The Prodigal Son (God’s Reckless Love)

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet… for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:21-22, 24, NRSV).

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Although many pastors, teachers, and biblical scholars refer to it as the story of the prodigal son, the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible. The son is best characterized as lost, emphasizing that all sinners are lost or alienated from God. To characterize him as “prodigal” casts too much emphasis on wayward lifestyle. If we limit our analysis of the prodigal son to his wanton worldly behavior, we will miss the point of the story. It is in fact more akin to the tale of the lost sheep. This story is meant to demonstrate that we  do not have to stay in our hopeless state. Moreover, it is an example of Scripture imitating life, in that it shows us what repentance means: turning away from sin and back toward the Father; doing a 180 as they call it.

Eugene Peterson puts the story of the prodigal son under the heading The Story of the Lost Son in his translation The Message. This parable shows the nature of repentance, and, more importantly, the joy and the willingness of God to welcome and restore all who return to Him. It shows us the riches of the gospel and its efficacy to overcome any form of sin. Matthew Henry draws a unique parallel between our heavenly Father and the prodigal’s earthy father. He says, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when men look upon God’s gifts as debts due to them” (1). Scripture tells us to not seek the wealth of this world. Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Matthew Henry draws a parallel between the prodigal son and our First Parents. Their foolish ambition to be independent from the Father is at the bottom of every sinner persisting in sin and autonomy. The First Sin relates to man’s departure from God, toward a willful reliance on his own thoughts and valuations rather than ascribing to God’s. We see from the prodigal son that his desire to be free from his father led to a vile, hedonistic, slavish state of being. When we walk in the flesh (fulfilling its every desire) we become the devil’s servant. Walking according to fleshly desires and instincts invariably leads to a state of constant discontent. This is what it means to be a lost sheep, wandering the face of the earth in search of constant gratification, separated from God.

Exegetical Analysis

The parable of the prodigal son reveals two distinct issues: one literary, the other theological. From a literary perspective, the story revolves around two brothers: one younger, the other older. This does not indicate two separate stories, but two parts that compliment one another. Because of this focus on two brothers, it is helpful to analyze this parable from both an existential and historical/sociopolitical perspective. Historically, the “share of the estate” that the younger son would receive on the death of his father would be one-third. Culture during those times dictated that the older son would receive two-thirds, often referred to as a “double portion,” and the second son would receive the remaining one-third (see Deut. 21:17). When the property “was divided” in the story of the prodigal son, the older son was made aware of his share of the father’s assets prior to his father’s death. This was unusual in the prevailing society.

From a sociopolitical perspective, when the prodigal son asked for his portion of the inheritance, it’s as if he wished his father dead! New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (2), who spent over 15 years in the Middle East, asked a number of people there what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime, so the request of the prodigal son was quite offensive. The father’s willingness to comply with his son’s request was generous beyond all expectations. In addition, the older son in such cases was typically expected to step in and help the father save face with anyone attacking his estate. This does not happen in the parable of the prodigal son; neither son lived up to what was expected.

The wasting of all the son had while “in a foreign land” is culturally understood as acting against the family, whose inheritance can be traced back to the promises of God to Abraham. The famine made employment and food quite hard to get. The “distant country” was likely outside strictly Jewish territory. It is no coincidence that the son also ended up with the demeaning job of feeding pigs—these are unclean animals for the Jews. He had fallen so low that “no one gave him anything,” which indicates a state of complete destitution and neglect.

From a theological perspective, it is important to note there were 100 sheep (15:4), 10 coins (15:8), and 2 sons. One is lost from each number. The sheep and coin were sought after diligently until they were recovered. However, the lost son was not sought after. He was personally responsible for his coming back home. His rebellion was deliberate and “of the heart,” meaning only a change of heart would suffice for his restoration. This is extremely important from a theological perspective. It is one thing to “know” in your head what is right and what is wrong, but it is a different matter to make a heart-felt decision to change one’s behavior, one’s path—to “do a 180” as I said earlier. This was quite true regarding my wandering in the wilderness for decades in active addiction, making choices that belied morality. I never considered this crucial element in the prodigal son’s restoration before now.

The lost son’s behavior is deemed “riotous living” (15:13). The Greek word is asotos, which translates “living ruinously.” It is properly interpreted as meaning “unsavedness” or, by implication, profligacy, suggesting excess or riot. It is from the root asôtia, referring to being “not savable; incorrigible, dissolute, beyond hope.” It also implies debauchery or drunkenness (see Eph. 5:18). Of course, theologically speaking, the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). His condition brought him to his senses and he realized how his riotous life would end. Further, he considered his current predicament as being worse than his father’s hired servants, who had bread enough to spare (15:17). He decided he would return to his father’s house and ask his forgiveness.

The prodigal son showed true repentance—confession of sin, genuine sorrow, and humility. The Greek word for repentance in this verse is metanoeo, meaning “to change one’s mind for the better” (see Luke 13:3). This is more than forsaking sin; it involves a complete change in one’s attitude and orientation toward all sinful behavior. In fact, it is this degree of repentance God expects from us as a condition for receiving His forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son demonstrated complete humility. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (15:21). 

The motivation for the son’s return was hunger, but theologically it was to his “father” that he wanted to return; not to the dinner table. The words “against heaven” (15:21) can mean “to heaven,” indicating he believed his sins were so many as to reach the Heavenly Father—perhaps he believed his sins were ultimately against God. The Jews were aware of Yahweh’s “fatherly” love. Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” The son knew he had no right to return “as a son.” He imagined saying to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (15:19). In other words, he planned to earn his room and board when he returned home.

The Lost Has Been Found!

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found! And they began to have a wonderful time” (15:20-24, MSG).

What does this parable tell us? We’ve looked at several specific words and phrases (lexical items), such as “loose living” (15:13), “came to himself” (15:17), and repentance (15:21; 13:3). Looking at these words and phrases as they appear in utterances, verses, stanzas, and the text as a whole, we see the “completeness” of this story. This great parable speaks of true repentance and the complete joy a father has for a penitent son. Jesus addressed the “murmurings” of the Pharisees early in the story, saying “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (15:4-5). He then drove the point home: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).

The details in this story are vivid and moving. Further, they accurately reflect actual customs and legal procedures of the relevant time period. The older son is much like the Pharisees. He could not comprehend the meaning of true forgiveness. In fact, the viewpoints of the two sons are diametrically opposed. The lost son rises and returns; the older son turns and walks away from his father in disgust, falling in moral stature. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his unconditional love for both sons regardless of their behavior or their attitude. Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude toward the lost. He represents God’s perspective during his entire ministry on earth. This parable is one of the greatest examples of God’s willingness to forgive and to accept the return of every lost son or daughter. 

Concluding Remarks

Who are you in this parable? Are you the lost son, a Pharisee, a servant? Are you the older son who was bitter and jealous over the father’s forgiveness and blessing of the younger son who repented and returned home? Are you able to rejoice when a lost sheep is found, or are you taken captive by a righteous indignation, saying, “Why do you lavish him so? He disrespected and disowned you! I’ve been here all along. Where is my adoration?”

Family dynamics is rather fascinating. Even in the family of an addict or alcoholic we can see various roles played out: the Scapegoat (the one blamed for every wrong and ill within the family, sometimes the addict); the Punisher (often a sibling who has “always been there” for the family, and who doles out “consequences” on the addict or protects the family from the addict); the Enabler (usually a member who covers for the addict, trying to smooth things over or restore peace and order in the family, giving him or her enough rope to maybe change one day); the Hero (usually a Type-A personality who is hard-working, overachieving, a perfectionist, who is trying to create a degree of normalcy in the family); the Masot (often the funny, outgoing, class clown of the family always trying to quell the stress of the situation by supplying humor); and the Lost Child (often the middle or youngest child, shy, withdrawn, usually hates confrontation, and has difficulty with establishing outside relationships).

The parable of the prodigal son provides a wealth of theological meaning and puts an historical and sociopolitical spin on the nature of family dynamics during the era when this story was told. It can serve as an in-depth analysis of dysfunctional families today, showing us how easily we can resent the success of others; acceptance of a rebellious, riotous son or daughter who is welcomed back into the fold; righteous indignation by others in the family when a wayward son or daughter returns. It is not easy to forgive others who have harmed us or our loved ones. Thankfully, the parable of the prodigal son can serve to broaden our horizons regarding true repentance, unconditional love, and forgiveness. This is, after all, the point of the gospel itself.

Footnotes
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 962.
(2) Jirair Tashjian, “Inheritance Practices in the First Century,” The Voice, Christian Resource Institute (2018). URL: http://www.crivoice.org/inheritance.html

Upcoming Podcast!

I am in the process of starting a podcast regarding the same categories and issues discussed on this blog. I have not yet decided the frequency of postings, but ideally I would like to do one every day. The podcast episodes will be hosted by WordPress, and possibly one other mainstream host site. I am pitching to my board of elders at church for placing a link on the church website and Facebook page. Please watch for additional announcements.

I am very excited about expanding my ministry to include podcasts.

NA Meetings Available on Zoom

It has been difficult during the pandemic to find NA Zoom meetings. I decided to compile a listing and post it on my blog, and provide a link to my friends who are participating in a drug treatment court program. Each of these meetings are sanctioned by Narcotics Anonymous and will count toward any weekly meeting quota. Most (if not all) of these meetings provide verification (typically in the form of an email to your inbox which you can then forward to your probation officer. Just ask the chairperson of the meeting regarding how to receive a verification.

Remember, you can do it!
Steviebee77

Morning Wake Up Group of Narcotics Anonymous
Saturday
07:00 (7:00am) EDT – 08:00 (8:00am) EDT
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/2134996571
Chester County, PA

Mugs not Drugs
Saturday
08:00 (8:00am) EDT – 09:00 (9:00am) EDT
https://zoom.us/j/5463636379
Big Lake, MN
ID 5463636379 No password needed.

Carrying the Message Around the World
Saturday
12:00 (12:00pm) EDT – 13:30 (1:30pm) EDT
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/79162981566?pwd=SlkrM3RVUHRORkMrTVFXMC8wUEFxQT09
City of Brotherly Love, PA
password: jftna

Honest Beginners
Sunday
10:00 (10:00am) EDT – 12:00 (12:00pm) EDT
https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/703237349
Joliet, IL

Just for Today
Bridgeton, NJ
Sunday
10:00 (10:00am) EDT – 11:30 (11:30am) EDT
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9400801538
Bridgeton, NJ

The “After Noon” Group
Sunday
13:00 (1:00pm) EDT – 14:00 (2:00pm) EDT
https://zoom.us/j/722207704
West Chester, PA

Newcomers
Sunday
14:00 (2:00pm) EDT – 15:30 (3:30pm) EDT
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/2045349460
El Paso, TX
password: RecoverE (Please Note: the last letter must be a capital E)

Start the Day Off Right NA
Monday
09:00 (9:00am) EDT – 10:00 (10:00am) EDT
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/183339330
Atlanta, GA

Hugs Not Drugs
Monday
13:00 (1:00pm) EDT – 14:00 (2:00pm) EDT
https://zoom.us/j/82422942328
Houston, TX
password: JimmyK
[From Steviebee77: This is a great meeting. Might see you there!]

Mugs not Drugs
Tuesday
08:00 (8:00am) EDT – 09:00 (9:00am) EDT
Big Lake, MN
ID 5463636379 No password needed.
https://zoom.us/j/5463636379
[From Steviebee77: I enjoy this meeting as well. This is Mugs Not Drugs, not Hugs…]

Waking Up Clean
Tuesday
10:00 (10:00am) EDT – 11:00 (11:00am) EDT
https://zoom.us/j/266540613
Reno, NV
password: 457382

Keeping It Real Group of NA
Wednesday
08:30 (8:30am) EDT – 09:00 (9:00am) EDT
Tel: (848) 777-1212, 5574929#
NJ

Any Lengths Group
Wednesday
12:00 (12:00pm) EDT – 13:00 (1:00pm) EDT
Richmond, VA
Password: AnyLengths
https://us02web.zoom.us

Keeping It Real Group of NA
Thursday
08:30 (8:30am) EDT – 09:00 (9:00am) EDT
Tel: (848) 777-1212, 5574929#
NJ

Mid-Day Miracles
Thursday
15:00 (3:00pm) EDT – 16:30 (4:30pm) EDT
https://zoom.us/j/5786365647?pwd=Vy9QYWV6MzhJMm9DSGg2ZEJBNmdxdz09
Kennewick, WA

Keeping It Real Group of NA
Friday
08:30 (8:30am) EDT – 09:00 (9:00am) EDT
Tel: (848) 777-1212, 5574929#
NJ

The 12 Steps of NA
Friday
19:00 (7:00pm) EDT – 21:00 (9:00pm) EDT
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/727210620
Detroit, MI
ID 727210620

Contact Numbers

SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can order free publications.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Hours: Available 24 hours. Languages: English, Spanish.
Learn more 800-273-8255

For immediate emergencies, call 911. Another resource is the Poison Control emergency number: 1-800-222-1222. This is a free and confidential service open 24/7 to talk to a poison and prevention expert.

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Two

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

A NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHERS of the Enlightenment began publishing their thoughts in the late 1600s to early 1700s, and detractors almost immediately took on the task of stating their objections. Public debate began in Europe and Western Civilization whose echoes can be heard today. Enlightenment was characterized by skepticism toward religious dogma and other forms of traditional authority. Consensus was that principles governing the universe were discoverable, and could be applied to the betterment of mankind. Some of the Enlightenment’s key philosophers include Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes; key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution include Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

In contrast, Isaiah Berlin established a movement called Counter-Enlightenment. His theory became a movement in the late 18th- and early 19th-century. This school of thought stood against rationalism, universalism, and empiricism (typically associated with the Enlightenment). Berlin’s essay “The Counter-Enlightenment” was first published in 1973, and later reprinted in a collection of his works, Against the Current, in 1981. Much of Berlin’s thought was linked to his philosophy of “value pluralism” which holds that moral values can be equally valid and yet mutually incompatible, creating conflicts that can only be reconciled pragmatically. He is noted for stating, “Those who have ever valued liberty for its own sake believed that to be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.”

Isaiah Berlin wrote, “Opposition to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself. The proclamation of the autonomy of reason and the methods of the natural sciences, based on observation as the sole reliable method of knowledge, and the consequent rejection of the authority of revelation, sacred writings and their accepted interpreters, tradition, prescription, and every form of non-rational and transcendent source of knowledge, was naturally opposed by the churches and religious thinkers of many persuasions” (1).

Philosophies inherent in the Enlightenment (empiricism, sensationalism, and rationalism) depicted humans as complex machines; products of experience; highly rational beings operating in accordance with abstract principles. Leaders in romanticism emphasized inner experience, and distrusted both science and the philosophy which pictured humans as products of experience, as machines, or as totally rational beings. Obviously, no one can be 100 percent “rational.” Rational beings are capable of logical thought with the ability to reason toward sound conclusions based on facts and evidence, draw inferences from situations and circumstances, and make sound well-reasoned judgements based on factual information. Read that again, and notice it is missing a reference to man’s emotions. I do not know a single human who is capable of Spock-like reasoning: logical, not emotional (2).

Early Approaches to Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879. This was the first laboratory dedicated to psychology, and its opening is usually thought of as the beginning of modern psychology. Accordingly, Wundt is often regarded as the father of psychology. He believed that experimental psychology could be used to grasp an understanding of immediate consciousness, but said it was useless in attempting to understand higher cognitive function. Wundt stood in bold contradiction to Galileo, Comte, and Kant who claimed that psychology could never be a science. Wundt identified sensations (which occur whenever a sense organ is stimulated and the impulses reach the brain), adding that they are are always accompanied by feelings. He also developed the principle of contrasts. For example, if we taste something that is very bitter or sour, something sweet tastes even sweeter.

Early German psychology led to establishment of various clinics and experimental psychology labs. This era included the study of judging, recalling, expecting, inferring, doubting, loving, hating, and hoping. Looking at the previous listing, it is clear that experimental psychology was chasing mental abilities and processes at the same time it was seeking to explain emotion. Persistent questions in psychology over the centuries have included mind/body, mechanism versus vitalism, nativism versus empiricism, rationalism versus irrationalism, objective versus subjective reality, universalism versus relativism. Traditionally, “science” involves empirical observation, but the issues usually start with a problem that needs solving.

Not surprising, some aspects of psychology are scientific, and some are not. Nondeterminists assume that human behavior is “freely chosen,” and therefore not amendable to traditional scientific method. The indeterminist believes human behavior is determined, but say determinants of behavior cannot always be known. To what extent are humans free, and to what extent is their behavior determined by knowable causes? What is the nature of human nature? How are the mind and body related? And what of the spiritual element of human behavior? What is the origin of human knowledge? Is there a difference between what exists physically and what is experienced mentally? Are there knowable universal truths about the world in general, or just about people in particular? This is where psychology, philosophy, and theology began to ask similar questions.

I had intended to move on to David Entwistle (Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity), and the concept of worldview (David Sire, John Stonestreet, Nancy Pearcey, Lee Strobel). Instead, in Part Two I have presented an introduction to the history of psychology, and the many tough questions that come with exploring philosophy, psychology, and theology. Integration of these grand schemes is of vital importance. Naturally, some schools of thought overlap. Of course, others are diametrically opposed. In Part Three, we will explore the underpinnings of worldview from a secular and Christian perspective and show the overall importance of integrating psychology and Christian theology.

References
(1) “Archived Copy” (PDF). Archived from the original on Sept. 3, 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-03. URL
http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/counter-enlightenment.pdfi
(2) The character Spock is a character in television and movies as science officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek and related spinoffs.

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

I have heard it said that since the cultural revolution of the 1960s the emotional and mental needs of the American people have increased dramatically. When psychiatric epidemiology emerged in the early 20th century, social scientists rather than psychiatrists determined its basic character. This practice eventually led to the unfortunate trend today in addressing mental illness: psychiatrists schedule 15 minute exams for their patients, usually a mere 4 times a year (every three months). “Talk therapy” has been bifurcated from psychiatrists and placed under the umbrella of psychologists and social workers. Because most social scientists are not trained in medicine, they had little concern for the formidable problems posed by a nosology (scientific study and classification of diseases and disorders, both mental and physical) based on symptoms rather than etiology.

Psychiatry was defined and promulgated by a group of statistically oriented social scientists concerned with problems relating to poverty, dependency, and welfare. Certainly, this is an impetus for what is now called “social science.” But it also led to the advent of social justice issues, especially along the lines of “identity politics.” Psychologists and social workers realized that institutional populations were notoriously poor sources for epidemiological inquiry. Socioeconomic and environmental factors are key components of personality formation. At a more fundamental level, psychiatric nosologies (with few exceptions) rested on symptoms (“descriptive”) rather than cause (etiological) evaluation of the mental illness.

Additionally, philosophy and theology have found their way into medical and psychological diagnosis and treatment. St. Anselm (AD 1033-1109) argued in Faith Seeking Understanding that perception and reason can and should supplement Christian faith. This represents one of the earliest major departures from Christian tradition, which emphasized faith in God as the source of salvation, wisdom, knowledge, and physical and mental illness. St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God promoted using reason within theology. Simply stated, if we think of something then something must be causing that thought. In a sense, faith preceded efforts to understand. Frankly, the believer has nothing to fear from logic, reason, or even the direct study of nature. All truth is God’s truth. William of Occam (1285-1349) believed extraneous assumptions should always be kept as simple as possible. He said, “It is futile to do with many what can be done with fewer,” and “Plurality should not be assumed without necessity.” He said all miscellaneous details must be “shaved” from explanations or arguments. This has been affectionately labeled as Occam’s Razor.

Interestingly, William of Occam changed the question concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) from a metaphysical to a psychological problem. He rejected sole reliance on abstract reasoning or intense “introspection.” Instead, he placed emphasis on how the mind classifies experience; he said we habitually respond to similar objects in a similar way. Sensory experience provided information about the physical world only. Occam’s views are said to be the beginning of empiricism. Turning to St. Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), we find a man of God furiously dedicated to Christian theology. He turned his back on family (and a life of wealth and power) to focus on theology. Aquinas, in the same vein as Aristotle, said that the senses would provide information only about particulars, not about so-called “universals.” His work in this regard made it possible to bifurcate reason and faith, making it possible to study the two separately. Plato’s Theory of Forms asserted that the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality. Plato’s Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space.

Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) search for ultimate truth showed him that nothing in philosophy is beyond doubt. He was, of course, an empiricist, who invented analytic geometry. In fact, he concluded that the only thing of which he could be certain was the fact that he was doubting; but we know doubting is thinking, and thinking necessitates a thinker. This is how Descartes arrived at his much-celebrated conclusion, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). He included among the innate ideas those of unity, infinity, perfection, the axioms of geometry, and God. His methodology consisted of intuition and deduction. Intuition is the process by which observation leads to analysis, before becoming a “theory.” Observation should be from an unbiased and attentive mind arriving at a clear and distinct idea; an idea whose validity cannot be doubted. Deduction starts with an idea, then observation is made before it is given the identity of theory or idea. Decartes’ psychology heralded a mechanistic explanation of bodily functions and of much behavior. His mechanistic analysis of reflexive behavior can be seen as the beginning of both stimulus-response and behavioristic theories.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) also supported empiricism, suggesting “evidence of the senses” as the primary data of all knowledge; that knowledge cannot exist unless evidence has first been gathered; and that all subsequent intellectual processes must use this evidence and only this evidence in framing valid propositions about the real world. After visiting with Galileo in 1635, Hobbes became convinced that the universe consisted only of matter and motion and that both could be understood in terms of mechanistic principles. He saw humans as machines functioning within a larger machine (the universe). Hobbes also believed humans were naturally aggressive, selfish, and greedy. Incidentally, Hobbes thought democracy was dangerous because it gives too much latitude to man’s negative natural tendencies. He said fear of death is what motivates humans to create social order. Civilization is created as a matter of self-defense; each of us must be discouraged from committing crimes against the other.

Alexander Bain (1818-1903) has been referred to at the first true psychologist. He published two seminal works: The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and Emotions and the Will (1859). These books are heralded by some as the first systematic textbooks on psychology. He followed with Mind and Body (1873). Bain was the first in his field to attempt relating real psychological processes to psychological phenomena. For Bain, the mind had three components (or “functions”): feeling, volition, and intellect. Many Christian theologians and pastors believe man is made of three components: body, soul, and spirit. The soul is said to be comprised of mind, will, and emotions. Yet, to say that humans are morally superior to non-human animals is to overlook (at least to some degree) the seamier human activities like cannibalism, infanticide, and wars. The mere aspect of “religion” has certainly not improved the human condition. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) rejected Descartes’ contention that God, matter, and mind were separate entities. Instead, Spinoza proposed that all three were simply aspects of the same substance, which formed the basis of his theory on life that was both ethically correct and personally satisfying. He believed God, nature, and the mind were inseparable. Spinoza said God was not relegated to the realm of monotheists; rather, He was in everything. This is pantheism.

The practice of establishing categories of thought was proffered by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He disagreed with Hume by demonstrating that some truths were certain, not based on subjective experience alone. He did not deny the importance of sensory data, but he believed the mind must add something to that data before knowledge could be attained. He said that “something” was provided by a priori (innate) categories of thought. He listed the following in his breakdown of pure concepts or categories of thought: unity, totality, time, space, cause and effect, reality, quantity, quality, negation, possibility/impossibility, and existence/nonexistence. For Kant, a mind without concepts would have no real capacity to think; however, it can also be said that a mind loaded with concepts, but with no sensory data to which they could be applied, would have nothing to think about!

Philosophers began to argue that humans consist of more than an intellect and ideas derived from experience. We possess a wide variety of irrational feelings (emotions) that cloud meaning and tantalize or betray us. We also operate on an intuitive and instinctual platform. Romanticism was a predictable challenge to empiricism. After all, empiricism reduced people to unfeeling machines. Theologians talk of us possessing the imago Dei (the image of God). This seems to be contrary to the believe that emotions are found on the pleasure/pain continuum. Spinoza taught that emotional experience is often destructive if not controlled by rational processes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) said, “Man is born free and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Christian theology benefited, however, from Rousseau’s feelings vs. reason tenet because it supported the idea that God’s existence could be defended on the basis of individual feeling and did not depend on the dictates of the church.

I have decided to break this topic into a series. There is simply too much to cover in one blog post. Part One is designed to give you fairly deep background on how Christian theology interacted with philosophy. A great deal of psychology is built on the shoulders of early philosophers. Part Two will move a little faster, starting with David Entwistle’s thoughts on integrative approaches to Psychology and Christianity. Also, I will present the theology, philosophy, and worldview of David Sire, John Stonestreet, Nancy Pearcey, and Lee Strobel.

History of the Christian Church: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

Jose Ottega y Gasset once said, “Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors” (1). This applies even to promulgation of church doctrine, establishment of proper church administration, and systematic theological studies. Today’s Christian church must rest firmly on the theology of its patristic fathers. From its onset, Christianity has impacted culture and society; however, culture and society have impacted Christianity as well. Culture is known to push back with force, often in an oppressive and violent manner. Today’s militant atheists are intent on eradicating Christianity from public discourse, and often file lawsuits to that end.

The early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Gonzalez writes, “All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were” (2). Their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued to await His advent. Jewish leaders considered Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. Christians were “…going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics” (3). Nationalistic and patriotic sentiment was aroused by the fear that these new heretics could once more bring the wrath of God upon them. As we will discover in this series, Jews routinely looked for someone else to blame for their woes. This resulted in protracted generations of exile from God.

From its very beginning, the Christian message was grafted onto human history. Through generation after generation, Christians have taught that Jesus Christ is the complete embodiment of God, and He is salvation for all who believe in His sacrificial death on the cross. Much history, lineage, and geography is presented throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Identity and lifestyle were especially important to the largely Jewish audience for whom the Gospel of Matthew was initially written. It attests to considerable hostility toward synagogues (6:2-18; 10:17-18), and utter rejection of Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees (12:14; 15:12-14; 21:45-46; 23). Matthew describes doctrinal infighting, the sacking of Jerusalem (AD 70), and destruction of the Temple. He notes how the early church would question God’s faithfulness (as they waited on Him), and he references apologetic debates.

John’s gospel is instrumental in establishing significant events discussed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John rightly commences with in the beginning, which refers to the first chapter of Genesis. Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4. NRSV). John describes his experience when he baptized Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s writing style is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching moved beyond parables that are featured in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; instead, Jesus taught in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings we see in the Gospel of John are not found in the other three Gospels. Further, John spends much time on the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

The Jewish Diaspora (the scattering of Jews far and wide), had a critical impact on the history of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “…for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire” (4). In addition, the Diaspora played a large role in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Diaspora has also been used to characterize the flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria shortly before the rise of Christianity. Trade flourished during the early centuries of the Christian church. This factor brought the story of redemption to new regions; but through traveling traders, slaves, and others, more than through missionaries or preachers. With this wide dispersal, syncretism crept into the Christian church, beginning with Constantine (AD 280-337) and others like him who practiced pagan rites while also attending Christian services.

Constantine’s dubious claim of conversion to Christianity notwithstanding, he provided the church with his “legal blessing,” while continuing to embrace paganism. Jews and Christians stood firm in their faith, which garnered the reputation of unbending fanatics. When the early Christians refused to light incense to the Roman gods, or to the emperor, they did so as a testament to their faith in Christ alone. Because Christians throughout the Roman Empire stayed home rather than participate in “societal” activities and street fairs which typically involved in festivals honoring the gods, Roman authorities condemned Christians as disloyal and seditious. This is one of the many reasons that Christians were persecuted, tortured, and executed by Roman authorities.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. For example, as soon as the Christian message started reaching the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter or nullify it. Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Christian church: a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin, which believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis). It would take the church nearly 100 years to rid itself of Gnosticism. These developments led to emergence of early Christian apologists, such as Justin the Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. Apologetics has survived into the twenty-first century. The church responded specifically to heresy and accusations by establishing canon, creed, and apostolic succession. At times, it was necessary to convene a synod to decide issues of doctrine and administration.

Christianity was established as an official religion at the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This was an important step in securing the civil rights of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For nearly 300 years, Christianity was functionally illegal in the Roman Empire, often subjecting Christians to persecution. This proclamation protected full rights for Christian citizens of the Empire, restoring their property, releasing them from prisons, and effectively banning government persecution of their faith. It also declared a general state of religious tolerance, allowing for the expression of virtually any spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the bad came with the good in the form of heresies, such as Donatism: the belief that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. This led to schism in the Church of Carthage from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. Arianism – the ideology that Jesus was merely human and not divine – arose practically overnight. The Roman Empire banned Arianism in 379. Shortly thereafter, the church instituted the death penalty for heresy.

In AD 425, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). This was an apologetic answer to the claim of Pelagius that salvation could be earned by good works. Augustine wrestled, however, with the origin of evil. He ultimately settled on evil being “…a looking away from God and turning one’s gaze to the inferior realm.” It was believed that a single being, of infinite goodness, was the source of all things. He said evil is real, but it is not a real or created “thing.” Rather, Augustine taught the concept that evil is a direction away from the goodness of the One. I am familiar with the suggestion that we are either walking toward or walking away from Christ. Walk is discussed throughout the New Testament. The 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451) reestablished the two natures of Jesus (human and divine). The birth of monasticism furthered the teachings of the Church and led to the promulgation of the Gospel.

Christianity’s next great challenge was Islam. Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall to the Muslims. Persecution of Christians by Muslims began AD 717 under Caliph Umar II. Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches. (This is a sad but accurate foreshadowing of Nazis forcing Jews to wear Star of David arm bands during the reign of Adolf Hitler.) When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the Muslim invasion of France in AD 732. It was the caliph’s intention to conquer Europe in the name of Muhammad.

Trouble with Islam continued. In AD 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in AD 1091. In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which culminated in the bloody defeat of the Knights Templar and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Please join me next time when I discuss the historical importance of monasticism in the early Christian church. As always, please consider replying to these posts to help foster dialog.

Footnotes
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), xiii.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 27.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 18.

Why Must We Suffer?

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

MANY FACTORS TODAY IMPACT how we feel about ourselves and life. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We question the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil and social unrest. America is embroiled in doubt and fear, depression and anxiety, hopelessness and a loss of meaning; caught in a national angst we have not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Great Depression. Some of us turn to psychology and psychiatry, hoping medication and talk therapy will cure our misery. Others turn to “religion.” Tragically, many Americans try booze and illicit drugs, and some choose to end their life. What is the answer?

How Could You?

I sat, alone, quietly, wondering what was about to happen. Misery had brought me to this place. I was so sick and tired of myself, yet I had no idea how to change me. And what if I cannot change? Would I be able to live, period? Perhaps you or someone you are close to has been at this point. My complaint, for lack of a better word, was simple: God, how could you? Why did you give me this life, this complete mess. I felt impotent and alone. Nothing thrilled me anymore. Not. One. Thing. I decided to find out why, or die. Why am I lost and alone, confused and burdened? I am so tired of hearing my own voice―especially the one in my head that never seemed to stop making excuses for my circumstances. It is quite unsettling to give one’s self an ultimatum. What happened to the hour I first believed? I saw the face of Jesus at age 13, and asked Him into my heart and my life. There was an unambiguous call on my life to serve as a pastor or teacher of the Word. Finally, my raison d être.

But things did not go “according to plan.” Life got complicated. I got lost on the way to my calling. I’d never really been happy in life, but at least I wasn’t a nihilist. My belief that something matters, no matter what that something is, seemed to propel me toward hope. A chance to see the horizon. Light. There has to be light, right? And doesn’t that light illuminate, reveal? Like that new GE light bulb, giving the best light, filtering dull yellow light to give incredible color contrast and whiter whites for exceptional clarity. That’s what I needed. Exceptional clarity. Let’s get real here. My life did not seem to be “exceptional” and I had absolutely no “clarity.” Instead, I was kneeling in my bedroom, alone, broke and broken, asking God, “How could you do this to me?” How could a Christian lose hope. Lose the horizon? Give up the reigns to a task master like substance abuse?

I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know why my grandmother and father got cancer. Why my father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Why he contracted COPD, emphysema, and chronic hypoxemia? When he eventually needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, he said to me, “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” Shortness of breath robbed him of his many favorite activities: woodworking, painting, gardening, landscaping. No longer could he ride his lawn tractor without suffering compression fractures of lumbosacral vertebrae. He had stopped smoking after his heart attack at age 55, yet he still suffered the horrific medical consequences. He passed away in 2014 from pneumonia. Why God? He’d quit smoking decades ago. Why is he gone now that I finally have a life worth living? Why isn’t he here to see the amazing turnaround I’ve finally made? He’s not here to see me preparing for ministry. God, how could you? Thankfully, I am not prone to thinking this way any longer, but it took some exegetical research for me to determine the best way to address these issues without blaming God, my father, or others.

If God Loves Us, Why Must There Be Pain and Suffering?

If God loves us and is an omnipotent and benevolent God, why does He allows pain and suffering. These questions are not limited to skeptics and nonbelievers; they haunt many Christians as well. Surely, He can rid His creation of wars, murders, torture, sickness, tsunamis, earthquakes; He must be capable of arresting evil, right? This issue has stymied believers and non-believers for centuries. Richard Dawkins sees universal suffering as an indictment against the existence of a loving God. Further, he writes, “There is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity” (1). Dawkins believes theodicy (the “vindication” of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) must keep theologians up at night. However, he provides no further evidence of this claim. Second, I and many other theologians and biblical scholars I know, are not suffering from insomnia over the conundrum of evil in the face of a “good” God.

Dawkins says it is “…childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god – such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Dawkins’ detractors see the foregoing comment as a straw man fallacy, especially because Christian theologians and biblical scholars do not claim that the issue of evil is easily overcome, nor do they believe Satan is “a separate evil god,” responsible for the existence of evil in God’s creation. Designating one cosmic power “good” and the other “evil” presupposes a third element for making the evaluation, namely an objective standard (or “measuring stick”) of good and evil. For the terms of “good” and “evil” to be meaningful, they must be linked to some objective standard, but “…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God” (2).

C.S. Lewis writes, “Each [entity] presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy… Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other, or else we are saying that one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself good” (3). Lewis argues that no created being can be intrinsically evil or love evil for evil’s sake. He contends that there is no way that an evil being can stand in the same relation to its evil that an ultimate good being can stand to its goodness. He adds, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. There must be something good first before it can be spoiled” (4). Augustine of Hippo postulated that evil has no existence of its own; instead, evil is the absence of good.

I understand this conclusion sounds a bit counterintuitive. So, let us take an exegetical approach to the origin of evil. When God created the heaven and the earth, He paused and saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, after surveying all He made, God said it was very good (1:31). When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see no mention of God creating anything bad, corrupt, malevolent, ugly, or wicked. Yet, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the fall of man and introduction of original sin. So, good is morally “prior to” evil such that evil is damaged goodness and love of evil is desiring evil as though it were good. Natural laws and libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a variety of valuable relational situations (within humanity and with God).

Lewis believed pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” emphasizing pain’s capacity to shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency. But this is not a dyed-in-the-wool formula; pain only sometimes shatters our false sense of self-sufficiency and at other times drives us farther from God, depending on our response. Further, Lewis did not make sweeping generalizations about the purpose of all pain, although some interpreters mistakenly represent him as doing so. Moreover, Lewis did not address “evils” such as natural catastrophes that wipe out hundreds of people without giving them a chance to reorient toward God; nor did he engage human wrongful acts like the torture and murder of children who cannot respond productively to the pain. To be sure, however, God can work redemptively with pain when it does occur. There is simply no guarantee that all persons, even when pain exposes their insufficiency, will choose relationship with God.

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about good or bad, right or wrong? What are we to conclude about evil and wickedness? If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong. To admit this would force philosophers to admit that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.

Created Selves and Reality

As a created self, a finite personal being possessing intelligence, will, and agency, Satan’s true good would have been realized by accepting his place (as Lucifer) in creation, which he refused to do. We human beings are also created selves who must either accept our nature and ultimate destiny in God or craft for ourselves a destiny apart from God, which Lewis sees as “a free choice.” Essentially, a series of accumulative moral choices in which “good and evil both increase at compound interest” (5). It is inevitable that left unchecked, bad temper, jealousy, narcissism, selfishness, and other spiritual or character defects, gradually get exponentially worse and become Hell when projected out over an eternal future. Finding our true selves, then, is a matter of letting God heal and transform us spiritually. But God will never force himself upon us. He will not ravish, He can only woo. As perfect love, God can do nothing less than will our true good. Lewis said, “He cannot bless us unless He has us” (6).

Concluding remarks

We all hear the question so many typically ask, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” Yet, the truth is, people send themselves there. If you see someone walking toward a cliff and you yell to them, “Wrong way! There is a cliff ahead. You’re going to fall off and die if you don’t go the other way.” But if the person foolishly responds with “I’ll take my chances”, “I don’t believe you”, or “All roads lead to safety,” then he or she ends up falling off the cliff and into the abyss, who sent them there? They did! I wrote a poem during my active addiction that looked at the excitement and the peril of living my life right up to the edge of the abyss. Certainly, God did not want me to push myself away from Him, coming closer and closer to the cliff. He wanted to rescue me from myself, but I had to make the first move.

Lewis said a “Cosmic Sadist” might hurt us, but he could not do positive things such as invent or create or govern a universe. To hurt us, the Cosmic Sadist might bait traps, “…but he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend” (7). It is goodness that is original and fundamental and evil that is derivative and parasitic. I, as Lewis, remain confident that the Christian worldview explains evil and suffering better than other worldviews explain it. Evil occurs within a total world context that includes other important phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by an evil source. The problem of evil itself, as Lewis indicated, can be credibly formulated only if these other realities are assumed. In the final analysis, when Lewis lost his wife Joy, he did not waiver one bit in his faith in God. His theory that pain is a catalyst for spiritual reorientation (a belief he articulated frequently and that many of his readers took as categorical) encountered the hard fact that sometimes we just have to endure pain that seems to serve no particular purpose.

Footnotes

(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2008), 135.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), 43.
(3) Ibid, 42-43.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 132.
(6) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London, UK: SCM Press, 2000).
(7) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961), 65.

A Plea for Mercy at a Poetry Reading

Be patient please
as these words stumble
off my tongue or as they tip-toe
nervously to the precipice of my lips
nervously to the precipice of my lips
before leaping into your lagoon of thought.
Listen, these words have traveled
long years through the swollen rivers
and frenzied trees of a jungle mind
battered by storm. They are weary
as well as wary. As iron is bent
and tortured across the blacksmith’s anvil
these words are twisted and torqued
over the most trivial of fears;
they are raw with tedious obsessions.
Their blossoming has been withered
by the stale breath of isolation.
But know this, they are honest
and unassuming
as the tip of a blind man’s cane.
So take them gently as you now
lead them through the obstacles
of their own making.

© 2021 Jason James Sheppard

Systematic Treatment of Theologies

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.T.S.

After digesting the theological methods of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner, I am partial to Barth. Barth grew up in Germany, and was in country when Hitler’s Third Reich and extermination of the Jews was rampant. This left Barth quite dismayed. He saw the policies of the Nazi party as evidence of a fundamentally bankrupt theology (1). Both the church and German society were smashed against the rock of imperialism. Wayne Grudem defines systematic theology any study that answers the questionWhat does the whole Bible teach us today?” about any given topic (2). Further, it allows us to focus on summarizing each doctrine as it should be understood by Christians in the twenty-first century. The adjective systematic in systematic theology should be understood to mean “carefully organized by topics,” with the understanding that the topics studied will be seen to fit together in a consistent manner.

My strong endorsement of Karl Barth rests in his call for a theology that starts with God (in the beginning) and focuses on the Word of God. Paul wrote, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2:13, NRSV). Regarding the primacy of Scripture, we are told, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). God’s Word is truth (John 17:17); it is powerful and does not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11); it will never pass away (Matt. 24:35). Moreover, the Word of God is “…inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). 

Barth’s theology reminds me of Martin Luther’s sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). In fact, consider the milieu of both these theological giants. Luther stood up against the corruption, abuse of power, and lack of primacy of Scripture regarding Roman Catholicism, and Barth spoke out against the atrocities of Hitler’s eugenics and his grab for world power. Barth staunchly opposed any approach to theology that featured human-centeredness. Systematic theology is impossible without the core Doctrine of the Word of God, for it is there that we learn of His attributes and character. Without Holy Scripture, there is no thread of redemption for us to follow, refer to, or teach. 

Barth took on Protestant liberalism, stating that the Word of God must be primary in theology. For me, this is the only means by which we can live our theology, otherwise our faith is mere philosophy. In addition, without a systematic model of theology and an official canon of biblical texts, we cannot hope to discover the Truth that is in Jesus Christ. We would miss the opportunity to satisfy our innate hunger for God. We also lack sufficient wisdom and knowledge to know God without His wisdom, His grace, and His Word.

Without the foregoing, true theology is not possible. The heart of Barth’s theology rests upon the sovereignty of God, the importance of the resurrection, the light of Christ, and the primacy of Holy Scripture. Barth said man’s “religion” is more akin to unbelief. It is a construct of the human mind. He adds, “It is a concern, indeed. We must say that it is the one great concern of godless man. From the standpoint of revelation, religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in his revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human factor” (2).

Footnotes

(1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 24.
(2) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1956), 299-300.