Prolegomena: What is Prolegomena?

Part 3 of 24

by David Garner


Dr. David Garner lectures in his systematic theology course on prolegomena at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Art: Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, circa 1618–1620, Oil


“Prolegomena” is a Greek word that comes from the Greek verb “prolego.” “Prolego” is a compound word that means “to say first” or “to speak first.” “Prolegomena” is a neuter present passive participle. It literally means “those things which are said first.”

In systematic theology, prolegomena are one of the classic “loci,” or core categories of systematic theology. They have to do with the very firsts of theology and answer the questions of the first things.
They ask how we know what we know about God and deal with the doctrine of the Word of God and the doctrine of revelation. Prolegomena are crucial to your theological system.

The Philosophical Nature of Prolegomena

Prolegomena are philosophical in nature and drive us to think about our thinking. They pose the questions, “What is the authority for our thinking? How do we think? Why do we think what we think?”

These kinds of questions are epistemological in nature. Epistemology is a philosophical term that asks the question, “How do we know what we know?” It is the question of what knowledge is and how we gain knowledge.

Another question associated with prolegomena is to ask, “Who are we?” Scripture tells us that we are creatures made in the image of God. Knowing this truth is important to our thinking about the task of theology. How we do theology is connected to our nature as people made in the image of God.

Prolegomena theology, then, because of its nature, prompts us to ask philosophical questions about who we are, how we think, and how we come to know what we know.

The Thomistic Tradition of the Prolegomena

There are several different traditions that inform one’s understanding of prolegomena. These traditions revolve around the question of theology’s structure. Is theology grounded in something that is not theology, or is theology grounded in theology? In other words, are the prolegomena actually pre-theological?

The most common approach to these questions is the Thomistic tradition, which gets its name from Thomas Aquinas, who developed this approach. This tradition assumes a shared epistemological pattern by which all people engage in rational thought. In this view, rational thought is how we grasp biblical and theological reflections, and all humans operate with a shared system of thought.

Because this is true, we can therefore use logic and rationality to convince people of the plausibility that there is a God and that they should believe in Him. Most evangelicals today also share this view.

The consequence of this Thomistic approach is that it leads us to see logic and reasoning as foundational to the enterprise of theology and that this foundation is itself pre-theological.

Human rationality forms the basis for theological structures for theological reflection. In this particular formation, the prolegomena are not in themselves theological. There is something that rests behind them, that rests on reason, logic, and philosophy.

The Theological Tradition of the Prolegomena

Rather than assuming that prolegomena are pre-theological, Scripture assumes that the prolegomena themselves are theological too.

The notion of prolegomena are those first things — the things that are spoken of beforehand. They are the things that make the cognitive, communicative dimensions of theology possible.

But one of the things Scripture lays out for us from start to finish is that before we were, God was. That is not only a statement of chronology but a principle of human existence. It is a principle that needs to drive the way we think about thinking.

We need to recognize the creatureliness of our endeavors and the dependence our human thought has on God. God is at the beginning and is, therefore, at the beginning of prolegomena as well.

Is Prolegomena Circular Reasoning?

Arguing that prolegomena is theological and is the foundation for theology sounds circular. Indeed, this idea is circular, but all human thought is also circular. The question is not whether you are operating in circularity. The question is whether you are operating in the right circle.

In the end, prolegomena do not just mean “prior to,” but also “primary.” There are no thoughts regarding God or anything else that are pre-theological because God is eternal and the creator of all things. God is God, and we are not. That bears upon every facet of our existence, beginning even with our cognitive function.

God condescended to speak to man. The only reason we can know Him truly is because He bends over and speaks to us in words that we can understand. Man is absolutely dependent on God to speak. Our understanding is dependent on God to reveal Himself.

Challenges to This View of Prolegomena and Their Answers

One challenge to the idea of prolegomena being theological, rather than pre-theological, is the concept of who does the thinking.

You may argue that God doesn’t think your thoughts — you do — so doesn’t that mean that brain function starts with you? And if brain function starts with you, how are you wholly dependent on God from the start? Doesn’t my thinking depend on something within me?

There is a critical distinction that needs to be made between the “proximate” starting point and the “ultimate” starting point. Yes, in your consciousness, your brain begins to function. But that working of your mind doesn’t happen in abstraction.

You never have a thought that isn’t created. You’re made in the image of God, and your ability to think is a God-given stewardship of what it means to be made in His image. Therefore, yes, the proximate starting point is the human mind, but the ultimate starting point is God, the creator whom every human being knows, without exception.

Even the self-professed atheist knows that, for him to be one, he has to suppress the knowledge of God. There is no thought that is not founded in our created image in God, and that draws us to understand the one true God. We cannot think without thinking as creatures made in His image. Your thought starts with knowing God.

To operate properly as humans is, rather than suppressing that knowledge, submitting to God’s revelation. The only way we think properly is when we think as God has designed us to think.

All thinking is dependent on God. Our entire existence reminds us of our dependence — we are dependent on food and air, and even babies come into the world wholly dependent on their parents’ care. We must acknowledge our dependence on God to think rightly.

We are designed to live for the sake and purpose of God, and this begins with our thought. There is an inherent relationship between obedience and knowledge. Our understanding does not lead to our obedience, but our obedience leads to understanding. We grow in our knowledge of God in saying yes to Him in what we already know.

There is an integral relationship between mind and heart. In the history of Christian ethics, the entire epistemology has been put under the rubrics of ethics. Are we going to think His thoughts or stubbornly assert our own?

Scripture points us in a couple of directions. One of them is that God’s self-disclosure is of His goodwill. He does not reveal Himself because He has to — He does it because He delights in self-disclosure, in us knowing Him. That revelation is covenantal, so associated with it is the obligation for us to respond in faith and obedience.

The task of human thought is inherently theological because of who God is and because God has revealed Himself.

The History of Prolegomena

Prolegomena theology was not addressed throughout the history of the Church. Epistemology and the notions of how we know what we know are not dealt with rigor until the Reformation.

Ultimately, the Reformation was about the question of authority. Who has authority over what we think, speak, and believe — the Church or Scripture? At that time, they believed the Church and its traditions were the ultimate authority. But Martin Luther said that Scripture was the ultimate authority. Luther’s conviction is at the heart of prolegomena. What is the basis for our thinking and for the authoritative claims we make?

During the Reformation, the question of authority was no longer assumed but became center-stage. In Martin Luther’s world, when he came upon the scene, he was conscious of dueling authority structures. Part of that was growing out of Thomistic tradition — a high level of confidence in reason.

It was actually the crisis in the Reformation that caused the Church to think more deeply about these epistemological issues, to wrestle with how we know what we know, to wrestle with the notion of authority. God used error as a catalyst for His Church to come to terms with what the Scripture really means.

Understanding a Right Prolegomena

In conclusion, the prolegomena deal with the first, the primary things, the foundational things. When we think of the prolegomena in a biblical sense, we mean not “prior” only, but more significantly “primary.” For us to think rightly about God, what is necessary? How am I to think properly about God? The prolegomena are a theology of theology. All of our thinking is inherently theological, and only when we delight in God will we think rightly about Him.

David Garner

Dr. Garner (PhD, Westminster) is associate professor of systematic theology and vice president for advancement at WTS.

Next Course Lecture...

Prolegomena: Revelation

Part 4 of 24

by David Garner