Posts Tagged ‘theology’

I was asked to provide a list of resources I have found helpful in thinking and shaping issues concerning racism and privilege. I’ve added resources that also deal with contextual theology because we all read from a place, a position, a framework. Privilege is often assumed and is typically hidden from our eyes, especially when we benefit from those systems. As such, it is helpful to be made aware of our position and its underlying assumptions.

Many of these titles have been very formative for me. Some of the ones I will list have been good to read just to hear dissenting voices from my own. I don’t necessarily agree with every position taken in every book, but I have learned something from each one and therefore offer them as helpful starting points to further conversation and learning. I will also try to categorize each book so that they can be held together with other books that approach privilege, racism, and contextual theology through a particular lens (i.e., preaching, community development, etc.). Some of these resources do not deal with privilege directly, but I certainly see application and overlap. I hope these are helpful!


Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope by Luke Powery

Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil by Christine M. Smith

Toward a Womanist Homiletic: Katie Canon, Alice Walker, and Emancipatory Proclamation by Donna E. Allen

They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching by Frank A. Thomas (A development of Dr. Henry Mitchell’s Celebration and Experience in Preaching)

Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies by John McClure

Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space by Sarah Travis

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III

The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence by Richard Lischer

The Liberating Pulpit by Justo Gonzalez

The Word Before the Powers by Charles Campbell

Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World – And Our Preaching – Is Changing by David Lose

Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art by Leonora Tubbs Tisdale

The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching by Kenyatta Gilbert


Reading from this Place, Vol. 1 by Fernando F. Segovia (collection of essays)

Soundings in Cultural Criticism: Perspectives and Methods in Culture, Power, and Identity in the New Testament by Francisco Lozada, Jr.

Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Riceour

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith


When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett

Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development by Wayne Gordon and John Perkins

The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Spark


Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Night by Elie Wiesel

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings

Naming the Powers by Walter Wink

Unmasking the Powers by Walter Wink

Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink

Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics by Willard M. Swartley

Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh

Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time by William Cavanaugh

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and the Quest for God by Sarah Coakley

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas (collected essays)

Prayers for a Privileged People by Walter Brueggemann

Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings


Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem Revisited by Jonathan Bonk

Cross-cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission by Mary T. Lederleitner

Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders by Gary Nelson

Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore

Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by Sherwood Lingenfelter


Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe


Decoded by Jay-Z (preachers should read this)

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz



“Schindler’s List”

“Le Chambon: La Colline Aux Mille Enfants”

“Of Gods and Men”


“The Mission”

“Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom”


“Mississippi Burning”


(start around 30:38 mark)


I’ve read through this book twice in the past couple of years.  This is a very basic primer to John Wesley’s theology.  It is very accessible and easy to read.  Harper does a great job of introducing the reader to a short biography of Wesley and walking the reader through the basic thought of John Wesley’s theology as it pertains to salvation.  I would recommend this as a great way to become acquainted with Wesley.

Life and Times of John McKenzie

John L. McKenzie (1910-1991) was born and raised inTerre Haute, Indiana.  “[John] received his training in Jesuit schools in Kansas and Ohio and at Weston College,Massachusetts, where he received his doctorate in sacred theology” (Flowering of the Old Testament 170).  Ordained in 1939 as a priest, McKenzie taught at West Baden, Indiana; Loyola University; the University of Chicago; the University of Notre Dame; and DePaul University (Flowering of the Old Testament 170).  Also, McKenzie served as the president of the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature (Old Testament Theology 140).

Theologically, Roman Catholic theologians of this time, as in times past, relied heavily on “dogmatic” or “systemic theology” (Flowering of the Old Testament 169).  McKenzie, however, did not follow the traditional approaches to theology.  In fact, being an astute scholar and theologian, McKenzie often challenged “systematic” theologies.  Before McKenzie’s interactions with theology “the nineteenth century saw the rise of the historical and literary criticism which has dominated biblical studies up to the present time” (20).  This paradigm shift influenced how scholars examined the Bible during the Great Wars, particularly World War II, which was one of the most influential of these events that shaped Old Testament theology in the twentieth century.  Reventlow stated:

“…the altered intellectual climate resulted in the revival of a direct interest in the Bible on the part of Christian believers.  This movement, which began shortly before and during the Second World War in Great Britain, combined a concern for a commitment to faith to the Bible on all parts of believers with a marked interest in all its aspects, so that the question of theological significance of the Old Testament and its relationship to the new played a major part in the discussion (1).

This concern shaped much of John McKenzie’s theology in being committed to the “faith of the Bible on all parts” (1).  His work would push this concern throughout his Old Testament theology and shape a new perspective with which to encounter the text.

John McKenzie’s Theological Methodology

            McKenzie wrote, “The task of Old Testament theology may become easier and be more successfully accomplished if we remember that it is precisely the theology of the Old Testament, not the exegesis of the Old Testament, not the history of religion of Israel, not the theology of the entire Bible, which is the object of the study” (Old Testament Theology 141).  In other words, McKenzie desired to view the Old Testament as a theological statement of the community of faith and their “total experience” of Yahweh.  Unlike Roman Catholic theology, which often had “messianic” interpretations of the Old Testament, McKenzie wanted to divorce the Old Testament interpretation from New Testament impositions on that interpretation (Old Testament Theology 142-43).  This has been extremely important in the ensuing studies of Old Testament.  Ollenburger notes the shift, “Several writers later in the century show greater sensitivity to the tie of the Old Testament with Judaism as well as with Christianity” (Flowering of the Old Testament 47).

McKenzie did not believe that Yahweh could be “rationally systematized” but was a Being “consistent as a person” (Flowering of the Old Testament 52).  However, he did believe that the Old Testament could only be studied through thematic study of the material.

On this basis, McKenzie focuses on the cult, revelation through authentic spokespersons of Yahweh, history, nature, wisdom, institutions, and the future of Israel although he thought the last not to be a real topic of Old Testament theology.   For McKenzie, the primary principle for the selection of topics is the amount of coverage they receive in the text  and in the totality of the experience ofIsraelin addition to their ‘profundity’ (Hayes 253).

The focus on the reality of YHWH was and is a foundational key inIsrael’s overall experience with YHWH.  Overall, the experiences which influenced the beliefs of the Israelites were recorded in the Old Testament, which leads one to understand the role of Old Testament theology today to be, in part, to present a synthesis ofIsrael’s experience.  This experience was not a means, for John McKenzie, to compose “a set of ideas for doctrine” (Flowering of the Old Testament 52).

This emphasis of experience gave way to McKenzie’s principle of “cult.”  McKenzie asserted, “The essential nature of cult as the rites by which the believing community recognizes and professes its identity and proclaims what it believes about the deity it worships and the relations between the deity and the worshipers” (Flowering of the Old Testament 187).  For McKenzie, cult was not a “personal religion” of one person but rather the expression and experience of a “group” as a “profession of faith” (McKenzie 33).  In other words, we are studyingIsrael’s experiences which we must separate from our own biases and presuppositions (i.e. New Testament interpretations) in order to understand the explicit and implicit realities of the text.  “In the cult Yahweh is experienced as the God of Israel rather than as the God of the world and mankind” (Flowering of the Old Testament 186).

One of the most central ideas of cult is rooted in the use of sacred space.  This includes, but is not relegated to the: Jerusalem Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the tent of meeting and other various spaces throughout Israel’s history, including the “high places” (Flowering of Old Testament 182).  “The building of the temple was the climactic act of sovereignty asserted in creation” (Flowering of Old Testament 181).  The sacred spaces of Israelwere a way in which to encounter Yahweh.  According to the Old Testament, “the cult of Yahweh shall be carried on only at the sanctuary which he has chosen” (Flowering of the Old Testament 182).  This sacred space used symbols and “holy objects” to represent the “divine presence”  More than that, “He really dwells ‘in the midst of his people’” (Flowering of Old Testament 178).  There is a delicate balance found in these sacred spaces

Reflection upon McKenzie’s Method and Contribution

John McKenzie’s work sought to view the Old Testament as a work totally separate from the New Testament.  This method recognizes that the Old Testament is a work that can stand alone with its own interpretation apart from the New Testament, especially implicit messianic theology.  The Old Testament, in McKenzie’s opinion, sought to communicate who YHWH was and whatIsraelhad been called to be, namely a “holy priesthood.”  As a result, the Old Testament was not written to explain the New Testament but to documentIsrael’s interaction with YHWH through their entire history to that point.  Hasel argues this point, “the category of operation in McKenzie’s Old Testament theology is ‘the totality of experience’ expressed in the God-talk of the Old Testament.  Since ‘not every biblical experience of YHWH, not every fragment of God-talk, is of equal profundity,’ the object of Old Testament theology is to be governed by the ‘experience of the totality’” (59).  McKenzie believed that all parts of the Old Testament, while varying in depth of insight, must be included in performing the task of theology.

The “cult” is the primary “foundation” of McKenzie’s theology while “Future Israel” retains the lowest position for Old Testament understanding” (Hasel 68).  This underlines the importance of the worshiping community for which these scriptures were written.  The totality of McKenzie’s theology contributes to the ways in which the more liberal fields of theological studies examine the Old Testament text.  For example, McKenzie’s focus on the totality of experience reflects many of the ways that Black theologians view the interactions between their people and YHWH.  Black theology, for example, recognizes every experience is not as profound as the next; however, they recognize that the whole of these experiences shape the way the group defines their relationship to YHWH.

John McKenzie’s approach to Old Testament theology provided a fresh, vibrant perspective.  Rather than simply be confined and restrained by dogmatic or systematic doctrines, McKenzie sought to allow the text to speak of its own accord.  Since the text and its community had a life of its own, it deserved to be treated as such.  McKenzie called the theological community to interpret the text through the lens of the Old Testament community rather than through systematic dogma.  This challenges us to encounter the text as it is rather than impose our own cultural understandings.  It is also a call to experience the text as a whole rather than through singular utterances.  We must deal with the seeming inconsistencies and conflict of utterances so that we may understand scripture holistically.  Lastly, McKenzie urges us to experience YHWH as a community of faith not simply as a personal religion.


Works Cited

Hasel, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate. 3rd ed.        Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1972

Hayes, John H., and Frederick Prussner. Old Testament Theology: Its History and             Development.New York:Westminster John Knox P, 1984.

McKenzie, John L. A Theology of the Old Testament.New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Ollenburger, Ben C., Elmer A. Martens, and Gerhard F. Hasel, eds. The Flowering of Old            Testament Theology : A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology,         1930-1990.Danbury: Eisenbrauns, Inc., 1991.

Ollenburger, Ben C. Old Testament Theology : Flowering and Future.Danbury:    Eisenbrauns, Inc., 2004.

Reventlow, Henning Graf. Problems of Biblical Theology in the Twentieth Century.         Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.


Theology is a part of everyday life, whether we acknowledge it or not.  We live, act, and react out of our convictions and beliefs.  Theology has an intricate, integral role in ministry.  You can either do it well or poorly, but either way you will practice theology when practicing ministry.  The question we face is: What role does theology have in ministry today and how we do accomplish that?

This paper will show that theology is language that shapes our ability to relate in community.  We will also explore the necessity of good data and the function of doubt in theology.  Next, this paper will argue that theology targets both insiders and outsiders to the community of faith.  Finally, we will discuss how theology is integrated into ministry, referencing Wesley’s hermeneutical circle.  We will see how Experience, Scripture, Reason, and Tradition all contribute to building solid theology which must then be tested in the “crucible of life.”

Language is Relational

Theology is typically how we describe “the study of God.”  The word “theology” is comprised of two Greek words which translate quite literally to mean “God words” or a “word about God.”  Theology, simply put, is the language we use to talk about God.  However, God, by His very nature as God, is transcendent above our vocabulary.  We cannot fully describe God by the use of our words.  He is wholly Other.  If theology is such a tenuous study, then what is the purpose for pursuing such seemingly vain endeavors?

All language is used to describe our experiences in community.  Theology is the language we use to relate to God in community.  We understand that describing God with anthropological terminology has its shortcomings.  Furthermore, to describe God anthropologically, as any analogy, requires understanding the limits of our analogies.  However, it is this very language that allows us to share our experiences of God in terms that can be understood and evaluated by others.  Theology is geared to allow us not simply to make statements about God but to relate intimately with Him.  We can only do so through what we know or experience (in Wesley’s sense), which is deeply informed and influenced by our language, both positively and negatively.

Understanding theology linguistically pertains to how knowledge is used.  Theology is not a knowledge that allows us to manipulate God how scientific knowledge allows us to control our environment.  There is a different knowledge that is intimately connected with theology – wisdom.  Wisdom does not allow us to manipulate and control God but to surrender to Him.  Again, knowledge is relational.  Therefore, knowledge about God should inevitably lead us to deeper connection with God.

Does good data matter?  Theology is not always a matter of right and wrong.  Usually, it is a matter of adequate or inadequate, good or poor knowledge.  For instance, if we were to describe God as Love without referencing His holiness, we might visualize a God who is all mercy and no justice.  In fact, it might even cause us to abuse grace because, we might reason, “where sin abounds grace abounds even more” (Romans 6:1-2).  However, this would not be biblical, as the apostle Paul points out.  Good data is important because it allows us to relate genuinely in community to our Creator.

We understand that our knowledge cannot fully describe God.  If the object of theology is to simply acquire the right data and knowledge about God, the gap between our understanding and our ignorance will be threatening.  In contrast, if the object of theology is to relate deeper with God, then the gap between our understanding and our ignorance is an invitation to grow deeper with God.

We often confuse certainty with Truth.  Certainty is subjective, Truth is objective.  We can feel “certain” about something that is entirely false.  Our evangelical milieu has come to believe that doubt is dangerous.  Doubt seems to threaten our very self and is seen as opposing growth rather than initiating it.  Yet, doubt is a function a faith.  It causes us to wrestle and search, rather than wander haphazardly with little or no motivation to grow.  As such, theology is willing to be honest and humble where Truth should call for examination of our own paradigms.  Doubt is only a threat if Christianity is about obtaining the right information rather than promoting relationship with God.

Although we desire to gain Truth and to understand it, we must not believe that theology is simply the pursuit of right data sets.  Theology, at that point, becomes legalistic and dead.  Not to mention, this brand of “Christianity” becomes very abrasive and condemning, even of other viable Christian traditions, of any opposing Truth claim.  That is not to say that there are not issues that require a solid, moral stance.  But, the pursuit of Truth must be a means to an end, namely promoting right-relatedness.  The purpose is not to have acquired Truth, which we only know in part (1 Cor. 13:12), it is the way in which Truth shapes and permeates our lives daily that is most significant.

The Audience of Theology  

A debate among theologians has traditionally wrestled between two schools of thought: Narrative theologians and Public Theologians.  These two schools, generally headed at Yale and the University of Chicago respectively, argue for two very different audiences that theology targets.  The target audience dictates theologians’ understanding of how language should be properly employed.

The Yale School of Theology believes that theological language is primarily directed at those already connected and integrated into the community.  They argue that outsiders cannot make sense of the language.  The significance of Christian terminology will be lost on those who do not have the interpretive keys with which to understand the language.  Undoubtedly, this is a true statement.  Part of being integrated into any community is learning to comprehend the meaning behind words and phrases, including those used in Christian jargon.  Furthermore, language helps make a community distinct from other communities.  The goal, as they see it, is to make better equipped Christians within the Church.

On the other side of the argument, the University of Chicago school of thought believes that theology should focus on the outsiders.  It is, after all, the Church’s mission to make disciples of all nations.  How is that possible if language does not connect with the outsiders’ points of reference to experience?  How can they possibly understand, unless theology strives to connect Christian concepts with their framework?  In other words, the Christian community is too exclusive with its language, which does not help the Church fulfill its Biblical mandate.

I believe that both sides of the argument have valid positions to offer.  I affirm the necessity for both, which must be held in a constant tension with one another.  Genuine theology will connect the community together through genuine Christian living.  The insiders in the community will only be as connected as their understanding of the language used in that community.  Also, it is imperative that the Christian community can be distinguished from the worldly culture that surrounds it.  Our language is necessary to give us a common set of descriptors by which we can communicate and function together.  The dynamic must be guarded from becoming too washed out by trying to identify with culture.

However, the Church is also a mission driven organization.  The Great Commission calls us to disciple all nations.  In other words, the Christian community is an open community that brings outsiders in to the fold.  How can outsiders relate if they do not understand our language?  To achieve that goal, theology must be employed in a way that connects with common reference points in human experience.  The apostle Paul understood this well when he employed such tactics in his evangelism.  He used a statue of an “unknown god” as an opening for telling the Athenians about Jesus (Acts 17:22-31).  The language we use in the Christian community must not be so “heavenly minded that it is no earthly good.”

This brings up an interesting point.  The Church is often criticized for being hypocritical, saying one thing yet living another.  In addition, studies, such as those written by Barna Group, have recently shown that biblical literacy within the Church has declined dramatically.  Many people do not even know basic stories from Scripture.  If this is true, then how might they be able to understand more intricate theology unless we begin making connection points with the laity on some basic level.  This underlines the importance of discipleship, which helps people navigate through some of these issues of language.

Martin Luther had an intuition about this when he first posted his letter to the Church.  At that time, Latin was used in every service.  That is very problematic in a Germanic country where the laity would have spoken little, if any, Latin.  Luther believed that the Word should be accessible to all.  While our language must be distinct, it must not be inaccessible.

If language shapes our theology and theology shapes our practice, we might do well to seriously consider how theology is shaping the Church and its impact on the outside community.  All of that goes to say, theology should be geared toward both insiders and outsiders.  Theology must reside within this tension.  Language is a very powerful tool by which we construct our community.  But, it cannot be transformative if individuals are not able to grasp what is being communicated.  Ultimately, our theology must be shown to produce genuine Christian living, it must empower both insiders and outsiders to move toward that telos: right-relatedness with God and others.

Integrating Theology with Ministry

From what point or source does theology start?  How do we determine what is theologically appropriate or inappropriate to say?  Perhaps counter-intuitively for those in the Christian community, we do not start at Scripture but with an intuition that God is transcendent.  I believe it is our experience of the created order that helps guide us in this endeavor.  The created order, as Romans 1 affirms, declares that there is a God who has made Himself known through nature.

After asserting that there is a God, we must next ask who this God is.  The created order cannot fully reveal the nature and character of God.  Therefore, we must either be like Locke and say that knowledge has reached its logical end and can go no further.  Or, we must say that there is another authority that speaks about “trans-sensory” realities and that it has an authority on par with empirical experience.  However, these “trans-sensory” realities are not separate from empirical realities.  They impact one another.

For Christians, the Bible is the other source of God’s self-revelation.  The nature and character of a testimony, which is the very essence of Scripture (testimony about who God is), helps determine what we deem important in theology.  Martin Luther believed Scripture to be the sole authority, not tradition.  While this may indeed be a great starting point, Scripture cannot simply stand alone because it can be twisted to people’s whims.  Luther, although he did not explicitly state this, understood that experience too must help weigh the validity of our conclusions from Scripture.

Since, for Wesley, experience needed to be practical as an experiment, it is little wonder that “trans-sensory” realities were not divorced from empirical realities.  In other words, experience became the great testing ground.  Experience was the venue in which theological perspectives could be assessed.  However, experience was also subject to Scripture for correct interpretation.  Experience and Scripture were two balancing authorities, dependent upon one another for mutual correction.

Furthermore, reason serves as a tool which allows these two authorities, Scripture and experience, to interact on level ground.  This is owing to the fact that all Truth is God’s Truth and will not be contradictory, according to the rules of logic.  As such, there are good ways to get information to fit together that are conducive to relationships.  When you approach theology linguistically, words may only be constructed in particular ways.  Truth statements require a certain formula.  If you are talking about God and the world in terms of certainty, it requires diligence and humility.

Furthermore, theology is a dangerous task because we are essentially using analogies with our words to understand a transcendent Being.  Now, the Christian faith also believes that God has made Himself immanent, especially through Jesus the Christ.  However, that in no way diminishes the fact that God is beyond our words.  So, the analogies we use are often tentative and can only be stretched so far.  And, we must be mindful of the analogies we are using, making sure to explain them adequately.

For instance, the analogy that love is like a rose can be either a good or a poor analogy.  Love, it could be said, is like a rose because it is beautiful, delicate, and vibrant.  However, Love might not be best described as a rose if it is thought to be short-lived, thorny, and painful.  Our lived experience may even cause us to have difficulty with analogies we use of God, making it more difficult to relate to Him.  For example, God is our Father.  We can assert many positive attributes of a Father to God.  We can say that God is loving, protective, corrective.  However, some families experience abuse from their fathers, making “Father” a difficult connection for some to make with God (and, in some cases, deterring them from God).  Logic helps us see how metaphors connect and can be used correctly.

Tradition allows us to orient our knowledge on a trajectory.  It is not a source.  It is merely interpretation of those sources: experience and Scripture.  We don’t believe it because someone has simply said it.  However, it does give us a hermeneutic to evaluate truth claims.  It allows us to see how Scripture, reason, and experience connect, hopefully, in practical ways in the lives of those who came before us.  And, it helps us think beyond ourselves, allowing us to access the communal experience of Christians throughout the centuries preceding us.

Karl Barth contended that theology is a conversation among students of the past and present.  Every predecessor of today’s student has already attempted to understand and explain the Scriptures – in his own period, in his own way, and with his own limitations.  To study theology means not so much to examine exhaustively the work of earlier students of theology as to become their fellow student… Serious study means to permit oneself to be stimulated by the views and insights they achieved and proclaimed, and to be guided – by their encouraging or frightening example – toward a perspective, thought, and speech which are responsible to God and man.

For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is an extra-biblical concept.  It is not formally developed until the Council of Nicea in the 4th century A.D.  However, in order to best understand the Biblical account of who Jesus is, the Christian tradition postulated the Trinity.  Over the centuries since Nicea, many have tried to further understand how Trinity must work.  It is very much a work in progress today.  Traditions, such as the Trinity, help us to understand how others have struggled with the Biblical witness and have synthesized its content.

Miroslav Volf’s book, entitled After Our Likeness, is an excellent example of how each piece of the hermeneutical circle can function together.  In this study on Trinity, Volf closely outlines the Roman Catholic and Orthodox conceptions of Trinity and their resulting ecclesiology.  Interweaving Scripture, experience, and logic together, Volf critiques each of the historical understandings of Trinity.  Next, he uses the hermeneutical circle to re-formulate a working concept of Trinity that coheres with the Free Church tradition.

Scripture and experience are the two sources from which we gain our data.  Tradition and reason allow us to interact between these two sources of data.  Reason helps us piece the puzzle together.  Tradition allows us to see how others have tried to piece the puzzle together, as well as, the benefit of seeing the ensuing results of their theology.  Scripture and experience are two balances on the scale of theology.  If something is Truth, it will be Truth in both arenas.  Finally, theology, as Wesley aptly understood, must lead to genuine Christian living.  If it does not, we must once again wrestle in the hermeneutical circle to refine our theology.


Language is the tool we use to relate in community.  Theology is not simply about acquiring all of the right data sets.  Theology is only good insofar as it achieves the goal of deeper relatedness with God and others.  However, that does not mean that good data is not important to theology, since better information should lead to better relatedness.

Our language, used as a tool to relate, necessarily needs to be understandable.  That does not mean that it should become indistinct from culture.  Our language has two functions: to communicate to the insiders and proclaim the Good News to the outsiders.

Theology can be a dangerous tool.  It requires deep thinking (logic), weighing it against life (experience), constant conversation with past sojourners (tradition), and a consideration of the testimony of who God is in the world (Scripture).  All four elements are important in promoting and building sound, balanced theology.

What is the role of Christian tradition in Christian theology?

The role of the Christian tradition in Christian theology has been one of debate for centuries.  How much influence should this tool be allowed in our quest for understanding God and His character?  And, how might we correctly employ this tool for theology?  The answers to this question greatly vary across the centuries, especially given the tendency for human institutions to be broken and fallen.  Despite this fact, Wesley maintains it is necessary to affirm the Christian tradition’s role in theology while providing it with a means of accountability.

For some, the Christian tradition holds sole authority for interpreting Scripture and experience.  Moreover, many believe that the Church alone speaks as the very mouthpiece of God.  The problem with this mentality is that it led some to believe that the task of theology could be accomplished through the power of the Church alone, sometimes ignoring the Spirit.  Moreover, it often ignored the way in which the world influenced the Church negatively, pulling it away from its foundational principles.  The Church, especially after Constantine, became an extension, in many ways, of the government and culture.  Christianity became a way of affirming cultural values rather than allowing culture to be informed by Scripture.

Unfortunately, that often meant that there was little if any accountability for the Church’s power.  The Crusades are an ugly example where the two mixed horribly and forever marred Christianity in the eyes of many.  This misuse of authority ultimately made people skeptical of the Church and do not willingly submit to the Church.  In theology, tradition cannot be said to be the ultimate authority because it too can ultimately be swayed by ulterior influences.  It must have a counter-balance for its interactions with the world.  Scripture provides the measure by which the Church is guided.

However, to totally ignore tradition would be a sad loss for Christianity.  It would seriously limit our understanding of Christianity, as well as, the consequences when our preaching does not match our living.  Karl Barth believed that the Christian tradition was a conversation between students, each successive generation learning from the previous generations.  I believe this is a good way to look at the Christian tradition.  It maintains that we are all learning together and that we are dependent upon one another as well.  Therefore, in each generation of the past we can learn from both their successes and their failures.

Christian tradition can also be used in conjunction with experience as Wesley saw it.  It allows us to see the collective experience of Christianity and employ it as a tool for assessing whether or not we have been true to Christianity.  Furthermore, it is important that Christian tradition is not limited merely to historical events and thinking.  Rather, Christian tradition also has a future aspect to it.  It is passed to each successive generation.  The Christian tradition is the unbroken succession of giving away the Gospel all the way from the apostles to present day believers.  Hopefully, we continue to pass on a faithful rendering of what it means to live as a Christian in our world.

One example of tradition’s invaluable influence can be found in the doctrine of the Trinity, which is not explicitly outlined within Scripture.  However, after much deliberation and debate on the exact relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the Church formulated that they were three-in-one.  This doctrine sought to make sense of what Scripture was saying, even though it was not explicit in Scripture.  Initially, this was just a simple formula for talking about God.  In generations since, it was built upon to explain it more accurately.  There have been other doctrines set out by tradition that worked to provide a framework by which we might comprehend Scripture accurately and faithfully.  As Barth asserts, tradition captures the voice of fellow students and teachers by which we can seriously think through issues.  We continue that tradition to not only know but understand.

John Henry Newman believed that Church doctrine, as an idea, would ultimately develop as we searched and learned more.  It is open to revision and improvement.  This is especially true if we believe that God is continually revealing Himself, not that His revelation changes, but He guides us into all Truth.  Tradition is therefore the process of theology growing and building upon that which was laid before.  Theology, therefore, has a responsibility to listen and interact with tradition.  Tradition does not have the last Word in the conversation, but it is an invaluable voice in the discussion.

Creeds, many of which are a valuable part of Christianity today, preserve earlier generations’ assessment of the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  These have helped guide future generations on correct, essential doctrine.  That is not to say that they are above Scripture, but succinctly sets forth what Scripture affirms as necessary doctrine.  Christian tradition, like the creeds, can serve as a way of grounding our faith back to the essential elements of the faith.

Where the Christian tradition becomes problematic is where it oversteps its role, assuming an authority equal to Scripture and experience.  The result too often is a power that has no balance or accountability.  When it is allowed that type of power, as is the case with most human institutions, it becomes tyrannical and legalistic.  Furthermore, reason is not allowed a very prominent role in discovering Truth.  Rather, Truth becomes affirmed by tradition and is not open for interpretation or revision.  A close-minded dogmatism then is used to control people rather than free them.  Logic serves as a corrective device for such narrowness.

For this reason, it is necessary that the Christian tradition be looked at and studied carefully.  The Christian tradition is subject to the authority of Scripture and experience.  Does it hold before these two authorities as genuine?  Next, does it maintain under scrutiny of logic and reason?  If it does not, it must be called into question as to the validity of its assertions.  That does not mean that the Christian tradition does not still have something to offer even when it is found wanting.  Instead, we can use that as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and sins of others.

As such, I believe the Christian tradition holds a great deal for us in theology.  It allows us to study history and learn from true followers of Christ and we can also learn from failure to live Christ-like and not make the same mistakes.  I believe this shows the dependency that tradition has upon experience, Scripture, and reason.  Tradition is simply a tool.  It is not the ending point.





What is the role of Scripture in Christian theology?

In dealing with theology, Scripture is the starting point and its foundation.  Scripture is the revelation of God to us, apart from which we could not know God.  The Word of God perfectly and fully reveals the salvation of God for humanity.  Furthermore, it is the call of God to broken humanity, enabling them to live, through the power of the Spirit, in such a way that is pleasing to God.

We could know nothing about the nature of God if He did not reveal it to us.  We might possibly be able to assess things about Him through our empirical senses.  For instance, we could attribute all of creation to a Creator and could arrive at such a conclusion using our senses.  This might allow us to see that God exists.  And, we might be able to make some assumptions based on this conclusion (i.e. God is sovereign and powerful).  However, we could not know whether God is loving, hateful, gentle, merciful, conniving or otherwise without the revelation of the Divine by the Divine.  Scripture, as the Word and Revelation of God, is such a book that allows us with our “spiritual senses”, as John Wesley called them, to see God’s nature and character.  It is for this reason that we must start with Scripture as the provider of data by which we can begin to talk, learn, and know who God is.

Sola Scriptura” was the cry for many of the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther, as they sought to correct the waywardness that they perceived in the Church.  Tradition, for some at that time, was considered just as important and equal in authority to Scripture.  Thus, some fallacies arose within doctrine, such as indulgences which were said to forgive sins through the Church.  Luther believed this was theologically inaccurate and therefore called for a re-commitment to the sole authority of Scripture.  It alone could stand as the evaluator of the Church’s actions… the Church was not independent of that authority.  As has been rightly judged, we cannot speak alone by our own authority.  Scripture is the lens by which we assess the worth of our theology.

Even John Wesley, who was an avid proponent of the Anglican Church, was willing on the basis of Scripture, to venture against the Church by sending out itinerant field preachers and ordaining ministers so that they could serve the sacraments.  He was supportive of the Church in the essentials of doctrine and willing to step outside of those bounds in non-essentials.  These actions were undertaken because Wesley viewed himself as a “man of one book.”  In other words, Scripture held the utmost authority when it came down to determining proper action, even when opposed to tradition.

The early Creeds even show the dependency of tradition upon Scripture.  The Creeds were written to set forth proper belief against and opposed to the heresies that had popped up.  The Creeds, such as the Nicene, summarized the Gospel, as well as, the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  However, those Creeds that came to be most accepted by the whole Church were those that simply asserted what Scripture asserts – no more, no less.  We see that theology can neither add nor subtract from Scripture’s own propositions.  Scripture sets forth proper orthodoxy, not tradition.  Scripture, as a reasonable truth claim, cannot be self-contradictory and must sit in judgment of itself as well.  In other words, tradition alone does not determine the truth of theology, Scripture is the standard.  It must be consistent.

In Wesley’s mind, the secular and the sacred were not distinct realities but enmeshed together.  As such, Scripture did not simply impact the “spiritual realm” but should immediately impact our daily lives.  Scripture was the lens through which Wesley sought to view everything.  All Truth was God’s Truth and would not be contradictory to one another.  And, more importantly, experience and Scripture worked together as mutual components.  Experience’s data can only afford us so much understanding.  Scripture is not merely a supplement to that knowledge, but helps us to enrich and construct a fuller account of reality.

For me, this answers the greatest part of the question: “What is the role of Scripture in theology?”  It is the very starting point of theology and it holds an authority position for determining true, correct theology.  Scripture provides the data and material that can be used by theology.  However, the question becomes how do we interpret correct theology from Scripture, given that there are so many interpreters and interpretations throughout the history of the Church?

Obviously, this is not an easy question.  However, I believe this provides a practical venue for Wesley’s hermeneutical circle.  The hermeneutical circle shows us that our interpretation of Scripture is not an independent authority.  Rather, there are other “tests” by which we may try the validity of our “understanding” of Scripture: experience, reason, tradition, Scripture.  As such, theology may be said to be consistent with Scripture, with reason and logic, with the experience of the faithful, and re-producible in other people’s lives.  A particular theology’s validity can thus be tested in the “crucible of life” where reason and tradition are tools and Scripture and experience are sources and arenas for experiment.  They are dependent on one another and must be balanced as such for theology to be consistent, practical, and true.  So, we see that even Scripture’s interpretation must rely on these other parts in order to function appropriately.

As said previously, Scripture provides the data and material for theology… it is the source of theology.  It is the revelation of God to us, which allows us to know Him.  Therefore, in interpreting Scripture, God’s Word and Revelation, it is necessary that God illumines us so that we might fully and correctly understand!  Theology is not done in a vacuum.  We bring many assumptions and “modern” interpretations to the table by which we have been shaped.  We tend to place those upon Scripture when we read and study it.  As biased readers, we must hear once again from the true Author and Perfecter of faith.  And, it is only by the Holy Spirit that we are led into all Truth.  There is only One who may speak about God and that is God himself.  To speak about God without God is to place ourselves in His role… which is idolatry.  So, although Scripture gives us the raw data, we cannot fully grasp its mystery without the quickening of the Spirit.  True theology does not simply interact with the text, but must engage the Spirit of that Letter.

Reason and Theology

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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What is the role of reason in Christian theology?

Reason plays an integral role in theology.  For those who claim that Christianity is a religion of ignorance, they seriously under appreciate the interaction of logic with experience and Scripture that has been implemented throughout the history of the Church.  Theology is where reason, guided by the Spirit, synthesizes the knowledge gained from both experience and Scripture.  Logic allows us to move from knowledge to understanding.  Jeremiah 3 promises that God will provide such leaders and shepherds to guide his people.  It is by discernment that we evaluate the profit of a belief, as well as, testing to see if it is cogent and sonsistent.

Experience and Scripture provide the information and data with which reason may construct a framework.  Reason, as such, is merely a tool for interacting with that raw material.  It is very much the refining process by which that information may be re-introduced back into the arena of experience to be evaluated.  Reason provides a coherence and consistency as both Scripture and experience are weaved together to express Truth in its many facets.

Of course, there have to be several commitments for reason to play such a large role in theology.  Like Wesley, one must believe that faith impacts reality.  Furthermore, one must believe that both the sensory and the trans-sensory realities work by the rules of logic.  In other words, it informs our experience both positively and negatively.  It defines what we might know and what is impossible to know (i.e. the average height of a unicorn).  As such, reason really helps provide boundaries and framework for our theology.   And, one must have a commitment that the secular and the sacred are really not separated but enmeshed in one another.

If this is true, the secular and the sacred work according to logic, we can assess the validity of truth claims by an “empirical” process.  This renders theology as a very practical endeavor.  It does not simply allow a theoretical, mental bent for theology.  That does not mean, as Wesley tended to think, that a truth claim’s validity rested upon its immediate applicability to reality.  There is room for knowledge that is in the process of being refined and tested.  Additionally, a claim’s worth does not rest on a time frame.  However, it ultimately must be able to be applied to the realm of life and experience.  Or, as Wesley might put it, knowledge and understanding must meet together to produce genuine Christian living.

If Truth is governed by the rules of logic, it is necessary for it to be consistent in its application to both experience and Scripture.  Experience and Scripture cannot be contradictory if they are both held to be authorities of Truth.  Reason provides a tool by which we work between the tension that is often found existing from the knowledge gained in Scripture and experience.  Reason helps us see the connections between the two and allows them to interact with one another, informing each other, giving accountability.

There is an undoubtedly important role that reason holds in theology.  However, reason, like our knowledge is limited in its scope.  Where knowledge is limited, reason, which is dependent upon experience and Scripture, will be limited in what it can assert.  For instance, Scripture only hints at the nature of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Speaking about something that in nature and character is both three and one is beyond the full capacity of reason to explore or understand.  Another example is the humanity and divinity of Jesus.  How is it possible that God became fully man as well?  It is a mystery which is not fully explained by Scripture.  As such, we can only guess and speculate with the information we do have… but this is often unsatisfactory in communicating the full reality of these mysteries.

In relying upon reason, one might tend to say it has the ultimate authority in determining Truth.  The danger in relying solely on our powers of logic is self-deception.  This can render us closed to Truth that other voices might add to our endeavors.  One voice that might be hindered by such pride is the Holy Spirit.  From a Christian perspective, it is only the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand Truth.  Without the Spirit to guide us, it is likely that our theology will be impractical or simply informational, rather than transformational.  Or, we might say that reason must be joined with love, as the apostle Paul exhorts us.  All knowledge and understanding means nothing if love is not present in our engagement with God and others.  Wesley understood this aspect well.  Christian history has attested that logic alone does not provide for Christ-like living.

Dr. Crutcher states, “If it is true what Wesley says, concerning a prophetic enthusiast, ‘When plain facts run counter to their predictions, experience performs what reason could not, and sinks them down into their sense,’ then we cannot say experience is always constrained by reason.”  Experience must be allowed to sit in judgment upon the value of truth claims proffered by reason.

Reason cannot be left to the individual alone, lest it become easily corrupted by personal bias.  Tradition, in the sense that Barth discusses it as a dialogue among students, provides a sounding board with which reason can interact.  It allows us to hear the voice of reason found in others throughout the history of the Church by which we might evaluate our own theology.  Again, this is based on the assumption that Truth will be consistent throughout time.  Therefore, reason must be in constant discussion with others to help guide, shape, and refine it.

Another problem that reason can present, given its empirical nature, is the dismissal of personal experience.  Whether those experiences be visions or some other type of activity attributed to the spiritual realm, Reason might not grant any credence to such events.  In fact, it might seek a natural explanation (i.e. delusions, drugs, sickness, or lying).  However, logic cannot necessarily disprove the validity of such events.  In such cases, it is important to understand the restrictions that bind logic.

This, I believe, shows the precarious nature of logic.  Logic is not an innate gift that each person is born with.  Rather, it takes effort and time to develop that ability.  That is also why it is important and necessary for logic to be guided by other “students” participating in the theological discussion.  Proverbs 27:17 reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  Logic gives us a level playing field in which to begin the theological discussion.