We begin our series on the Doctrine of God with an extended quote from Michael Horton from the first chapter of his new book Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). Some approaches to theology attempt to talk about God, and make philosophical arguments for God, apart from Scripture. Horton challenges this approach head-on. The term “theology” means the study of God: theos is Greek for “God” and logos is Greek for “word, matter, thing”. Horton says that we cannot talk about God without first hearing the God who talks to us. The Bible is the “Word of God” revealing his gospel (“good news” or “good announcement”). To talk about God without genuinely hearing God speak his announcement to us through his written Word is thus pointless.
The whole quote is long but excellent and worthy of a good read and sustained reflection at the outset of this series:
“ … I want to begin our journey of understanding — the pilgrim way — with the central claim to which all of Scripture leads and from which it all flows. In other words, we begin by turning to the climax of the novel and then going back to read the pages leading up to it. We begin with the most scandalous of all claims made by the Christian faith: the gospel — the good news concerning Jesus Christ. The gospel is not something you can just tack on to another worldview. On the contrary, it makes you rethink everything from the ground up, from the center out. Only when we start with the gospel—the most controversial point of Christian faith—are we ready to talk about who God is and how we know him.
I do not believe the gospel because I believe in God; rather, I believe in God because of the gospel. There are great arguments for the existence of a supreme being, but unless the gospel is true, the claim that a god exists is either personally meaningless or a horrible threat. God’s existence and moral attributes are revealed in nature, but it’s only after we embrace the gospel that we see the truth about God and ourselves in full color. There is more for us to know in the Bible than the gospel, but apart from it there is nothing worth knowing. Some Christians think it’s better to move people to theism (belief in a deity) and then introduce them to the gospel, but I would argue that it is the gospel that makes it even possible for me to believe in God — not only to believe that someone or something exists beyond us all, but to trust in this particular God who is known in Jesus Christ.
In the end, it all comes down to a simple question: what kind of “God” are we talking about? If we’re just talking about a higher power, a vague God defined by beliefs that we all share in common, then theology seems like a pretty trivial affair. Nor am I suggesting that we should begin with great arguments for the reliability and authority of the Bible. I’ll be offering some of those in the next chapter. Yet my confidence in Scripture, too, is first established by the gospel. As Herman Bavinck observed, faith in Scripture rises and falls with faith in Christ.
In a sense, this entire volume is an exploration of the message richly summarized in Romans 1:1–6 as
the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
First, the gospel I am talking about is “the gospel of God.” Every field of study requires an object. Astronomy is the study of stars (and other celestial bodies), botany is the study of plants, sociology studies society, and so forth. The object is evident in the name of the discipline. Similarly, theology (theo-logia) is the study of God. The object of theology is not the church’s teaching or the experience of pious souls. It is not a subset of ethics, religious studies, cultural anthropology, or psychology. God is the object of this discipline.
And the gospel is the good news of God, from God: the announcement of God’s purposes, promises, and achievements — not ours. God can be the object of our knowledge only because he has freely and actively revealed himself. Whenever God is revealed, he is also the revealer. If God doesn’t reveal himself, we’re just talking to ourselves in a godlike voice, spiritual ventriloquists who make our wooden partner speak the lines we have written for it. Saying that God is the object of theology entails a pretty strong claim: namely, that God can be known. Yet that is precisely Paul’s claim here: “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” God can be known because he has revealed himself.”
(Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011] 20–21; italic emphases his, bold emphases mine).
The whole book, which is an “abridgment” of his larger magnum opus, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), is truly excellent and has now become my first recommendation for a “systematic theology”. [Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore and Amazon.com]
I am always glad to hear from readers. Please feel free to leave comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow regular updates on Twitter: @aaronmeares. And please feel free to share this with friends.
 Quoted in G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 44.