*I’ll be out of town for a few weeks, but in the meantime I thought it might be helpful to share this brief essay I wrote a few years ago on “theological method,” exploring the controversial relationship between faith and reason in Christian thinking.  It is in no way an exhaustive treatment, but does suggest a few important trajectories for believers.

“See to it that you fasten your attention on God’s Word and stay in it, like an infant in a cradle. If you let go for one moment, you have fallen away from the truth. The one intention of the devil is to get people away from the Word and to induce them to measure God’s will and works with their reason.”  (Martin Luther)

Reason, even when supported by the senses, has short wings.” (Dante, Paradiso, 2.56-57)

The question of a thoroughly Christian theological method—defined here as the intentional process by which normative beliefs and practices are properly established and justified in and for the church—has always been a thorny issue that evades simplistic answers.

Classically, Christian discussions on theological method revolve around the issue of sources—that is, where do Christians go to learn about God and His purposes in the world and His will for human beings?  Generally speaking, Anglicans[2] have put forward three primary sources for theological reflection: Scripture (or revelation more broadly), tradition and reason.  Methodists[3] often add experience as a further source—the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral.

Three obvious and immediate questions arise at this point.  First, how do we define these potential sources for theology?  Second, how do these various sources relate to one another?  And third, what recourse is to be had when any or all of these sources present conflicting data or results in inquiry?

1.) I understand Scripture, in its entire canonical witness, to be the inspired and completely reliable Word of God, God’s own self-disclosure and revelation in written form.  However, it is not primarily a book of timeless propositions or brute facts or abstract information about God.  This is crucial.  It is above all else a narrative recording of redemptive history and how God has both acted and spoken within it for His glory and the welfare of His people.[4] Nor does it mean that this is the only way God reveals Himself—for instance, Scripture itself is plain that God has made Himself known in creation to all human beings.  But the witness of Scripture is primary—and as Calvin pointed out, due to our sin which causes us to distort everything that reflects the beauty of God, we need the spectacles of Scripture to interpret creation rightly.   All revelation, however, climaxes in Jesus Christ, who is the final and ultimate self-disclosure of the invisible God.  It is crucial to say, however, that Scripture is never to be played off against other Scripture.  There is progression in revelation, but never retraction or opposition.[5]

Tradition is the cumulative reflection of the church on the Scriptures and the Christian faith throughout history, always in relation to the various cultural contexts of the time.

The crucial factor with reason is definition.  Reason with a lower case[6] “r” is the rather neutral ability human beings who are created in God’s image have to think consistently and logically and to make observations within whatever worldview or plausibility structure they may currently inhabit.[7] Reason with a capital “R”—which is how it is often employed in current parlance—refers not merely to basically rational thought processes, but also to a committed fiduciary model of interpreting the world in a certain way.  So, for instance, true “reason” can be identified with the anti-supernaturalistic bias of the Enlightenment that rules out miracles a priori.  What is being offered is not just an ordered, accountable form of thinking, but a whole host of value judgments and presuppositions and unverifiable starting points about the nature of reality that are, strictly speaking, not demonstrable by reason.  N. T. Wright helpfully makes this distinction:

“ ‘Reason’ is more like the laws of harmony and counterpoint: it does not write tunes itself, but it forms the language within which the tunes make powerful sense.” (N.T. Wright, The Last Word, p. 120)

As Pascal famously pointed out, there are two fundamental errors of thinking that human beings perpetually slip into: to exclude reason entirely, and to admit nothing else except reason.   In any case, it is only the former definition of reason I include in theological method, as the latter is fundamentally hostile to the entire Christian worldview before honest inquiry can even begin, and furthermore is not itself an internally consistent or rational method of knowing.[8]

Experience, too, is difficult to get a strict handle on.  Here I define it as our subjective human perceptions and encounters with the world environment around us.  None of us comes to Scripture, tradition or the rational process as blank slates, tabula rasa.  Nor does Scripture expect us to, for when we are told to behold the lilies of the field or informed that God is like a husband or father to us, it assumes that we have previous and legitimate experience of flowers and family.

2.) With respect to the relationship between these four sources, I affirm with all historic Protestants that Scripture is our highest and final authority for all things related to faith and practice.[9] So the biblical narrative and worldview is king among the various sources in theological method—the content of revelation must determine proper method, and never vice versa.[10] If God has truly spoken, where else would we turn?[11] Tradition[12] and reason and experience are all fallible, infected by human sin and bias and limitedness (to one degree or another), and each is often criticized by the biblical writers when used as an excuse to ignore or contradict what God has spoken.[13] It is impossible to deny that all three have frequently erred in the history of theological construction.  Scripture is the norm of all norms in Christian theological method, even though this does not guarantee that Scripture will be interpreted rightly.  Proper interpretation is exactly where tradition, reason and experience—as well as, crucially, the work of the Holy Spirit—become indispensable.

3.) But the dilemma of conflict between the various so-called sources inevitably arises.  It must be stated at the outset that as a Christian who holds that God is the Creator and Lord of all things in reality, I do not believe that any of these four sources can ever truly be in conflict with each other if understood and interpreted rightly.  But we see in a glass darkly in this life.  I would divide conflicts between sources into four kinds.

First, there are apparent conflicts which actually dissipate when examined more closely.  A famous example here is the church’s insistence that the earth was at the center of the galaxy and that the sun and everything else revolved around this world.  When Copernicus and others pointed out (from reason!) that this was not so, most Christians eventually realized that Scripture makes no such claims as church tradition was teaching.  Thus there was no real conflict.[14]

A second type of conflict arises when Scripture is read and interpreted wrongly and an unbiblical teaching thus runs counter to another source(s).  Examples abound here, of course.  One contemporary issue that quite clearly fits here is the debate over the age of the earth.  Many fundamentalists argue that to take Genesis seriously requires that the earth be far younger than almost all scientists–believing and unbelieving–hold it to be.  Of course, science can be and often has been wrong in the history of ideas.  But upon closer investigation, it becomes clear that the original intention of the creation account itself was not to provide modern scientific data; rather, it is primarily a literary presentation to teach us who God is and who we are, as well as what has gone wrong in the world.  This is the story, the narrative that we are called to be faithful to, and to interpret our experience of the world through.   More faithful interpretation to the text of Scripture actually removes the former obstacles.

Third, there are conflicts that arise from the improper use of tradition (i.e. the Roman Catholic insistence that priests not marry or that certain foods not be eaten on certain days, etc.) or reason (miracles or the resurrection cannot have happened) or experience (the legitimacy of homosexual relationships, or perhaps other world religions functioning as equally valid pathways to the divine).[15] I believe that in each of these situations tradition or reason or experience usurp the authority of Scripture and go beyond the proper role they should play, thus distorting themselves.  This is why it is so crucial that Scripture is our final authority.  There will always be an arbitrator in all conflicts—the question is who the arbitrator should be!

Finally, there are (potentially) conflicts that would lead an honest seeker of the truth to abandon the Christian religion.  Though I do not expect this to happen, integrity requires our admission of its theoretical possibility—as we would expect of any person of another worldview we enter into discussion with.  So, for example, if it could be demonstrated conclusively that God does not exist, or that Jesus did not rise from the dead, or that the disciples of Jesus were con artists, then I would not be a Christian anymore.[16]


[2] This practice is often traced back to Richard Hooker (see his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.8.2), though Richard Bauckham (p. 117) argues that Hooker was not the first to employ this conceptual scheme.

[3] See the helpful essay by Albert C. Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral—in John Wesley,” who shows that though Wesley did not himself employ this phrase and that at times its attribution to him is anachronistic, nonetheless it is fairly accurate as a reflection of his own theological method in practice.

[4] “Revelation is not so much divinely given gnosis to provide us with knowledge concerning the nature of God, man, and the world as it is divinely inspired interpretation of God’s activity of redeeming men so that they might worship and serve him in the world.”  (Richard Gaffin, quoted in Lints, p. 67)

[5] “But, on the other hand, we who are not prophets and Apostles and were not the direct recipients of the self-revelation of God which happened in the history of Israel and in the coming of Jesus Christ—we have access to this God only in this witness, in the words of the biblical writers.  So while their witness is not identical with that to which they bear witness, it does make present to us the personal self-revelation of God.  In this sense—a secondary sense—the bible is not only a witness to revelation; it is itself revelation.  There is a distinction between the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus Christ as the Word of God—the distinction between God himself in our midst and a book about him.  But there is also a unity here: We know the personal Word of God only as we meet him in the written Word of God.” (Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, p. 82).

This is against Migliore: “Hence, not everything found in the Bible is to be taken as a direct word of God to us.  Some texts of the Bible may stand in utmost tension with the revelation of the character and purpose of God as identified by the grand narrative of Scripture.” (Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 40).  Cf. also Edward Farley: “A historical-critical approach cannot avoid some distinction between what is true, authoritative, and real, and the content of the canonical texts.” (quoted in David Clark, To Know and Love God: Method For Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), p. 81)

[6] I get this from N.T. Wright: “…the word ‘reason,’ which for [older Christians] meant primarily thinking clearly and logically, has gained a capital R and an independent, autonomous identity.”  (The Last Word,  p. 20)

[7] “Rationality is not a matter of  a particular kind of starting point but of the rules that regulate reflective discourse.  Rational discourse is characterized by clarity, logical consistency, conceptual coherence, comprehensiveness, and criticizability.”  (Kevin Vanhoozer, quoted in Clark, p. 445, n. 19)

[8] Luther referred to these two very different definitions of reason as (respectively) a servant of God and a master that inappropriately lords itself over its Creator.  It is this second use of reason he infamously called a whore!

Clark follows up: “…‘autonomous reason’ is human thinking born out of an insistence on living independently of God.  It is human thinking that demands ultimacy and priority for its own starting point, conceptual terms, and principles of method…When reason functions as a servant (rather than as a master, like autonomous reason), reason is the divinely created capacity to understand God’s revelation both in the Bible and in the world.” (pp. 299-300)

[9] “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.10)

[10] “The Christian theological framework finds its shape most definitely, then, in the initiating revelation of God.  It must not underemphasize the expectations of that the interpreter brings to that revelation, but neither must it negotiate the fundamental starting point in the construction of the theological framework.  God must remain the Lord of history and the Lord of theology.  The biblical revelation is the final court of appeals for the theologian.”  (Lints, p. 66)

[11] “If God has in fact revealed himself, then this revelation should be normative for our thinking about God.  If God has also given some indication about the purposes of history, then this revelation should be normative for our thinking about the world and our place in it.  To frame a theological vision is simply to attempt to capture in a careful and deliberate manner this ‘way of thinking’ about God, the world, and ourselves.  A theological vision seeks to capture the entire counsel of God as revealed in the Scriptures and to communicate it in a conceptuality that is native to the theologian’s own age.  A theological vision invites one to commit to a peculiar ‘way of thinking,’ and this involves discovering as well as recovering the revelation of God and then understanding how that revelation affects the way one thinks and lives.” (Lints, pp. 8-9).

Cf. “The essential step in sound theologizing is to bring all views—one’s own as well as those of others—to the touchstone of Scripture…Our first task must be to test all the words of men by the authoritative word of God, to receive only what Scripture endorses, and to reject all that is contrary to it.”  (J. I. Packer, pp. 18-19)

[12] “True tradition can be distinguished from corrupt tradition only by testing all tradition according to the standard of its faithfulness to Scripture.  Scripture inevitably becomes the norm for the identification of true tradition, rather than tradition the norm for the interpretation of Scripture.  The Reformation posited a degree of discontinuity in church history—the possibility and the fact of serious and long continued doctrinal error by the authorities of the church—which necessarily deprived tradition of the normative status it had…If Scripture can be pitted against tradition to reveal its corruption, then Scripture must be not only materially but also formally sufficient…The notion of the formal sufficiency of Scripture does not, of course, mean that Scripture requires no interpretation at all—a notion which anti-Protestant writers have frequently and easily refuted, thus missing the real point—but that it requires no normative interpretation.  Protestant interpretation of Scripture employed all the ordinary means of interpreting a text, especially the tools which humanist scholarship had developed for interpreting ancient texts, and respected the views of theologians and exegetes of the past as useful, but not normative, guides to understanding Scripture.  The real difference between the classic Protestant and the classic Roman Catholic views lies in the Protestant rejection of the view that tradition, expressed in the teaching of the magisterium, possesses a binding authority against which there can be no appeal to Scripture.”  (Richard Bauckham, pp. 122-23).

[13] For biblical critiques of tradition, see Mark 7; of fallen reason, see I Corinthians 2, Romans 1; of experience, see Psalm 73.  Many, many more examples could be cited.

[14] Another clear example of a seeming conflict that disappears when examined more closely is the biblical attitude to slavery.  While not without ambiguity, I do think it is clear that when taken as a whole Scripture sees slavery as an inherently fallen, perverted institution (akin to polygamy) that was tolerated on account of human sinfulness and hardness of heart, but which God’s redemptive work is bound to overcome.

[16] The objection could come that in my scheme this situation could never happen (even if it were true!), because I do not allow reason or experience to have this autonomous role.  There is a sense in which this is true.  However, this holds true for all worldviews…by definition they explain away or rule out evidence contrary to their own foundations.  This is where Thomas Kuhn’s work on how “paradigm shifts” take place is so helpful.  A time comes when so much evidence from other sources has to be explained away that the sheer force of being bombarded from all sides requires (eventually) a fundamental shift in perspective and worldview.  The internal pressure builds to the point of bursting, and a normal person is virtually forced to change their belief structure.

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