Let’s Go to Theology Class: Colonialism and Christianity

The following summary is from the last class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Early nineteenth century missionaries were important participants in colonial expeditions. Given that many in twenty-first century Western culture decry the era, goals, and abuses of colonialism, we must ask: Did Christianity benefit from an un-Christian impulse (colonialism)? Discuss this by answering the following questions. Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism? Does the fact that colonialism aided Christianity in its spread throughout the entire world bestow ultimate value on the colonial experiences, making colonialism worth it?

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Most people during the first century saw Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. When I consider the progressive thread of redemption throughout the entirety of Scripture, I am able to accept some of the negatives of Christianity developing alongside colonialism.

Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism?

Colonialism is the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. It is reasonable to expect abuses and negative consequences with such activity. Many Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions often taken in the name of conquest or expansion include domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to evangelism during global expansion, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity had on new populations during the era in question.

Most mission societies were not responsible for the troublesome side effects of colonization. However, as Gonzalez notes, the relationship between colonialism and missions is complex and difficult to gauge. Tradesmen, explorers, and colonizers were often accompanied by missionaries. This interrelationship was both positive and negative. I think it is no coincidence that not all churches or colonizers supported missions. Several key companies objected to spreading the Gospel in conjunction with colonialism and industrialization as they feared it would cause disagreements and protests that could hinder economic growth. The aim of colonization was to exploit the economy of each region, which usually led to making the new colony economically dependent on the colonizers; not to share the gospel or plant new churches.

From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission. Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. I agree that this helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries. This was possibly the spark that prompted a more ecumenical movement in Christianity. Missionaries stood up against the caste system in India. Protestantism helped liberate those people deemed “untouchable” and excluded from everyday society. Other missions helped rescue women from sexism and violence and spawned their education. Further, the rapid Westernization of Japan aided the work of Christian missionaries.

Although colonialism brought much abuse and controversy to new regions, does the spread of Christianity outweigh the negative?

Gonzalez tries to draw a line-in-the-sand between colonialism and missions. Missions over the centuries have reached regions not visited by white explorers, traders, or colonizers. Were these “missionary” activities better than those occurring in tandem with expansionism? Is “saving souls” worth it no matter what? Do the ends justify the means? Not an easy question to answer! Many individuals have been brought to Christ during colonization. Over the centuries, Christianity has been labeled elitist, manipulative, arrogant, destructive. Gonzalez describes the so-called “white man’s burden.” Simply stated, it means taking to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity. I cannot help but think about watching TV documentaries on countries devastated by war and extremism (such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq), or underdeveloped nations showing conditions that no one should want to endure. It’s easy to ask (from my comfortable recliner in modern America) why anyone would enjoy living in such conditions? Actually, this underlying question (nay, concern) is one of the driving forces of many efforts over the centuries to industrialize or “modernize” underdeveloped nations.

Gonzalez said modernity has produced the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, suffering the destruction of cultural patterns that had sustained them for generations. Expansionism has been blamed for growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor throughout the world (1). Indigenous populations frequently suffered a loss of culture as colonizers tried to impose their way of life on their new “subjects.” White colonizers often considered these native peoples to be savage and lacking in culture. No doubt they felt justified in attempting to bring stability to what they might have considered “barbaric” or primitive populations. This is unfortunately as much a “value judgment” as it is a desire to aid in improving the living conditions.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in accordance with the command in Matthew 28:18-20. To achieve this, missionaries have translated and distributed the Bible in many languages. Countless indigenous peoples have learned to read through the work of missions. Treaties often included clauses that made allowances for the work of Christian missions. Following the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, the presence of tens of thousands of Protestant missionaries throughout the provinces (many in positions of authority in the church) helped quash further rebellion. Corrupt governments and rampant exploitations met staunch Christian opposition.

I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Moreover, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater. At the least, many seeds of faith were planted. Of course, I believe most missionaries were primarily motivated by the Great Commission. Thankfully, all things tend to work for good for those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). To this end, I believe the pros of colonialism outweigh the cons relative to spreading the gospel.

Response from Classmates

Thanks for sharing a great post. I deduced that you feel that it was “worth it” in the end. Although I must admit that I wrestled A LOT with my answer this week, I ended up concluding that the abuses of colonialism were not “worth it,” as I don’t think that God would place inherent worth/value on sin and evil. However, I do agree that He can bring good out of all things.

You and I have both shared painful experiences from our own past throughout the coursework. As I was writing this prompt, I couldn’t help but think about how it could relate to my life, or anyone who has experienced some form of abuse. I honestly felt as though the pain that I endured was “worth it” because it led me to Christ, and my salvation is the greatest gift I could receive in this life. I also realized that Christ’s abuses were deemed “worth it” for our salvation—His sufferings in the world and horrible death on the cross gave us a shot at eternity. This is where I struggled!

However, there was a difference with colonization—the individuals who were abused during colonization were not Jesus, but rather His sheep. That is where I decided that the abuses of some to lead to the salvation of others was not “worth it.” God does not delight in sin, and calls us to spread the Gospel, not evil. One of our classmates mentioned that they don’t think that Christians should ally themselves with the “lesser evil,” but rather should uphold to what is true according to the Word. Do you think it could be dangerous to justify a lesser evil in the name of a greater good?

Meredith

My Response to Meredith

Thanks for your response to my initial discussion post. Let me begin by (re)stating the definition of colonialism: the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. I do so in order to draw a definite line in the sand between colonizers and missionaries. I would further state that those colonizers who were Christians and yet chose to cajole, cheat, manipulate, dominate, or otherwise force themselves and their beliefs on indigenous people merely to profit from associated gains are to blame, and not Christianity itself. Further to this point, I am quoting from Tiffany’s initial discussion post:

It is important to separate out Christianity from Christians, as well as those falsely speaking under the claim of Christianity, in support of this assertion. It is not that Christianity was tarnished, but that the reputation of Christianity blemished. Christianity suffers in the way Christ suffered—in that Christianity is birthed in, sustained by, and brought to culmination in Christ. He is the identity of Christianity (italics in the original).

I would argue that one of the positives of colonization was missionaries often accompanied the colonizers, making it possible for missions to have the means and companionship to travel where they might otherwise be unable to get to. Admittedly, there were more explorers and tradesmen who were motivated by expansion, wealth, and increased territory than there were Christians solely dedicated to sharing the gospel. I can tell you’re on the fence regarding the “worth it” question. You are closer to saying yes than you think. You referenced Romans 8:28: God will always use whatever circumstance or individual He requires to bring about His will.

Grudem (1994) provides insight regarding God’s will as it relates to (i) His absolute moral will, and (ii) His providential will. God’s moral will is revealed in Scripture. We know His character, His affection, His desire for us. We know how He wishes us to behave. He has provided certain “moral commands.” God also has providential (or “secret”) will (1). God is able to permit us to do something that might displease Him in the short run but which brings about His intended results in the long run. This is the very essence of Romans 8:28.

Speaking of our pasts, as I struggled a year and a half ago to stop abusing pain medication and to “forgive” myself of my past and see it as an asset for helping others (rather than a liability), I met a gentleman from Brooklyn who had spent 17 years in active addiction living on the streets. He became a born-again Christian and quit abusing crack. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention for sure. He continued: “He wants you to know that everything you’ve been through from the moment of your birth to this moment right now meeting me was ordained by Him in order to assure you became the man He needs you to be to carry out your ministry.” Whoa!

The concept of God’s providential will also speaks to His eternal plan whereby He determined (before the foundation of the world) to bring about everything that happens, and to work it together for our and His good. Grudem believes this “decree” type of will is critical because it shows us God doesn’t “make things up as He goes.” Grudem says, “He knows the end from the beginning, and he will accomplish all his good purposes” (2).

You quoted a classmate who declared that Christians should not align themselves with the “lesser evil” just because of a potential good outcome. For me, “aligning” with any evil would suggest being complicit. This is a question of personal motive. We must always remember that God works through human actions (even the horrific ones) in His providential oversight of creation. The individual making the wrong decision for the wrong reason is liable for his or her behavior, but God has absolute providence over the situation. I believe we must always remember that nothing about God, His creation, or us (as His image-bearers) is determined by chance or randomness; nor are they determined by impersonal fate or karma (determinism). God is sovereign over all.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 418.

(2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 332.

(3) Grudem, 333.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: What is the Church?

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

After reading in Grudem and McGrath, and any appropriate Elwell articles, critique Grudem’s definition of the church. Here are your guiding questions: Is this definition adequate for what the church is, in its essence? If so, why? If not, what else should be written for a proper definition of the church? Is there more detail or are there some biblical images which would make for a better, more appropriate definition of the church?

Grudem’s definition: The church is the community of all true believers for all time.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Indeed, Matthew 18:20 is a perfect starting point for examining the essence of the “church.” Many have quoted this verse throughout church history. Jesus says whenever two or more gather in His Name “[T]here am I among them.” A great secular example of this concept is stated in AA literature, indicating all that’s required to hold a “meeting” is two or more alcoholics coming together to discuss recovery. I am particularly impressed with Miroslav Volf’s statement regarding appearance of the Spirit of Christ (in an “ecclesially constitutive” way) when two or more believers gather. “Constitutive” generally indicates having the power to establish or give organized existence to something. Many theologians throughout church history have started with this concept when defining the essence of the church. Volf warned about the tendency toward individualism in Protestant ecclesiology, saying constitutive is instrumental in understanding what Matthew 18:20 truly means. Volf wrote “there is no reign of God without the church.”[1] He further claims there is no church without the reign of God. This indicates “church” is not merely an institution, location, or building.

Community of Believers Hands Raised

Grudem identifies the basic definition of church as “the community of all true  believers for all time,”[2] aligning the Old Testament and New Testament context of “church.” The Septuagint often uses the term qāhal to identify church as “congregation” or “assembly,” which can also be used to indicate a summon to assembly. Dispensational theologians hold divergent views on the relationship between Israel and the church. For example, Grudem notes that Lewis Chafer believes God has two distinct plans for His people: (i) Israel for earthly blessings, and (ii) the church for heavenly blessings. The rub here is that God does not have separate purposes for Israel (OT) and the church (NT), rather a single intent—establishment of His kingdom in which Israel and the NT church will share in all His blessings. Grudem says many NT verses describe the church as the new Israel. Stanley Hauerwas addresses the aspect of the church as a community, separate from the world. Emphasis is placed on discourse and interpretation and the sharing of the Christian message with the world. Hauerwas believes “the whole body of believers therefore cannot be limited to any one historical paradigm or contained by any one institutional form.”[3]

Ephesians tells us that Christ loves “the church” and gave Himself up for her (5:25). Obviously, Christ did not suffer and die to protect a building. Paul provides a non-dispensational definition of the “old” and “new” church in Romans 2:28-29, stating, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God” (NRSV). God’s promises to Abraham apply to the entire church or community of believers regardless of historical period or dispensation. The only distinction is “forward looking” faith under the OT and “backward looking” faith under the NT. In support, Paul wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).

The essence of church is not merely institutional or physical; it is spiritual—a continuation of God’s overall plan for salvation and adoption for those who believe in Christ Jesus. As Grudem states, “Abraham is not only to be considered the father of the Jewish people in a physical sense,” but He is also “the father of all who believe.”[4] P.L. Metzger says the church is, “The community of the Triune God, serving as the concrete manifestation of God’s eschatological kingdom in the world.”[5] It is fair to consider “church” to mean a gathering. It is chiefly the “community” of believers gathered in a pattern somewhat similar to political and other gatherings. However, this is not the only meaning of church in the Judeo-Christian religion. Jesus did not reveal a new God but a new way of worshiping the same God. For example, Paul describes the church as a whole and as each local church body. Despite dispensation, denomination, or geographic locale, wherever and however the church meets, it is the whole church. It is holy, in that it is sanctified by God, set apart for a specific purpose; however, it is never to “withdraw into a religious ghetto no longer concerned to save the world.”[6]  The church is catholic in that it is full, complete, and lacking nothing. It is apostolic relative to being entrusted with ecumenical teachings of its apostles and establishment of a global set of doctrines that are taught and handed down in a consistent manner. Metzger expresses the importance of “the whole church’s true oneness, holiness, and catholicity, not as an end in itself.”[7] It is responsible for determining proper church governance and for globally mediating the ministry of Christ.

Be Well Grounded and Rooted

Grudem delineates various metaphors for the church. It is a family—we are brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Tim. 5:1-2); it is branches on a vine—and we are grafted in (Jn. 15:5); it is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:32); it is an olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24); it is referred to as a field of crops (1 Cor. 3:6-9); it is a new type of temple, not build from stone but comprised of believers who are living stones (1 Pet. 2:5); it is a new group of priests (1 Pet. 2:5); believers are referred to as God’s house (Heb. 3:6); it is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-17). Christ is the head, and the community of believers is the rest of the body (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16). The church is witness to the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12). Grudem notes, “The church is the custodian of the kingdom (for the church has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven: Matt. 16:19).” In fact, John Calvin states that the church must possess the “marks,” i.e., the true and accurate Word of God and observance of the sacraments.

In conclusion, I believe the descriptions provided by Grudem are adequate for defining the essence of the church. Grudem provides well-delineated aspects of the church: form, regardless of dispensation; the nature of its ecclesiastic duties; metaphors for the various “operations” of the church; its function under the Old and New Covenants. The apostle Paul smartly explains why the entire church consists of believers under both covenants. Calvin identifies the main “marks” to be demonstrated by the church. Volf warns of the risk of “individualizing” Protestantism if the church is bifurcated in any manner. Jesus assures us that when two or more gather in His Name, He is present among them. Finally, there is no reign of God without the church, and there is no church without the reign of God. [8] The church is, in every way, a demonstration of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my classmates raised an interesting question: Do you believe that some of our Churches have strayed waway from the message of Christ? By this I mean unifying and doing the work commanded for us to do or do you believe that Christ is the head of all churches no matter how they perform as a community?

My response:

You’ve raised an interesting question. My first reaction is simply this: I agree that many churches have strayed from the systematically assembled doctrines of Christianity. This is more a failure of human proportions, of course, that it is a chink in the armor of God’s church. When “churches” stray from doctrine and Scripture, it is the people themselves who stray, and not the Body of Christ. “Church” is the manifestation of God’s kingdom, centered in Christ. The Greek word for church does refer to “assembly,” or “sacred gathering.” Services include liturgy and ritual, grounded in sound doctrine. In its missional capacity, it celebrates and participates in sharing the salvation of Jesus Christ

Chosen Generation

The Church is a temple, a “chosen people,” a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation.” We read in the Nicene Creed that the church is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic (formed and grown according to the teachings of Christ as handed down through the apostles). Perhaps any congregation that fails on a number or, sadly maybe, all of these levels is not part of the church—the Body of Christ. P.L. Metzger said, “For preserving unity, growing in holiness, and accomplishing its mission, the church has drawn from episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational forms of government. No matter the version, most important is determining how the form of church government highlights and mediates Christ’s authority as head of the church to the entire body.”

Because of the foregoing, I do not believe Jesus could be considered the “head” of any body of believers that has drastically strayed from mission, ministry, Scripture, canon, and proper church governance and operation. If it could be (or, worse, had to be) said that Jesus Christ is the head of all churches, even ones that are simply not fulfilling the Great Commission, edifying one another, following church canon that has been systematically developed throughout the history of the church from the Day of Pentecost to today, as handed down through the apostles, then no, I do not believe such a church or congregation is truly a part of the Body of Christ no matter what it says on the lighted sign in the front yard.

Footnotes

[1] Miroslav Volf, After our Likeness (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), x.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 853.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” in The Christian Theology Reader (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 436.
[4] Grudem. 861.
[5]Stanley Hauerwas, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 436.
[6] P.L. Metzger, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 183.
[7] John Calvin, “On the Marks of the Church,” inThe Christian Theology Reader, Ibid, 416.

References

Calvin, J., “On the Marks of the Church,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed.    (Chichester, West Sussex, UK), 2017Grudem, W., Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Hauerwas, S., “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” Ibid.

Metzger, P. “Church,” Ibid.

Volf, M., After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing), 1998.

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: Basic Tools of Doing Systematic 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.

IT’S ONE THING TO pick up a book and read about theology. And that’s okay. It’s how I got interested in taking the subject on as a graduate student. It all starts with contemplation. We “think” about what it means to be alive, to have purpose. We wonder how we might make a difference in society. We question the “logic” of believing in God. Armed with such a burning desire to know, I enrolled in a master’s program in theology and started out on what so far has proved to be an amazing, breathtaking journey.

In week four of my theology class we considered the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action. Further, we discussed the type of character most conducive to theological insight, and how the systematic study of theology should impact one’s character. Generic “theological” study does not necessarily require any degree of sanctification. Many people choose to study theology or philosophy without any sense of what is meant by redemption or sanctification. These concepts are, however, imperative in Christian theology.

What is the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action?

I was amazed how little I understood about sanctification over the years. I thought it “just happened” when I “got saved.” Considering the decades of sinful behavior and active addiction I went through after accepting Christ (at age 13), I was far from sanctified. Of course, it does start with salvation. When we become redeemed, we are expected to “repent” of our old life. Then sanctification can begin. According to R.E.O. White, sanctification means “to make holy.” [1] It’s not uncommon for a new Christian to think this means he or she is made holy (shazam!) all at once. White further explains that to be sanctified is to be “set apart” from common or secular use.

First Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. R.E.O. White writes that sanctification is not merely justification’s endgame; rather, it is justifying faith at work. The new believer is declared to be acquitted and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Through sanctification, God begins to accomplish His will in us. This is often called becoming spiritually mature. We are not saved by good works, but there is little hope of sanctification without submitting to the will of God.

Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae [2] that four of the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel, and that these gifts have a direct impact on the intellect. Isaiah 11:2 says. “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). David Jeremiah explains that the coming king “will be endowed with the Spirit of the Lord, who provides the wisdom, ability, and allegiance to God that are necessary to accomplish a challenging task.” [3] Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” James reminds us that if we lack wisdom in any circumstance, we are to ask God and He will give it (James 1:5). Thomas Aquinas said any discourse of reason always begins from an understanding. It is critical, therefore, that we never attempt theology while lacking understanding. Although the work of the Spirit is already completed relative to the compiling of Scripture, His work regarding “illumination” is ongoing.

Prayer is the means by which we gain access to God. Just as we speak to the Father, and call upon Jesus, we must request from the Holy Spirit the guidance, understanding, knowledge, illumination, and discernment needed to effectively and accurately undertake systematic theology. It is equally important to pray for guidance regarding God’s call on our lives. When I decided to change my major from the master’s in counseling program to the master’s in theology, I spent weeks in prayer. I consulted with my pastor, several lay ministry friends, family members, my CCU student advisor, two professors, and several elders at my church. I cannot fathom undertaking a systematic study of Christian theology without prayer.

What type of character is most conducive to theological insight, and how should it change as the result of undertaking theological study?

In any theological undertaking, one would expect there to be a change of character. I think of Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017), author, speaker, lecturer, and apologist, who converted to Christianity from Islam after spending nearly two years conducting an exegetical study of the Holy Bible. His character, if you will, was that of a loving, dedicated, well-behaved young man who had been raised in a religious home. In fact, no one in his immediate or extended family were extremists or jihadists. He loved the Qur’an, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad. This “character” coupled with a sharp intellect likely contributed to his willingness to examine the theology of Islam, and, ultimately, compare it to Christianity.

Tradition injects a lot into character, and, when that character matures, one becomes curious about tradition, religion, politics, culture, the meaning of life, and so on. Qureshi said one of the greatest hardships he faced was having to inform his parents he had become a Christian. He was, after all, part of a “community of believers” that were bonded together by solid theological principles and deep-seated tradition. He believed in Islam. He revered Muhammad. Regardless, once he met Jesus Christ, he could no longer reject Him than he could make himself stop breathing. This is precisely the type of character it requires to begin a theological study.

Insight comes from honest, rigorous, open-minded, and thorough study. We’ve been told that theology is in its simplest form “the study of God.” For me, the desire to know God stems from my burning desire to know why my earthly father seemed to hate me so much and, more frighteningly, whether my Heavenly Father was as mean-spirited, vindictive, nasty, judging, and punishing. (Incidentally, I eventually learned that my dad did not hate me, and he did the best he could to keep me from running off the rails and into the gutter.)

If God were to be “the same as” my dad, I would have no time for Him. Regardless, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to know several things. First, exactly who or what was this Christian God I’d heard of at church? Second, was He authoritative—leading from a position of authority and strength, love and longsuffering—or authoritarian—ruling over everyone with a heavenly despotic fist, ready to accuse and condemn? Third, was it true, as my father said many times, that I was worthless, or was there hope that my life had some greater meaning?

As to what type of character should result from theological study, Trevor Hart said, “Faith is not a natural progression from knowledge or experiences available to all, but results from a special dispensation which sets us in the perspective from which the truth may be seen, and demands a response” [4] [italics mine]. In other words, deciding to systematically study Christian theology is both a soulful drive or ambition and a rigorous discipline. I have gone through numerous personal changes as an undergraduate student of psychology at Colorado Christian University. I believe those changes set the stage for my choosing to take on a master’s level study of theology. There is a progression at play. Had I not first chosen to return to college, I would not have discovered CCU; had I not enrolled at CCU, I would not be the Christian I am today; and, had I not grown more mature in Christ as an undergraduate, I would not have undergone the requisite changes conducive to undertaking a master’s degree in theology.

This is the fourth week of my first theology class, and already I feel tectonic shifts within me. My personality has brightened, and my mind has cleared. I am ravenous for information about theology, Christology, eschatology, and apologetics. I see people as God sees them, and I’ve begun to feel a heartache for those who will never see the truth about the life, love, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have started to keep my promises more consistently than I used to, and I exercise greater control over my tongue (which was no easy task!). I even noticed a major change in the amount of television I watch. All of that notwithstanding, I find myself asking God every morning to put a task before me; to lead me where He needs me to go; to break my heart for what breaks His.

Footnotes

[1] R.E.O. White. “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 770

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I.II, q. 68, a1

[3] David Jeremiah. The Jeremiah Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 893-94.

[4] Trevor Hart. Faith Thinking. (Eugene:Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 75.

 

 

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.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Understanding Religious Faith

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.

Wolfhart Pannenberg

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

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

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.”       

Bibliography

Hart, Trevor. Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995.