The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.
Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.
WE HAVE LEARNED SO far that 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.”
This week’s lesson focused on understanding religious faith. In Trevor Hart’s Faith Thinking, he expounds on contemporary approaches to theology through examination of objectivism and relativism, saying these are the only available intellectual options a “theologian can use. The Church Covenant at my home church indicates, “We covenant that we will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but will regularly attend the services of this Church. We will strive for its advance in knowledge, holiness, and fellowship, and sustain its ordinances, discipline and doctrines” (see Hebrews 10:25 for scriptural authority).
Further, the Covenant states that spreading of the Gospel must be built upon the truth, which can only be attained through being reconciled to God and being the very ambassadors through which God may work in the same manner He worked through Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:19-21). In other words our church members are expected to walk carefully in the world, being just in their dealings, faithful in their responsibilities and exemplary in their conduct, as well as understanding [having accurate knowledge of] what the Lord’s will might be. This directive is based upon Ephesians 5:15, 17.
Clearly, faith evaluated through an objective view must focus on reason, purpose, and the individual self. This stems from the basic approach of objectivism as relating to or being comprised of only that which can be observed, negating the importance (if not existence) of that which cannot be observed. According to Trevor Hart, this is considered “public” versus “private” theology. This is specific to the manner in which we discuss or hold our underlying belief and should not to be interpreted as being double-minded or hypocritical.
Pannenberg believes the theologian’s first responsibility is to aid people in experiencing as reality whatever they are expected to build upon as their true theology or faith. He says this must be accomplished prior to the theologian asking individuals to take an initial step of faith. The basic platform on which such faith is built must be firm, thereby promoting confidence in the platform. Hart indicates some individuals will step out further in faith than others. Regardless, the Christian theologian cannot expect a potential believer (skepticism often hindering absolute conviction) to take that first step without his giving them a “good reason for doing so and pointing to something firm to place their foot on.”
What is this objective approach to faith? It’s been said that in order for faith to operate properly—that is, to provide an adequate window through which we can contemplate truth—we must grasp a meaning in our soul which is intrinsic and built upon knowledge we’ve come to accept as so. If it is based on internal, subjective truth, we may become fearful of investigation, asking What will become of believers if they dare challenge the very doctrine they are invested in as ontological? Under this system of thought, we might feel less of a believer whenever we question any tenet of our faith. Pannenberg says the reasonableness of responding to the Gospel and committing oneself to Jesus must be demonstrable to those who are not yet Christians—those who lack faith from the start. Pannenberg seems to take an apologetics view as he addresses the ruminations of the modern world concerning God and Christology. He believes theology must clearly demonstrate the credibility of its claims. As such, Pennenberg took an objective approach to theology.
Paul Althaus says the “truth” of the Christian gospel is not necessarily apparent to those who cannot see it. There’s a sense of predisposition here: The gospel cannot be grasped by those without the “eyes to see” or the “ears to here.” It is, therefore, not objective. Instead, Althaus said the study of systematic theology was relative to what each individual intrinsically believes to be true. There is a troublesome dilemma here: This type of God knowledge is unknowable in any straightforward way by the masses—it is not given in the public arena. Instead, it is merely discerned by the eye of faith specific to the individual.
There is a slight hint of Gnosticism with Althaus in that, as Hart puts it, Althaus argues “the true significance of those facts remains hidden or obscured to unbelief and is only recognized from the particular perspective of faith.” Althaus notes the many outward (public) examples of the signs and miracles performed by Jesus as proof of His claim to be the Messiah. He says, “There is nothing about them which, when viewed by the public at large, compels such recognition.” He thinks faith is not based on progressive accumulation of knowledge or experiences available to all; rather, it amounts to a special dispensation setting some believers apart, revealing truth and demanding an appropriate response, which seems to speak of an internal, relative and subjective belief system. Althaus seems to mix a bit of Calvinism or predestination in with this belief.
Pannenberg disagrees. He says if we accept that the meaning of gospel realities are only knowable based on a “prior decision of faith… then two things seem to follow.” First, we will be forced to embrace relativism, indicating there is no intrinsic truth or value “for its own sake,” only that which we choose to invest in it. Second, Althaus says there is a crude logical gap between public perspective and faith’s perspective. He believes faith to be some “absurd character” lacking any support from the perspective of what is commonly observed. It seems the best point of view for deducing the existence and meaning of God must come from without: As Augustine puts it, knowledge of God must be sought from God. Moreover, Pannenberg says, “Faith is not a blind leap, but a carefully considered and reasoned judgement; not a state of ‘blissful gullibility’ but a venture in which the Christian ‘risks trust, life and future on the fact of God’s having been revealed in the fate of Jesus.”
John Macquarrie tended to mix orthodox Christianity and existentialism. He saw faith not as a mechanism or demand as a prerequisite to finding the knowledge of faith and of God—an external, objective approach. Instead, he saw it as “a critical and reflective activity to which faith eventually leads.” Theology for Macquarrie is an activity of faith, but not in the sense that it requires or demands compilation of information through a prerequisite or a priori approach. Instead, he does see theology as a reflective and highly critical undertaking to which faith naturally leads. This writer is not sure how helpful it is to divorce faith from theology, especially when Macquarrie requires that it be set aside during the actual practice of theology. No doubt this is a side-effect of his existential approach to knowing.
Without a firm foundation (faith) on which to build, there remains the chance (with each individual search) to end up down some tangential path that will only serve to confuse and frustrate the search for truth. It is important that believers recognize their individual biases, preconceptions and assumptions about theology (public or private), and, knowing such exist, subject their conclusions to the scrutiny of the community of believers. This permits side-by-side evaluation of prescribed canons of truth, whether rational, historical, experiential, or whatever the focus. Hart says, “Theology, we are given to understand, must play the intellectual game together with everyone else on a level playing-field.”
Hart, Trevor. Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995.