What should our understanding of theology be?
Charles Hodge (1797–1878) and Karl Barth (1886–1968) have quite different understandings of what theology is.
Hodge was an American Presbyterian pastor and one of the greatest exponents and defenders of historical Calvinism in the United States during the 19th century.
He defines theology as a presentation of the facts of the Bible, emphasizing their order and their relationships.“The main difference between Hodge and Barth is in the way they understand the role of Scripture in theology.”
Barth was a Swiss Protestant theologian born in Basel, and perhaps one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, one of the founders of the so-called neo-orthodox theology.
He defines theology as an action of the church responding to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
The main difference between Hodge and Barth is in the way they understand the role of Scripture in theology.
In this article, I attempt to compare and contrast their views, their strengths and weaknesses, and conclude with a personal reflection about how they may inform and shape our understanding of theology.
A Brief Summary of Charles Hodge’s Understanding of Theology
Hodge claims a theological method that is as rigorous as the scientific method. While the natural sciences have the material world as their object of study, theology has the Bible as its object of study.
He writes, “If natural science be concerned with the facts and laws of nature, theology is concerned with the facts and the principles of the Bible. If the object of the one be to arrange and systematize the facts of the external world, and to ascertain the laws by which they are determined; the object of the other is to systematize the facts of the Bible, and ascertain the principles or general truths which those facts involve.” (Systematic Theology [ST] 1.2.1, p. 33)
Furthermore, in his definition of theology, Hodge makes the distinction between general revelation and especial revelation; natural theology and supernatural theology.“Nature means whatever is produced, and therefore includes everything out of God, so that God and nature include all that is.”
He does not deny the existence and importance of natural theology. He claims,
We have, therefore, to restrict theology to its true sphere, as the science of the facts of divine revelation so far as those facts concern the nature of God and our relation to him, as his creatures, as sinners, and as the subjects of redemption. All these facts, as just remarked, are in the Bible. But as some of them are revealed by the works of God, and by the nature of man, there is so far a distinction between natural theology, and theology considered distinctively as a Christian science. (ST 1.2.1, p. 36).
According to Hodge, natural theology is not merely the “facts of the material universe” without revelation.
Natural theology does not mean knowledge of God apart from his revelation. For him, “nature means whatever is produced, and therefore includes everything out of God, so that God and nature include all that is.” (ST 1.2.2, p. 37)
Hodge deals with some objections to natural theology and then he affirms that “the Scriptures clearly recognize the fact that the works of God reveal his being and attributes.” (ST 1.2.2, p. 38)
He gives some biblical examples (Ps. 19:1-4, Acts 14:15-17, Acts 17:24-29, Rom. 1:19-21) and then he concludes, “It cannot, therefore, be reasonably doubted that not only the being of God, but also his eternal power and Godhead, are so revealed in his works, as to lay a stable foundation for natural theology.” (ST 1.2.2, p. 39)
However, Hodge knew that natural theology alone could not reveal meaningful truths about God and his redemption plan because of the effects of sin that darkened our hearts and minds.“For Hodge, one’s theology must be informed by and remain faithful to Scripture only.”
Hodge does not deny natural theology but sets some limits that must be respected in order to have the true knowledge of God.
He writes, “The question as to the sufficiency of natural theology, or of the truths of reason, is to be answered on the authority of the Scriptures. No man can tell à priori what is necessary to salvation. Indeed, it is only by supernatural revelation that we know that any sinner can be saved. It is from the same source alone, we can know what are the conditions of salvation, or who are to be its subjects.” (ST 1.2.3, p. 40)
Scripture is the Word of God that reveals propositional truths about the work of Christ and God’s plans for humanity, and theology has to do with the facts and doctrinal propositions revealed in Scripture.
For Hodge, one’s theology must be informed by and remain faithful to Scripture only.
A Brief Summary of Karl Barth’s Understanding of Theology
On the other hand, Karl Barth is part of that group of theologians from neo-orthodoxy who cannot be understood in isolation.
His influence extends to several segments of theology between the great wars and the post-war period.
Along with other great theologians of the 20th century, he sought to understand the importance of theology for the Church.
In fact, he begins his Church Dogmatics claiming that “theology is a function of the Church.” (Church Dogmatics [CD] 1/1, p. 1)
Unlike Hodge, Barth does not restrict the content of theology to Scripture. He claims that “the Church produces theology in this special and peculiar sense by subjecting itself to self-examination. . . theology exists in this special and peculiar sense because before it and apart from it there is in the Church talk about God. Theology follows the talk of the Church to the extent that in its question as to the correctness of its utterance it does not measure it by an alien standard but by its own source and object.” (CD 1/1, p. 2)
Theology is seen as a human talk about God, and “talk about God has true content when it conforms to the being of the Church, i.e., when it conforms to Jesus Christ.” (CD 1/1, p. 10)“This is the point I most admire in Barth. His theology was fundamentally Christocentric; that is, everything has an explanation, meaning, origin in Christ, the Son of God.”
The emphasis of Barth’s theology is on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God’s only word is in Jesus Christ. Every relationship between God and humans takes place in Christ and through Christ.
Negatively, this means the exclusion of natural theology and doctrinal propositions in Scripture; the Bible and the proclamation of the Church are witnesses to this revelation of God in Christ.
Positively, everything must be seen and interpreted from Christ as the center point.
This is the point I most admire in Barth. His theology was fundamentally Christocentric; that is, everything has an explanation, meaning, origin in Christ, the Son of God.
The hermeneutical key and the answer to all human enigmas and desires have an answer in Christ, true God and true man.
Another characteristic, within this Christocentric aspect, is that for Barth all knowledge of God comes from the encounter between humans and God, who reveals himself.
Humans only know God fully in the person of Jesus Christ. One can only understand something about God from the person of the Son.“For Barth all knowledge of God comes from the encounter between humans and God, who reveals himself.”
Another strong aspect of his theology has to do with the importance he gives to prayer.
Since theology is the talk of the church about God, prayer has a fundamental role in the theological enterprise.
Theology emerges from prayer. Barth beautifully concludes the first chapter of his Church Dogmatics arguing that,
Dogmatics is possible only as an act of faith, when we point to prayer as the attitude without which there can be no dogmatic work. . . Prayer can be the recognition that we accomplish nothing by our intentions, even though they be intentions to pray. Prayer can be the expression of our human willing of the will of God. Prayer can signify that for good or evil man justifies God and not himself. Prayer can be the human answer to the divine hearing already granted, the epitome of the true faith which we cannot assume of ourselves. (CD 1/1, p. 23-24)“However…Barth denied the doctrinal propositions of Scripture on the argument that God does not reveal Himself in nature (general revelation; natural theology) and He does not reveal things about Himself in written form (especial revelation), but only in the person of Jesus Christ.”
However, the most dangerous aspect of his theology is with respect to Scripture.
Barth denied the doctrinal propositions of Scripture on the argument that God does not reveal Himself in nature (general revelation; natural theology) and He does not reveal things about Himself in written form (especial revelation), but only in the person of Jesus Christ.
Revelation is a personal event, an encounter between the individual and Christ himself. Barth argues that,
The concept of truths of revelation in the sense of Latin propositions given and sealed once for all with divine authority in both wording and meaning is theologically impossible if it is a fact that revelation is true in the free decision of God which was taken once for all in Jesus Christ. . . Our dogmatic labours can and should be guided by results which are venerable because they are attained in the common knowledge of the Church at a specific time. Such results may be seen in the dogmas enshrined in the creeds. But at no point should these replace our dogmatic labours in virtue of their authority. Nor can it ever be the real concern of dogmatics merely to assemble, repeat and define the teaching of the Bible. (CD 1/1, p. 15)
What Should Our Understanding of Theology Be?
I believe there are aspects in Hodge and in Barth that may inform and shape our understanding of theology.
First, God reveals himself not only in the person of Christ (Barth) but also in nature, in history, in human conscience, and more clearly in propositional truths in Scripture (Hodge).
Hodge is very helpful in providing an understanding of theology firmly grounded in Scripture; the whole counsel of God.
The study of theology covers everything about the Bible in an orderly way, as a whole.
The objective of the theology is to promote the unity of the teachings of the Scriptures.“Hodge is very helpful in providing an understanding of theology firmly grounded in Scripture; the whole counsel of God.”
In other words, theology creates a real framework for thinking and covering all the research necessary to understand the Scriptures.
In light of this, one must read Barth with caution and a critical spirit. Scripture is the revealed Word of God and the content of our theology is found in it.
Second, Barth is helpful in providing a Christ-centered theology. A Christocentric theology understands that the gospel of salvation is Christ-centered.
God is reconciling men to himself through the person of his Son.
The Christian Life is also Christ-centered; it is determined by a vital and redemptive relationship between the believer and Christ.
The Church’s work is directed towards Christ and Christ-centeredness. The Church is not merely an organization, it is also a living organism that maintains an organic union with its Guide and Founder, Jesus Christ.“Barth is helpful in providing a Christ-centered theology. A Christocentric theology understands that the gospel of salvation is Christ-centered.”
Third, theology must be done by the Church in an attitude of prayer.
The ecclesial aspect of theology is very important, especially in postmodern times that favor the extreme individualization of faith and where each one feels invited to build their own religion for themselves, neglecting the community.
Christian theology cannot be thought outside the Christian community. Theology is elaborated within the community; it is a communal enterprise.
The individual feeds on it as a member of the community. Theology takes on the issues, the problems, the anxieties, the doubts that flow within communities.
It elaborates them in light of Scripture, with clarity and consistency, in order to return them to the community as food for its faith.
In summary, our theology must be firmly rooted and grounded in Scripture (Hodge), centered in the person and work of Christ as the hermeneutical key, it must be done within the Christian community and with a prayer attitude (Barth).“Theology is an intellectual science but also a life science, a doctrine that teaches us how to live to God in Christ and achieve a blessed life towards God and neighbors.”
Therefore, I suggest that we must understand theology not as a dry science that gives information to our intellect only.
On the contrary, theology is an intellectual science but also a life science, a doctrine that teaches us how to live to God in Christ and achieve a blessed life towards God and neighbors.
It not only provides information to our minds, but it also brings transformation to our hearts; it is not only theoretical but also very practical.
Theology is a science of a higher order, it means that, we can’t know God and divine things in the same way we know other natural sciences as geometry, mathematics, or biology.
Theology concerns divine revelation; therefore, it takes more than natural reason to apprehend it; it takes faith and reason, prayer and study, and it is a work for the whole church.
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Charles D. D. Hodge, c. 1860-1870. Photographic Negative by Mathew Brady Studio. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Frederick Hill Meserve Collection. NPG.81.M906.