The Tools of Theological Reflection

imageWhen Christians voice their position on a theological subject, the expectation of a disciple is that this position has been considered in the context of their faith. Taking a stand on a particular subject is saying to the world, “this is my best understanding of what Christian faith means.” This understanding is the cumulative experience and meditation of the Church as we have witnessed God at work in our lives, in the Church, and in the World. A theological framework derived from our embedded theology is necessarily limited by what others tell or teach us. A deeper understanding of what faith means is the product of a craftsman utilizing the tools of Christian reflection.

The depth of this theological viewpoint is important because it is the framework on which we organize input and process events. A shallow embedded framework provides us with a limited number of ‘hooks’ on which we can process information or events. We are reliant on others to grasp the world around us. A reflective theological process, on the other hand, builds a stronger and more in-depth framework through which truth and events are interpreted, correlated, and assessed in light of the Christian faith.

Resources for Theological Reflection

In my last post we established the the methods of the theological craft (Interpret, Correlate, Assess) but without a proper orientation to the resources of the craft, the methods are of little worth as they will rely on secular constructs. The list of resources is fourfold and include Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. Many readers will identify this as the Wesleyan quadrilateral** (or Methodist quadrilateral) but that should not be read as endorsing or leaning toward a specific theology. These four tools provide a way of assessing ideas within the framework of Scriptures, of the work of the Church throughout history, and of your experience with how God has and does work in the world. Some may argue otherwise but the crafting of theological takes place in the crucible of life.

Christians have often been referred to as ‘people of the book’ since the Bible forms the chief resource for reflection. Each of the other tools is subordinate to the words of the Scriptures. Through the pages of the Bible we draw propositions about divine truth, descriptions of the nature of God, we see the faith experiences of those who have come before us, and we hear repeated invitations to a new life offered through the grace of the Father. The craftsman recognizes that while the Scriptures offer a treasure house of knowledge that applies to all areas of life, it does not speak specifically to every question. It requires responsible interpretation that is cognizant of its scope and the broad strokes and categorization that may encompass specific areas of concern. (For example, the specific question of abortion is never addressed. The Scriptures do reveal God’s perspective on the sanctity of the life of His creations and from this we can interpret His feelings toward the practice.)

Rational human beings utilize their ability to reason constantly and theological reflection is no different. Reason is crucial in the ability to assess and correlate theological thought. To take the individual words ( or verses ) of scripture literally from the page into application often leads to misinterpretation. We must understand and recognize the ever widening circles of context that exist in the Scriptures and work from the tenet that all of the Bible works together. It does not deny itself. If we craft a new theological idea that stands apart from the rest of the Scriptures, reason tells us that we must tread carefully. Our ability to reason also contributes to our evaluation of alternative portrayals of the Christian faith. Contrasting limited and unlimited atonement as an example, requires the theologian to sift through and evaluate the entire body of the Scriptures before concluding which of these two lines of thought most adequately fits the nature of the Faith.

If, in the midst of crafting your theological understandings, you arrive at a conclusion that has never been heard within the Church during the centuries of her existence, be very cautious. Tradition plays an important role in the craft. Many thousands upon thousands of Christian thinkers and practitioners have preceded us and certain doctrines and beliefs have survived the transference from generation to generation. We must always take these into account, remembering that similar evaluations of their validity have been conducted prior to our coming on the scene. Tradition serves as an anchor as well, preventing us from being blown about by every new doctrinal breeze.

Finally, our experiences play a role in theological reflection.  The degree to which you consider your experiences valuable is going to vary. Some Christians will elevate experience to a level equal to or above that of the other resources but a more temperate approach is called for. Relying on experience as a prime determinant can push us towards reading this experience into the scriptures rather than trying to understand an experience in light of the Scriptures. Our own experiences, while not definitive, aid us in evaluating the theological truth claims that are based on other’s truth claims. If a televangelist claims riches for all of those who contribute to his ministry but it is later discovered that many who contributed to the appeal remained impoverished, we can rightly judge the evangelist’s theology to be lacking.

Working at the Craft

The Christian crafting a theological viewpoint brings many resources to the task. Scripture remains the primary resource around which the others orbit and it is from the Bible that our process should start. Even when it is an experience that we are seeking to understand we should return to our knowledge of the Bible to begin forming a theological explanation. This requires that we are consistent students of the Scriptures, regularly reading and storing the truths within us so that we have as complete an understanding of God’s word as possible. As we become masters of these tools, we will become more adept at using them to assess, interpret and correlate truths in our theological crafting.

** The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

This structure has been criticized many times throughout its brief history. Though Wesley expressed these as the tools of theology, it was only in 1964 that the term came into being when written by biographer Albert Outler. He has expressed regret at doing so since it has been incorrectly interpreted (both intentionally and unintentionally) and gives and invalid impression of Wesley’s method. The Quadrilateral is often expressed graphically as an axis with the four tools placed in each of the quadrants.

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One draws from this diagram the impression that the importance of Scripture is equal to or subservient to the others but this is incorrect. Wesley always places the Scriptures at the center of theology with the others contributing to a lesser degree. This diagram could be improved by either varying the sizes of the boxes (which would spoil the quadrants I suppose) or portraying it in some other form.

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