I am currently studying Church Dogmatics over the summer and answering questions put by my teacher on different subjects important to theology. This is the first of a series of post I will publish from these studies and writings.
The four sources of theology that Alister McGrath lists in Christian Theology – An Introduction (2011) are as follows: scripture, tradition, reason and religious experience (p.120).
Scripture refers to the books of “the Holy Bible”. These are not merely academic readings but are used in Christianity as part of public worship as well as a source for personal meditation.
The Christian division of the Bible as “Old” and “New” is theological. It’s purpose is basically that Christ comes with a new covenant, a new relation to God, that is a continuation of the old covenant, the old relationship. So Christians take up theological principles and ideas from the Old Testament, those things that are true forever like God being sovereign, and does not take up the cultic practices specific to the covenants in the Old Testament such as circumcision. Thus there is a continuity as well as a distinction between the two testaments. Christ is considered by Christians as the goal of the Old Testament which is achieved in the new and this was in some ways felt by the main patriarchs and prophets.
The canonisation of the Christian Bible, i.e. the establishing of which books were included, is not in itself a theological item. Canonisation is formalizing those documents that were read in most congregations and were considered as universally relevant. All of the books not included were not considered heretical but simply local. The fact that the church did such a selection however, has theological implications. Christians have tried to explain either that “the church has authority over Scripture” (a predominantly catholic approach), those books the church has accepted are Scripture, none else; or that “Scripture has authority over the church” (a protestant choice), which means that the Holy Spirit has given certain books value and they are therefore accepted by the church; or that “the church and the Bible belong together” and are thus authorities together.
There are many ways of interpreting Scripture‘s content. The patriarchs of the Alexandrian school used allegory and those from the Antiochene school the historical context to interpret texts. Augustine used a twofold interpretation: literal-fleshly-historical and allegorical-mystical-spiritual. By the early Middle Ages a four-faced method was used, the Quadriga, in which each text has a literal, an allegorical, a moral and an anagogical (future hope) sense. Speculation was prevented by stressing that only the literal sense was valid in itself and the others were dependent on it. Luther used the above method some, but Erasmus of Rotterdam’s method was more widespread then: inside each text is a kernel of spirit which is to be uncovered. In modern times, exegetes have tried to interpret Scripture rationally, historically, sociologically and literary, to name a few ways. Liberation theology has its own method: resonance, the meaning that resonates with our own situation today.
Most Christians agree that the Bible is in some way inspired. But all through history how and to what degree it is so has not been established. Philo in Alexandria said that the authors were just passive instruments; Calvin held that God revealed Himself in different ways in different ages, as a parent talking to his children; modern ideas say that inspired scripture is synonymous to inspired art, to name a few. Others have suggested that inspiration takes place not in the writing but in the reading of scripture. (p.120-137)
Tradition is a process as well as a body of teaching. Irenaeus held tradition as passing on understanding of Scripture, a guarantor of faithfulness to the text. A three-fold criterion for tradition from the fifth century that has value today in ecumenical discussions is universality, antiquity and consensus, i.e. “the general faith of the church through all ages”(p.139). But tradition should not be allowed to hold the church back, so care has to be taken to distinguish faithfulness to tradition, which letting the faith grow, from traditionalism, blind following of static norms.
The early church and the reformers held that Scripture is the sole source of theology and tradition shows the right way to interpret it, while Catholics tend to put tradition (meaning revelations of church-fathers and popes) as a second source, and radical reformers and the Enlightenment keep to individual interpretation of Scripture, banning tradition. (p.137-142)
Reason has always been important in theology but interest for it bloomed during the Enlightenment. Before that, Tomas Aquinas believed that faith rests on rational foundations but stretches too far for reason to grasp. Post-reform theologians pointed out that if faith is rational it must be possible to grasp it with reason which logically led to the enlightenments argument that if faith can be grasped by reason then it is inferior to reason and we need no religion at all. However, this sort of rationalism no longer holds since post-modern man believes that one can be rational in many ways and none of them can be said to be more right than the other. (p.142-146)
Religious experience is usually used as a term for a persons inner feeling about religion. William James developed four characteristics: ineffability, it cannot be explained or transferred to others; noetic quality, it is authoritative and give insights; transiency, it cannot be sustained or perfectly remembered; passivity, it gives a feeling of losing control.
Religious experience in relation to theology has been dealt with in two ways: experience as the basis of theology; and theology as the interpreter of experience. The former sees Christianity as a way of reflecting on mans longing, the latter as the answer to and origin of mans longing. Schleiermacher used human experience as a starting-point for theology but was countered by the atheist Feuerbach who argued that religion is simply mans trying to give meaning to his experiences. Feuerbach’s critique has led theology to try to objectively ground faith in the history of Jesus of Nazareth rather than in individual person’s feelings. (p.146-151)
Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!