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Theological Sources – Conclusion

Posted by on Feb 22, 2008 in discipleship, scripture, spirit/holy spirit | 8 comments

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?

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Theological Sources Series:
1. Introduction
2. Scripture
3. Tradition
4. Reason
5. Experience
6. Conclusion


8 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 2-23-2008

    That’s a great conclusion! I especially appreciate the part that none of us have perfect theology (understanding of God) and all of us must give ourselves and others grace and space for that imperfection and for the room to mature and grow. I’ve been thinking a lot about those themes lately. To try to answer your questions:

    1)Yes, I agree. Ultimately, our faith is based on a relationship with a Person, not a proposition. (I John 2:20-21 and vs.27 comes to mind).

    2)This is a big question. Maybe I should think about it some more.

    3)Yes, I think it is. (John 5:39)

  2. 2-25-2008

    Sarah,

    Thank you for answering the questions. I hope that thinking through these theological sources has been beneficial to you.

    -Alan

  3. 3-2-2008

    Hello Alan. I did not read all the entries on theological sources, so forgive me if my comment has already been addressed:

    This may sound unSpiritual, but I’m not sure we can have the Spirit as our ultimate source for theology. If we are talking about theological understanding, which is more specific than relationship, then the question is: how does the Spirit communicate this understanding to us? How do we know whether HE has given us understanding or ‘spoken’ to us? (1 John 4:1-3). This takes us back to the limitations of reason and experience.

    This is the importance of why the Spirit has given us perfect, written revelation. While this does not solve the problem of interpretation, it removes the source from our own perceptions of what the Spirit may be saying to us directly. I certainly do not want to minimize the vital role of the Spirit, and he is the one who gives us the understanding FOR theology. But it seems that by God’s providential design, his role is not to be our SOURCE for theology, in the sense of some direct communication to the believer.

    Thus, I have answered questions 1 and 2. In light of my answers, it seems important for me to answer 3: yes, it is possible, and dangerous, to depend on sources and not do theology in the context of dynamic relationship to God himself!

  4. 3-2-2008

    Matthew,

    Thank you for the comment, and congratulations on the birth of your daughter! I can appreciate your concerns, but for now I maintain that God himself (through the work of his Spirit) should be our primary theological source. However, when I say this, I recognize that the Spirit works through other theological sources (i.e. Scripture). Thus, people can study the words of Scripture for many years, and yet those same people may know very little about God. The Spirit reveals that truth to them, even if he uses Scripture to reveal it.

    -Alan

  5. 12-20-2012

    Alan, I can accept everything you say, with one additional element.

    Yes, it is the Holy Spirit in us that leads us to all truth – including leading us to scripture as the written Word of God, which stands authoritative even if I have no such leading or subjective perception.

    The missing point is that I must submit any truth I receive solely through my subjective perceptions to the plenary authority of scripture. Otherwise, we are left in the swamp of total individual autonomy, as each person’s subjective perception of what they think the Holy Spirit told them becomes normative.

    This is the trap of Kantian theology, which is rampant today, and prevents true ekklesia because it denies that scripture is our shared, authoritative revelation which gives us a common framework for truth. As such, it stands as the final test for all claims of personal, subjective revelation.

    I believe in humility when it comes to allowing for a range of interpretation regarding scripture – where there is legitimate ambiguity. But there is a RANGE – with limits.

    There also are fairly unambiguous portions of scripture.

    In that context, the Holy Spirit may speak to us personally (and hopefully does!), but your revelation or my revelation has no weight apart from scripture as the ultimate standard.

    I am NOT saying that scripture is the only source of truth, rather that it stands unique as God’s external source of revelation to us.

    Even Jesus, when tempted and challenged in the wilderness immediately following His baptism and God’s voice speaking audibly about who He was, fell back on scripture as His ultimate authority on Himself. He did not resort to even the audible voice of God heard by all those present. I find that very compelling.

    Thus, scripture is “God breathed” and given to us for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness”. 2 Tim. 3:16-17. I would not be so arrogant as to assert my own perceptions – of Christ or the Holy Spirit’s leading – over that which is plain to read and is God’s very Word (breath).

    When God’s words have been objectively reduced to writing available to all (even though we as wholly subjective beings will always struggle with some degree of interpretation), it then trumps any and all purely personal “revelation”.

    Yes, we receive personal “revelation” as part of our dynamic, vibrant relationship with the Lord and the leading of the Holy Spirit, but God has not left us without a standard to judge and evaluate between us what is ultimately true, real and right. And that is part of real ekklesia.

    Thus, I would say that everything you say is correct, but without the added element of the plenary authority of scripture, it is incomplete.

  6. 12-20-2012

    Jim,

    I agree with you, and I understand your concerns. Isn’t any communication from God inspired and authoritative? Since I believe that Scripture is a form of communication from God, then I believe it is inspired and authoritative. I think the main concern (on my part) is that many people do not understand that they can and do misinterpret any type of communication from God – especially communication that is personal.

    -Alan

  7. 5-6-2013

    wow, one of the deepest blogs of yours that I remember.

    There’s a lot to chew on.

    This was beautiful:

    “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.”

    I agree! Reminds me of the 3 steps to unity I wrote about. Applied to knowledge/understanding:
    a) accept I am not perfect. I do not have perfect understanding
    b) accept God’s sovereignty that chooses people to be close to us that are different from us
    c) focus on what I can learn from others aka bringing out their strengths vs. focusing on what needs to change about their thinking.

  8. 5-6-2013

    Randi,

    You mean I can actually write deep things? ;)

    Seriously, thanks for adding your points here. I agree.

    -Alan

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