Sometimes things are too obvious to notice at first glance. Whether it’s your keys, or a key feature of a film you’ve watched a half-dozen times, we’ve all had moments where we finally notice something that was hiding in plain sight.
The same thing happens in theology from time to time.
In his short article, “The Myth of Decretal Theology,” Richard Muller sets about doing what he’s known for–exploding myths about the nature and development of the theology of the Reformation tradition. In this piece, among other points, he tackles the notion that the Reformed Orthodox ‘systems’ of theology begin with the “decree” as an architectonic principle and then “rather than follow a biblical, historical order of doctrine or a cognitive order, ‘abstract decretalism’ moves deductively through the topics of theological system from God, to Creation, human nature, sin, covenant, Christ, salvation, the church, and the last things.”
Muller first shows that, in point of fact, the systems never actually began with the decree as an architectonic or fundamental cognitive principle. In which point, it might be wondered, “why the Reformed systems follow a ‘deductive’ rather than a ‘biblical’ order.”
The answer to this query is quite simple: The order of system that runs from God and creation, to human nature and sin, promise and covenant, law and gospel, Christ and salvation, church and last things, looks suspiciously like the order of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation [my emphasis]. If there are deductive elements to this order, the predominant model is the biblical and historical order. Indeed, those sixteenth-century theologians who discussed the order of theology, notably Melanchthon and Hyperius, emphasized the historical order of the theological topics. This order, by the way, is also mirrored to a certain extent in the Apostles’ Creed — which also accounts for the shape of theological systems like Lombard’s Sentences and Calvin’s Institutes in which there are variations away from a strictly historical order. In other words, not only is the order of orthodox Reformed theological system not governed by a process of deduction from the decree, in addition, it is not an order devised by the Reformed orthodox. It is a traditional order of theological system, basic to Western Christianity and followed in fact by monergist and synergist alike. The Reformed system is biblical and historical not purely deductive.
Muller is exactly right. There are various possible ways to order and organize one’s exposition of doctrine, but there’s nothing particularly surprising (or deficient) about the way the theological tradition has typically done so. The reason has been hiding in plain sight between the pages of Scripture.
Soli Deo Gloria