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.
How does the foundation of Scripture as the primary source for theology help to prioritize and structure the relationships between the various sub-disciplines of Christian theology? How might these all contribute to the unity of Christian theology, or is there one approach that might contribute most to its unity?
Friedrich Schleiermacher identifies three unique and equally important substrates of systematic theology: Historical Theology, Philosophical Theology, and Practical Theology. These must be interconnected relative to every mode or operation of the Christian faith itself for there to be a true “unity of faith.” This is the very beginning of the “community of believers.” Of course, foundation is key to everything.
Consider the parable of the wise and the foolish builder in Matthew 7:24-27. Jesus was nearing the end of His Sermon on the Mount. He had spoken just minutes before regarding fasting and prayer, storing treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and allowing God to provide for our needs without worry. He said if someone hears His words and puts them into practice, that person is like the wise man who builds on a foundation of rock. Such a foundation can withstand stormy weather. The man who hears His words, however, and does not heed them is like the foolish man who builds his house on a foundation of sand. Such a dwelling cannot withstand the storms.
For Christianity in general, that foundation must be the Word of God for it to have a positive, systematic impact on the body of believers. Indeed, such a comprehensive and systematic study is not necessary for the individual, nor for a small study group or congregation; rather, it is for the church at large—the entirety of the “faith.” Only then can it promote universal and coherent application. Christian Theology, specifically, is the collective embodiment of those branches of scientific knowledge and those rules of art required for consistent church government. Faith alone (sola fida) does not need an apparatus for the individual or the family unit. Faith in such an intimate setting is an individual matter. Relative to a systematic theological undertaking of the Christian faith, it must ultimately be laid solidly upon the foundation of Scripture alone (sola scriptura). There is, of course, However, no foundational building block for Philosophical and Practical Theology without a clear continuum of the idea of Christianity.
Historical Theology calls for sifting through and supplementing what others have determined in past teachings of the church. Christianity can never be a solely empirical or intellectual undertaking (simply collecting data). It should, however, involve viewing en masse (in its historical context) all teaching and comparing same ultimately to other churches of the faith. If “history” is missing from systematic theology, it is devoid of “corporate will” (which is determined over time and within the church at large). In this regard, unity is lost. Troeltsch asks whether history merely renders judgment of probability (based on what has happened before). Moreover, is it merely the application of analogy to a specific time? We know analogy brings many problems with it, even when applied to things that happen before our very eyes. Much can depend on our worldview, and can be further compromised by bias, deception, dislocation, formation of myth, misinterpretation, preconception, imposture, factiousness, and so on. Barth says dogmatics can help with this, but it is only appropriate for the “listening” church. In other words, for those who are already believers and are able to “hear” the Word of God and compare Scripture to what is being espoused. He adds that dogmatics provides the mechanism by which human reflection and action (and their fallibility) can be subjected to another reflection and action—that of God’s. God Himself speaks for Himself! He has spoken in the past, He speaks to us now, and He will speak to us in the future. Dogmatics is essentially a kind of “call to order” for the community of believers. It is the means by which unity can be established. Barth thinks of it as a call to the teaching church itself to hear—that is, to hear Christ. Dogmatics must never form doctrine. Instead, it is a tool for weighing the words of the teaching church against the Word of God.
Dogmatics is a reminder that over and above the content of all human speech and its possibility, what is said has plainly been said already, and will be said again, and only consistent with the Word of God. Subject matter should therefore be grounded in the Spirit and not in human intellect or interpretation. In other words, the church teaches, not the person. This is a great tool for checking consistency. Historical Theology is quite significant for analysis due to historical criticism and comparison. Biblical criticism itself is rooted in analyzing the ways by which all the rest of church history has been handed down to us. As Barth noted, there has always been the risk of “equivocal” proclamation when the Word of God comes from the mouths of various theologians and ministers, but the goal must be unequivocally pure doctrine! It all must be said in accordance with (and therefore be comprised solely of) the Word of God. It is advisable, also, to be wary that personal intellectual capacity, history, or life’s situations must never color the truth of the Scriptures. The church essentially makes (or owes) a promise that no matter the circumstances or the person, the Word of God will be presented in pure doctrine and not with some illusory or mistaken element to it.
I believe all three approaches (Historical, Philosophical, and Practical) must be applied to systematic Christian Theology in order to determine a “solidarity” relative to doctrine, without which the church may fall into legalism and become a battleground for competing dogmas.
On Monday I started my second class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University. This class is the first of three courses in Systematic Theology. Please join me Monday, October 21, 2019 as I discuss the lesson from the first week of Systematic Theology I.
Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, 1/2. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 1956.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Brief Outline of the Study of Theology, translated by William Farrer, (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: T. & T. Clark; Hamilton, Adams, & Co.; J. Robertson), 1850.
Troeltsch, E. “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” in Religion in History (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress), 1991.