Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Most Important Aspect

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.

Reflecting primarily, but not exclusively, on Wayne Grudem’s definition of systematic theology and his four, attendant sub-points (pp. 21-26), identify the biggest, most important idea for you about systematic theology?

“Biggest” can happen due to several factors: an idea which produced an “a-ha” moment while reading about it; an idea which has evaded your understanding until this session; an idea which you believe to be the most important one from all the readings of this session; or an idea which produces in you a deep sense of worship or wonder or even conviction.

The following is my response to the above discussion prompt.

The “biggest” or most important idea about why I chose to undertake the systematic study of theology is “clarity.” If, during my introduction to theology, I were to focus on systematic theology versus the “doctrine” of the Word of God, I would get sucked in to the vortex of the different forms of God’s Word (to include spoken or revealed versus written—sometimes explained as special revelation). That argument is enough to fill an entire tome itself. It would, by its very nature, include hermeneutics (the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts). I’d have to address apocryphal versus canonical. Then I’d have to examine authority, clarity, sufficiency, and necessity. I’d need to consider which translation is most accurate and suited for exegetical study. It’s enough to make the beginner theology student exclaim, “What have I gotten myself into?”

I can, however, focus on what I consider that one biggest idea. My choice surrounds the vital factor of conviction. Certainly, it is important to examine Christian beliefs and disciplines in relation to other systems of thought or practice. There is an element of historical theology in this exercise. What are the insights, analyses, and conclusions that have been handed down, and are they germane to the subject being studied at this time? Obviously, it is critical that systematic theology aid us in applying Christian doctrine to present-day circumstances. We’re told Christ is the same, always. We’re informed that God’s Word will never pass away. Accordingly, at least some portion of what’s before us must apply to the current situation. Further, how would we arrive at any sensible understanding of historical and applicable theology if the study itself is disorganized? By default, it would therefore not be systematic.

There is only one solution. As Wayne Grudem notes, systematic theology must treat biblical topics “in a carefully organized way to guarantee that all important topics will receive thorough consideration.” [1] Systematic theology, among other functions, helps assure the universal inclusion of approved doctrine for study, for edification, and for church governance. And what is “doctrine?” Grudem calls what the whole Bible teaches us about a topic “doctrine.” Although somewhat circular in its explanation, doctrine is simply “the result of the process of doing systematic theology with regard to one particular topic.” [2] To make matters more complex, a doctrine can be very broad in scope or very narrow. God, in general, is a rather broad doctrine; however, the trinity is a specific topic relative to the Doctrine of God.

Every general doctrine in Christianity holds within it the potential to be dissected into intricately yet equally important sub-sections of doctrine. Not surprisingly, each section or sub-section can be the subject of any number of teachings, and to varying degrees of depth. This might sound discouraging at best, and frighteningly complex at worst. To take this stand would be to miss the point. “Systematic” simply means “done to a fixed plan or system.” In other words, methodical if not (at least to some degree) universal. Systematic theology must concern itself with the “core” doctrines that define and vitalize Christianity.

The biggest, most important aspect of systematic theology is the appropriate definition and inclusion of doctrinal categories. Grudem sees these as critical enough to state they must meet at least one of the following three criteria: [3]

  1. Doctrines most emphasized in Scripture;
  2. Doctrines most significant throughout the history of the Christian church and deemed important for all Christians at all times;
  3. Doctrines that have become important for Christians in the present situation in the history of the church.

Wayne Grudem provides a comprehensive listing of core Christian doctrines that I believe should be a part of any systematic theology:

  • Part 1: The Doctrine of the Word of God
  • Part 2: The Doctrine of God
  • Part 3: The Doctrine of Man
  • Part 4: The Doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit
  • Part 5: The Doctrine of the Application of Redemption
  • Part 6: The Doctrine of the Church
  • Part 7: The Doctrine of the Future

Grudem’s list is not necessarily the “last word” regarding what is often included in a listing of Christian doctrine. It is, in my opinion, comprehensive to the extent that it is based upon sound biblical exegesis. Moreover, it is not unduly lengthy and cumbersome. For example, the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors expands the list of biblical doctrines as follows:”

  • Grace (already covered under the doctrine of redemption)
  • Sin (already covered under the doctrine of man)
  • Regeneration (already covered under the doctrine of redemption)
  • Justification (already covered under the doctrine of redemption)
  • Sanctification (already covered under the doctrine of redemption)
  • The Great Commission (although not a specific doctrine in Grudem’s Systematic Theology text book, it could be argued this belongs under the Doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit, sub-category “the offices of Christ”) [4]

While it can be argued that the above expanded version of the basic Doctrines of Christianity (at least as they are outlined by Grudem’s text book), it is Grudem himself who states, “In a broader sense, ‘all that Jesus commanded’ includes the interpretation and application of his life and teachings, because in the book of Acts it is implied that it contains a narrative of what Jesus continued to do and teach through the apostles after his resurrection.” [5] Further, Grudem argued that, in a larger sense, “all that Jesus commanded” includes everything contained in the New Testament.

Given the magnitude of parables, teachings, instructions, sermons, and sayings of Jesus, and in light of Grudem’s statement that all of the New Testament contains commandments from Christ, I believe the biggest, most important idea for systematic theology remains the accepted and limited (for lack of a better term) listing of doctrines provided by Grudem in Systematic Theology. These doctrines pass the test he applied to them on page 25 (and discussed above). Without a clearly acceptable and limited list of Christian doctrines, systematic theology loses its very critical function: to provide a unified, accepted list of doctrines to be followed throughout the community of believers.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 24), 2000.

[2] Grudem, p. 25.

[3] Ibid, p. 25.

[4] Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, “Standards of Doctrine.” (Kansas City: Assn. Cert. Biblical Counselors, 2018).

[5] Grudem, p. 27.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Basics of Christian Theology

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.

References

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.