the source of theology

In two earlier posts, we have consider theology as science and attempted to define theology as ‘the science of God’.

This post continues our look at an essay by Warfield entitled "The Idea of Systematic Theology". Today our subject is the source of theology. In short, the source of theology is revelation. Without revelation, we could know nothing of God. Warfield earlier made the point that the fact of revelation by itself implies a personal God who is interested in His creatures. If there were no such person, there would be no revelation. There would be no idea of God if existence were truly random, uncaused, entirely by chance. The very ordered systems in which we live (water cycle, food chain, etc.) speak of an Orderer, not disordered random chance. If disorder were true, our world (if it could exist at all) would be chaos.

From these thoughts of the physical world, we find that revelation is not solely confined in Holy books. It is not merely written. Revelation is in ‘divers manners’. Revelation comes, Warfield says, from God’s ‘work or word’:

"Our reaching up to Him in thought and inference is possible only because He condescends to make Himself intelligible to us, to speak to us through work or word, to reveal Himself."1

Warfield lists several manners in which God is revealed to us:

  1. Visible things which manifest invisible things (of His power and Godhead such that we know that He is, that He is good, and that He is judge)
  2. Consciousness of the human mind gifted with judgement/discernment ("causal judgement" Warfield calls it)
  3. Conscience proclaims His moral law within us
  4. Providence which reveals His arm governing the affairs of men
  5. Exercises of grace, taught by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of believers
  6. Open visions of his prophets speaking through the ‘divinely-breathed pages of His written Word" (i.e., the Bible)

Can you think of any other manner of revelation? I think that these pretty much cover the sources from which we can know anything about God.

It is the accepted method of theology to infer that the God that made the eye must Himself see; that the God who sovereignly distributes His favors in the secular world may be sovereign in grace too; that the heart that condemns itself but repeats the condemnation of the greater God; that the songs of joy in which the Christian’s happy soul voices its sense of God’s gratuitous mercy are valid evidence that God has really dealt graciously with it. It is with no reserve that we accept all these sources of knowledge of God – nature, providence, Christian experience – as true and valid sources, the well-authenticated data yielded by which are to be received by us as revelations of God, and as such to be placed alongside of the revelations in the written Word and wrought with them into one system."2

When considered this way, one wonders whether there is an equality among these sources, or whether one or another stands above the rest. If we should consider the matters concerning God as revealed in any one of these sources, should we equate the authority of the various manners of revelation? Have no fear, Warfield will not depart from orthodoxy in that direction! He notes that there are differences in these manners of revelation:

  1. Differences in the amount of revelation
  2. Differences in the clearness of their message
  3. Differences in the ease and certainty of their interpretation
  4. Differences in the importance of the truth revealed by each manner

"The theologian must yet refuse to give these sources of knowledge a place alongside of the written Word, in any other sense than that he gladly admits that they, alike with it, but in unspeakably lower measure, do tell us of God. And nothing can be a clearer indication of a decadent theology or of a decaying faith, than a tendency to neglect the Word in favor of some one or of all of the lesser sources of theological truth, as fountains from which to draw our knowledge of divine things. This were to prefer the flickering rays of a taper to the blazing light of the sun; to elect to draw our water from a muddy run rather than to dip it from the broad bosom of the pure fountain itself."3

The Word is so complete, so vastly superior to all other sources, that one cannot place other manners (or ‘manifestations’ Warfield calls them) anywhere close to a par with the Word. Further, his comment: "nothing can be a clearer indication of a decadent theology or of a decaying faith, than a tendency to neglect the Word in favor of some one or of all of the lesser sources of theological truth" is truly significant. In our day, the over-emphasis on experience is a sign of decadent theology. (Charismatics, Mahaney, et al, Piper) Even the so-called Christ-centered or God-centered talk of many seems to be affirming the truth of God as confirmed by deep theological experience rather than dominated by the Word of God which must test every other understanding of God. Instead, the emotionalism and experience of what is called God by heavily emotion-oriented preachers becomes the barometer and authority for truth, no matter how otherwise orthodox the preacher may be.

Our source for true theology must be completely governed by the Word. A theology that is governed by natural sources of revelation will not lead us to God. In fact, they will lead in entirely the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, men have often sought, to still the cravings of their souls with a purely natural theology; and there are men to-day who prefer to derive their knowledge of what God is and what He will do for man from an analysis of the implications of their own religious feelings: not staying to consider that nature, "red in tooth and claw with ravin," can but direct our eyes to the God of law, whose deadly letter kills; or that our feelings must needs point us to the God of our imperfect apprehensions or of our unsanctified desires – not to the God that is, so much as to the God that we would fain should be. The natural result of resting on the revelations of nature is despair; while the inevitable end of making our appeal to even the Christian heart is to make for ourselves refuges of lies in which there is neither truth nor safety.4

Warfield goes on to condemn an overall reliance on the collected wisdom of the Fathers, or as some might call it ‘tradition’. He refers to it as ‘the Christian consciousness’.

The interpretation of the data included in what we have learned to call "the Christian consciousness," whether of the individual or of the Church at large, is a process so delicate, so liable to error, so inevitably swayed to this side or that by the currents that flow up and down in the soul, that probably few satisfactory inferences could be drawn from it, had we not the norm of Christian experience and its dogmatic implications recorded for us in the perspicuous pages of the written Word. But even were we to suppose that the interpretation was easy and secure, and that we had before us, in an infallible formulation, all the implications of the religious experience of all the men who have ever known Christ, we have no reason to believe that the whole body of facts thus obtained would suffice to give us a complete theology.5

Only the norm of the Word of God can help us properly interpret our experiences.

One last quote from Warfield, giving, I think a powerful illustration of the value of the Word of God as the only real authority in theology. Warfield uses an illustration from astronomy in the 19th century. What would he think today? Our astronomical instruments have so far improved that he would be simply amazed. But his illustration would be all the more powerful:

There may be a theology without the Scriptures – a theology of nature, gathered by painful, and slow, and sometimes doubtful processes from what man sees around him in external nature and the course of history, and what he sees within of nature and of grace. In like manner there may be and has been an astronomy of nature, gathered by man in his natural state without help from aught but his naked eyes, as he watched in the fields by night. But what is this astronomy of nature to the astronomy that has become possible through the wonderful appliances of our observatories? The Word of God is to theology as, but vastly more than, these instruments are to astronomy. … What would be thought of the deluded man, who, discarding the new methods of research, should insist on acquiring all the astronomy which he would admit, from the unaided observation of his own myopic and astigmatic eyes? Much more deluded is he who, neglecting the instrument of God’s Word written, would confine his admissions of theological truth to what he could discover from the broken lights that play upon external nature, and the faint gleams of a dying or even a slowly reviving light, which arise in his own sinful soul.6

May we truly comprehend the supreme value and only authority of the revelation of God as found only in the Bible.



  1. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 58 []
  2. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 59 []
  3. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 61 []
  4. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, pp. 61-62 []
  5. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 62 []
  6. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 63 []


  1. Warfield is a pleasure to read. And I appreciate his hold on the Bible’s authority. But I’m not sure I like Warfield’s analogy of muddy stream and pure fountain. While I absolutely agree that Scripture is the infallible, inerrant authority for faith and practice, I would have difficulty stating that the Spirit testifying to my spirit that I am a child of God (Rom 8:16) is a “muddy run.” We need to keep a distinction between authority as existing in levels for our faith and practice and revelation from God (always pure truth). We need the authority of Scripture because we can confuse (misinterpret, misunderstand, misidentify) revelation from God. But any revelation proceeding from God is just as pure as the revelation that created his Word.
    And I think Warfield means that as well. He is just looking at it from our perspective.

  2. Good point, Dan.

    I am getting to the next point of his essay (I’m reading it slowly, when I have time). I have a suspicion I might start disagreeing with him a bit here, but even so he still makes me think, and has some very important things to say.

    I recall some professors saying he was hard to read (I think referencing his Inspiration and Authority book). I think he is a bit wordy, but that seems to be 19th century style more than anything. He seems to be a very clear thinker to me. I have always enjoyed the things I have read from him.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3