In the first part of this blog series, I attempted to explain what theology is. Theology is the study of God, and theological understanding comes from a relationship with God. Just as when we are in a relationship with someone, we not only experience what they are like, but knowing them leads to knowing things about them. Theology is knowing things about God.
Then in the first part, I attempted to explore the doctrine of special revelation: The unique idea that God himself has actually spoken and has provided us with the means that makes theology even possible. In the Bible, God has given us his self-disclosure, which provides with sufficient knowledge of who he is, and his purposes. The Bible is the primary source for all theology. Without it, we would not even know what God was like.
But there are other sources of theology that I alluded to. So what are these sources? Historically, Christianity has recognized four sources of theology.
- Religious Experience
Since I’ve already examined the first and primary source, I will now explore the other three sources of Christian Theology.
You might be surprised that tradition is a source of theology. For some, tradition is something to be highly skeptical of, or outrightly rejected. But tradition, properly defined, has actually had a positive role in the history of the Christian church. The word tradition comes from the Latin word “to hand over” or “to hand down.” The Apostle Paul actually uses the idea of tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 when talking about the core teachings of the Christian faith. Paul says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” Here, Paul is talking about a body of teaching that he had received and had passed down to the church. It is important to note that the new testament church did not have a “New Testament” yet. What they had heard came down from other people who had been eyewitnesses, and had heard about Jesus. There were no written reports, only the tradition that had been passed down from the Apostles and those who had seen and heard about Jesus. So here, tradition is understood to be the handing down of sound Christian doctrine, thus making tradition a valid source of theology.
The importance of tradition in Christian theology can be seen in an event that took place around 160 A. D. At this time, there were a group of renegade Christians called the Gnostics who began to interpret the Bible in ways that the Christian church had never heard of before. A Christian by the name of Irenaeus (eye-run-ay-us) realized that the Gnostics could interpret Scripture to mean anything they wanted it to mean. But Irenaeus pointed out that the Gnostics were interpreting passages of Scripture to mean something that they had never meant before. So what Irenaeus did was point back to the body of tradition that had been passed down in the history of the Church. The argument went something like this:
“Scripture has been interpreted this way for years, and has been handed down from the Apostles to the present day. No one in the church has ever interpreted these passages to mean such things!”
That which had been handed down to them was handed down from the community of faith, who had ultimately received it from the Apostles (take note that the Apostles lived only some 100 years before Irenaeus). Irenaeus stands as an important figure in Christian history because he took the traditions of those who had gone before him seriously.
As we can see, tradition was a source of theology for Irenaeus because it provided him with a standard by which to measure the claims of the Gnostics. When given a counter-claim, Irenaeus essentially asked a very legitimate question, “why has no one interpreted those passages to mean that before?” While this may not have been the strongest argument, tradition still provided a source of reference in theology. By looking at what had been handed down to him, Irenaeus took seriously the claims of the historical Christian community.
An additional word needs to be said regarding tradition. While tradition should be considered seriously, tradition should ultimately be measured to the bar of scripture. If tradition ever contradicts Scripture, then tradition should be rejected in favor of a more biblical approach. Whenever there is a tradition that does not have clear biblical warrant (that is, if there is a “grey” area), then tradition should not be considered as binding on any believer, but kept individually according to the conscience of that believer.
So what role does reason play in Christian theology? This has a long and complicated history. Early on in the the history of the Christian church, the Christian faith was being increasingly attacked by the Gnostics and by pagans in the surrounding culture. Christian writers such as Justin Martyr (100-165 A. D.), Tertullian (160-225 A. D.) Athanasius (296-373 A. D.) and many others tried to defend the Christian faith using rational arguments. The assumption that they all had was that Christianity was a reasonable faith, and that faith could be defended using rational arguments, built on evidences and logical inferences. Reason was a friend of faith, not its enemy. At times, faith was seen to be above reason, but this never made faith irrational.
For these early Christian writers, God was a rational being. While his reason is far beyond our understanding, he was nevertheless a rational God. Therefore, their theology was informed by the belief that God’s truth could be tested and tried, and that his revealed word (the Bible) could stand the test of scrutiny.
The interplay between faith and reason is a complex issue, so a detailed illustration will go beyond the scope (and desired length) of this particular blog. But for now, it is sufficient to say that reason aids in the study of theology because it can clarify seemingly absurd doctrines, and deepen our understanding of the Christian faith. Here are a few questions that theologians have asked, questions that have been answered with the help of reason:
What does it mean to say that God is three persons? What exactly is a person?
How can God be three “persons” and yet still be one God? Isn’t this contradictory?
How can Jesus be both God and man?
How can an infinite God even communicate to finite humans? Is this even possible?
If God is all-powerful, can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?
Here is the aspect of Christian theology that I alluded to in the first part of this blog. It is the one aspect of theology that many of us want to focus a lot of attention on. For commited Christians, experiencing God in a personal way is deeply important. The deep rooted conviction that Christianity is about a relationship with God, and not a mere system of beliefs about God is one of the reasons many people don’t like the term “theology.” But as we have seen, theology is not a stale academic subject. Theology, properly understood, should arise from having a deeply personal relationship with the God of the universe. Properly speaking, you can have a theology without a true relationship with God, but you can’t have a relationship with God without a theology. Knowing God entails knowing things about God.
But what does it mean to experience God? This may sound fuzzy to some people. The word experience comes from a latin word which means “that which arises out of traveling through life.” In the Christian life, we may go through certain circumstances that impress upon us the feeling that God taught us something through that experience. Other times, we may feel that we have encountered God in a “ineffable” way; that is, in a way that is hard to describe. There are times when we can be overpowered with the feeling that God is closer in that moment than in other moments. This feeling could happen when one is in awe of nature, or maybe in a worship setting at church. This can happen even when reading the Bible. These feelings can have a powerful impact on us, and can play a powerful role in the development of our theology.
However, religious experience poses a unique challenge to the Christian faith. Sometimes religious experiences can be contradictory in its content. An important question must be asked: how much of our theology is informed by our experiences, and how much of our experiences are informed by our theology?
1) Suppose that a young Christian moves off to college and while there, becomes close friends with people from differing religious backgrounds. All his life, the Christian has been taught that Christianity is the only true religion, and that Jesus is the only way to God. However, his friends are so sincere, and they are good people who live ethical lives. How could they be wrong? Ultimately, he reasons that Jesus’ teachings must be re-interpreted, and he begins to believe that all religions are equally true, and that all lead to the same God.
2) A young man feels attracted to other men, despite the fact that his Christian upbringing has told him that homosexuality is wrong. Because this young man’s desires are so strong, he reasons that God must have made him this way, therefore he believes that God desires that he finds a male companion.
3) An atheist is invited to a huge Christian conference by some friends. During a worship service one night, he feels overwhelmed by the presence of God and becomes aware of his deep need for a savior. Because his feelings are so strong, he ends up committing his life to Jesus Christ.
How do we interpret these situations? Do we let our experiences interpret our theology, or do we let our theology interpret our experiences?
This is a long and difficult subject that cannot be dealt with fully in this blog. But for now, it is most certain that theology and experiences have a two-way exchange. In Christianity, it has been taught that experiences, while providing many questions for theology, must themselves be interpreted though a theological framework.
Oftentimes, Christians draw too much theology from their experiences. I have known many fellow brothers and sisters who have been led into making decisions based upon feeling and not upon faith. Faith is not irrational, contrary to what you may have heard. Faith is a trust that we have in a God who has revealed himself to be trustworthy. If faith is not built upon God’s special revelation, then it is not true faith. Feelings on the other hand can be irrational, and can oftentimes be misleading.
As we have seen, experience is not the only source of theology. According to Christianity, the Bible is the primary source of all theology. All other sources bow the knee to the supremacy of Scripture. If tradition contradicts Scripture, then tradition must be abolished. If reason falsifies biblical claims, then so much the worse for reason. And if a religious experience leads us to understand something differently then what the Bible makes clear, then our experience must be reinterpreted through the lenses of God’s word.