While exhibiting considerable consistency in doctrinal belief, many might be surprised that the Reformed tradition, almost from the get-go, has exhibited stimulating diversity in how it thinks about theology. By understanding the methodological diversity of our own tradition, we as Reformed people can gain a fresh appreciation for the depth of our tradition and be better able to adopt a stance of semper reformanda in our own appropriation of theology.
Reformed Theology has a reputation for taking an 'above to below' approach to theology. By this, we mean that Reformed Theology stresses the sovereignty and majesty of God and the centrality of the divinely inspired Scriptures as a starting point for theology. Put simply, we have a long tradition of emphasizing the celestial in theology as a basis for grappling with the terrestial or the 'mundane' in theology.
When one looks at how Calvin's Institutes are organized, one can clearly see the 'from above' approach to theological systematics. It is no accident that Book 1 stresses knowledge of God as Creator, which includes Calvin's treatment of Scriptural revelation (chs. 6-13), and that Book 2 stresses the knowledge of God as Redeemer. It isn't until Book 4 that Calvin focuses on the earthly matters of the Church, the sacraments, and the civil government. The organizational whole of the Institutes clearly exhibits a 'from above' orientation to doing theology. This strategy is also clear when one looks at both the Belgic and Westminster Confessions. Again, it is no accident that both Confessions start with God and Scripture, and end with ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the last judgment.
So I think it's fair to say that the 'from above' theological strategy has been the dominant way in which the Reformed tradition has done theology. But it is essential to realize that this approach hasn't been the only strategy employed. The Reformed tradition has also exhibited a more latent yet clearly visible strategy of doing theology 'from below' as well.
On the first two pages of the Institutes, Calvin provides us with his epistemology in succinct terms, and in it, he reveals a twofold strategic concern. It is here where Calvin presents knowledge as a spiral in which knowledge of God is thoroughly linked with knowledge of self. That's right. Calvin, as his lead-off volley, is not bashful in saying that we can't understand God without understanding ourselves, and that we can't understand ourselves without understanding God. What's more, Calvin was non-committal on where someone ought to start on this loop. In discussing this relationship, Calvin allows room for mystery, "But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes [and] brings forth the other is not easy to discern..." Calvin is saying that there is a reciprocal relationship when it comes to understanding God and ourselves. This is not a 'from above' approach, but links the 'above' to the 'below' inextricably.
In addition, the Reformed catechisms also present a more 'from below' approach to theology. Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism famously asks, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer reveals a twofold concern - the glory of God, and the enjoyment of humanity through God. Again, this is not really a strict 'from above' approach to theology, but links the above and below together from the very beginning. Lastly, the Heidelberg Catechism, contra the Westminster and Belgic Confessions, is a far more personal and arguably comforting statement of Reformed belief. The Heidelberg Catechism is the clearest example of a 'from below' approach to theology. It's starting point? The hope and comfort of the believer. (As an aside, it's very interesting to compare the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession in their treatment of the Law. WCF addresses the 10 Commandments under the rubric of duty, while Heidelberg addresses them under the rubric of thankfulness).
Why is this significant? Reformed people can be susceptible to doing theology purely from a 'from above' perspective. While the 'from above' approach is clearly prominent in the Reformed tradition, it is not the exclusive strategy for doing theology. Our tradition is more diverse than that. But in solely relying on a 'from above' approach, we become vulnerable to neglecting portions of our own tradition, as well as developing an imbalanced theology. Calvin's view on knowledge makes it clear that theocentrism without anthropocentrism is no theocentrism at all, but blasphemy since the denigration of man in theology is really a denigration of the image of God and hopelessly impairs our ability to have a right understanding of God. In our rightful desire to curb man-centered approaches to theology by rightly arguing against the inviolability of human self-determination through a 'from above' approach to theology, we can fall prey to scuttling the Imago Dei emphasis in Reformed Theology that provides an important basis for according to human life the dignity that follows from it. Our tradition allows considerable flexibility in how we apply Reformed thought to daily living and how we present our system of beliefs to a skeptical yet curious world. Our 'founding fathers' understood this, and so should we.