Essay / Theology

Progress in Theology

There’s an important sense in which theology doesn’t ever change at all. There’s a logos of theos, a knowledge of God, that is truly immutable. To speak of this unchanging character of the knowledge of God, though, we have to raise our eyes higher than we are accustomed to do. We have to look up to the knowledge of God which is coeternal with God; indeed, a knowledge of God which is coessential with God; indeed, a knowledge of God which simply is God’s own self-knowledge in the simple unity of the Trinity.

If it sounds very odd to our modern ears to call that theology, I suspect that has more to do with our modern ears than it does with the definition of theology. An earlier generation of the Christian tradition recognized it as the true theology, theology itself, archetypal theology. The theology we do down here in the world of time and history and development is ectypal: when it’s true and accurate, it’s an imprinted likeness of the archetype. The theology we teach and learn is true when it is stamped by the pattern of God’s own truth.

And the theology we teach and learn is subject to change.

In fact, there are four different processes of growth in understanding that are relevant for theology. They are very different from each other, but they should all be taken into account in reckoning with theology. Failing to recognize them tends to freeze up your theology; failing to distinguish them leads to all sorts of disarray in contemporary theology.

The four are:

1. Progressive revelation, wherein God carries out a series of communicative actions to make something known more fully bit by bit, over time, in an economy of revelation. Progressive revelation is a phenomenon within the structure of biblical theology, and can be traced between shorter arcs within the biblical history of God’s economy of communication, as well as across the entire canon’s unity. Progressive revelation presupposes a comprehensive unity which is capable of partial unveiling.

2. Doctrinal development, whereby the church, without any new revelation, unfolds its understanding of what has been revealed. Doctrinal development is frequently driven by apologetic and polemical needs. Doctrinal development has the character of deeper insight into a revealed datum, and especially into the relations among its parts, and the “good and necessary consequence” by which implications and applications can be drawn from what has been revealed. It is crucial that doctrinal development be propagated through public teaching, in plain view of the evidence and warrants being marshaled, and be subject to critical testing. While inspired insight may motivate development of doctrine, and legitimate authority may be invoked to promulgate it, neither inspiration nor authority can be the root of it.

3. Catechetical transmission, wherein one generation hands on to the next the content of the faith and the support systems that make that content receivable. This is tradition as it outlives one era and stretches across generations. It has the basic structure of elders teaching the younger.

4. Personal growth, wherein an individual learns new things, or comes to a much better grasp of them. This has the character of insight, and while it sometimes involves learning brand new things, it is primarily characterized by the new awareness of how information already inside the individual’s cognitive structure belongs together, is joined up, and is mutually implicated. Personal growth is perhaps the phase of knowledge most comfortable to moderns; in our period it is the symbol and paradigm of all learning, throwing the others in the shade.

Speaking of our contemporary situation, I would hazard the diagnosis that we tend especially to drop the ball at step three. This is a shame, because this third step is where the classical doctrine of the Trinity shines: it is preeminently a catechetical doctrine. Of course the doctrine of the Trinity can be meaningfully discussed under each of the four headings, for there is much to know and to learn about it in every way. In phase one, God’s triunity was hinted at and adumbrated throughout God’s covenant ways with his people, but was unveiled in the Father’s sending of the Son and Spirit. In phase two, the church reflected on their biblical monotheism in light of the undeniable identity of Jesus Christ, and labored forward to epochal moments of doctrinal development like Tertullian’s “one being, three persons” language, or, more crucially, the confession of Nicaea. In phase three, the church has confessed the Trinity and handed down the doctrine about it with striking unanimity and agreement; it is a gem of orthodoxy and a hallmark of continuity in the tradition. Phase four is the illuminating moment preachers and teachers strive to evoke from maturing believers as they search the scriptures together, and there discern the face of God –as the Father, Son, and Spirit bless them, keep them, are gracious to them, and lift up the light of their countenance upon them.


The four processes listed above are taken, verbatim, from my Foreword to God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Davenant Press, 2018). I added the archetypal/ectypal setup paragraphs to this blog post because I’ve only more recently realized how important that distinction is as the proper background for discussing theological change.

God of our Fathers is a great collection of essays, carefully edited by Brad Littlejohn. It’s currently at the affordable price of $10 paperback and $4 e-book. The Davenant Institute has made a generous 45-page sample PDF available, with all the front matter (including my foreword and Brad’s introduction) and bits of a couple chapters.

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