Systematic Treatment of Theologies

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

After digesting the theological methods of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner, I am partial to Barth. Barth grew up in Germany, and was in country when Hitler’s Third Reich and extermination of the Jews was rampant. This left Barth quite dismayed. He saw the policies of the Nazi party as evidence of a fundamentally bankrupt theology (1). Both the church and German society were smashed against the rock of imperialism. Wayne Grudem defines systematic theology any study that answers the questionWhat does the whole Bible teach us today?” about any given topic (2). Further, it allows us to focus on summarizing each doctrine as it should be understood by Christians in the twenty-first century. The adjective systematic in systematic theology should be understood to mean “carefully organized by topics,” with the understanding that the topics studied will be seen to fit together in a consistent manner.

My strong endorsement of Karl Barth rests in his call for a theology that starts with God (in the beginning) and focuses on the Word of God. Paul wrote, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2:13, NRSV). Regarding the primacy of Scripture, we are told, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). God’s Word is truth (John 17:17); it is powerful and does not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11); it will never pass away (Matt. 24:35). Moreover, the Word of God is “…inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). 

Barth’s theology reminds me of Martin Luther’s sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). In fact, consider the milieu of both these theological giants. Luther stood up against the corruption, abuse of power, and lack of primacy of Scripture regarding Roman Catholicism, and Barth spoke out against the atrocities of Hitler’s eugenics and his grab for world power. Barth staunchly opposed any approach to theology that featured human-centeredness. Systematic theology is impossible without the core Doctrine of the Word of God, for it is there that we learn of His attributes and character. Without Holy Scripture, there is no thread of redemption for us to follow, refer to, or teach. 

Barth took on Protestant liberalism, stating that the Word of God must be primary in theology. For me, this is the only means by which we can live our theology, otherwise our faith is mere philosophy. In addition, without a systematic model of theology and an official canon of biblical texts, we cannot hope to discover the Truth that is in Jesus Christ. We would miss the opportunity to satisfy our innate hunger for God. We also lack sufficient wisdom and knowledge to know God without His wisdom, His grace, and His Word.

Without the foregoing, true theology is not possible. The heart of Barth’s theology rests upon the sovereignty of God, the importance of the resurrection, the light of Christ, and the primacy of Holy Scripture. Barth said man’s “religion” is more akin to unbelief. It is a construct of the human mind. He adds, “It is a concern, indeed. We must say that it is the one great concern of godless man. From the standpoint of revelation, religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in his revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human factor” (2).

Footnotes

(1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 24.
(2) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1956), 299-300.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: 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.