In this series, I want to discuss the various sources that inform our theology – that is, our understanding of God. For an outline, I will use John Wesley’s Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I realize that this is not new information for many of my readers. However, perhaps we can all help ourselves think about this important topic.
My understanding of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience have all worked together to shape what I think about God – my theology. Your understanding of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience have all worked together to shape your theology. While Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience may all be object (real things), our interpretation of them is subjective.
This does not mean that there is no reality. I believe there is reality, and I believe that God is part of that reality. Again, however, this is part of my theology. There are many who believe that God does not exist, or that many gods exist, or that everything is a god.
Our theology is our attempt to understand that reality. Our interpretation of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience all play a part in that attempt to understand reality. The subjectivity of our attempt at understanding reality does not negate the objectivity of reality itself. (By the way, Jeff suggested Nature as another theological source. This is very intriguing, especially given the modern attempt at developing a Natural Theology. I have not thought through Nature as a theological source, but if you want to discuss it in the comments, please do so.)
Now, if God is part of that reality – and I believe that he is – and if God communicates to us – and I believe that he does – then I must add him to my theological sources, especially his indwelling presence through the person of the Holy Spirit. Now, it is true that God communicates to us through Scripture. And, it is true that God communicates to us through Tradition, Reason, and Experience. However, Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience are not the totality of God. God is a person that exists apart from Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. And, God is objective – not subjective. However, just like the other sources of theology, our understanding or our interpretation of God’s communication with us is subjective.
My theology – my understanding of God – is not perfect. It is wrong. However, my understanding of God can grow closer to the reality of God himself as I allow him, Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to all work together to inform, grow, and mature my theology. Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience apart from God will not grow my understanding of God. This assumes, of course, that I allow God to use these various influences to modify my theology. For example, Calvin spent many years developing his theology. Today, people continue to study and hold to his last edition, sometimes to the point of vilify any who would disagree with this particular version of Calvin’s theology. I wonder how Calvin would have changed his theology in later editions if he had lived longer. (By the way, I’m not picking on Calvin at this point. The same could be said of many theologians and their followers.)
Furthermore, many people study Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience – and other theological sources – apart from the indwelling presence of God. Many times these people will understand the words of Scripture, the teaching of Tradition, the logic of Reason, and the meaning of Experience better than God’s own children. However, this does not mean that their theology matches up with the reality of God. God must be recognized as the primary theological source.
The reality of God is not different from God as he is described in Scripture, but the reality of God may be different from our understanding of Scripture. This is true of all of the theological sources. The reality of God defines the sources, not the other way around. Similarly, our faith is not based on what we think we know about God, but in the person of God himself, even recognizing that he is different than we think he is.
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not saying that we can know nothing about God. We can. I am not saying that it is impossible to understand anything about God. It is possible. However, as the Proverbs teach us, we must trust completely in God himself – the real person that he is – not in our own understandings – even our own understandings about God. When our understandings about God are wrong, we must trust God to reveal those to us in whatever means he chooses. If our understandings about God are correct, then we also must trust God to confirm that to us, again in whatever means he chooses.
Furthermore, we must be very careful that we do not condemn someone because their understanding of God is different from our own. Yes, I recognize that there are times when Scripture instructs us to distance ourselves from certain beliefs, and we should do this. However, today, it is rarely the case that I see two believers separating because one denies that Jesus is the Son of God or that Jesus came in the flesh or because one of them refuses to work or is divisive or even because one of them continues to live in unrepentant sin. Primarily, when I see two believers separating themselves from one another it is because their understanding of God differs in another area. I could produce a long list here, but I would probably leave out too many.
The questions that I feel we must ask ourselves at this point is the following: If we can recognize that we do not fully understand God and that God continues to work in our lives to refine our understanding of himself, why do we not allow God the same freedom to work in the lives of other believers? God is real. He is present. He is working. He is communicating. He cares about his people more than you think. He is able to bring them to a better understanding of himself. Perhaps, by remaining in fellowship with other believers, God may even use them to bring you and me into a better understanding of who he is.
As I finish this conclusion, I want to leave with some questions for discussion: 1) Do you agree that God in the person of the Holy Spirit must be the primary source of our theology? 2) How do you see the Holy Spirit working through the other sources? 3) Is it possible for us to rely on the other sources (even the words of Scripture) to a point that we do not rely on God himself?