Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (5): Theology Has Everything To Do with Reason, Culture, Experience, and Tradition.

This blog series is based upon the conviction that God can be known. But this conviction raises the question: If we believe that God can be known in a true, trustworthy, and sufficient manner (albeit not comprehensively or univocally), where do we look for such knowledge and how do we speak in such a manner? Upon what sources does a theologian draw when looking for raw material about God? And if there is more than one source for such material, how do we order the sources in priority? “Judgements about sources,” John Webster writes, “go hand-in-hand with acceptance of norms, that is, criteria by which decisions may be reached about which sources furnish the most authentic, reliable, and persuasive Christian teaching.”[1] This post argues that we look first and foremost to Scripture, but always also draw upon reason, experience, culture, and tradition.

Scripture:

As we will note repeatedly throughout this series, faithful Christian theology is built on Christian Scripture as the primary source for theology and the norm above all norms. If Scripture is indeed the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16-17), and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, we would denigrate Scripture only at the expense of losing theology’s goal altogether. We reject any view of theology that explicitly or implicitly allows tradition (Roman Catholicism), experience (Liberalism), reason (Modernism), or culture (Postmodernism) to subvert the authority and primacy of Scripture. However, our recognition of Scripture’s primacy does not somehow deny the significance of tradition, experience, reason, or culture, each of which is essential to the task of theology.

Reason:

Most theologians agree that reason plays a significant role in the task of theology. However, exactly what type of role is up for debate. David Clark clarifies three senses in which we employ a concept of “reason.”[2] First, one can speak of reason in the sense of autonomous reason, reason which insists on living independently of God. Gerhard von Rad describes this type of reason: “Man has taken leave of the relation of dependence. He has refused to obey and has willed to make himself independent. No longer is obedience the guiding principle of his life, but his autonomous knowledge and will.”[3] Second, one can speak of reason as the totality of our knowledge capacities. In this use, reason denotes the ability to think about anything at all. Third, one can speak of reason in order to denote one facet of our knowledge capacities, the aspect which we use to make valid arguments. Of the three senses of reason, we reject only the first, autonomous reason, because this type of reason subverts sound theology in its attempt to be independent of God (thus subverting God). The second two senses, however, we affirm, as theologians certainly must rely on their God-given rational faculties in order to reflect upon God’s self-revelation in a disciplined manner.

Culture:

Theology is necessarily conceived in a cultural context and articulated in cultural forms. Indeed, one’s culture provides the language, conceptual categories, media, artifacts, and environment in which theology is done.[4] In fact, God’s act of creation explains the God-givenness of culture. God created his imagers to interact with his good creation, tilling the soil, naming the animals, and otherwise practicing loving dominion over his good creation. The result of such interaction is human culture. The theologian cannot escape his cultural context, nor should he want to. Instead, the theologian works hard to properly leverage his cultural context for the task of theology. Proper leverage flows from lashing one’s theology to the Scriptures, conceptualizing and expressing it in appropriate cultural forms (language, conceptual categories, etc.), and continually bringing the results back to Scripture for correction in light of its transcultural authority.[5] Further, culture directly affects the theologian’s use of other sources of theology, in that it affects one’s manner of reasoning and it provides the linguistic categories within which one conceives and articulates one’s experience.[6]

Experience:

In a broad sense, one’s “experience” is anything that arises in one’s life journey. In a more focused and theological sense, “experience” refers to our subjective feelings and emotions. In both senses, experience plays an inescapable role for the Christian theologian. In the broader sense mentioned above, our journey in life is what prepares us to understand the words of Scripture. Scripture teaches us about God, and does so analogically. It draws upon our experience of fatherhood, to teach us about God the Father; it draws upon our experience of love to teach us that God is love; and so forth. In order to understand God, one must be situated in experiential reality. Likewise, in the more focused sense mentioned above, our feelings and emotions can be helpful. They can be an impetus for the theological task in that our feelings and emotions lead us to ask questions of the Scriptures, to vigorously pursue the mind of God (e.g. the Lament Psalms, such as Ps. 42; 69). They also can be a result of the theological task in that Scripture, and its attendant evangelical doctrine, calls forth wonder, delight, fear, and other emotions.[7] In fact, as Alister McGrath and others have noted, “Christian doctrine provides the framework within which we interpret our own experience, thereby nuancing, enriching, and deepening our experience.”[8]

Tradition:

Christian theology is always and necessarily written in historical context. In particular it is written in the context of church history and the historical development of Christian theology. Christian tradition provides the context for, and is a source of, theology. But how so? Three theories vie for acceptance. First, the Catholic Church has recognized a dual-source theory of tradition, in which, “‘tradition’ was understood to be a separate and distinct source of revelation, in addition to Scripture. Scripture, it was argued, was silent on a number of points, but God had providentially arranged for a second source of revelation to supplement this deficiency: a stream of unwritten tradition.”[9] Second, some Anabaptists evidenced a rejection of tradition, arguing that we have the right to interpret Scripture however we please under the guidance of the Spirit. For example, Sebastian Franck rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Christ because he thought (through his private interpretation) they rested on inadequate biblical foundations.[10] Third, this chapter recognizes a single-source theory of tradition. Along with many Patristic and Reformation era theologians, we suggest that “theology is based on Scripture, and ‘tradition’ refers to a ‘traditional way of interpreting Scripture’.”[11] The early church fathers referred to the “rule of faith,” in which they recognized that there is a proper order and connection to the biblical narrative, and if this order and connection is ignored, one will misread texts of Scripture and misconstrue Christian doctrine. The rule of faith, therefore, is a safeguard against misinterpretation and self-serving construals of the text.[12]

Conclusion:

Christian Scripture is the primary source and supreme norm for Christian theology. Scripture, and Scripture alone, is inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). As the theologian interprets Scripture, he seeks illumination from the Christian tradition and uses his God-given rational faculties and experience in order to appropriately conceptualize and articulate an evangelical theology within a particular cultural context.


[1] John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook for Theology (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007), 2.

[2] Clark, To Know and Love God, 299-301.

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1973), 78.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, in line with his conception of doctrine as drama, puts it this way: “Culture sets the stage, arranges the scenery, and provides the props that supply the setting for theology’s work.” Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 129.

[5] For further reading on this process of contextualization, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Gospel and Culture,” in Bruce Riley Ashford, ed., Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 109-127.

[6] Regarding the relation of culture and reason, we note that one must distinguish between substantive and formal rationality. Formal rationality is built upon basic laws of logic which are transcultural, but substantive rationality is always rooted in a tradition. Substantive reason always operates within a worldview, and worldviews are always religiously oriented. Regarding culture and experience, we note that culture provides categories by which we experience our “experience.” At the heart of culture is language, and one’s linguistic apparatus directly and pervasively affects one’s ability to conceptualize and articulate one’s experience.

[7] This is Karl Barth’s point in his treatment of the theologian’s feelings of wonder, concern, commitment, and faith in relation to the task of theology. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 63-105.

[8] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 71.

[9] McGrath, Christian Theology, 139.

[10] McGrath, Christian Theology, 140.

[11] McGrath, Christian Theology, 138.

[12] See John Behr, Way to Nicaea, 17-48, for a helpful discussion of the rule of faith and its use by Irenaeus in arguing against the Gnostics.