Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Three

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

IN PART ONE OF THIS SERIES we discussed the advent of social science, whose practitioners slowly changed the face of mental health counseling. Psychiatry stood as the primary specialty for treating psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. Psychiatrists typically do not engage in meaningful long-term clinical dialog. Instead, they prescribe psychotropic medications. Today, social workers, psychologists, and their ancillary workers, provide the majority of “talk therapy.” Notwithstanding the above, it was psychiatrists who were tasked with compiling data and establish a universal “code” for quantification, research, and billing purposes. Part Two showed the impact of the Enlightenment on virtually all aspects of life, characterized by skepticism toward religious dogma and other forms of traditional authority. Secularism and relativism began to creep into the discussion. Isaiah Berlin established an alternative movement in the late 1800s which he labeled Counter-Enlightenment. He attempted to challenge rationalism, universalism, and empiricism, objecting to these and other isms, saying they identify man as “mere machine” whose quest for reality is drastically limited to empirical interaction with nature.

Early practitioners thought experimental psychology was the best tool for getting at the basics of consciousness, but they believed “laboratory psychiatry” was useless for grasping the aspect of higher cognitive function. Wilhelm Wundt proposed that “sensations” (which occur when a sense organ is stimulated and impulses reach the brain) are are always accompanied by feelings. Arguably, attempting to isolate, grasp, understand, and write about “feelings” has always been a difficult task. Clinics and laboratories for the study of cognition flourished throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, psychology is a discipline rich in historical and philosophical roots. Many evangelical and fundamental pastors have disparaging thoughts regarding psychiatric and psychological treatment modalities. Although many people keep “faith” carefully segregated from the rest of their lives, I believe it is possible to establish and maintain productive links between psychology and Christian theology.

It helps to remember that “worldview” is a fundamental orientation of the heart, which is laid bare by our words and actions. Scripture notes that our heart is the central defining element of us as a person. Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45, NRSV). What we hide in our hearts, what we have sown in its soil, eventually comes to the surface. Essentially, worldview provides a home for our philosophy on life. In its simplistic definition, worldview is a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world. We all have a worldview—the window through which we view the world, framed by the assumptions and beliefs that impact what what we experience on a daily basis. Without a doubt, our worldview shapes our philosophy of life.

One of the most influential myths of the modern period has been the belief that it is impossible to locate and occupy a non-ideological vantage point, from which reality may be surveyed and interpreted. The social sciences have been among the chief and most strident claimants to such space, arguing that they offer a neutral and objective reading of reality; in which the ultimate spurious truth claims of religious groupings may be deflated and deconstructed in terms of unacknowledged, yet ultimately determinative, social factors” (2).

A Kaleidoscope of Views

Worldview brings with it many implications, which can admittedly muddy the waters regarding integration of psychology and Christian theology. When modernism failed to provide a beneficial philosophy of life in the face of war, poverty, famine, sickness, and unresolved racial tension, postmodernism attempted to replace knowledge with opinion or conviction. However, postmodernism had no advice on how to determine whether any given conviction is in some way better or more accurate than another. Again, our families, religious beliefs, academic experience, and media (especially social media) continue to influence us in ways of which we are unaware. It seems the key to unlocking our assumptions is having the humility and willingness to see them for what they are: that which we accept as true or as certain to happen, without proof. By definition, this “pursuit” of truth is a matter of epistemology (the theory of knowledge, especially how it is obtained). As we move forward in this series, we will explore how sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology are crucial to integrating treatment modalities and Christian theology.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury said, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe—that unless I believe, I should not understand.” It was thought that we could essentially become our own authority, knowing with absolute certainty (as God) the definition of right and wrong; in other words, the knowledge of good and evil. This is the very essence of our First Parents’ disobedience in the Garden of Eden (see Gen. 3:1-5). A hallmark of modernism is belief in the human capacity to function as an independent authority. This orientation gave rise to another aspect of modernism: the myth of progress. Man became convinced that we can know things with God-like certainty (3). The brash disobedience of Adam and Eve caused a cosmic ripple effect for all of mankind. This “fallout” has shown itself in countless vain philosophies, which prove how we all thirst for what went wrong, whose fault it is, and how to fix it.

The philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard plays an important role in our quest to establish a viable integration of psychology and Christian theology. His “existentialism” stresses meaning, accompanied by freedom of choice and the uniqueness of each individual. He likened a proper relationship with God to a love affair, saying, “It is at once painful and happy, passionate but unfulfilled, lived in time yet infinite”(Hubben, 1952, p. 24). Kierkegaard initially rejected Christianity while in college, but changed his mind some time later. However, the Christianity he accepted was well outside the walls of the institutional church. He had no patience for dogma. The ultimate state of being for Kierkegaard was arrived at when we decide to embrace God and take His existence on faith, without needing a logical, rational, or scientific explanation of why or how one makes such choice. He was a proponent of the “leap of faith” approach to religion: the moment Abraham lifted the knife to kill his son on Mount Moriah captures what he meant by religious faith. He advised reading the Bible as we would read a love letter, letting the words touch us personally and emotionally.

These excursions into philosophy are meant to help us discover the roots of psychology. Friedrich Nietzsche considered himself a psychologist. His approach was comparable to Sigmund Freud. In fact, Freudian and Nietzschian psychology shared the goal of helping their patients gain control of their powerful, irrational impulses in order to live more creative and healthy lives. Nietzsche identified urges as das es, which is Latin for the id. He often discussed repression (a later cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis). For Nietzsche, internalizing the external standards of others was problematic. Likely, he saw this as counter to being authentic. So-called religious “followers” in his eyes become slaves to the one they follow. I will admit that this is an acceptable tenet of Christianity (see Rom. 6:20-22), but the focus is more on “dedicated follower” than slave. Nietzsche’s remark, “God is dead,” has been misunderstood and misused for generations. Actually, he believed God was dead because “we have killed him.” By we, he meant the philosophers and scientists of his day who stubbornly held on to empiricism, giving no credence to the metaphysical or spiritual realm. This left mankind with nowhere to turn for answers to the four great questions: (1) Where did we come from? (2) What is the meaning of life? (3) What is the basis for morality (right vs. wrong), and (4) Where do we go when we die? With the so-called death of God came the death of His shadow (metaphysics) as well.

This seems to leave mankind in a cosmic tabula rasa devoid of transcendental or spiritual forces to guide us. Yet, amazingly, Nietzsche said conviction is “belief in the possession of absolute truth on any matter of knowledge” (4). But it was his opinion that rationalistic philosophy, science, and the organized church discourage us from having a deep, personal relationship with God. Logic and facts have nothing to do with such a relationship, which must be based on faith alone. In this manner, Nietzsche believed we killed God, at least philosophically. Ultimately, when we accept God on faith, God becomes (for us and our encounter with Him) a living, emotional reality in our subjective experience. Although I believe in the ontological existence of God, I believe it is critical we understand that a “speaking God” needs a “hearing church.” It is our individual faith that quickens our spirit and allows us to experience God.

The Fork in the Road

David Entwistle notes that every branch of learning provides a unique view of God’s world and allows glimpses of His mystery. For the evangelical, fundamental Christian, psychology must be infused with a theological belief about our place in God’s world. Christianity is much more than theology; it is predicated upon a personal relationship with Christ as Lord, as rabbi, as redeemer. Of course, Christianity holds very specific beliefs as to the cause of human suffering. Admittedly, this causes Christian counselors to come to the table with certain assumptions. Pastors and church elders shepherd church members toward a maturity in Christ, as they should. Elders tend the flock in such a way that believers develop from spiritual infancy to full-grown Christ-likeness. Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:2-3a, ESV). The word “milk” (Gr. gala) in the above Scripture passage means the basic, elemental teachings of Christianity first learned by new believers; the word “meat” (Gr. broma) denotes a deeper, more complete understanding and application of God’s Word.

What does reason have to do with faith? What does the intellectual have to do with the spiritual? What does philosophy have to do with Christianity? Tertullian summed up these questions when he asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”(5). Entwhistle noted “individuals who espouse a sacred/secular split in an attempt to preserve theological supremacy actually minimize the scope of God’s sovereignty” (6). This makes perfect sense. We cannot bifurcate God from His creation, or from our everyday existence. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to encounter fundamentalist or evangelical pastors and teachers who claim that Christians must reject in total the “false doctrine” of psychology, and run from all manner of secularism in order to find health and healing in Christ. It is critical to understand the difference between “secular” life issues and secularism. As human beings, we need to avoid an “ivory tower” existence. We cannot deny non-religious, “lay,” or temporal orientations while we remain in an earthly body. Secularism is a worldview that is hostile to Christian theology. Entwhistle helps put this matter into perspective: “To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth… to think Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God” (7) (italics mine).

In Part Four I will show how counseling provided to Christian believers in crisis by Christian practitioners and clergy must include discipling; and inversely, Christian discipling must include counseling. Further, I will introduce the concept that extremism regarding this continuum is destructive. So-called secular combatants see religion as incompatible with mental health and intellectual discourse. Christian combatants see psychology as an enemy which is opposed by sound doctrine, and they see the use of psychotherapy (and psychotropic medication) as incompatible with, if not unnecessary for, those who live victorious Christian lives. I will provide insight on the theory of “nouthetic counseling” (Gr. noutheteo, “to admonish”), which is a form of evangelical Protestant pastoral counseling based solely upon the Bible and focused on Christ. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, fundamentally opposed to Christianity, and radically secular.

I will present the case of Nally vs. John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. The case presents a variety of issues concerning a lawsuit for wrongful death by the parents of a suicide victim against Grace Community Church’s pastoral counselors. On April 1, 1979, 24-year-old Kenneth Nally committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His parents filed a wrongful death action against Grace Community Church of the Valley, a Protestant Christian congregation located in Sun Valley, California, and four Church pastors, MacArthur, Thomson, Cory and Rea, alleging “clergyman malpractice,” specifically negligence and outrageous conduct in failing to prevent Nally’s suicide. A member of the Church since 1974, Nally participated in pastoral counseling at GCC prior to his death. The pastors vehemently discouraged Nally from receiving psychological or psychiatric care (despite a prior attempt at taking his own life by intentional drug overdose), failing to meet a standard of care for pastors, failure to secure proper psychological counseling training, and failure to disclose Nally’s true psychiatric condition to his treating psychiatrist and his parents.

The case of Nally vs. Grace Community Church puts at our feet the issue of integrating Christian theology and psychology. Pastors at GCC told Nally that his attempted suicide by overdose was a sign that God was punishing him. MacArthur and his pastoral staff told Nally his problems were rooted in sin, and that his mental illness could be properly treated by relying solely on biblical principles. The irony is not lost on me that psychology literally means “the study of the soul.” I will present the argument that psychiatric care must never be dogmatically withheld from a church member who is contemplating, or who has attempted, suicide.

Footnotes and References

(1) James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
(2) Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theory: Nature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009), 17.
(3) David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd. ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books), 2015.
(4) Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Germany: 1878).
(5) Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 7 (New York, NY: London Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1914), 45.
(6) Entwhistle, Ibid., fn3, 8.
(7) Ibid., 9.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Literature and Theology

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.T.S.

This blog post is the last discussion in Topics in Theology at Colorado Christian University in pursuit of my Master’s in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) I will be starting a Master’s in Divinity (MDiv) at Denver Seminary in April 2021.

***

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (C.S. Lewis)

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12, ESV).

One of my classmates made a statement this week that was more reminder than eureka! He said we are afforded “partial” vision in this physical world. Systematic theology, exegesis, and hermenuetics lead down the proverbial path of intersection between what we see and what exists. We presently have a somewhat cloudy and restricted understanding of love. The incarnation of Jesus Christ allows us to enter into a conversation about the story of redemption. God’s grace allows us to see and hear what we need to see and hear, when we need to see and hear it.

Specific to this process, Jesus helps us die to ourselves so that we can begin to live in agape love. It is amazing how opens the opportunity to become like Him; to emulate him in our actions and words. As an apologist, I must engage people “relationally,” which helps make them “spiritually” accessible. I am preparing for a relational-incarnational approach to apologetics. I must know Holy Scripture through a valid perspective, a sound rationale, and a fulfilling mode of being. So, how can we best present the Christian worldview in a manner that reaches beyond “canned” answers. Through relationship.

A Muslim acquaintance told me that Muslims will not listen to our thoughts on Chrisianity unless we first begin a relationship. Further, Nabeel Qureshi said in one of his lectures that Muslims come to America and are flooded with images of American’s overeating, touring the towns in expensive cars, attending movies and watching Rap videos that feature sex and partially-clad women, beaches filled with half-naked sunbathers. Muslim immigrants associate America’s behavior with Christianity.

I agree with C.S. Lewis’s perspective on the pitfalls of reductionist materialism. This term is generally an “identity theory” that says there is no independent, universal level of phenomena in the world, especially regarding morality. Reality is seen by many experts as mere neurochemical function; nothing exists over and above cognition. It is through reductionist materalism that we encounter the deficiency of our relational experiences. And it just might be the root cause of man’s failure to hold a consistent, universal sense of spirituality throughout his life.

The relational-incarnational model of apologetics is necessarily built from the personal repentance, vulnerability, self-sacrifice and shared humanity of the apologist (evangelist). I cannot help but wonder if identity theory is at least a stepchild of identity politics—the strange twenty-first century political theory that has been consistently convincing individuals away from responsibility and care (agape love) for the “community,” and pushes stark individualism and relativism on us through any number of media. Identity politics tends to create the sense that we are, each of us, an island. Certainly, universal morality gets sacrificed in the name of autonomy.

Our failure to recognize personal biases, misconceptions, and presuppositions is alarming. The definition of “worldview” is “… a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world” (1). My classmate said, “This is for me a central Christian theme about special revelation, the subjective nature of visions, and the intimacy of a God that leaves footprints in his wake for our discovery and salvation.”

C.S. Lewis was a gifted Christian author whose skills were extremely useful in sharing his conversion from theism to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Lewis shared his path to Christianity with the world in such a fashion that it was no mere incoherent mystery. Indeed, he expressed (in several of his works) that divine love is the ultimate life-giving mystery—God gives His Son over to sacrificial death to save the world. Many theologians tend to insist on having “the last word.” We need to forego imposing lables or categories on those with whom we speak about Christ. If not, we risk dismissing those who think and believe differently than we do.

Notes

(1) David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approach to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd ed. (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2015), 61.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce

The following is from my class “Topics in Theology” as part of my master’s degree program in Theological Studies at Colorado Christian University.

I find C.S. Lewis more engaging every time I read another of his amazingly theological stories. I cannot help but compare The Great Divorce to Dante’s Inferno. Although the towns people were given a “glimpse” of heaven, such is not our lot as Christians. In Luke 16, we read about Lazarus and the rich man at the gate. Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven. The rich man also dies, but he is transported to Hades. He sees Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and cries out for mercy. Abraham insists that the rich man had his “good life” and (as we surmise) he did not repent for his evil ways. Abraham tells the rich man it is too late; he cannot cross the chasm. Abraham also denies the rich man’s request to send someone to warn his family to repent. Abraham said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31, NRSV).

The narrator in The Great Divorce is “Everyman,” who finds himself on the streets of a dismal gray town as night falls. He sees no one on the streets but discovers a throng of people waiting at a bus stop. The people all seem discontent and are verbalizing their sorrow, complaining of petty and desolate lives full of loneliness and dissatisfaction. As they murmur and shove against one another, it seems they cannot wait to get “somewhere else.” The bus rises above the gray, wet town, arriving at a beautiful sunny meadow. Although the people find themselves in a wonderous land, they cannot settle in; they cannot even feel the ground. They are opaque ghosts, incompatible with this new land. Many become discontent and decide to return to the bus, the “solid” people try to convince them to walk toward the beautiful, majestic mountains in the distance. If only they let go of their pride and petty grievances, they can become acclimated to heaven. But they are stubborn and would rather be miserable than humble.

Lewis describes the wandering masses thusly: “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded” (Chapter 3, p. 17). Everyman comes to realize what he must give up so he can pass from “earth life” to the “afterlife.” He encounters a guide who will lead him throughout this strange experience. Lewis identifies Everyman’s guide as the Scottish author and Christian minister George MacDonald. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both attribute much to MacDonald as one of their “guides” on earth, making him a logical choice to accompany Everyman and answer his questions. MacDonald explains to Everyman that the ghosts can stay if they are willing to take excursions (paths to the afterlife), but they choose not to make the effort. As Everyman’s experience ends, MacDonald informs him he is not yet dead; that this has all been a dream. But it is suggested that choices made during earth life have an impact on the afterlife. Indeed, Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matt. 12:36).

It is important to note that these discontented “ghosts” are not being given a “second chance” to move from “limbo” to paradise. This dream is meant for the benefit of Everyman. Each one of us as “Everymen” must choose our path. We all must acknowledge our pride and our “fallenness,” and admit our need for rescue from the dismal gray streets of “earth life.” Quarreling and complaining fall on deaf ears. Lewis suggests that we are blind to the role we play in our “less than” life. We are unfulfilled, but merely murmuring about our lot will change nothing.

Stories provide a unique apologetic narrative. Lewis used stories to open the imagination to new ways of interpretation. He invited his readers to go with him to another place, another possibility. Lewis understood the cultural and intellectual importance of narrative. For Lewis, the Christian  narrative provides a vantage point from which to understand reality. Alister McGrath says, “Narrative apologetics is best seen as supplementing other approaches, reflecting the rich and deeply satisfying nature of the Christian gospel itself” (1). We have a built-in narrative instinct, as if we have been predetermined to thrive on story for memorializing our past, making sense of our present, and shaping our future.

In Divorce, Lewis inserts Everyman and others between heaven and hell in a sort-of literary purgatory (or observation deck) rather than a weigh station. Lewis presented a mental picture of heaven and hell coexisting side-by-side in linear time. He wrote, “But I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of Hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasizes the idea, not of duration but of finality(2). Knowing that man is fixated on the physical, the sensory, and the material, Lewis effectively uses allegory and illustration. Lewis, Tolkien, Aquinas, Augustine, all believed we are part of a larger, ongoing story of redemption. Perhaps Divorce is meant to help Lewis explain his stages of “Unenchanted Age,” “Enchanted Age,” “Disenchanted Age,” and “Re-enchanted age.” I want to end with a famous line from Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (3).

What I loved about this reading is the almost palpable sense of what each scene was truly like. The “earth life” conditions were vivid: never-ending rain, clouds, cool air, and a never-ending dusk. People were walking aimlessly, looking for improvement, hope, something other than a dreary existence, but they never found the “good part of town.” No “grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” Lewis does a great job explaining how stubborn, self-centered, self-seeking, and closed-minded we can be. The townsfolk were more than stuck in a miserable town with no money for a moving van and a fresh start. They were proverbially chained to a life devoid of peace, love, joy, contentment, a sense of purpose. What an amazing metaphor. The more I read Lewis, the more I want to read Lewis!

Notes

(1) Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).

(2) C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977), 226.

(3) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 136-37.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Poor in Spirit

The following is from the third discussion assignment in Christian Ethics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies. We were instructed to apply the authority of Scripture to one of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I chose blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:3). I decided to expound on this beatitude because it speaks about a rather challenging yet rewarding state of mind: being satisfied with what you have. Jesus requires us to share the good things we have. “Poor in spirit” requires a humble heart. I also see an element of acceptance in this beatitude; it requires humility and seeing yourself as you are.

The Book of Matthew features excitement, expectation, exasperation, discouragement, disappointment, despair, and brokenness. Quite a range. Christ was speaking to a multitude about spiritual tenets that still apply today. Matthew Henry comments on verses one and two as follows: “None will find happiness in this world or the next, who do not seek it from Christ by the rule of his word”(1). Christ’s beatitudes represent the principal graces a Christian should possess (2).

I have chosen as my subject my former boss and owner of the motel I ran a few years ago. He focused on himself in every situation. Long-term guests who ran into a financial emergency and could not pay their weekly rent on time were typically given until noon the following day to come up with the money or I had to evict them. His usual response to their circumstances would be, “I am not a bank or a loan office,” or “This is not a social services agency.” He routinely failed to provide basic needs for the motel, especially new sheet sets and pillows. I often purchased them and submitted the receipts, hoping for reimbursement.

He was recently served with a notice stating the motel was “unfit for human habitation.” Notices were placed on the door to each room and in the front door of the motel office. Yet he ignored the ruling, did not make guests vacate their rooms, and instructed his current manager to continue renting rooms. According to a local newspaper, he has been charged with obstructing the administration of law, aiding consummation of a crime, and creating a public nuisance.

Christian ethics is about making appropriate Christ-like decisions in our everyday lives, with a full understanding of the consequences of our actions. For me, Christianity provides a comprehensive, universal system of morality. Deontology (rules and duty) was breached in the subject I have described above. My boss failed to display a good moral intent and chose to ignore the rules and regulations governing his obligations to the motel and its guests. Rather, he demonstrated egoism—his self-interest was the motivation and goal for his actions. Such a man tends to use his innate sense of right and wrong, but he does so according to his intuition, which he said comes from “over 30 years in the hospitality business.” His moral judgments, which are based on emotivism and are not grounded in statements of fact; rather, they are expressions of his own sense of morality, rooted in egoism.

Scripture sets proper parameters for ethical business conduct. We are not to oppress our neighbor or rob him (Lev. 19:13). We should not cheat anyone in business deals (Deut. 25:13-16). We are to be generous, freely helping others in need of financial assistance. We should conduct our affairs with justice (Psa. 112:5). It is my position that my boss should have provided for the needs of motel guests. Those who are poor in spirit ideally hold a lowly and humble awareness of their condition. They work at improving their situation in the spirit of humility, sharing what they have with others.

Poor of spirit resonates with me because of my dark years of egoism and addiction. Not only is “poor of spirit” predicated upon seeing yourself as you truly are at present, recovery from active addiction requires first becoming humble and painfully honest about your character defects, denial, and predicament. Our First Parents lost the ability to see themselves as “creatures,” desiring instead to become gods of their own morality and destiny. I like Ravi Zacharias’ comment that when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they lost the vertical (heavenward orientation) in exchange for the horizontal. They chose to look within rather that to God.

Egoism is grounded in hubris. It is the very opposite of lowliness of spirit. Moral decisions grounded in ego tend to spawn relativism. The pluralist denies absolute truth regarding theology, ethics, and the like, stating that all beliefs are acceptable: “You do you and I’ll do me.” We hope to make commendable choices in life, but what of the emotional element of ethical decisions? Are emotions helpful in ethical choices? Or should we be cold, calculating, and rational?

Emotion versus reason is one of the oldest arguments we know. Cognitive meaning is based on true or false, whereas emotions do not lead to such valuation. Well, empirically at least. If we allow emotions to dominate our ethics, we risk moral valuation that is either caused or constituted by affect. This has been identified by some philosophers in ethics as moral or ethical judgment lacking in statement of facts. It typically involves an expression of the speaker’s personal feelings about a subject. When we go down this road in philosophy or religion, we are suggesting a worldview based on relativism.

Footnotes

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Henry, Inc., 1997), 864.

(2) Ibid, 864.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: What Difference Does Christianity Make in Ethics?

The following is from my Second discussion assignment in Christian Ethics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies. We were asked to determine whether a person can be moral without Christianity; and, further, what difference being a Christian has made in our personal sense of morality.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

My initial reaction to the prompt for this week’s discussion is whether we are speaking of our own Christianity, or Christianity in general? No one can adhere to every tenet of Christianity, nor is every precept or teaching applicable to all situations. Perhaps this is one reason it can be difficult to consistently act in a Christ-like manner in every circumstance. Even though we take on the task of learning systematic theology or divinity, we unfortunately have a default setting that has as much to do with our upbringing as it does biblical principles we learn along the way.

Can a person be moral without Christianity?

The course shell for this session asks whether a person can be moral without believing in Christ. It states, “No matter how you answer that question, the most important thing for this session is to understand that Christianity does have a unique morality (albeit not unified in many cases).” The key question to keep in mind is, “‘What difference does your Christianity make on your morality?’ Think of it like lenses on a pair of eyeglasses…” This aided me in answering the initial question above, noting that (i) a person might be moral without believing in Jesus, but (ii) Christianity itself has a unique and ultimate morality of its own that we are to practice.

The concept of what is “right” is a rather convoluted matter. Douglas Groothuis says, “Even the truth itself must yield to ego,” adding, “…the concept of truth is closely aligned with the idea of God. Both stand over and above the individual and make demands on him or her” (1). I believe morality to be elusive when defined and enforced by man alone. Philosophy provides no real solution—either greatness is exalted at the expense of wretchedness, or wretchedness at the expense of greatness. We cannot understand the duties of humanity without obedience to God and the paramount virtue of humility.

Blaise Pascal says even though it appears that the two orientations could be formed into a perfect system of morals, the two systems of thought (Stoicism and Skepticism) cannot be synthesized by selecting helpful or compatible elements from each system (2). After all, Stoicism promotes certainty and Skepticism promotes doubt. Christian ethics is rooted in revelation—a revealed morality explained in the Bible through the life of Jesus. It is founded upon biblically based norms and ideals. But no one understands, believes, or follows every precept or doctrine of Christianity.

Psychology Today promotes morality as existing in us independently of God. As is typical of a humanist publication, an article by Gad Saad, PhD, asks which God or religion one should use to guide his or her morality (3)? Not surprisingly, the subject matter of the article is homosexuality and marriage partners. It references Anglican and Lutheran denominations as condoning same-sex relationships, and Mormonism and Islam as permitting multiple wives. Of course, this in no wise suggests that “Christian” ethics condones homosexuality or polygamy. Ethics is superior to denomination. In fact, Wayne Grudem says, “The moral argument begins from man’s sense of right and wrong, and of the need for justice to be done, and argues that there must be a God who is the source of right and wrong” (4).

What difference does Christianity make on your morality?

“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, the word used by Cicero to translate the Greek êthos. The Latin word refers more properly to the habits and customs of a people, while the Greek one is related to the idea of character. So “morality” addresses character and how we interact with each other in society. I believe Christianity provides the one true and universal system of morality. When I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior at age 13, my rather persistent rebellious nature and questionable morals improved greatly.

When I drifted away from Christ after my father “quit” church cold turkey, I began a slow slide into a morality far worse than I had before my conversion. I began abusing drugs and alcohol, and my morality—my character—changed, matching that of a young man living on the down low, hiding his addiction and illegal behavior. No longer did I feel obliged to follow Christ or emulate Christian morals. I think we all can imagine the lifestyle of an addict as being out of sync with biblical standards. My decision to attend CCU had the welcome effect of convicting me regarding my compromised morality. I am now 3 classes from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies, and my studies have drastically improved my “morality.” In fact, I will be pursuing a Master’s in Divinity at Denver Seminary next spring. My sites are set on evangelism and apologetics, and I will seek a position as an associate or teaching pastor.


(1) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 344.

(2) Blaise Pascal, “Conversation with M. De Saci on Eptictetus and Montainge,” in Thoughts (New York: Collier, 1910), 392.

(3) Gad Saad, “Morality Exists Despite Religion” (Apr 30, 2012), Psychology Today, Accessed Oct. 17, 2020. URL https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/homo-consumericus/201204/morality-exists-despite-religion

(4) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 143.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Christian Ethics and the “Good Life.”

I am now only 9 credits from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies. I have enjoyed sharing with you what I have learned. I started Christian Ethics last week. The following is from my first discussion assignment. In the first class (Classical Methodologies of Ethics) is about Consequences.

Consequences. Every choice we make results in certain consequences, whether good or bad. As a Christian, I am concerned with the results of sin in God’s creation. Hosea said, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain salvation upon you. You have plowed iniquity, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your chariots and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-ar’bel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children” (10:12-14, NRSV).

Four decades of active addiction led to unfortunate results, yet I continued to seek my own pleasure. Ultimately, I chose to get clean, putting God and others before my own needs. This was a hard undertaking, mainly because I was self-centered to the extreme. Today, I say yes to God rather than “secretly” pursuing my agenda. Each time we say yes to Him, He is pleased. The more we step into God’s will for us and say no to sin, the easier it gets. The sinful life is very tempting. Choosing good over evil improves our spiritual formation and serves as an example to others.

Critical thinking (as a Christian disciple) allows for self-evaluation, and typically leads to self-correcting decisions. In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” To grasp this tenet is to allow for integrity, humility, sound reason, fairmindedness, and courage (1). These signposts can help us attain “the good life.” Aristotle believed whenever we act we are aiming at some good. I would suggest that this sounds like “the ends justifies the means.” Specifically, while building our lives and our futures, we may rationalize our behavior as a “means” to achieving our goals.

As Christians, we learn about “goodness” from attending church, reading Scripture, and individual (not corporate) prayer. Given the many related terms (e.g., morals, values, principles), our ethics as Christians must be rooted in the good life of Jesus Christ. After all, much of our “source material” relative to ethics involve understanding God’s attributes and choosing to let His character guide our daily living.

I agree with Robin Lovin that some autonomy must be protected. Without free will to evaluate the ethics of a behavior or event, we become mere “automatons” of God. The important subject of this session is to determine what makes something right. As Western thought slowly disintegrated over the last century, the consequence has been moral relativism. Absolute truth has all but been rejected. The ontological sense of truth and morality is systematically ignored for the mantra What’s true for you is true for you; what’s true for me is true for me.

Lovin provides four primary means for moral reflection: teleology (study of the “ends” or results); deontology (a top/down theory that actions are good or bad as determined by a clear and uniform set of rules); virtue theory (the focus is on determining and living life out of moral character); and contextualism (the belief that ethics reacts to an evolving world). Contextualism allows for the individual’s “context,” which is quite similar to moral relativism. A good life is not synonymous with “the good life.” Living a good life involves an ethically-informed life that seeks justice, virtue, and flourishing within the kingdom of God.

Footnotes

(1) Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 15.

Lectio Divina and Spiritual Formation

It can be overwhelming to prepare a capstone-like summation of coursework in discussion form at the end of a class. As noted in the course shell, we have been building a plan of action for our personalized “spiritual practice” since the first session. I love the question, “What is your plan for a preferred spiritual future?” Last winter I told my pastor, “I want to grow spiritually in the next six months more than I have grown so far in my Christian life.” This class started at a time close to the end of that six-month period. I believe this is no coincidence.

I related well to the experience of James Bryan Smith described in “The Jogging Monk and the Exegesis of the Heart.” For most of my life, I thought I needed to “understand” something before I could do what it suggested. I was told this was merely a well-camouflaged form of procrastination. Thankfully, this week’s exercise proves otherwise. Our approach to the Word of God must fit the task at hand: epistemology, hermeneutics, exegesis, exposition, word studies. But we cannot take an “investigative” approach when reading Scripture for devotion, instruction, or edification. As the monk in the article told Smith, “You cannot make your­self sleep, but you can cre­ate the con­di­tions that allow sleep to hap­pen. All I want you to do is cre­ate the con­di­tions: Open your Bible, read it slow­ly, lis­ten to it, and reflect on it.” For me, learning this approach is the capstone for my experience in this class. It is exactly what I needed to learn at just the right time.

I chose to read and meditate on a key verse for me: “[F]or God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7, NRSV).

What did it teach you?

No matter the need or the situation, it is God who provides. No longer must I be a “coward,” as I was for most of my life. For it is not my power, but the power God has been instilled in me, that allows me to stand firm in boldness. I also learned that courage comes not only from having a “power source” but from soundness of mind—having understanding and judgment to weather the circumstance. 

What did it say to you?

I have used this verse for inspiration and encouragement for several years. It became a great source of comfort during recovery from active addiction. I took much stock in its promise. God has blessing me with courage and soundness of mind I need to let go of my past and my finite solutions and turn to God for strength and wisdom. It also spoke to me from an apologetic perspective. As I prepare for ministry in evangelism and apologetics, the power and Spirit of God will embolden me to stand against the isms prevalent in today’s post-Christian culture and equip me to make a defense for the hope that is in me that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Were you struck by any­thing?

I was able to see a thread running through Scripture, from Jonah and Joseph through David and Samson; from Matthew and Stephen through Paul and Peter—men who stood steadfast in faith and courage, not doubt and fear. I recognized God’s providence in every situation. I also saw that this verse speaks of the Spirit that God gave us. It is this “spirit” Paul was expressing to Timothy in the first epistle. The first seven verses of 2 Timothy 1 are addressed to a man of God, doing the work of an evangelist—a category that includes all who are called of God to serve, even in the twenty-first century. The same power, love, and soundness of mind available to Paul and Timothy is available to me today.

Did you expe­ri­ence God in your reading?

Yes. I had a strong sense of His presence and inner peace. I was aware that I will stand and serve God no matter what it might cost me. I sensed He knows I am willing to die for my Christian belief; that I would never renounce Him to avoid persecution, torture, or even death. I became emotional, realizing I have truly begun to see that I am crucified with Christ. I could see two “sides” of me, and felt strongly that I am “removed” from my sins as far as the east is from the west.

Concluding Thoughts

I am so happy this class reminded me of the five steps of lectio devina which I learned about in my class on hermeneutics. The process begins with reading a passage slowly and carefully, then opening a dialog with God about what I read. I have always enjoyed meditating on Scripture, but I have a better sense lately of the need for doing so as a daily routine. Contemplation involves focusing on a key thought or word from what I read and waiting on God to quicken it in my spirit. Resting in God’s presence is key to knowing His will. Then, I can “go and do likewise.” I feel honored and blessed to be called to ministry. For years, I thought I was lost to God, never to return. I felt “too damaged.” But God uses the broken. 

Why Can’t God Stop Evil?

One of the most troublesome questions Christians face when engaging in evangelism or apologetics is the problem of evil. This difficulty relates to two likely causes: lack of sufficient biblical knowledge on the topic; and, a pervasive spirit of empiricism, secularism, and militant atheism in Western civilization today. What is meant by “evil?” In a general sense, evil is the opposite or absence of good. The narrower scope signifies profound wickedness or immorality. Relative to the more specific definition, Merriam-Webster defines evil as “morally reprehensible: arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct.”

At the heart of Christianity is God’s love and benevolence. Alvin Plantinga writes, “Perhaps the most widely accepted and impressive piece of natural atheology has to do with the so-called problem of evil” (italics mine) (1). Many secular philosophers and atheists believe the existence of evil constitutes a problem for the theist. They think the presence of evil makes belief in God unreasonable or rationally unacceptable. Much ado is made about “natural” evils, such as disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, and hurricanes. In addition, there are evils that result from human cruelty, arrogance, avarice, the savagery of war, and stupidity.

Clearly the world contains a great deal of evil. If God is as benevolent as Christian theists claim, He must be just as appalled as we are at all this evil. But if He is also as powerful as they claim, then presumably He is in a position to do something about it. Why doesn’t God orient the world in a manner that eliminates evil? How could evil be a part of His design for creation and for mankind? Groothuis says, “The presence of evil in the face of a good God has classically been called the problem of evil” (italics added) (2). Epicurus said, “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able.

Jeremey Evans writes, “Christians have generally agreed that evil is not a substance or a thing but instead is a privation of a good thing that God made” (3). Evans presented the proposition that because God created only actual things (of substance), and because evil is not an actual thing (substance), then God did not create evil. Groothuis speaks of the importance of definitively addressing the problem of evil. He says believers must stand firm in the gospel and refuse defeat of their faith based on one problem. God never does evil and is never to be blamed for evil.

Grudem notes the following from Scripture: “Jesus also combines God’s predestination of the crucifixion with moral blame on those who carry it out: ‘For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed’ (Luke 22:22; cf. Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21)” (italics in the original) (4). This verse is critical for confronting misconceptions from New Atheists regarding the crucifixion: e.g., Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), who espoused that the crucifixion was an unnecessary and barbaric form of human sacrifice: what he called “propitiatory murder” (5).

What is the Free Will Defense?

Plantinga is perhaps the first prominent theological scholar to state that not even God can bring about a good state of affairs without bringing about an evil state of affairs. He calls this the Free Will Defense. Specifically, he says being free with respect to an action must mean a person is free to perform an action and free to refrain from it. It is within his power to choose (6). Emphatically, a world wherein man is significantly free (and freely performs more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world devoid of such freedom.

To create creatures capable of moral good, God must create creatures also capable of moral evil. Moreover, He can’t give such creatures freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from choosing to do evil. Sadly, of course, man has proven himself capable of choosing to do evil as much as to do good. Our first parents made a conscious decision to disobey God’s one and only commandment and eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This choice is highly significant in that it demonstrated man’s choice to look within for morality and purpose rather than heavenward.

The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong cannot be counted against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness. Plantinga says God cannot be expected to do “literally everything.” Sentient beings with free will, no matter the circumstance, will likely make at least one “bad” decision; one that might have the potential to be egregious. If God, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, created the world—a good world wherein evil was possible and which became actual—then the proper conclusion would not be “God created evil,” but “the world contains evil(7). To say, for example, that I act freely on a given occasion is to say only this: if I had chosen to do otherwise, I would have done otherwise. It is paramount that we have the freedom to choose A (a good deed) or B (an evil deed). Anything less is devoid of the freedom to choose.

Groothuis says we cannot take up the problem of evil in a philosophical vacuum. The Christian faith is multifaceted and cumulative, as we learn from the progressive thread of redemption in Scripture. If so, then the biblical worldview cannot prima facie be refuted by one particular problem. Augustine believed evil is “privation” of the good; it is parasitic on the good, and not a substance in and of itself. Good itself is rooted in God’s eternal character, and cannot exist otherwise.

Groothuis astutely writes, “Since evil is a defection from good and parasitic on an antecedent good… it is impossible that God could defect from the good” (8). C.S. Lewis observed that no one does evil simply because he or she takes it to be evil. The “badness” of an action consists in pursuing [good things] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. He writes, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness” (9). He provides the example of sadism as a sexual perversion, noting we must first have an idea of normal sexuality before we can talk about it being perverted.

A Final Thought

In light of God’s goodness and sovereignty, it must be noted that evil might be used in accord with God’s infinite wisdom to bring about His desired ends. Groothuis calls this evil’s “secondary status in the universe” (10). Despite the fact that God created all that we see, evil is not a direct “creation” of God. Evil comes about due to human mismanagement of people and of the environment. Consider this: the Fall (while based on human rebellion) opens up possibilities for virtue not otherwise attainable. Evil serves an instrumental purpose in the providence of God. This has been called the Greater Good Defense. In other words, evil is logically necessary to some good; this good outweighs the evil, and there are no alternative goods not involving those evils that would have been better.

Irenaeus called this the soul-making strategy. Origen joined in, saying, “Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by probation. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined. Apart from evil, there would be no crown of victory in store for him who rightly struggled” (11). Augustine noted God’s supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, stating God would not permit the existence of evil among His works if He were not able to bring good even out of evil (12).


Footnotes

(1) Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, 1977), 7.

(2) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2011), 492.

(3) Jeremey A. Evans, The Problem of Evil (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2013), 1.

(4) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MN: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

(5) Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2007), 208.

(6) Plantinga, Ibid., 30.

(7) Groothuis, Ibid.,503.

(8) Ibid., 620.

(9) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 44.

(10) Groothuis, Ibid., 637.

(11) Origen, quoted in Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1956), 264.

(12) Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, trans. J.F. Shaw (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1961), 11.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Church, Holy Scripture, and Canon

The following lesson is from the fourth week of my course in Hermeneutics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies at Colorado Christian University.

What is the proper dogmatic relationship between the church and the canon of Holy Scripture? With reference to Webster (2003, 42–67) in particular, respond by addressing what it means for the church to be the “hearing church,” specifically as it relates to the authority of Scripture in the church and the canonization of Scripture.

Webster calls Holy Scripture “an element in the drama of God’s redeeming and communicative self-giving” (1). God’s chief activity as concerning the church is revelation, sanctification, and inspiration. Yet, we must remember to consider God’s triune nature. Who reveals? Is it the Father? Who sanctifies? Is it Jesus Christ? Who inspires? Is it the Holy Spirit?

Theological study can be complicated in any given religion, but Christian theology challenges us to grasp and interact with the Godhead. This can be a confusing proposition. In fact, I do not believe this would be possible without the framework of systematic theology, a universal set of doctrines, the community of believers, and the tools of hermeneutics and exegesis.

A “speaking God” requires a “hearing church.” The church is God’s intended audience and active participant. When considering the community of believers and the Bible, the concept of a “hearing church” becomes clearer. One step further, and we also see the church as “spiritually visible” and “apostolic.” It has been said unless we believe we will not understand. And we cannot hear without our hearts being cleansed (2). These various elements of Christian theology are clues to God’s heart and intensions, but also to His immanence.

Scripture has innate authority in the church. The “creature” of the divine Word is the church body. A link is established between the Doctrine of God’s Word and the Doctrine of Ecclesiology. These two precedents are critical for establishing the authority of God’s Word. They are necessary for the church’s action of canonization. With the church as creature, and Holy Scripture as God’s special revelation, “creature” and “hearing church” are synonymous. Webster tells us Christian theology is properly undertaken by the speaking and hearing church. Fowl identifies the vital element of Scripture, and how it fits God’s nature and place. He is quick to state, “…how and what Christians think about Scripture will influence the ways in which Christians might interpret Scripture theologically” (3).

Revisiting Webster’s idea, revelation is God’s divine presence. Scripture—God’s special revelation—contains God’s theology, which has but one preoccupation: God and everything else in His created universe. Everything that exists is His and nothing exists that is not His. Webster says, “…gospel is not just the ‘theme’ or ‘matter’ of theology as if the gospel were one more topic” (4). Gospel brings theology into existence. Faith before knowledge. Kapic believes “…true theology is inevitably lived theology” (5).

Theology is what Webster calls an irreducibly positive science. He adds, “It is reason directed to an object in a place… the church is assembled by the Word and for the Word” (6). There simply is no theology—at least a dynamic or living theology—without the hearing church.


  • (1) John Webster, Holy Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42.
  • (2) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 53.
  • (3) Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2009), 1.
  • (4) Webster, Ibid., 123.
  • (5) Kapic, Ibid., 42
  • (6) Ibid., 124.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Character of Holy Scripture

The following is from Hermeneutics, my current class at Colorado Christian University, in pursuit of my master’s degree in theological studies.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

How are the Christian doctrines of revelation and Scripture to be distinguished from one another, and what is the proper nature of their relationship? Additionally, where should discussion of these two distinct but related doctrines (revelation and Scripture, sometimes grouped together under “bibliology”) be located regarding systematic treatments of Christian theology?

I believe the doctrine of Holy Scripture is a type of “revelation” from God, as established by Christian doctrine. Fowl indicates, “…how and what Christians think about Scripture will influence the ways in which Christians might interpret Scripture theologically” (1). Webster believes referring to the Bible as Holy Scripture might provide “…an account of what Holy Scripture is in the saving economy of God’s loving and regenerative self-communication” (2) I would suggest that this is an appropriate determination given Scripture’s function of providing a written revelation of God’s communicable and incommunicable nature; His character regarding anger and wrath, forgiveness, unconditional love; and the manifestation of Jesus Christ, His Son and His ultimate plan of redemption. Not only is Scripture God’s special revelation, it is also a rendering of Jesus as the Word of God.

Naturally, the most profound and accurate depiction of God’s nature is contained in the Holy Scriptures. Augustine correctly stated that the rules for how Christians interpret Scripture are well-enough established throughout church history and can properly be passed on to those who have undertaken the study thereof. These so-called rules allow those who would teach the Holy Scriptures to do so “without pride or jealousy” (3) Because the Holy Scriptures are indeed a “revelation” of the Godhead, it is paramount that the sharing and teaching of them be devoid (to whatever extent possible) of human boastfulness.

According to Grudem, the established doctrines of Christianity include the Doctrine of the Word of God, including the canon of Scripture and its four characteristics (authority, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency) and the Doctrine of God under which we find the how, what, and why of God’s plans and attributes. God’s special revelation (which is distinct from general revelation) refers to His words addressed to specific peoples and nations, the words of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, and the many words spoken by Jesus Christ. Webster, on speaking about the authority of Holy Scripture, indicates “…the texts of the Christian canon are normative for the speech, thought, and practice of the church, because these texts mediate God’s self-revelation” (4). Holy Scripture serves the key functions of providing the history of God’s chosen people and the theology of God.

The Christian doctrines of Revelation and Scripture share a unique and necessary relationship, with each referring to the other. The eight essential doctrines of Christianity include Holy Scripture, God, Christology, the Holy Spirit, Man, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology. It is no coincidence that each of these doctrines are found within the Holy Scriptures. It is only by its clarity over the centuries that Scripture has permeated Christian tradition and “…has the capacity to address and transform the human being, and to offer a reliable guide to human action” (5).

Stewart believes there is a difference between Revelation and Divine Inspiration. Revelation is God’s disclosure of Truth—that which we would not otherwise know. For example, consider Peter’s acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ; the Son of the Living God (Matt. 16:16). Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (16:17, NRSV). Stewart notes, “Divine inspiration, on the other hand, refers to the recording of God’s truth.” (6). Webster reminds us, “Holy Scripture is not a single or simple entity” (7).  It is a set of texts (66 books) of divine origin and is used by the church in a systematic manner. He believes adding Holy to “Scripture” highlights their origin, function and end in divine self-communication.

I believe the Doctrine of the Word of God (to include Holy Scripture) must be clearly established as related to but separate from God’s Revelation. This is especially important given the distinct difference between God’s special revelation (Holy Scripture) and His general revelation (through creation to all people generally). It seems important, however, that these doctrines should compliment one another in our studies and in our sharing of God’s Holy Scripture. Accordingly, I believe the Doctrine of the Word of God and the Doctrine of Revelation should remain separate “doctrines” as noted in systematic theology.

Addendum

I believe God’s revelation includes Scripture, the words of the Old Testament Prophets and New Testament Apostles, every word spoken by Jesus during His life and ministry here on earth, and words inspired by God that come from pastors, elders, evangelists, teachers, and fellow believers. I also belief God can reveal Himself through any situation or through the words and actions of any person. All Scripture is revelation, but not all revelation is Scripture. God’s general revelation is comprised of His creation. By its splendid uniqueness, revelation showcases God’s “intelligent” design. God’s special revelation refers to His words addressed to specific peoples and nations, the words of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, and the many words spoken by Jesus Christ. For the most part, His special revelation is covered by Scripture.

Footnotes

(1) Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene: Cascade, 2009), 1.

(2) John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.

(3) Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 2008), 5.

(4) John Webster, “Authority of Scripture” in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005),724.

(5) John Yocum, “Clarity of Scripture,” in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Ibid., 727.

(6) Don Stewart, “Is There a Difference Between Revelation and Divine Inspiration?” Blue Letter Bible, July 18, 2018, Web. July 23, 2020. URL https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/stewart_don/faq/bible-authoritative-word/question9-revelation-and-divine-inspiration.cfm

(7) Webster, Holy Scripture, Ibid., 5.