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The Reformed Faith recognizes that the Holy Scriptures are the inspired and infallible Word of God written, supremely authoritative for doctrine, worship and practice. It necessarily follows that the essence of theological training must, therefore, be the study of the Word of God. The task of the man of God is to study the Word: 'Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.' (2 Timothy 2.15) The task of the theological instructor is to impart the teaching of the Word: 'And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.' (2 Timothy 2.2) It follows that a rightly devised theological training will be focused upon the Word of God, it will derive its authority from the Word of God and it will be subject to the Word of God in its content and methods.

The Body of Divinity: A Curriculum of Spiritual Theology

In order to a proper understanding of the Theology curriculum it is necessary to understand the nature of true theology, the sources for it and the branches of it. The above-mentioned title signals at the outset that true theology is more than a mere intellectual pursuit following the methodologies found in other departments of learning. The curriculum for theological training should be a curriculum of spiritual theology. The significance of this is explained below.

The Nature of True Theology

In his Biblical Theology John Owen directs the reader's attention to his title as describing his intention in the work. (John Owen's Epistle to the Reader, Owen, p.xxiii) The said title is Biblical Theology: The History of Theology From Adam to Christ or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth, In Six Books. Owen sees his work as setting out the nature of true theology and the method of pursuing the study of it in a God-honouring way. The title at once points to the Biblical orientation and historical dimension of true theology and the need to reckon with both of these in theological study. However Owen does not see the study of true theology as a merely intellectual exercise such as the study of philosophy. Consider the following: 'Let us proclaim it boldly - the man who is not inflamed with divine love is an outsider to all theology! Let him toil long and hard in airing of thorny questions; let him be the most avid devourer of theological books in existence; if he has this and nothing else, it is but the stronger proof that the natural beauty of God's truth has never penetrated through even the smallest chink into his mind. He is not on fire with love of divine truth, nor carried away with admiration of her beauty.' (Ibid., p.xlvi) The Reformed community rightly places a high estimation upon learning and for that very reason needs to take to heart Owen's point that exclusive reliance upon the intellect will never make a real theologian. True Theology is a matter of the heart and recognizes that the love of God is the starting point and terminus of the theological enterprise in accordance with the teaching of our Lord in the following passage.

'And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.' (Mark 12. 28 - 34)

The study of true theology involves the Church's interaction with the Word of God in the Scriptures in order to expound the truth in a context of conflict where the Devil has sown his lies. Owen thus approves of the description 'Ecclesiastical Theology'. (Owen, p.6) It is no easy task to summarize Owen's thinking concerning true theology. He sums up the content of his work as follows: 'I decided after a preliminary statement concerning the name and nature of theology, to record the advances made in various ways by divine revelation, paying particular attention to the historical order of events, splitting it into its important phases since the first appearance of true theology and, also, recording the defections of many from the truth and the errors resulting therefrom, the various corruptions in the worship of the Church judged by the standard set by revelation, the many falls of the ancient church, and its restorations by grace. This would conclude with the last and final rejecting of Judaism…

'In the final section, I attempt an exposition of gospel theology itself. I have explained from the Scriptures what gospel theology is, wherein its nature lies, who alone are fitted for the study of it, how and by what method they might achieve it, what are their most likely stumbling blocks, and all this together with a consideration of the nature, establishment, and progress of true churches founded upon true theology.' (Owen, pp. xlix - l)

It will be helpful to examine what Owen has to say about the nature of true theology, the major historical divisions that he utilizes and his view of Evangelical theology and its study.

The Nature of True Theology

With respect to the nature of true theology the fact that God himself is the main subject means that the methodology of human science cannot be adequate. We can have no knowledge of God except as a result of God's own self-revelation and such self-revelation is the only true and complete theology. The following can be affirmed of true theology: (1) The only source of true theology is the self-revelation of God. (2) The essence of true theology is divine truth revealed by the will of God. (3) The content of true theology is light and power totally self-authenticating. (4) The end of true theology is faith, obedience and true worship. According to Owen Theology can thus be defined as: 'The doctrine of God with regard to Himself, His works, His will, His worship, as well as our required obedience, our future rewards and punishments, all as revealed by God Himself to the glory of His name.' (Owen, pp 16 -17)

The Major Historical Divisions

The major historical divisions used by Owen in his Biblical Theology form the subject matter of his six books and are as follows: (1) Natural Theology; (2) Theology from Adam to Noah; (3) Theology from Noah to Abraham; (4) Theology from Abraham to Moses; (5) Theology from Moses to Christ and (6) Evangelical Theology. Within this historical framework he discusses the natural theology of the first man and the effects of the Fall upon it showing its insufficiency for salvation. In Book II he addresses the principles of the Post-Lapsarian Theology. This is followed by the origin and progress of idolatry in the period from Noah to Abraham. In Book IV Owen discusses the theology of Abraham and Moses and in the following book he traces the corruptions and restorations of the Mosaic Theology during the period from Moses to Christ including Ezra's reformation and the final apostasy of the Jewish Church. In Book VI Owen expounds the Evangelical Theology and what is necessary to its proper study.

Evangelical Theology and its Study

Owen's view of Evangelical Theology must now be briefly summarized because it is highly relevant to the theological curriculum. Owen requires us to enter through the portal of humility of mind and heart quoting Seneca's words: 'Many might have attained to wisdom, if they had not thought that they already had it!' (Quoted Owen, p.592) Christ came in the fulness of time when human wisdom and imperial power had reached their futile zenith so that by the foolishness of preaching sinners might be saved. As the eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the anointed Messiah, made known to us the will of God for our salvation. This is crucial to the whole theological enterprise: 'no one can grasp or rightly understand evangelical theology by human power or reliance on intellect, apply what outside assistance he will, for none of these things will bring him to experience the salvation to which this theology points the human mind. In this, its nature is distinct from all human sciences.' (Ibid., p.603) The need is to be reborn spiritually and this can only be by the power of the Holy Spirit who is able to introduce us to a saving understanding of theology, enable us in spiritual worship and separate us from this world.

Owen draws a distinction between that knowledge of Biblical propositions which human reason can acquire because of the 'innate transparent clarity of the Scriptural teaching' (Owen, p.606) and the true theology. He states: 'Moreover, I concede that the principal divisions of this gospel teaching or theology, those things which concern the right worship of God, the obedience which is His due, are capable of being classified and arranged in order, sequence and method, according to the usual rules of the philosophical arts and sciences. The subject matter handed down in the gospel has a certain development and dependency, so there is nothing to prevent the interrelationships being analyzed and set out in order and, as it were, scientifically.' (Ibid., p.606) However, in the same place he goes on to say: 'My point is that teaching, arranged and systematized in this manner, has nothing at all in which it exceeds the purely intellectual capability of natural men. In all of this, I stress we are by no means talking of the realities themselves, but rather of methods and propositions by which it is attempted to describe those realities.' (Ibid., p.607)

Such intellectual understanding is no more than a species of Christian philosophy, superior indeed to all other philosophies because based upon absolute truth but not true theology. As Owen explains: 'Thus, to sum the matter up, the entirety of divine truth has been revealed in Scripture by our Lord Jesus Christ, and such is theology, if we take the term in its very widest signification. It contains propositions which are capable of systematic arrangement, and its content is open to human intellects. These revealed propositions, along with such conclusions as may legitimately be drawn from them, may be reduced to a written system and made the source material for a discipline of study. But all of this is Christian philosophy, and still lacks the hallmarks of theology in its narrower and inner signification.' (Owen, p.607)

Owen recognizes the value of studying Hebrew and Greek in order to a knowledge of the original languages of the Bible and also the disciplines that have to do with expounding language. He accepts the place of logic in right reasoning but cautions that the logic of the Holy Spirit transcends human logic with its necessary limitations. However, it is not these disciplines that make a man a true theologian, for this necessitates a personal experiential knowledge of God. 'Clearly, despite the holiness of the subject matter dealt with, we can see daily proof that the theological study in itself does not produce holiness, while the behaviour and conduct of many who have been so trained, but who are totally unworthy of the Christian name, should leave the matter beyond doubt.' (Owen, p.610) Owen summarizes the positive statement of his case as follows: 'To know Him that is true - that is theology …' (Ibid., p.638) for theology 'is primarily spiritual wisdom.' (Ibid., p.641) Owen later states: 'This wisdom, by which the reborn mind is illuminated with knowledge of gospel mysteries, gradually reforms the entire person in the image of heavenly truth. This is [the] most distinctive and important aspect of evangelical theology, and through it the image of God, once lost in sin, is revived afresh in man.' (Ibid. p.643) Thus the theologian who is not being transformed by his theological studies to become more and more Christ-like is no true theologian at all! Likewise the Church that lacks such transforming theology is no true church at all.

What advice then does Owen have for the theological student? In summarizing he states: 'If you wish to be adept in this spiritual wisdom, you must daily cultivate a holy communion with God in the mystery of His gospel through the merits of Jesus Christ, and you must know by experience the power and efficiency of saving truths. These are not matters which are planted in the mind by nature or which can be gained by any amount of intellectual effort or activity! Illumination of heart, the infusion of spiritual discernment and wisdom, the revelation of the mysteries of the kingdom of Christ by the means of the Holy Spirit, the passage from outer darkness into the most wondrous light of Christ, a right to share in the wonders of wisdom and knowledge which are hidden in the Saviour; what are these but empty and abhorrent words to human philosophy? Yet they are the very origin and mainstay, the pith and the marrow, of our subject!' (Owen, p.686) At this point both scholar and student should be arrested. We are face to face with the secret of John Owen's strength as a theologian according to his own analysis of true theology. We are caused to pause and to pray. What progress can be made without the Holy Spirit and what fruit of all our labours if they do not intensify our communion with God and our holiness of life? What hope for the church if its pastors and preachers seek to attain by intellectual endeavour what can only be accomplished by spiritual devotion? May God grant that happy balance and fruitful mingling of the two! Consider in closing Owen's definition of true theology as 'the disciplined efforts of the student's intellect (directed according to the rule of Scripture) to enhance and improve those inner spiritual gifts and saving light which constitute true, heavenly wisdom.' (Ibid., p.688)

NOTE: Quotations from John Owen Biblical Theology: The History of Theology From Adam to Christ or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth, In Six Books reproduced by kind permission of publisher Soli Deo Gloria.

The Branches of Theology

It will assist us in considering the branches of the tree of theology to consider what Abraham Kuyper has to say about 'The Organism of Theology in its Parts.' (Kuyper, p.277) For Kuyper, who sees Theology as an organism there can be no division into theological departments. An organism cannot be divided into parts although it is possible to exhibit its different parts when it is determined what they are. This is a helpful corrective against dismembering true theology. Kuyper accepts the common fourfold analysis but not as exegetical, historical, systematic and practical which are derived from activities of the human mind. He expects that our description of the parts of true theology will arise from the analysis of theology itself. He thus offers Bibliological, Ecclesiological, Dogmatological and Diaconiological. The derivation he explains as follows: 'This objective principium of division must be found in the principium of theology itself. In the development of its germ the plant of itself brings the organic spread of branches and stem. If the Holy Scripture is the principium of theology, it is plain that those departments should first be taken in hand which deal with the Holy Scripture as such; then as a second group those departments which trace the working of the Word of God in the life of the Church; then in a third group the departments should be combined which reflect the content of the Scripture in our consciousness; and finally a fourth group should arise from those departments which answer the question, how the working of the Word of God, subject to His ordinances, must be maintained.' (Ibid., p.279) This derivation from the object of study corresponds to that derived from the activities of the human mind because in the Bibliological exegesis is required, in the Ecclesiological the historiological activity is required, in the Dogmatological the systematizing activity is required and in the Diaconiological the practical orientation requires a consideration of appropriate technique. It must be recognized, however, that these correspondences are only partial because there is more than exegesis in the study of the Bible and a measure of exegesis is required in the study of confessional statements in relation to dogma.

As to the order presented there is no need to question the priority of the Bibliological because Christianity is the religion of the Word. Nor need there be any dispute concerning the placing of the Diaconiological last for it relies upon the previous three studies; but the question may be raised as to whether the Ecclesiological rightly precedes the Dogmatological. Regarding this Kuyper comments: 'Dogma has no existence at first, but it originates only by degrees, and it is unthinkable without the Church that formulates it. If thus we would avoid the mistake of formulating our dogmatics unhistorically directly from the Scripture, but rather seek to derive it from the Scripture at the hand of the Church, then the Church as a middle-link between Bible and Dogma is absolutely indispensable.' (Kuyper, p.281) There is another justification when we recognize that there was an Old Testament Church and a New Testament Church as well as the post-apostolic Christian Church for this carries the historical research back into the times before the completion of the New Testament itself.

Kuyper's analysis described above is useful in formulating the structure of the theological curriculum, which can now be specified as follows.

Canonical Theology

This concerns itself with the study of the Word of God and corresponds with Kuyper's Bibliological.  As we have seen it is mainly but not exclusively exegetical. The description Canonical does not confine it to the study of the development of the Canon of Scripture but emphasizes that it is the study of the Bible as the authoritative rule of faith and practice and that the reason for our study is because the scripture occupies this supreme position. Professor E. J. Young includes the following under the department of Bibliology: '(1) The languages of the Bible and their cognates; (2) Biblical Exegesis; (3) Biblical History; (4) Biblical Theology; (5) Biblical Hermeneutics;  (6) Biblical Antiquities, i.e., the study of ancient civilizations and of archaeological research in relation to the Bible.' (Young, 1966, footnote 2, p.15) The expected subjects would therefore be as follows:


This should cover the Necessity of Scripture, the Canon and its Development, the Authority of Scripture and the Use of Scripture.

Old Testament Literature

This should cover: the Hebrew Language, the Text and Translation of the Old Testament, Introduction to the Old Testament including the authorship of the individual books, their purpose, analysis, message and theological content and finally, Exegesis.

New Testament Literature

This should cover: the Greek Language, the Text and Translation of the New Testament, Introduction to the New Testament including the authorship of the individual books, their purpose, analysis, message and theological content and finally Exegesis.

Historical Theology

This is concerned with the Word of God working in the Church and is as we have seen mainly Historiological. It embraces Kuyper's Ecclesiological with respect to the post New Testament Christian Church. It is, however, evident that there is a problem in limiting the Ecclesiological and Historiological to the period after the New Testament ecclesiastical history, as the first century church was just as much part of the church as the second century church. Indeed, it is common for texts on Church History to begin with the Apostolic period which was recorded in the New Testament and thus an overlap with Biblical History arises. The problem is intensified when we recognize that the Word of God working in the Church also applies to the Old Testament Church and that this would require us to resort to the Bible for the relevant data. This suggests that Biblical History and Theology have a place in Historical Theology when it spans from Adam to Christ and up to contemporary times. The following periods present themselves for consideration.

The Conflict of Truth and Apostasy in the Early Ages of Man

This should include the Creation, the Fall and the consequent Apostasy, the Flood and the Age of Nimrod.

The Jewish Church in Conflict with the World

This would include the conflict in the following ages: the Age of Egypt, the Age of Assyria, the Age of Babylon, the Age of Medo-Persia, the Age of Greece and the Age of Rome.

The Christian Church in Conflict with the World

The following matters should be considered under this heading: the Church of the Apostles, the Early Church in the Roman Empire, the Roman Apostasy, the Reformation, the Contemporary Church and the Future.

Confessional Theology

This is concerned with the Content of the Word of God systematized. It is equivalent to Kuyper's Dogmatological and mainly involves systematizing. The description Confessional as opposed to 'Systematic' emphasizes the fact that this is the Biblical theology ecclesiastically systematized.

God and Man

Theology and Anthropology


Christology and Soteriology.

The Church

This should include the nature of the Church, Church Government, Church Discipline, Ministry, Worship and Sacraments.


The Doctrine of the Last Things embraces both Individual Eschatology and General Eschatology.

Ministerial Theology

This has to do with the study of the Application of the Word of God and corresponds with Kuyper's Diaconiological being mainly concerned with technique. Its subjects are: Homiletics, Pastoral Theology, Ethics and Apologetics.