I’m in the final course of my MA Theology, called Major Guided Readings in Theology, and this is my first paper since my thesis was finished. It seems strange, and I have no notion of how good this paper is. So before I hand it in: please, rip it apart! Here’s the first (polished) draft.
There was a time when all discussions of God were held under the heading of “theology.” In the 18th century a distinction arose, separating “biblical” theology from “dogmatic” or “systematic” theology. Through the Enlightenment era biblical studies and historical approaches supplanted dogmatic theology, at least in Protestant circles, and biblical theology dominated Protestant hermeneutics throughout the twentieth century. Thankfully, systematic theology is re-emerging as an acceptable and even necessary approach to the Bible, while the underlying assumptions of the dominant approaches, including their criticisms of so-called dogmatic theology, are being questioned: is it even possible to have an objective historical account, much less to recreate one thousands of years after the fact? Is it possible to speak of God or the Bible in an unbiased way, when the Bible explicitly invites (and sometimes requires!) a response of faith? Systematic theology was once held in suspicion because it wears its bias on its sleeve, being a discipline focused on the formation and devotion of the church and the representation of God’s glory in the world: such bias, we were told, would skew the results of a properly scientific inquiry into the text. Unfortunately the converse was also true, and the attempted objective sterility of the Enlightenment and Modern eras only brought a different set of assumptions to the text, many of which were foreign to the nature of the text itself. So biblical theology and source- and historical-critical approaches have begun to wane, and systematic theology is waxing once again, though without some of its former assumptions and polish.
As theology reasserts itself in the business of reading the Bible, theological interpreters are almost starting over: there is a gulf of a few hundred years of scholarship between us and the time in which theological interpretation was considered normal and acceptable, and much has changed in that time. Foundational questions in theological hermeneutical method must be asked, and answered without careless dismissal of the historical and literary scholarship that went on before, and without thoughtless acceptance of the postmodern approaches that have more recently sprung up. Theological interpreters are left with asking basic questions, as though for the first time: what are the sources for theology, and what gives them authority? How do these sources relate to each other? How do we move from the Bible to theology? I will ask these three questions in turn (though they are inter-related and there will be much overlap between them) in order to outline my own theological method. The answers are both intuitive and deliberate, reflective and comparative, examining both what I do and what I perhaps ought to do in a critical light. We will begin with the question of the sources of theology and their authority.
Sources for Theology, and the Authority of Sources
All of Christian theology is based on the notion that God reveals himself to humanity, and we traditionally categorize his self-revelation into two categories: general revelation, and special revelation. We will look at each of them, and then discuss the issue of authority.
General revelation refers to God revealing himself through the world he created — indirect evidence of God’s existence and character that is visible and available to everyone. General revelation is thus a very broad category which includes virtually every field of human study or inquiry. This makes systematic theology a second-order discipline, as it draws from the work of many other disciplines in order to form its own conclusions.1 I’ll briefly discuss some of the general fields or disciplines from which my own theology draws, touching on the theological importance of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, before discussing experience and tradition as sources for theological reflection.
While the modernist bulwarks of Christian fundamentalism and scientism feud over the doctrine of creationism, Christian tradition (drawing from the older Hebrew traditions and the Bible) has historically seen the natural world as brimming with the evidence of God’s creative and sustaining acts, and the approach of the natural sciences (observing the natural world to make conclusions about its workings) was initially theologically motivated. The Bible is full of references to God in descriptions of nature, from the creation narratives in Genesis, through the poetic depictions of God’s creative and sustaining power in Job and the Psalms, and the destructive power of natural disasters as his judgment in Exodus and the Prophets, to Jesus’ agricultural and pastoral parables and metaphors to describe the character and purposes of God. Early scientists were largely Christians seeking knowledge of God through his creation.2 While the scientific disciplines today claim different motivations, and there is much discussion of atheistic or materialist assumptions in those fields and their methods, science remains a theologically important field. McGrath goes so far as to say that “a positive working relationship between Christian theology and the natural sciences is demanded by the Christian understanding of the nature of reality itself.”3 So contrary to the wearyingly common argument that science and Christianity are at odds with each other, good Christian theology demands the input of science.
The social sciences study the mental and relational faculties and frameworks of human life and community. Christian theology holds that God reveals himself to human beings primarily through other human beings, and particularly through the community of the church, so a study of the ways human beings relate to one another is essential for theology. But while some argue that the natural sciences conflict with theology because of conflicting assumptions and goals, those who argue against mingling theology with the social sciences tend to do so because they believe that these two disciplines are too similar, and may be competing at describing the same thing. In perhaps the most important critique of this interrelationship between theology and the social sciences, John Milbank argues that both theology and the social sciences “are compromised by the theological and anti-theological assumptions built into the social sciences themselves.”4 That said, the social sciences need not be an anti-theological monolith, and there are many Christian practitioners and scholars of the social sciences.5 One of my favourite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote his first doctoral thesis on a “sociology of the Church,”6 and a major source in my own theological MA thesis was Walter Wink, who makes extensive use of the social sciences in his theology.7
The humanities have always been of theological value, as they are ultimately the study not just of humanity, but of humanness or what it means to be a human being. The notion that God is revealed particularly in the higher capacities of humans, the only created beings made in his image and designated to serve as his stewards on the earth, gives the use of those higher capacities a revelatory quality. Philosophy exercises higher reason and logic, discerning rules and order as foundational to the created world and implying that God values order and structure; literature and theatre allow humans to explore stories of God and stories that reveal God (and indeed, Christians see themselves as people of a particular story8), while music, poetry and the visual arts allow us to explore and express beauty, mystery, and the sublime, all of which have traditionally been seen as primary aspects of the nature of God and his relationship to humanity;9 and history chronicles humanity’s story, allowing us to see God revealed in us, among us, and to us in our communities and experiences. The human use of creativity in these ways is also deeply connected to our identity as made in the image of the Creator.
All of these fields are valuable to society because they help us to understand our own context and community, and our own experiences within that context and community. They help us to write our story. The accepted story of a given community develops from a history of storytelling and interpretation that we call tradition, which itself forms the interpretive framework for human experience: it is through tradition that individual human beings discern their role in the divine/human story of reality, in their community, and their very identity and being. Theology and ethics play a major role in the development of tradition, and perhaps particularly for Christian tradition, and it is within the framework of that tradition that we understand the theological value and insights of our own experiences.10 Experience is particularly understood as theologically significant within the Pentecostal tradition and community, of which I am a part: Pentecostals emphasize the immanence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit, and expect to see signs of God’s direct intervention in human history, but also in the extraordinary circumstances of otherwise ordinary human life. The God of the universe is believed to be concerned with the particularities of human existence, and empowers Christians to perform miracles for the sake of his people and their task of bearing witness to Christ. In contrast to the sciences and humanities which reveal God in the structures and the ordinary things of reality, to all creation, miracles reveal God in the particular and extraordinary things, to individuals. The way in which experience is interpreted in relation to other aspects of general revelation is controversial: traditions which do not expect miracles emphasize the experience of the ordinary and interpret their experience in the context of the aforementioned fields that make up general revelation, while traditions which experience and expect miracles see these aspects of human experience as transcending general revelation by providing a direct interaction with God, and therefore see these aspects of human experience as being part of Special Revelation, to which we now turn.
Special revelation refers to the notion of hearing directly from God. This category is usually limited to the Bible, though as mentioned some traditions include certain (usually miraculous) types of human experience in this category. Ultimately, the Bible itself is only a witness to God’s special self-revelation, but distinguishes itself from an individuals’ experience of God by its collective affirmation in the church community and tradition.
The question of the authority of theological sources centres around special revelation. The many fields described here as general revelation are considered authoritative to the degree to which they are provable by means of sound logic and observable and repeatable experiments; their authority is generally unquestioned but limited to their own field, and their theological significance ultimately rests in how relevant they are to the theological issues and categories that are defined in scripture and church tradition. Without rehearsing the history of the question of scriptural authority and canonization, I will appeal to Francis Watson’s position of holding to a canonical approach to the Bible and treating it as holy scripture whose primary context is the church, which is ultimately from where its authority is derived.11 The Bible is authoritative in the church because the church holds that it is, and as such it is central to the tradition and interpretive history of the communities that are built around it.12
The Relation of Sources
It is legitimate and necessary to draw on all of the sources mentioned above (and others that were not mentioned) to formulate, express, and enact our theology, but the way those sources relate to one another is crucial to the quality of the theology that results. Ultimately, every interpretive tradition privileges one source or approach above others, and theology unabashedly privileges holy scripture above all other forms of divine revelation. As the record of God’s most explicit and direct self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, the Bible is the key to the entire theological project and the standard by which the theological contributions of the other disciplines are measured.
The key to the relationship between the claims of the Bible and those of other disciplines is to have a clear understanding of the nature of those claims. An obvious example of this is the ongoing debate between Creationists and Evolutionists, which is often reduced to combat between the claims of the Bible and of the natural sciences: if these two sources are making claims of the same type (e.g., a description of the process of the formation of the earth and the development of its creatures), then they are mutually exclusive and one of them must be incorrect. However, if the Bible’s claims about the creation of the universe are mythological and literary in form and primarily theological in content, there need not be any conflict with the natural sciences. Indeed, the natural sciences can provide a complementary account of Creation that itself serves to clarify the nature and message of the text.13 The Bible itself is safe from possible undermining through criticism due to apparent inaccuracies in much the same way: a mathematical error, or conflicting accounts within different books of the Bible, do not necessarily have any theological implications and are therefore of little importance, as the primary or sole purpose of the text is theological. Put differently, on the matter of mathematics we can safely defer to mathematical texts rather than appealing to the book of Numbers, and the book of Numbers is no worse off for it.
The same principle applies to the interrelationship of all of the other fields, all of which can be mutually informative and need not be in conflict so long as the nature of their claims is clarified; where conflict between fields or approaches is unavoidable, a flaw in one (or all) of the conflicting parties is revealed and must be rethought. It is helpful to think of the disciplines as spokes on a wheel of which theology is the hub: each of the disciplines of general revelation are interconnected, with theology drawing from all of them and at the same time providing a stabilizing presence to all of them. A three-dimensional model is a tent with theology as the central support pole and the other disciplines as the posts around the outside. Adding the third dimension allows us to recognize not only the central importance of theology among the disciplines, but also the privileged place of scripture on the central pole, higher than the others. The tent image also recalls that the combination of all of these disciplines forms the worldview, and thus the tradition, of the church: this tent is the structure in which the church lives, whether we recognize it or not. We tend to cluster around the posts representing our preferred field or approach, but we (often unknowingly) receive the support of them all. Seeing the disciplines and approaches as separate posts or spokes is necessary, as they are discrete, and each must be allowed to develop on their own terms in order to prevent being co-opted or pushed out by the others. Their differences allow each post to be strong on its own, and lend support to the whole structure from that strength, but the tension between the posts is what keeps the tent standing upright. If approaches can be integrated and increase their strength, excellent; but a tent with only one post, even if that post stands high and strong, is narrow and suffocating (i.e., dogmatic in the worst sense). Greater strength is found in diversity, which also allows for flexibility: with a full set of tent posts, weaker posts can be removed or replaced without the structure collapsing. In short, a balanced worldview, tradition, and theology depend on a thorough understanding of our context in the world, informed by all of the disciplines.14
This is often where we stop, to our detriment. A proper account of the relation of the sources for theology must also account for the trajectory and outworking of that theology. Theology exists for the sake of the church: for discipleship, or the ongoing process of human beings becoming more like Christ. Knowledge is very important in this process, but so is participation in worship and community engagement, and every kind of ethical action. Theology inspires and supports these actions, and in turn these actions prove a person’s theology, just as a tree’s fruit proves its species and health. So just as the other disciplines help to stabilize and inform our theology, so too our theology is proven and informed by the way it plays out in our everyday life.
From Scripture to Theology, and Beyond
So how do we move from scripture to theology, and beyond that to ethics? In a general sense, it requires reading well: in order to find out what the text means in our context today, it is helpful to know what it meant in its original context, to be able to see the trajectory of the meaning of the text, and to be able to follow the history of interpretation that separates that context from ours. Only when we have seen how the text has shaped our past can we clearly understand the way it shapes our present and future.
Context of the Text: Then to Now
I was trained in hermeneutics by two institutions, both of which used Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral as the primary text.15 Osborne’s approach is fairly standard for twentieth century biblical theology, though well refined: read the text as much as possible in its original context (i.e., utilizing historical-, form-, and source-critical approaches) in order to discern a principle that can then be applied in our present context. I still use this approach, in spite of the criticisms of the old critical approaches; their faults lay in their attempts at interpretive hegemony, and the hubris of the extent to which they dominated and deformed the text in their quest to expose its origins. The underlying goal of understanding the text in its original context, though it may not be entirely possible, is still incredibly helpful for interpretation.
Reading the text well is not just about knowing where it’s been, but also knowing where it’s going. In this regard I’ve been influenced greatly by William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.16 Webb describes a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” that perceives a trajectory of redemption in even difficult texts when compared to the culture in which they were written, arguing that we ought to follow this trajectory and hold positions even more redemptive than those in scripture in order to be true to the meaning and intention of scripture, rather than enforcing first-century views that rightly seem ancient and even barbaric by today’s standards, epitomized by the contrasts between the Bible’s treatment of slavery and the role of women compared to ours.
Another incredibly important skill for the purpose of interpretation is being able to read history well. Biblical hermeneutics helps us to see where the text (and therefore our interpretive ancestors) has been; cultural hermeneutics helps us to see where it’s been going; but historical theology, or tracing the development of theological thought throughout history, shows us how we got here (and with many misadventures along the way!). Historical theology informs us about our own interpretive context by showing us how it developed and was passed on. We’ve all been formed in interpretive traditions since before we were able to grasp or articulate that fact, and a knowledge of those traditions helps us to disentangle the strands of those traditions and evaluate whether our formation was a conformation to the original intent and trajectory of scripture, or an historical rabbit-trail that has distracted us from the narrow path. For example, growing up in an evangelical protestant milieu I was trained to read Paul in a very reductively Lutheran light, though I didn’t know it; I have since come to realize that there is surprisingly little on which I agree with Luther, or even find his views helpful on, while there is much in his writings that is objectionable or even horrific.17 I also learned that my Pentecostal heritage depends heavily on several prior movements: the Great Awakenings and camp movements, John Wesley and Methodism, Anabaptist traditions, Protestantism, and the Catholic Church’s many mystic traditions (fringe, or not). This has helped me to understand why Pentecostals are they way we are, because I can see our (often unexamined) practices emerging from these theological traditions.18
Our Context: Now to Forever
Once we understand where the text is coming from, where it’s headed, and how we got this far, understanding how it shapes our present and future cannot be broken down into mere principles; instead, our reading of the text in the context of the church, which is the community formed around the tradition which is itself formed around the text, becomes a continuation of the outworking of that text in the ever-changing broader context of the world. By outworking I mean both the continued theological dialogue and the expression of our theology in worship, community, and ethical interaction with the world.19 That theology must continue into praxis and ethics is self-evident: in the text, Christ makes demands of his followers; the trajectory of scripture has only increased those demands; the risen Christ confronts us in our ethical encounters with others; and the Holy Spirit equips us with everything we need to embody Christ in the world. These demands are basic to Christian theology, and the basis for Christian discipleship.20
Implied in the notion of ethical interaction with the world is a contextualization of theology: our theology responds to questions the world is asking, and our ethic must respond to the needs of the other. Being able to read our present context well will also shape and stabilize our theological agenda.21 Our theological agenda must be shaped by the concerns of the text, the concerns of the church, our own concerns, and the needs of the world and the other. Our own interests and concerns naturally shape our theology, because we hear our own voice the loudest; but those other voices must also be heard, as each of them (from time to time, at least) speaks in that same voice which once said “Let there be light.”
1. I reflected on the notion of theology as a second-order discipline, and its relation to other disciplines, here: https://stumblingthroughtheology.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/theology-in-relation-to-other-disciplines/ (accessed December 12, 2013).
2. For a more thorough analysis of the interrelationship between science and theology, as well as theological motivations for science, see Alister E. McGrath, Scientific Theology: Nature (New York: T&T Clark, 2001), especially p. 21-24.
3. McGrath, Scientific Theology: Nature, 21.
4. From the back cover of John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006).
5. At Providence, the largest program in the University College is the Social Sciences program, and the largest program in the Seminary is the Counselling program. If the Social Sciences are diametrically opposed to theology, we must suffer from institutional cognitive dissonance!
6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Volume 1 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Edited by Clifford J. Green. Translated by Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998. While Bonhoeffer wasn’t dealing with the field of sociology as it exists today, with its potentially problematic assumptions, he draws from sociological sources as much as from philosophical and theological sources, and ecclesiology is inherently a sociological theology.
7. See especially Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), which refers extensively to psychology and sociology.
8. The approach of “narrative theology” holds that systematic theology should be developed from the Christian narrative or story, and that we are defined as a “people of story.” This approach is also called “post-liberal theology,” and was popularized by Stanley Hauerwas.
9. For a theological approach to aesthetics, see James K. A. Smith, “Faith in the Flesh in American Beauty: Christian Reflections on Film” in The Devil Reads Derrida (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 148-57.
10. In this sense, the “hermeneutical spiral” in which scripture is used to interpret scripture also plays out in the interpretation of general revelation: we derive our theology and ethics from a community that is defined by its theology and ethics.
11. See Francis Watson, Text, Church, and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), especially the introduction in which he declares and defends his methodological assumptions.
12. Here again we see the hermeneutical spiral: the community had experiences of God that they recorded; those recorded stories were interpreted as authoritative and form the primary and defining narrative of the community, and thus canonized; and the community today holds to the canonized texts as authoritative for the interpretation of past and present experience. In a sense, the history of interpretation provides the defining difference between a hermeneutical spiral and circular logic.
13. For example, Genesis begins by using “Adam” in the generic sense of “human” or “humankind”, but later uses it as a proper noun as the text transitions to more narrative passages. This later use of Adam as the name of a literary character has historically had greater influence than the earlier use of it in a generic sense, and Christian tradition has generally held to a creationist view in which the human individuals Adam and Eve were literally created miraculously from the ground, even though that is not necessarily implied by the creation myth itself. The explanation of human origins provided by the natural sciences forces us to deal with the question of whether or not Adam and Eve as individuals actually existed, and our understanding of the genre of the text as myth reminds us that this was not necessarily the case — something that is implied by the generic use of “Adam” as “humankind.” So the input of the natural sciences has helped to correct a long history of reading the myth as literal history, causing us to reimagine Adam and Eve as literary representatives of all humanity in a story concerned with the nature and character of the Creator and his creations, a view that appears to be much closer to the original intentions of the text when read in light of contemporary texts from that region.
14. Worldview, tradition, and theology here all mean roughly the same thing. A Christian worldview is distinctively theological, and a tradition is the extension of a worldview through time in a particular community shaped by that worldview.
15. Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1991).
16. William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutic of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2001).
17. His views on peasants and Jews (that they should be killed) certainly do not fit in any redemptive-movement hermeneutic! And even his groundbreaking emphasis on salvation by grace through faith is particularly unhelpful in a society of cheap grace. I had very little respect for Luther because of this, until Bonhoeffer’s elucidation in Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) gave me a closer look at Luther’s own context. I can now see God’s hand in Luther’s contribution to my interpretive tradition, in spite of Luther’s otherwise backwardness and the way his theology has been abused.
18. An understanding of the negative aspects of (even recent) church history is crucial to understanding our current context. Tensions that arose a hundred years ago about the nature of tongues are still playing themselves out in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada today, and certain cautious stances on doctrine that are very common among the denomination’s leadership can be traced to historic splits between the PAOC and the United Pentecostals, or the Latter Rain movement.
19. Dialogue here refers to the complicated conversation between us, the disciplines mentioned above that form our current context, the traditions that have formed those disciplines (including theology), the text, and the Holy Spirit. Ethical interaction with the world may also be called praxis, evangelism (in word and deed), ethics, politics, or charity, but certainly must also include worship on the world’s behalf.
20. I find it very sad and frustrating that there are so many scholars dedicated to theology in its most abstract sense while people are hungry for practical theology. Those people are finding practical theology, but it’s not coming from those scholars who are well versed in the story and conversation described above; popular theology and praxis rises from the grassroots and offshoots, to our detriment.
21. Because we never come to the text empty-handed! We must recognize our agendas in order to voice them in the conversation responsibly, and not be ruled by them.