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 question “What 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).
(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.