity are interchangeably exhaustive, is the presupposition for the intelligent use of words with respect to anything in this universe, whether it be the trees of the garden or the angels in heaven. (p. 180)
Since the triune God is the ground of all things, systematic theology (especially, but not just systematic theology) must begin here, and nowhere else. All true theology, then, has no one and no thing other than God himself at its center.
Finally, why this contemporary desire to begin with God’s acts? It is almost assumed today that to speak about the Trinity is to do speculative theology. It is too often presupposed (and orthodox theologians have allowed the presupposition to go unchallenged!) that talk about the existence, being, and nature of God is philosophical and not properly theological. It is true that in the history of theology the doctrine of God has been treated that way (i.e., as an object of philosophical/speculative study). But that method must be challenged. And Van Til does that for us here. No, beginning with the Trinity is not—and must not be—speculative. Why? Because the triune God of Scripture has directly revealed to us something of his eternal and everlasting nature. While he is eternal and we are not, and therefore we can never comprehend him, we can nevertheless know him truly (albeit in a limited and imperfect way). And we can know him truly, though not comprehensively, as the self-contained ontological Trinity. It is here—and nowhere else—where Van Til will begin his theology and his apologetic approach.