Is there a method to theology?
I recently finished my first year at London School of Theology (LST) in the Master’s program of Integrative Theology, with a specialism in Social Justice. The main thrust of this Master’s program is learning and interacting with a theological method, where we consider the way epistemology, the theory of knowledge, intersects with theology. In the case of the theological method being explored at LST, there are five sources considered to be fundamental elements to anyone’s theology; that of scripture, tradition, reason, experience and community. The goal in studying this is not to find the “perfect” or “correct” theological method, but rather to identify the foundational elements present in each person’s method. Ultimately, understanding a common method will ideally lead to a more holistic and integrative engagement across various theological disciplines as well as bridge the divide that often exists between the academy and the Church.
Some evangelicals(1) would not consider that they themselves lean on any other sources of a method other than scripture. Even as I posted my diagram picture on Instagram, I immediately got a response that scripture should be the only one listed. All too often, I hear something akin to the bumper-sticker motto of, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” I understand that those making this statement are trying to emphasize their loyalty toward God and his Word, which is good. It can, however, also speak of an unreflected approach towards theology. We are often blind to the way in which church tradition, reason, experience, and community influences our presuppositions as we approach scripture. If we prioritize the role of scripture and want to make sure its voice is heard the loudest and clearest, we must first identify the speaker system we are using to hear it. A song can certainly sound very different when the bass is blasting and the treble is completely gone. The same is true the other way around, or if the singing voice is gone, or there are only back up vocals, as my kid’s karaoke machine has shown me. The same song is still playing on the machine but something completely different is heard.
After writing my first term paper, I discovered how central the role of loyalty and commitment play in the epistemological elements of theology. In other words, the role that the sources of the theological method play are often related to the commitment we give to them and our commitment is based on what we see as valuable among these elements. James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, effectively articulates the deeper, more fundamental reality that affection plays in guiding our allegiances as compared to even our belief systems and our thinking, recognizing the important truth that we are what we love.(2) Love in this sense is not just what we find to be lovable but even more deeply what we consider to be ultimately lovable, “a specific vision of the good life.”(3) Each of the sources of the theological method are attractive to us, to the degree that they are attractive, on the basis of how we feel they contribute towards the knowledge of God. When considering this, it is not difficult to see why scripture does not stand alone.
In the next few weeks, I plan on writing out a few ways in which the issues of loyalty play out in regards to the various sources of the theological method being explored at LST.
1. I am aware of the current issues related to this term. My use of this expression is much broader than the way it has lately been used to describe the political movement of conservative Christians in America. The evangelical movement is historically considered to have begun with the work of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and is a loose term to describe Bible-believing communities which emphasize the centrality of the gospel message, and generally do not directly belong to the high Church, Catholic or Protestant.
2. Smith, J. K. A. (2009). Desiring the kingdom: worship, worldview, and cultural formation (Vol. 1, p. 51). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
3. Smith, J. K. A., Desiring the kingdom, p. 52