Historical Theology ReformedHistoric

TURRETIN’S TAKE: A Journey Through Francis Turretin’s Institutes, 1: Should Christians use the word Theology?

One of the most renowned texts in Reformed theology is Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology. In his Institutes, Turretin addresses twenty topics across the whole range of systematic theology. A unique feature of the Institutes is that they address each topic through a series of questions. After each question, Turretin proceeds to provide an answer and a defense of his answer.   

Coming in at over 2,000 pages in three volumes, it is not an easy feat to work one’s way through this tome. The purpose of this series to is to provide brief and accessible summaries of Turretin’s work. Each post will cover an individual question and answer. This post will summarize the first question under the first topic, theology.

Turretin begins his Institutes in a unique way. He begins with answering the question of whether or not Christians should use the word “theology” and how to best understand the word. Part of the reason Turretin begins with this question is because of the importance of providing definitions of words. In a 3-volume book on theology, it’s important to know what is meant by theology. Another reason for starting here is that some people thought it was not appropriate for Christians to use the word “theology”.

There are two main arguments against the use of the word “theology” that Turretin responds to. The first argument is that the word isn’t used in the Bible. Since it isn’t used in the Bible, Christians should use other words that are used in the Bible. The second argument is that non-Christians use the same word for their systems of belief that contradict the Christian system. Therefore, they believe it is inappropriate to use that word.

In response to the first argument, Turretin points out that the absence of a word in Scripture doesn’t mean the word is unbiblical. He says, “It is lawful sometimes to use words which are not found there if they are such as will enable us either to explain divine things or to avoid errors.” (Institutes 1:1) Words such as “Trinity” or “original sin” enable us to more clearly communicate the truth that the Scripture teaches, even if it doesn’t use those particular words.

Turretin’s response to the second argument points out that the Scripture itself uses the same word to designate true Christian realities and false things. The word “god” itself is used to designate the true God of the Bible and false gods. Since Scripture sees fit to use the same terms as non-Christians to describe true things, it isn’t inappropriate for Christians to use the word “theology” when speaking of God and the things of God.

Having dealt with the question of whether or not Christians should use the word “theology”, Turretin turns to the issue of how the word has been used. Two of the ways it has been used are as a part of philosophy (by Aristotle) and in reference to the deity of Christ (by various church fathers). For Turretin, he defines theology as, “A system or body of doctrine concerning God and divine things revealed by him for his own glory and the salvation of men.” (Institutes 1:2)

Finally, there is one particular statement that Turretin makes in this section that is worthy of individual focus. Turretin says, “…we cannot speak concerning God without God; so that [theology] may be termed the science which is originally from God, objectively treats concerning and terminatively flows into and leads to him…” (Institutes 1:2) This statement is important because it draws our attention to the fact that theology goes beyond the mere study of facts and knowledge. Theology should inevitably result in an encounter with God himself. He is both the object and the goal of theology. This is the gloriousness and danger of studying theology. It is glorious, because God is glorious. It is dangerous, because God is dangerous to sinners. This shouldn’t be a deterrent from pursuing theology, but it highlights the weightiness of the task and the sobriety that should be exercised by those who would pursue it and meet God.

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