It is good to question what you believe.

It might freak your friends out.  It might freak your pastor out.  It might freak you out.  But questioning what you believe is a good and necessary part of a maturing faith.  A lot of our theology is absorbed uncritically from the world around us and not all of it is good.

The process of questioning our theology can be disconcerting because we don’t just question the things that we ultimately determine are bad or false; we also question the the things that we ultimately determine are good and true.  It’s the questioning (doubting) process that allows us to figure out what is good and what is bad. It’s how we determine what we carry forward with confidence and what we need to leave behind.

The refining process includes exploring what we believe along with why we believe it and where it comes from.  Today we’re looking at the where, in coming weeks we’ll explore the what and why.

Wesleyans acknowledge that theology comes from many sources; our favorites are the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience. These four sources make up the “Wesleyan Quadrialteral.”  Wesleyans aren’t the only people that acknowledge these sources but somehow we won the naming rights.

The Bible is listed first because the Bible always wins. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God.  In its pages God reveals who he is, who we are, and his plan for creation and redemption.  It contains the truth that he wanted to make sure everyone had access to. The truth contained in its pages applies to all people, everywhere, for all time.  God speaks outside of the Bible (in nature, through the Holy Spirit, in dreams and visions, and other ways) but he will not contradict what he has already said in the Bible.  The Bible is the final authority for our theology.

It would be nice if you could just equate your theology with whatever the Bible says, but it isn’t that simple.  Anytime you read anything, including the Bible, you interpret it.  And it’s likely that you’ll interpret it differently than the person sitting next to you, because you are  both viewing it through your own unique lenses.  Your lens is shaped by your age, gender, culture, experiences, language, etc.  Because the Bible is relatively clear most of the time, but is definitely able to be interpreted a variety of ways, we use the other sources–tradition, reason, and experience–to shape our theology in a way that (we hope) is inline with what God intended.

Tradition can be very helpful…most of the time. It’s unlikely that you’ll discover something in the Bible that hasn’t already be researched, discussed and debated by others of the last two thousand years of Christianity.  There are a lot of things that the Church has ruled as heresy*…and a few things it’s reversed its stance on over time.  But this general consensus on core topics over hundreds and thousands of years is helpful for informing our theology.

Reason is using our brain to process what we read in the Bible, what we hear from tradition, and what we experience. It’s reason that tells us that God doesn’t really have wings and he’s not really a bird despite the many references in Psalms that talk about God protecting us with his wings because reason tells us that the Psalms are poetry and should be interpreted as poetry, not like a narrative, or science book, or news story.   John Wesley studied philosophy and science along with other disciplines that helped shape his theology and inform his faith.  When studying theology both our heads and our hearts are important.

Our theology is shaped and informed by our experience.  It’s not uncommon for people to believe that God is gracious and compassionate when they experience grace and compassion from those who bear his name.  It’s also not uncommon for people to believe that God is angry and judgmental when the are attacked and judged by Christians.  Experience, of course, is incredibly subjective and needs to be submitted to the Bible but we shouldn’t be afraid to explore our experience and allow it to shape our theology.  It is good to know that God is love because we read it in the Bible.  It is better to know God is love because we have felt his touch and experienced his unconditional love and grace.

Our experience can shape our theology when something tragic happens that our belief system isn’t prepared for.  A divorce, death, or diagnosis can shake us to our core and cause us to question God’s goodness, his power, or his very existence.

There’s a thing in the Bible called “the barren woman motif.” Infertility is a challenge  that comes up over and over again throughout the Old and New Testaments. Anytime a barren woman shows up you know God is about to do something amazing; I can’t think of a barren woman we meet in the Bible who doesn’t eventually become a mother.  For those of us who have struggled with infertility and loss, in any of its forms, this motif is not merely an academic category, it is an emotionally engaging reality.  Sarah who is barren well into her 90’s gives birth to Isaac, the son of promise through whom the covenant God made with Abraham passes.  When Hannah is barren and cries out to God, he hears her and gives her a son who will faithfully lead Israel in their transition to monarchy.  Elizabeth is barren until she receives word that her son will be the one who prepares the way for the Messiah.  It is clear in all of these stories that God cared about these women, not just their wombs or their children.  When I read their stories, I experience both longing and joy with these women and I am deeply moved by a God who is involved in the intimate details of our lives, including our ability to become pregnant and carry a child to term.  I haven’t heard a lot of men hone in on the depth of the impact of infertility and how God relates to it.  I think this is, in part, because their experience doesn’t cause them to linger on these topics. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the way it is.  My experience with infertility causes me to view these passages and, as a result, God differently than I would otherwise. Our experiences shape our theology.

The Bible, tradition, reason, experience.  Four sources of theology, but not equally authoritative sources of theology.  When there is a clash between the Bible and tradition, reason, or experience, the Bible always wins.

As you become more aware of what you believe and ask more questions about why you believe it, also take the time to ask, “Where did I pick this up?”  Begin to figure out where your theology is shaped by the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience and ask yourself which source(s) are most important to you.

When I’m writing I always struggle with what to leave out…so the things below this line our things that didn’t fit in the main post but I couldn’t not share.  I hope you enjoy them!

I just watched this fun video podcast (is that a thing?) of Tripp Fuller interviewing Tom Oord regarding the question, “Why go Wesleyan?” There’s a lot of great stuff in here about what it means to be Wesleyan, but I’ve linked it to the section where they’er talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Also, as an added bonus for parents (and/or teachers, pastors, youth group leaders, basically anyone with religious authority who influences kids and teens and adults), I’m getting on a soapbox and talking to you, right here: If you provide a safe space for your kids to question theology and authority when they’re younger I’m convinced that you can provide a safe place for them to do this as their doubts and questions get bigger and I’m also convinced this will make it more likely that they’ll learn to walk through these refining seasons with their faith in tact on the other side.  But when they’re afraid that you’re going to freak out on them if they ask questions they’ll either stuff it until they explode or find somewhere else they feel safe to process…but it might not be a good place. My advice?  Be honest about your doubts and questions and engage in theirs without freaking out…it’s good for both of you.  This comes not from my years of parenting experience (my daughter is only six) but from my years of working with high school and college students.

*heresy =wrong theology

One thought on “against the uncritical absorption of theology

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