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.