Systematic Theology volume 1 (Doug Kelly)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Kelly, Douglas F. Systematic Theology: The God who is: The Holy Trinity. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008.

It is hard to explain how one feels about this volume from the highly-revered Douglas Kelly. In many ways this is not a normal systematic theology textbook. Some of Kelly’s chapters seem oddly placed. Following every chapter, moreover, is an appendix (or appendices) that is highly technical and seems to detract from the flow of the book. That is my one criticism of the book. On the other hand, Kelly knows more about theological method and the Trinity than most professors, Reformed or otherwise, ever will.

How do we Know?

Reality Comes First, and the mind second (Kelly ST I:41ff). The question before us: how do you form beliefs in your mind? To which Kelly responds, there is a real world that imposes itself on your mind. In other words, and with the historic Reformed (and classic) tradition, the order of knowing follows the order of being. And the order of being is God himself.

As it stands, that paragraph is standard Reformed prolegomena. Kelly takes it a step further. Kelly is one of the few Reformed theologians to include a section on how the mind, particularly the redeemed mind within the covenant community, forms beliefs. First, truth causes belief (17). “God’s reality imposes itself upon those whom He has made to know him” (17-18).

There is almost a “reflex-action” in the mind. As Clement of Alexandria said, “Knowledge is excited by outwardly existing objects” (quoted in Kelly, 18). Faith, and here Torrance draws heavily from his mentor, Thomas Torrance, “involves a conceptual assent to the unseen reality.” Faith is the obedient response to truth.

Following the Stoics, though not blindly, Kelly remarks that the basis of the system “is the assumption that the real world imposes itself upon the recipient mind of man.” An “outer reality presses in on the mind.” This is “apprehensive presentation” (41). Indeed, within the mind are “class concepts, which serve to give the mind clues into the objectivities of reality” (44). One can call them “proleptic pointers” that allow the mind to jump from clues to conclusion.

Applied to theology, faith is the heart response to the aforementioned proleptic assent (46).

Kelly has several chapters on the Trinity, but no one chapter on the Trinity that neatly corresponds to standard treatments. At this point in the book (chapter four) he does not give a clear presentation. What he does do, however, is press the meaning of the term “person” as it relates to the Trinity. This represents a clear advance in modern systematic theology. The key point is that the being of God leads itself to the concept of “person.” That is good. What is not so good, however, is Kelly’s use of John Zizioulas’s idea “being as communion.” I think I know what Zizioulas means: being is being as communion. It seems it means “the being of God” is the being as persons in communion. Maybe. The problem is Zizioulas will take the Person of the Father as the monarchy of the Trinity. Kelly rightly rejects this move. Athanasius (and for what it’s worth, Augustine) sees the being of the Father as the monarchy. This is much better, for it allows one to say that with the being of the Father, we automatically get the Son. If we follow the Easter route of the Father as Cause, then we have introduced a sequence of causes in the Trinity.

I cannot go into detail here, but Kelly has a wonderful section on person and “modes of being” and why we prefer the former and not the latter (503ff). A person is inherently relational. A mode of being is not. “The personal distinctions within God are constituted by eternal relations, as indicated by Father, Son and Spirit; or, by begetting and proceeding” (521). With Didymus the Blind, we say the persons refer to the order of relations (kata schezein) rather than to the essence (521-522).

The later Cappadocians, excepting Gregory Nazianzus, account for the persons by the Father as cause or monarchy. They do not intend any latent Arianism by the word cause (since it happens before time), but, nonetheless, a person is now part of a causal sequence in the Godhead.


By no means is this a beginner’s textbook. Kelly’s ordering of topics does not always follow the standard accounts. Moreover, the reader risks getting lost in some of his appendices. On the other hand, few Reformed authors today demonstrate Kelly’s grasp of Nicene Trinitarianism and the idea of person in the Godhead, and for that reason this volume is highly recommended to the intermediate student.
I tried to read this and match Berkhof's chapter orderings and I am glad you mentioned how his ordering is not the usual, thought I was the only one. There definitely was some stylistic decisions made, which is fair enough.
It also seems like Kelly’s entire ST is missing some key distinct treatments of loci—anthropology, for example.
I read that volume many years ago and found it useful for getting to know the church fathers better. Conversely, it arguably reads too much like a calendar of Patristic quotes for it to be that significant as a work of dogmatics.
I read that volume many years ago and found it useful for getting to know the church fathers better. Conversely, it arguably reads too much like a calendar of Patristic quotes for it to be that significant as a work of dogmatics.

It is what they used to call "Florigellium." It is valuable in that he is aware of the essence/energies distinction and why the Filioque matters. Not many are.
Thanks for the review. I have the first two volumes in Logos and haven't had the time yet to read them.

In the above, are you referring to Horton's Systematic Theology?
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