The Four Sources of Theology

The Four Sources of Theology

Introduction

Authority is a question that all theologians have to address, simply by the nature of the topic of theology. Theology is first, the study of God and second theology deals with drawing out the implications for man found in the study of God. Generally, the authority for theology has to be derived from the concept of absolute truth and absolute truth is based on God and his character. The problem comes from the nature of God. Since God is above, in the scene that he is supernatural, or wholly other, and the theologian is natural, the theologian must rely on revelation, what God has shared of himself, to have any understanding of God’s character and the ultimate truth God’s character teaches. There are four sources for revelation that a theologian can draw from: Scripture, Natural Theology, Experience, and Tradition; and they must be kept in proper authority structure, with scripture norming all other revelation because scripture is that revelation from God which transcends the natural and reveals what cannot be learned any other way.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Using the Four Sources

The appropriate order for God’s methods of self-revelation is scripture, general revelation from which natural theology is derived, experience, and tradition. This ordering makes logical sense because in both scripture and natural theology are God’s expression and experience and tradition are how we interpret that revelation.

Scripture

              John Calvin does not downplay the need for the other forms of revelation, however, he does place scripture in the preeminent position when he wrote “[b]ut though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place[scripture], and then descend to the latter[natural, experience, tradition].”[1] Highfield concurs with Calvin by saying that the scripture is the “norm” for everything Christian including theology.[2] The reason scripture holds this place as the norm of norms is twofold, first Aquinas points out that scripture reveals things that are “above the understanding of man”[3] and second because God has stated that it is authoritative in its pages.[4] The difficulty with scripture is that it must be understood by finite fallen minds. It is infallible, but its interpreters are not.

Natural Theology

            Natural theology is what can be known about God from the creation. The scriptures give legitimacy to natural theology in passages like Psalm 19 where the creation speaks of God’s glory. Paul acknowledges that the creation can communicate, in a limited way, certain things about God clearly enough that no human has an excuse not to know them: “namely, his eternal power and divine nature.”[5] The limitation of nature to talk about God comes from God’s personhood. Nature can tell us that the creator God is personal, because impersonal could never create person. However, nature can only reveal what God’s personality is like in a limited way. A good example of this limitation is the Trinity, nature reveals that God is infinitely diverse and yet unified, however, there is nothing in nature to show that God’s diversity and unity comes in the specific form of the Trinity. Only God’s self-revealing in scripture can do that.

Experience

Experience and tradition stand on the same rung of the ladder of revelation. They are similar in many ways. Experience is important because it is the medium. Everything must pass through the senses in order to be cataloged in the mind or be hidden in the heart.[6] This kind of experience is what Highfield calls sensual experience.[7] Johnathan Edwards argued that from experience the “posteriori … that three must be an eternal cause” could be proven.[8] Highfield also highlights two other forms of experience, aesthetic and personal.[9] Personal experience of God is what makes Christians Christian. God personally regenerates the hearts of believers[10] and send his Spirit to seal them[11] and be with them forever.[12] Unfortunately, all of these types of experiences do share one problem, the fallibility of the human heart.[13] Anyone that has read Adolf Hitler’s work Mein Kampf, would come away understanding two things; first, that he believed in what he was doing and second, that he did not think it was wrong. This is why experience is very dangerous, because it is filtered by a person’s own mind. Calvin, as quoted before, said that experience comes after scripture for the reason that human reason is fallible.

Tradition

Tradition comes from experience; however, it is safer than experience because it is communal. Tradition is a community expressing and continuing on its experience of God. Tradition is very valuable for Christian formation within a body context. However, the danger comes in when tradition becomes an expression of its own. The core doctrine of the reformation is two words, Sola Scriptura (scripture alone). The reformers were dealing with a church that placed authority in church tradition equal to that of scripture. The Reformers understood that scripture is self-revealing and has a place above church tradition. The cannon is the cannon, not by church proclamation, but by self-authentication.

The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture

In discussing the Wesleyan quadrilateral Donald Thorsen points out that the Anglican position on scriptures role and authority is between that of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. This, Anglican, bent is clear in N.T. Wright’s explanation of scriptures authority. Wright’s most pointed argument for how the Bible’s authority works came from his example of the “fifth act.”[14]  Wright argues that the Bible is the first four acts of the human play: the “Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus.”[15] Wright’s conclusion is that each person, and the church, must position themselves to act out the rest of the play in a way consistent with the first four parts. This way of explaining biblical authority leaves two major problems in its wake. First, this makes man’s perception of the scripture the final arbiter of what the Bible means. Second, the actors in the first four parts never treated the Bible in this manner. Jesus said, “it is written,” and he was clearly appealing to specific commandments in the scripture that he considered more than an outline on how to live life, for Jesus the commandments were binding. When Jesus gave his two commandments, fully love God and love people as much as a person loves themselves, he said that all the scriptures were fulfilled in his commandments.[16] Paul treated scripture as the breath of God[17] and that is how scripture has authority. It is not a separate authority from God, rather it is the manifestation of his authority here in visible form. Interpretation of scripture then is done first and foremost by recognizing it as the word, commandments, of God and applying a hermeneutic that treats scripture just as Jesus and Paul did.

Conclusion

The Bible is the story of God redeeming his people, and therefore in a limited sense, Wright’s fifth act methodology will apply. However, the didactic will always interpret the narrative, and the clear will always interpret the unclear. The church and person that keeps the order of revelation, Scripture, Natural Theology, Experience, and Tradition will be able to consistently find God’s commandments in the scripture and apply them in their lives.

 

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[1]. “Institutes of the Christian Religion – Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” accessed August 15, 2018, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.ii.html.

[2]. Ron Highfield, Great Is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008). 62.

[3]. “Summa Theologica.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed August 15, 2018. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.FP_Q1_A1.html.

[4]. 2 Timothy 3:15-17, ESV.

[5]. Romans 1:20, ESV.

[6]. Psalm 119:11, ESV.

[7]. Ron Highfield, Great Is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008). 52.

[8]. Gerstner, John H. (John Henry). 1976. “Outline of the apologetics of Jonathan Edwards.” Bibliotheca Sacra 133, no. 529: 3-10. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 15, 2018).

[9]. Ron Highfield, Great Is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008). 52.

[10]. Ephesians 2:1-5, ESV.

[11]. Ephesians 1:3, ESV.

[12]. Matthew 28:20, ESV.

[13]. Jeremiah 17:9, ESV.

[14]. Wright, N T. “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” 1989, 18.

[15]. Wright, N T. “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” 1989, 19.

[16]. Matthew 22:37-40, ESV.

[17]. 2 Timothy 3:15-16, ESV.

 

 

Bibliography

 “Institutes of the Christian Religion – Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” accessed August 15, 2018, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.ii.html.

Gerstner, John H. (John Henry). 1976. “Outline of the apologetics of Jonathan Edwards.” Bibliotheca Sacra 133, no. 529: 3-10. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 15, 2018).

Highfield, Ron. Great Is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008).

“Summa Theologica.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed August 15, 2018. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.FP_Q1_A1.html.

Wright, N T. “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” 1989.

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