Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to teach systematic theology in a variety of settings, from seminary classrooms to university courses to Sunday school classes in the local church. But no matter where I’ve taught systematics, the first place I typically start is the doctrine of God. Theology, of course, studies God and His character and ways, so it’s appropriate to begin with a look at His nature and attributes before examining what the Bible has to say about redemption, the church, the last things, and the other categories of systematic theology.
Whenever I’ve taught the doctrine of God, I’ve started out with two statements that have seemed to fill many of my students with no small amount of consternation. It’s been my practice to tell them that on the one hand there’s nothing particularly unique about the doctrine of God confessed in the Reformed tradition of Christian theology. Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, the Dutch Reformed, and other Reformed Christians affirm the same attributes of God that Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, the Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics all do. There’s nothing radically different about our doctrine of God.
Yet, when those same students have asked me what’s the most significant distinctive of Reformed theology, I’ve said it’s our doctrine of God. Now, that does sound completely contradictory to my first statement, but I say that the Reformed doctrine of God sets us apart from other traditions for the reason that I know of no other theology that takes seriously the doctrine of God with respect to every other doctrine. In most systematic theologies, you get an affirmation of the sovereignty of God on page one of your theology text, but then once you move on to soteriology (doctrine of salvation), eschatology (doctrine of last things), and anthropology (doctrine of humanity), and so on, the author has seemingly forgotten what he said about God’s sovereignty on page one.
Reformed theologians, however, self-consciously see the doctrine of God as informing the whole scope of Christian theology. That’s one of the reasons why Calvinists tend to focus so much on the Old Testament. We’re concerned about the character of God as defining everything—our understanding of Christ, our understanding of ourselves, our understanding of salvation. We turn to the Old Testament because it’s one of the most important sources that you find anywhere in the universe on the nature and character of God. Reformed Christians tend to take the Old Testament very seriously because it’s such a vivid revelation of the majesty of God.
Just think of the key revelations of God in the Old Testament. At our recent Ligonier Ministries National Conference, I looked at Isaiah 6, which is probably the single text I’ve preached on more often than any other in my preaching career. There we find one of the most vivid disclosures of divine holiness in all of Scripture. Then, of course, there’s the Lord’s revelation of Himself and His covenant name to Moses at the burning bush that we read about in Exodus 3. That’s a must-read chapter for anyone seeking to understand God’s independence and self-existence. When I’ve sought a reminder of our Creator’s commitment to truth and His faithfulness to keep His covenant promises, I’ve often turned to Genesis 15, where God swears by Himself to fulfill His pledge to Abraham to give him innumerable descendants. And for a vivid portrayal of God’s unfailing, effectual love for His people—His bride—you can hardly find a better place to go in Scripture than the book of Hosea.
I could offer many more examples, but what do these episodes all have in common? These revelations of God all take place at various crisis points in the lives of God’s people. Both Isaiah and Moses were about to be sent on a great mission to proclaim the greatness of the Lord to hardened people. What did they need most at a time like that? Not a promise of success—indeed, Isaiah was told that his message would harden hearts (Isa. 6:8-13). No, what they needed was an understanding of the Lord’s character. When God wanted to give them assurance, He gave them Himself. The same was true of Abraham and Hosea. Humanly speaking, Abraham had little evidence to believe that God would give him many descendants. So, the Lord assured the patriarch of His faithfulness by committing Himself to His own destruction—an impossibility—should He not keep His Word. Hosea lived in a day when it seemed as if God had fully and finally cast off His people for their unfaithfulness. What hope could the Lord provide that He loved Israel with an everlasting love? It was the revelation of Himself as the Husband who is perfect in love and faithfulness.
Reformed theology’s doctrine of God and its emphasis on all of His attributes at every point in the unfolding of salvation sets it apart from other Christian understandings of the Lord. And our doctrine of God is drawn from Genesis through Revelation, from the Old Testament as much as from the New Testament. Why, therefore, wouldn’t we soak up the whole counsel of God and read both testaments with great devotion?