when you talk about theological method, you can hear the yawns break out across the room, but actually it is vitally important about how think and make decisions theologically, and yet no one talks about it, because they think it’s boring.
Hopefully this blog will prove them wrong.
It is a vital problem. I have sat in groups where people have called “discipleship” and yet scripture is misquoted and passages are thrown around and tagged onto issues like misplaced jigsaw puzzles.
Or have heard people saying “God told me to do this” only to discover God has done a “U-turn” and said the opposite a couple of days later. I believe in a God that speaks, but I also believe that prophesy needs to be tested and weighed.
Or maybe you’ve had a Catholic friend (for an example) that talks about purgatory, praying to Mary or some other traditional Catholic doctrines and you’re left asking “where is that is the Bible?”
Or perhaps you have been in a Church meeting where a carefully thought out vision is presented, with mountains of statics and graphs and it all makes a lot of sense, but you have a question nagging at the back of your head and that is “it seems sensible, but is this what God is saying?”
Some might have noticed that Wesley’s quadrant has crept in here, that we make our spiritual decisions on the basis of “Scripture”, “experience”, “tradition” and “reason”… and yet as you probably have noticed our fallen humanity can creep into all of these and distort our view of Christ and what it means to follow him.
So, not only is the process of theological method complicated, it is made more complicated by other factors.
Culture. we take our cultural lenses and baggage into our walk with God often we notice the failures, flaws and foibles with other cultures that we don’t see in our own, in the Southern states of the USA at the turn of the last century many Christians considered themselves being very holy, whilst treating black people like second class citizens, probably justifying their behaviour because that what everyone did and it was “normal”.
Ourselves and our stories. we also bring our own baggage and issues to scripture because we as human-beings don’t come at anything from a neutral position.
Others. I worry sometimes that Pastors create clones, rather than people with the tools to think and discern stuff for themselves. Hearing what “Pastor ZYZ says” is interesting, but regurgitating someone else’s sermon doesn’t make it right, interestingly as human beings we normally believe what we first hear and accept and are very cynical after that.
At this point people normally hold their heads in their hands and think, I’ll give up now shall I?
Yet theology is nothing to fear, in fact God wants us to know him and know him better, Theo -Latin for God- logos -word- the idea of studying God. My former principal Christina Baxter used to talk about Theology was “thinking God’s thoughts after him” -which I think is pretty exciting.
Rowan Williams said “theology was trying to say the least silly thing we can about God”.
Both of these thoughts actually lead me to want to worship, which I think is a good litmus test of whether theology is true or heretical.
As an evangelical, I look first through the primacy of scripture:
-But, if we are seeking God in scripture, we need to read our Bibles, and reading them with prayerful expectation, but also reading them in context, what comes before, what comes after, who is it written too, why was it written. Also, think translation is an issue, now thing the gizmos on our phone we can check out challenging passages from different translations, and even the original Greek, and look it up in a Biblical Greek dictionary all at a touch of a button whilst drinking your latte! Another what does the Bible actually say, rather than what we think it says!
As a charismatic, I do take our experience of God seriously.
Experience is good, Peter changed his viewpoint on the Gentiles because of a vision, and the other disciples changed their viewpoint on seeing the Holy Spirit poured out. Experiences and encounters are really important, but we need to remember that we as people are fickle and God calls us to test and weigh guidance, this is not lacking in faith, but rather it is in prayerfully weighing stuff that we allow our faith to flourish and grow.
The Catholics and Anglo Catholics often take our Christian heritage much more seriously than we in the evangelical camp, but as I have travelled onwards I have discovered that there is much wisdom and blessing within our Christian heritage..
Tradition, is so much to say than just because “we’ve always done it this way” when tradition is at its best we are standing on the shoulders of giants of amazing people of God whose journeys can bring so much blessing and benefit to us, and yet sometimes we are caught up in someone else’s baggage. whatever we are facing, probably somewhere throughout the world and history another follower of Jesus has faced it, and shared their experiences. what most of us think of as “normal” Christianity, has been wrestled out by faithful people (many who gave their lives).
The liberals get a bad press, but reason is important, asking hard questions and not being fobbed off with clichés or pat answers is important.
Reason. God has given us a brain of our own to use, discernment is a spiritual gift, and I believe God wants us to think and pray and use our minds in our faith. One of my key phrases I use when taking Alpha is “Christianity is not a faith which asks your to leave your brain at the door”, yet our reason will never be fully sufficient because “A God I can fully understand probably isn’t God”.
So, a good question to ask ourselves is “why do I think what I think?” and to be open to God challenging our thinking, a great phrase used at a theological college I looked at was “roots down walls down” -if we have our roots down deeply into God we have nothing to fear from other people with different ideas, as the spirit of all truth protects and guides us, if we let him.
I’ll close with two bits of testimony.
A friend of mine was at a theological college and someone spoke of their fear of loosing their faith (they actually meant not being a proper evangelical any more). My friend said something interesting, he said “ultimately I am interested in truth, and if it’s not true I don’t want to believe it”. So often we want to stay ‘safe’ in our theology and opinions, but actually the Spirit of all truth is both wonderful and dangerous.
when I was in my early 20’s I began to think about ordination, and one of the questions was about women vicars and Bishops, and lots of people tried telling me that it was all cultural, or about an experience they’d had (experience and reason) but for me my heart was saying “yeah but is the Bible okay with it” -I think it is- but what I wanted was someone to sit down and read the Bible with me and help me make sense of some difficult bits.
So, as we journey on, lets keep on chasing after God, hungry to hear from him, but doing so with prayerful wisdom and discernment in the context of community, and see where he leads us, it’s an adventure.