Systematic Treatment of Theologies

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 questionWhat 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).

Footnotes

(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.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Effective Study of Scripture

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.

AS WE FOCUS ON the lessons covered to date in my initial theology class, we become familiar with how to understand faith as an object onto itself and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this type of study faith thinking. Theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education, whether on the undergraduate, master’s or doctoral level; however, the activity known as “Christian Theology” must become (at least to some degree) an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Why do we believe what we believe? How do we think about what we’re thinking about? What weight do we give it in our everyday Christian life?

Admittedly, I am behind in a few lessons from my first theology class. I was hit with an illness that put me behind in week three, and this had an unexpected domino effect. Not to worry. We are going to spend the next few days getting caught up. This will allow me to focus on the first lesson of my second theology class: Systematic Theology, Part 1 by Monday, October 14th.

In the third week of my initial class Major Approaches to Theology we discussed how to effectively read Scripture.

Certainly, reading is a two-way street regardless of its subject matter. When we read Scripture, we interact with information of paramount importance, on multiple levels, each having the potential to change how we see ourselves, our fellow man, and the material world. When reading the Bible, we are embroiled in a written medium that is alive. The New Atheists of today, such as Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), are adamant about one thing: religion poisons everything. In his seminal book God is Not Great he wrote, “God did not make us; we made God.” In attempting to discredit the Bible, Hitchens used the tactic of lumping it in with the Qur’an, Homer’s Iliad, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the red herring of “apocryphal” verses “canon,” and many other inter-related, if not unrelated, textual concerns.

Mesmerized by its reverence, power, emotion, history, and Almighty God, it is only natural for man to hold competing opinions on how best to respond to Scripture We are rightly overcome by a wide range of emotions when reading the Bible: conviction, elation, guilt, fear, boredom, hope, love and the like. Because Scripture is universally applicable, we don’t always know on an individual level how to categorize what we’re reading, let alone how to apply it to our situation. What is worth our immediate attention? What can wait until tomorrow? This is why systematic theology and the “community of believers” are critical to reading, understanding, and applying God’s Word.

Regarding Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who penned such books as Church Dogmatics, Faith Thinking, and The Humanity of God, referred to Mark D.J. Smith’s quote, “The guiding principle of this strategy is Barth’s conviction that the Bible ought to be treated as testimony to God’s self-revelation in history.” Karl Barth believed Scripture must be regarded as God’s own words and nothing less. I recently read an attribute given to Barth. It says that, other than John Calvin, Barth is possibly the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. Barth gave credence to a quote from N.T. Wright: “The tide of literary theory has at last reached the point on the beach where the theologians have been playing, and, having filled their sandcastle moats with water, is now almost in danger of forcing them to retreat, unless they dig deeper and build more strongly.”

Thankfully, grace is a key ingredient in any discussion regarding matters of the Word of God. Barth believed faith to be “awe in presence of the divine incognito.” Further, he understood full-well that faith (the faith each believer holds in his or her heart) cannot hold a candle to the amazing quality of love bestowed upon us through the written Word of God. Scripture is a living thing, yet it is at the same time both amazingly knowable and incomprehensible. Whenever an author writes a book explaining mercy or grace—and when those topics are the essence of the book itself—the writer risks having the subject matter missed entirely. Thankfully, as Christians, we know the “language” of the Bible in our hearts. We see its virtue and we know of its healing properties. Of course, this creates a great atmosphere for systematic theology and honest, open communication among the community of believers in order to best understand and apply the  accuracy and full meaning of Scripture. Barth equates Scripture with God speaking, as did Augustine. For both men, Scripture is in fact Scripture.

Of course, Scripture is not “just another holy book” or a canonical history of the Christian church. Nor, as Christopher Hitchens would claim, a book that can even remotely be categorized with the Qur’an or Homer’s Iliad! It is not merely a volume to be taken down from the shelf and studied. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (RSV). The Interlinear Greek transliteration says the Bible “[is] living… and operative and sharper beyond every sword two-mouthed and passing through as far as division of soul and of spirit, of joints both and of marrow and able to judge of thoughts and intentions of a heart.” (Excuse the cumbersome wording, but it is a literal rendition of the original Greek text.)

The writer of Hebrews adds, “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (4:13, NIV). Eugene Peterson boldly says, “God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what” (4:12-13, MSG). It seems Barth had a rather “controversial” interpretation of Scripture. Although he approached the Bible with an orientation of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), many of his detractors tried to place him in one of the many –ism camps of his time: Platonism, Kantianism, intellectualism, biblicism, pessimism, universalism, or even modernism. Barth had one focus. The authority of the Word of God.

In the interest if keeping the momentum flowing, I intend to present a synopsis of my studies from weeks four and five of my first theology class in the next day or two. Thanks for stopping by. I encourage any comments, questions, or feedback.