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). What follows are my personal thoughts on the matter (i.e. not to be accepted as some kind of rule…:-)
Scripture is the word of God. The main scripture is the Bible, but since I believe in revelation, I must add the commentaries of the church fathers, saints and other Christians as a lower sub division of scripture. However, they are valid only so long as they correspond to the main body of Scripture and specifically to the Gospels. The Gospels are the most important part of Scripture and anything, be it in the New or Old Testament or written or spoken elsewhere, must be in agreement with the works and sayings of Jesus Christ. This is because in Christ God reveals Himself to us in person, just as He is, no less, no more. Thus Jesus Christ is actually God’s main revelation, so all others come second, be they biblical or patristic or modern.
Tradition as a criteria for normal is for me a retrenchment. I don’t believe in things that are just because they always has been if I am not given a, for me, sufficient explanation of the meaning or purpose if it. So every part of tradition as “the general faith of the church through all ages” does not necessarily have equal value for me, whether they are dogmas, liturgy, methods of interpretation or something else.
Reason is a great tool. It can be used to distinguish between right and wrong, plausible and questionable etc. but should not be thought of as supreme judge. I believe that truth is not necessarily rational, most things aren’t, and the deeper one digs into human consciousness or the higher one reaches towards God, the more irrational things become. I have no problem however, in believing in things that make no sense for others, as long as they make sense for me. So I guess I put great store in my individual capacity of reason.
Religious experience is, how I see it, like any other experience: an inner feeling, sometimes related to something happening outside, that cannot be judged, described in full or passed on and which overwhelms one so that one needs to make an endeavour to keep it away. What makes religious experience unique is it nature and its direction: any experience that isn’t about God and doesn’t direct us towards God, however holy it may seem, is not religious.
The relationship of Scripture, tradition, reason and religious experience
I think that Scripture is the only source of theology that can stand by itself, the other three need to be validated by Scripture and each other. This is because Scripture, and by that I specifically mean the Gospels, are the closest we can get to God without fear of our frail, fallen humanity coming in between. Tradition is manmade, reason is brainwork, religious experiences can be hallucinations, but Scripture must in some way be inspired by God and the Gospels are most probably correct in their description of Jesus. The reason I believe so is that tradition says so, that I find it reasonable and I can feel it. So in one way, even though Scripture is above the rest, for me to have faith, the other three are needed.
Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!