Summary of the first week of class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.
Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
AS I NOTED PREVIOUSLY, theology is an attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this exercise faith thinking. Although theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education endeavor, the activity known as “Christian Theology” should be an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Systematic Theology is defined as “an integrating discipline that studies how the church may bear enduring, timely, and truthful witness to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Theology today specifically denotes the contemporary effort to speak about God in an orderly way. In order to understand how this can be accomplished, we must first look at the major approaches to knowing. Hart presents the quest for knowing through three distinct approaches: objectivism, relativism, and critical realism. He brings these three systems of thought to bear on theology. Hart sees theology as fidelis quaerens intellectum, which he identifies as “a believer seeking understanding,” adding, theology is best understood as “the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (p. 1).
Hart believes theology is an inevitable activity of faith. He points out that good theology “is the disciplined and critical reflection of the community of faith upon the gospel entrusted to it” (p. 11). He says Christian theology is properly an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian in the real world. He points out, however, that modern thought allows man to see only “the facts” of a particular matter, “…[striving] to clear away the accumulated detritus of interpretations, personal judgments and perspectives” (p. 45) which would do away with all untestable beliefs and assumptions. This is accomplished by testing all things before making a judgment. Hart calls this objectivism. By this, he means nothing—interpretations, assumptions, biases—should get in the way of determining truth. Skepticism states that nothing exists beyond which is perceived by the senses. Hart believes where religious faith is concerned, there is a disposition of passionate commitment to truth on an ontological basis—not a skeptical perspective.
When considering the subject of goodness or morality, an objectivist believes, according to Scott B. Rae (2009), that moral precepts existed prior to being espoused in God’s special revelation (Scripture). This is an ontological belief that there is a universal morality or truth independent of man’s interpretation. Rae states, “Objective goodness has always existed since it is rooted in God’s character [and] is revealed through natural law prior to God giving human beings the Bible” (p. 49). Hart (1995) says during the Enlightenment man attempted to provide “a clear set of standards and methods for determining what, in a given situation, might merit rational or moral justification” (p. 49). This mirrors the “reasonable man” standard we’ve seen in American jurisprudence. Such a viewpoint would amount to an a priori belief in truth or morality as an absolute. The difficulty is how this approach remains impartial and plays out against relativism.
It has often been stated that in the absence of absolute truth or morality, it would neither be right nor wrong for Adolf Hitler to decide the supremacy of one race over another, or whether cannibalism is right or wrong given it is acceptable among tribes in the Amazon but not in the Western world. Relativism is considered skeptical as it doubts any universal claim of knowledge or certainty. Hart says because “what we ‘see’ is determined in large measure by the mental categories which we bring to bear on the sensory data” (p. 55) we are to a large extent a slave to our worldview. Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) describe worldview as “a pair of glasses through which we see the world” (p. 4). This is the very mechanism through which relativism operates. Because worldviews are not the same as a formal philosophy, we’re plagued with navigating between “the Scylla of objectivism and the Charybdis of pluralism” noted by Hart (1995, p. 48).
Critical realism attempts to define a postmodern view by claiming there is no unified truth, dogma, or set of beliefs. As it is not necessarily a unified theory, it takes a skeptical view of reality. Hart presents MacIntyre’s belief that traditions are justified merely by their “appropriateness as accounts of reality” (p. 68). The difference between relativism and realism is ontological, regarding how facts and objects are interpreted. But it is also concerned with whether truth or “reality” is knowable at all, and, if so, should it be evaluated subjectively or objectively? As Hart explains, the realist gives “an account in which the universe and most of what goes on in it are completely independent of our thoughts” (p. 64-65). This requires transcendence of our subjectivity, which is a tricky proposition. Realism wishes to divorce private thought from public thought—separation of church and state. Hart notes Polanyi’s belief that we cannot remove ourselves from subjectivity through assuming a mere spectator’s role; instead, we must commit ourselves to one standpoint “as the best and most reliable route” (p. 65) to reality. It involves having a universal intent.
For a system of thought to be compatible with “faith thinking,” it cannot be subjective, for this would place God in a “box” contingent upon individual belief. The Bible states, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time; also, he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end… I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, 14, RSV) [italics added]. Christian theology requires the believer to accept God objectively as an ontological reality. Man is to be governed by God’s special revelation (Scripture) regardless of what appears to be true in His general revelation (Creation or the “real” world). Christians can’t pick and choose which Scriptures they want to follow or believe to be true. Accordingly, true systematic Christian theology establishes the inerrancy of God’s Word as one of its universal doctrines.
Perhaps one of the most relevant examples of man choosing which Scripture to believe and which to ignore regarding lifestyle involves the matter of sexual orientation. There have been many schisms within denominations, sometimes leading to the establishment of an entirely different sect, because of the unwillingness of homosexual believers to see Leviticus 20:13—”If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them”—for the truth it represents. Systematic theology can only benefit the church when it is undertaken from an objective viewpoint with a complete belief in the ontological truth of Scripture.
Class is on a one-week break for Labor Day from September 2 through September 8. Accordingly, my next weekly Let’s Go To Theology Class! post will be Monday, September 16, 2019. Please feel free to rejoin the conversation at that time.
Hart, Trevor, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995.
Phillips, W. Gary, Brown, William E., and Stonestreet, J. Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2008.
Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 2009.