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.
When we think of Reason, we usually think of various methods that help form ideas, concepts, and arguments. Reason is also the ability to connect various ideas, concepts, and arguments through various forms of synthesis and analysis. We use phrases like “think”, “consider”, “decide”, “rationalize”, “use logic”, etc. to describe what we mean by Reason. For many years, Reason was considered to be objective – using various formulas that always yield the same results. However, in the last few hundred years, people have realized that Reason is actually subjective.
We use Reason to develop our theology in different ways. Reason helps us connect ideas that we find in Scripture (interpolation), and Reason helps us complete ideas that are not found in Scripture (extrapolation). But, Reason doesn’t only work in the realm of Scripture. We also use Reason to define and defend our Tradition and our Experience. Reason explains why we accept certain conclusions (“sounds reasonable”) and why we dismiss other conclusions (“sounds unreasonable”).
Some people separate Reason from faith, seeing Reason as an exercise in discovery and explanation while faith is acceptance without discovery and explanation. I think the two definitions overly limit what is meant by both Reason and faith. Reason can be exercised through faith, and faith can be confirmed by Reason. The two can go together. However, it should be noted that if a person views Reason as the opposite of faith, then this will also inform a person’s theology.
How much do people depend upon Reason? Again, this is a difficult question to answer, because it changes from person to person. Some would say that all beliefs should be rationalized, while others would say that we should not attempt to rationalize any beliefs. In fact, either view is a type of Reason – rationalization or the lack of rationalization or somewhere between the two extremes.
Reason often works to defend our view of Scripture and our Tradition – even our Experiences, but we won’t get to that until tomorrow. Then again, we often change our Reason in order to defend other sources of theology. For instance, many people will dismiss certain arguments because the conclusion disagrees with their understanding of God, but the same people will use the “dismissed” arguments when the conclusion agrees with their understanding of God. So, as with Scripture and Tradition, it is difficult to know when Reason is informing our theology and when theology is controlling our Reason.
The interaction between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason is often hard to delineate. Perhaps, it is not necessary to determine which particular source let to a certain understanding of God. However, it is interesting that we often allow some theological sources to override others. So, we are willing to let Tradition and Reason team up against Scripture, or we let Scripture and Reason alter Tradition. We may even accept a certain view from Scripture and Tradition even if that view of God goes against our Reason.
What is important at this point is to recognize that all the sources work together to inform our theology. When we recognize that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason (and Experience) all inform our understanding of God, we can begin to understand why we hold to our theology. It also helps us to understanding how other people hold to their theology. Perhaps we can also begin asking other question about theological sources. For instance: Is there another source or other sources that should inform our theology?