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Theological Sources: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience, And?

Posted by on Feb 26, 2010 in discipleship, scripture, spirit/holy spirit | 24 comments

Two years ago, I wrote a series called “Theological Sources” (Introduction, Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience, Conclusion). I enjoyed thinking through these issues and putting this series together. I’ve included the introduction to the series below, as well as links to the other articles. I’d love to continue discussing these issues. If you’d like to reply, please reply to this post so that we can keep the discussion in one place.

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Theological Sources (Introduction)

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.

Everyone thinks theologically. Whether a person believes in one god, multiple gods, or no gods, they think theologically. This series of posts is intended to help all of us think theologically. Specifically, I hope we are able to think about the sources of our understanding of God.

Wesley (and others) suggested that people generally develop their understanding of God through four sources: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. According to Wesley, Scripture must be our primary source. In fact, he said that Scripture is our only true source, while Tradition, Reason, and Experience work to help us understand Scripture.

In this series, I’ll comment briefly about how each “source” is related to theology in general, I will primarily focus on Christian theology. Of course, focussing on sources for Christian theology does not mean that this will be a simple task. Unfortunately, there is no single understanding among Christian concerning how to develop a theology. Different followers of Jesus – different “Orthodox” followers of Jesus – think differently about God.

While it would be simple and perhaps expedient to suggest that my way of thinking about God is right, and all other ways are wrong, it would also be prideful and arrogant, and it would say more about ourselves than about God himself. Therefore, I think it would be beneficial for all of us to think seriously about our understanding of God, and specifically why we understand God the way that we do.

By the way, these theological sources affect more than our theology proper – that is, our thinking about God. These sources affect our thinking about salvation, mankind, sin, even the church. In fact, it is common for Christians to use the sources in different ways and in different proportions for different aspects of their theology. Perhaps we will be able to discuss some of these differences as well.

I hope that more people than myself are interested in this topic. I’m hoping for a great discussion in the comment concerning each theological “source”. This is one area in particular where I think we can learn from one another.

Here are a few questions to help all of us think about these various theological sources and to kick-off our discussion:

1) Do you think that Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience inform our theology? Are there other theological sources besides these four?

2) Do you think theological sources work independently of one another, or do you think there is interaction between the different sources?

3) What happens when different people place different emphases on different theological sources?

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


24 Comments

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

  1. 2-27-2010

    I think of these as reason, experience, and tradition being lenses that introduce a certain amount of distortion to the sole, pure source of theology, the scriptures.

    But I also think God knew that, and has taken that into account, compensating for it by the other influence, that of the indwelling Spirit (who also convicts the world of truth).

    Yes (to your question about other courses), I think we might well add the living God to the mix of influences that inform our theology. So much of the mistakes of the church today seem to me to be because we have so little faith in a living God. He really isn’t preoccupied with watching TV, and only glancing at what is going on here during commercials.

  2. 2-27-2010

    Oh drat. As soon as I hit submit, I always think of one more thing. Paul says that creation is source of theology accessible to the whole world (Rom 1:20).

  3. 2-27-2010

    Art,

    Just a couple of questions… if Scripture says that creation is a source of theology, then is it accurate (or even scriptural) to call Scripture “the sole, pure source of theology”? Was there a pure source of theology before Scripture? Is there a source of theology for a person who does not have Scripture?

    -Alan

  4. 2-28-2010

    Given that creation has been destroyed by sin, is now groaning for its redemption, and that now Satan can be described as the ruler of this world, it seems reasonable to think creation is no longer a “pure” source of theology, nor a complete source of theology.

    1. So, if we remove the comma between “sole” and “pure” as descriptors of the place scripture plays in theology, is it not still true that scripture is the sole “pure source” for theology left to us? And if it is that, it seems that would make it the only source on which we can stand and walk.

    2. I think the discussion in Romans that says God has now concluded us under faith (rather to walk by sight and direct hearing as in the Garden) would require a yes, there was once a different, purer source of theology before the fall.

    3. Your last question is a little more worrisome in the conclusion one might draw from saying yes. But given what Romans says, the answer (it seems to me) has to be yes–those who have never seen or heard the scriptures have a source of theology available to them. But they, like us, must respond by faith.

    Scripture says none of us seek God. So should we also ask if the Holy Spirit illumines the theology typified and demonstrated throughout creation to the hearts of men? Does He work to draw men to faith from the messages embedded in creation?

    And, if one were to respond (having only the messages within creation), what then? Can that become saving faith? Or does it cause them to call out to God by faith, and then God responds by then sending them the message of His dear Son by someone in the church (were our heroes of missions sent out in response to someone having this faith through creation?)? And what then in OT times?

    You are a trouble maker, pulling all these cans of worms off the shelf and spilling them out all over the kitchen floor. What will Dad think?

  5. 2-28-2010

    *sigh* (why does pushing that button remind me of something I meant to add?)

    In reading some of the stories and history of missionaries working with Native Americans, it does seem like we lost some rich opportunities. It is said that many of their theologies had abundant mirrors of biblical theology and that they were oftentimes initially quite open to the message brought to them. But then, they got to know us. Proving our message false–a quite reasonable assessment on their part.

    This still happens throughout the world when missionaries reach into new areas. The message istelf finds welcome connections and fits and fills out existing understandings. Then, they get to know us, and all our divisions, and our lack of looking anything like Christ…

    To some degree, we ourselves ARE the message. Our lives also then, are a source of theology to those around us. We see this in the way Paul uses the word manifest/manifestation in II Cor, and explicitly stated by Jesus in Jn 17:20,21, and Paul in II Cor 1:12; 3:2-3

  6. 3-2-2010

    Art,

    “What will Dad think?” He loves me. :)

    -Alan

  7. 5-1-2012

    Your posts give shape to the vague discontent I am feeling in my present church. The quadrilateral notwithstanding, in my view Scripture ought to be the primary source for our theology and teaching. Lately I have been sensing that visiting teachers have taken an experience and made it into a doctrine, usually with the support of a single passage (from the Old Testament, used out of context). The specifics are not important to this discussion, but the mindset is very distressing… particularly because these teachings are presented as TRUTH without any suggestion that some other committed, sincere Christian might legitimately disagree or question the conclusion.

    In your view, is it asking too much to want your teachers to use Scripture in its context and as it would have been understood by its original hearers (as best as can be determined)? In other words, is it wrong to view scripture like the Supreme Court has viewed the US Constitution as a “dynamic document” with different meanings now than when it was written?

    I’m well aware of the temptation to make scripture agree with what I believe and use it creatively to support my position, but it seems to me I am in a setting where a preacher’s experience (“a whole year taken off to be taught directly by God”) trumps all the rest. Is this a trend across modern Christianity or do you think I have wandered into a small offshoot?

  8. 5-1-2012

    Tom,

    I don’t think it’s possible to understand Scripture correctly when taken out of context. At the same time, it’s impossible to interpret Scripture without being influenced by our own experiences, traditions, and reasoning. To me, this is one of the reasons that we should listen to several perspectives on Scripture, not just one. Then, we trust the Holy Spirit (together) to help us understand what he wants us to know.

    -Alan

  9. 7-2-2012

    Wouldn’t it make sense to say that Doctrine is more important than Theology?

    I’m not a linguist, but Doctrine seems to mean the very thoughts of God, even the deep thoughts of God. Theology, on the other hand, seems to mean the thoughts of man about God, and that’s where tradition, reason, and experience have too much input. If we focus on Theology, we skew the message before we begin to inquire of God, instead of letting Him describe Himself (and us accept it by faith). We need to dispose of our molds, boxes, and boundaries into which we try to squeeze God. The question needs to shift from sources of Theology to sources God’s thoughts, or Doctrine.

    I think Wesley’s quadrilateral is applicable when everyone is thinking theologically, but that is not what God desires. He wants to come to a knowledge of the truth, and the fullness of Him. With theology, in the end, scripture gets twisted to fit the sum total of our perception of Creation, human reasoning, cultural and religious tradition, personal experiences, selfish desires, emotional episodes, and even symptoms of ‘group think’. But, the sources of Doctrine are simple, all delivered by the Holy Spirit: Scripture, Revelation, and Illumination. The things of God are foolishness to those who are perishing. Yet, God’s words are truth and able to transform us.

    Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17)

    Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2. The ‘renewal of your mind’ is a result of assimilating new thoughts, the thoughts of God.)

    Christians are called to have the mind of Christ and hold every thought captive to Him. Consider these verses from scripture that speak of the importance of Doctrine (with my own commentary in some cases):

    For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9. His thoughts are what matter, not ours. His thoughts were given to us through His Son, and are given to us through the Holy Spirit.)

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1. God and His Word are One. You cannot know one apart from the other.)

    He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7. God declares His Son to be the One we should listen to in order to hear His thoughts.)

    “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-15. All three Persons of the Trinity have a role in communication God’s thoughts to us.)

    All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17. These verses alone are effective at pointing to scripture for correct Doctrine.)

    For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12. His word is powerful, not ours about Him.)

    For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles– assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:1-5. These verses make it clear that direct revelation from God was a soruce of Doctrine.)

    And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14. Here we asee that illumination is not only important, but that it was also God’s plan.)

    In summary, let us focus on Doctrine (the thoughts of God) rather than Theology (the thoughts of man about God). There is, after all, only One real source for those.

  10. 7-2-2012

    Dwight,

    Thanks for the comment. The word “doctrine” is the same terms as the word “teaching.” Doctrines/teachings can be sound (or godly) or not. How do we decide which is which? Again, there are many ways that people use to determine which doctrines are sound and which are not. Some of these ways lead us to correctly discern teachings; some do not. This is not separate from theology (our understanding of God) but is part of our theology.

    For me, Wesley’s quadrilateral is not a way to start understanding God. It is an indication of how we already understand God. Knowing that our reason, traditions, experience, and interpretation of Scripture all work together to form our understanding of God is important. This does not mean that our reason, traditions, experiences, and even our interpretation of Scripture lead us to a correct understanding of God. It’s simply an acknowledgment that all of these thing work together, and that we should be away of how these things may correctly and incorrectly inform our understanding of God.

    Also, this is why I added a fifth part of Wesley’s quadrilateral. The Holy Spirit can and does work through our reason, traditions, experiences, and interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, he can work against those when they do not line up with sound doctrine – or correct understanding of God. So, we also need to understand that what we “know” may not be the truth of God and we must be willing to allow him to guide us toward knowing him even with it does not line up with our reason, traditions, experiences, and interpretation of Scripture.

    -Alan

  11. 11-17-2012

    Wondering what impact reason, experience, and tradition had on the writing of the scriptures. Seems like culture had a big impact on the folks who wrote the scriptures.

  12. 11-17-2012

    Bob,

    My point in these posts is that it’s impossible for reason, experience, and tradition to NOT influence what we think about God. (And, they’re all interconnected, even with Scripture.) So, yes, I think the authors of Scripture were influenced by reason, experience, and tradition.

    -Alan

  13. 11-17-2012

    How do you see the impact of culture on the writing of the scriptures Alan? Seems the OT is filled with instances of how other cultures impacted the Israeli one. Also seems that the patriarchal culture even affected some of the new testament writings. I suppose culture could be viewed as a summation of traditions but something about culture feels a bit different. Even in our own time culture seems to affect how faith is lived out.

  14. 11-17-2012

    Bob,

    Perhaps an illustration would work best. When Paul wrote about “running” or the “games,” he was talking about something that he (and his readers) had experience as part of their culture, and he was connecting it rationally to their spiritual life. In today’s culture, we have “running” and “games” – and we have experiences these things – but they are different in several ways from the things that Paul was talking about. That doesn’t mean that we can’t understand anything about what Paul meant, but it does mean that there are cultural differences.

    -Alan

  15. 11-18-2012

    What about the patriarchal culture that all of the bible writers were immersed in? That influence on their writings seems to be a bit different than how they may have experienced the games.

  16. 11-18-2012

    Bob,

    Yes, the authors of Scripture lived in heavily patriarchal cultures, and those cultures are reflected in their writings.

    -Alan

  17. 11-19-2012

    “So, we also need to understand that what we “know” may not be the truth of God and we must be willing to allow him to guide us toward knowing him even with it does not line up with our reason, traditions, experiences, and interpretation of Scripture.”

    With the qualifier, “interpretation of” I can agree, but didn’t the quadrilateral leave that out…which would be to then say that knowing him may not line up with…Scripture? There I have a difficult time because it leaves the door open to all sorts of abuse. The distinction also suggests that God made Scripture difficult to understanding, which is only true if you have a particular presupposition you have to support.

    If the “truth of God” ends up being a very different thing than what Scripture seems to say…especially looking at Jesus who claimed that , “he who has seen me has seen the Father,” then I think it is time to question where this new revelation is going!

  18. 11-19-2012

    [By the way, if you wish to allow this comment to remain, I am just about to release the first part of my Revisiting Scripture book…as an E-book. It touches on just these issues. http://www.revisitingscripture.com/ ]

  19. 11-19-2012

    Tom,

    I don’t remember whether or not Wesley left “interpretation” out of his quadrilateral when he discussed Scripture. But, to me, it’s very dangerous for us to think about Scripture without realizing that we are (or someone is) interpreting those writings. Thus, Scripture is always run through the filters of our life – which include reason, experience, and tradition and (hopefully) the Holy Spirit.

    -Alan

  20. 3-10-2013

    If we prioritize the four elements that we are discussing how would we do it? I think that the early church identified Scripture as the rule for faith and practice. We need reason and tradition to interpret, however. Experience may not be as accurate and should to be tempered by Scripture and Tradition with Scripture being the final rule for faith and practice.

  21. 3-11-2013

    Norm,

    One of the things that I tried to show in this series of posts is that all of the sources that inform our understanding of God are interwoven. For example, we typically interpret Scripture based on our reason, tradition, and experiences. If I had to place these sources in an order of priority, I’d place the Holy Spirit at the top. The Spirit is the only one who can overcome our biases in any of the other areas.

    -Alan

  22. 5-6-2013

    Alan.
    You wrote to Tom: “I don’t remember whether or not Wesley left “interpretation” out of his quadrilateral when he discussed Scripture. But, to me, it’s very dangerous for us to think about Scripture without realizing that we are (or someone is) interpreting those writings. Thus, Scripture is always run through the filters of our life – which include reason, experience, and tradition and (hopefully) the Holy Spirit.

    Not only would I heartily agree, Id like to point out Paul’s understanding. With respect to the context of this letter, which I think is the same context we’re discussing, he says that the church is the pillar and ground of truth.
    It’s likely Paul would have balked at the idea that he was writing writing canon scripture, to be included along side the OT, as would we with any of our pronouncements. What we know as scripture, he knew as revelation truth by the Spirit, and stating that the church, and not scripture is the pillar and foundation of truth gets him in trouble with most of today’t theologians.

    1 Timothy 3:15
    But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

    Before the NT church reproduced written bibles en-mass, and then deified the written word to the fourth member of the trinity, oral tradition reigned, as it does still in many primitive cultures.
    There was a time, before written literacy became common currency, that the church and its personalities, in its many imperfect expressions was the locus of truth for just about everyone. Its hard to imagine a time when there wasn’t the Gideon’s, bibles in courtrooms, on line and in every pulpit, but when Paul wrote that, he was writing to many illiterate and superstitious believers, that had never, and would never even read the OT.
    We might almost call him mischievous, from our lofty perches of knowing so much, for suggesting that this mess we call church today could have been the pillar and foundation of truth.
    Except it was then.
    So, from where I sit, in a relational rather than a gnosis oriented church culture, I agree with where you are taking us.
    thanks
    Blessings
    Greg

  23. 5-6-2013

    Greg,

    I’m not sure that Paul would have had a problem referring to his letters or other letters as Scripture or as inspired. I think he used that term to refer to a passage from Luke’s Gospel if I remember correctly. However, I think you’re right about the importance of the church (the people of God) in understand how and what God is communicating to us through various means.

    -Alan

  24. 1-2-2014

    It is helpful, I think, to make another distinction here. I believe that all four are legitimate sources, but only one can be the normative source. To me it makes sense that the written, inspired Word would be the normative source. While it still requires interpretation, interpretation of the written word is much easier and less subjective than interpretation of experience. Paul points in Romans to the human capacity to ignore what we should learn from creation and the law written on the heart, and that doing so darkens understanding. Although in theory reason should be a fine source, our darkened and sinful minds often twist our reasoning to come to the conclusions we wish to have. Christ Himself warned the religious leaders of His day repeatedly about their traditions (which often ended up going against the Law or the intention of the Law). Given our present day options, the written Word should be our only norm for theology, while the others can be valuable supplemental sources.

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