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The “Rules” of Theology

August 28, 2009

Some very good questions have been asked about how theology is done. First, I would point how it’s NOT done. Theology isn’t like science, although there is certainly some overlap, as you will see. Second, like science, no one has set down rules and said, “thus how you doeth theology”. But, what I’m about to outline is fairly widely accepted in Christian circles, with some degree of flex, or room to “evolve” if you will.

The nature of theology is that it’s a hybrid of a number of different disciplines. This is why modern people have such a hard time with it. Modern people think in hard and fast categories. This can’t be that and things shouldn’t mix. We want everything in nice, neat compartments to analyze, disect, and lock into little knoweldge compartments we can bring out to show everyone how smart we are.

But, real life isn’t like that at all. As many of the posters here have pointed out, we can’t be sure about many things. Things crash together, catergories are often meshed and many times, things are more than one thing. Theology recognizes that complexity and tries to address it from all angles. It tries to take seriously God, philsophy, science, history and human experiences.

Yet, in spite of that messiness, there are boundaries in theology, as in science. There are certain considerations that are taken into account when a person does theology. Of course, these considerations are unconscious. But, if you look at the history of theology, you can see what I’m going to argue in this post.

The way it has done that in the history of Christian theology (I’m certainly not presuming to speak for any other religion here), is by considering three categories: The Bible, Church Tradition, and Reason/Experience.

The Bible- Easily one of the most talked about, revered and reviled books in human history. And, a book that Christians of all stripes, Orthodox/Catholic/Protestants take seriously. I’m not going into a huge explanation of why this is the case, that’s a many post topic in of itself. I’m only concered with the Bible this point as it applys to how theology has to be done. Every Christian theologian takes the Bible as their starting point. And the way they tease out meaning from the text is as follows: 1) What does the text ACTUALLY say? 2)What did it mean to the original hearers? 3) What does the rest of the Bible say about said theological topic? 4) How can we apply it to today using the first three rules? Nearly every Christian theologian has followed those rules to one degree or another. But, very few would argue with what I just laid out.  Anyone who doesn’t at least pay lip service to the above are usually dismissed because they aren’t taking the text seriously and bringing their own meaning to the text. To be sure, that still happens, but very rarely if the above rules are followed.

Church/Tradition- Even some of the most rabid protestants follow church tradition of a type. Granted, its often their own warped view of things, but it’s still a traditon. Human beings, no matter how rebelious we try to be, can’t get away from tradition. And in theology, this is no different. Theology is bound by the history of the church, its fathers and its mothers. When a theologian sets out to “do” theology, he/she must always take into consideration what has gone before, even if it’s to challenge established notions. It’s what allows us to not fly off into all directions and it acts as a check and balance. It’s perfectly analogus to peer review in science. If you think scientists are rigourous in their challenges, you should see how much theologians get tried and sifted with their theories.

Reason/Experience- Believe it not, Christian theology places a high value on human reason and experience. We believe that we are created in the Image of God, and even though that image is broken by sin, there is still a glimmer of the glorious and the true. Further, as Christians believe that God Himself became man, the logos, as John says, we have the power to use our reason and experinece. Indeed, God invites us to just that in the Bible (one day I’ll post my talk on this). So, theologians must wrestle with Reason and experience in the process of doing theology.

So, let’s apply this to an example, such as Benny Hinn. In the first area, Benny take scripture and wrenches it out of context. He doesn’t follow any of the rules about the text and therefore he can make it mean whatever he pleases. Second, Benny essentially give the finger to the church and it’s history by doing what ever he wants, calling people who question him as false teachers and “traditionlists”. Third, he uses what amounts to hypnotic techniques such as hand waving, repetitive chanting, and blowing on people to make people they think God is moving. It’s completely contrary to reason and experience. 

As I read this, I realize this is a very cursory and nondetailed post. But, my intent is to give the basics and then let the discussion flow from there.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. erp permalink
    August 29, 2009 12:39 am

    How does Higher Criticism affect the Bible leg of the the stool of theology? I note that “Essays and Reviews” came out nearly 150 years ago and was a bit of a bombshell in the Anglican world of that time (more so than even Origin of Species which came out only a few months before).

  2. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 29, 2009 8:09 am

    It certainly plays a part, but many of the early Higher critical theories have largely been outdated or modified in some way.

    But, you have touched on something that people don’t often get. That is, the church was more concerned over the Higher Critical theories than Darwin’s book. It wasn’t until the Scopes Trial that the two merged in the mind of American Fundies.

  3. AdamK permalink
    August 29, 2009 8:16 am

    Thanks for the post. Please continue when you get time.

  4. Andrew permalink
    August 29, 2009 11:56 am

    What about “theologians” who argue that the use in the US of the 1st Amendment to exclude creationism from schools is “tyrrany”? Who on one hand want majority opinion to override your Constitution, but on the other hand will play the race card, suggesting that minorities should be “worried” about policies that the “theologian” disagrees with? Who uses the argumentum ad Nazium to advocate violence (while being careful not to actually say so)?

    Do you recognize who I’m talking about?

  5. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 29, 2009 12:05 pm

    Uh, no, who?

  6. Andrew permalink
    August 29, 2009 12:10 pm

    Francis Schaeffer, of course.

  7. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 29, 2009 12:15 pm

    As for Schaeffer’s view on creationism, to my knowledge, he didn’t really write a lot about it. When he did, I think he was wrong.

    The rest are some pretty serious charges to lay at his feet. Maybe if you presents some actual quotes, we can discuss them or present actual things that you are talking about. This vauge accusation business is a bit hard to address, don’t you think?

  8. erp permalink
    August 29, 2009 12:19 pm

    I agree that much of Higher Criticism has changed over the years though I do wonder how many Christians still think Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (admittedly we might have to start with how many Christians know what the first five books of the Bible are and what is in them).

  9. Andrew permalink
    August 29, 2009 12:26 pm

    From this link:

    We find that in the January 18 [presumably 1982 –Andrew] — just recently — Time magazine, there was an article that said there was a poll that pointed out that about 76% of the people in this country thought it would be a good idea to have both creation and evolution taught in the public schools. I don’t know if the poll was accurate, but assuming that the poll was accurate, what does it mean? It means that your public schools are told by the courts that they cannot teach this, even though 76% of the people in the United States want it taught. I’ll give you a word. It’s TYRANNY. There is no other word that fits at such a point.

    And the race card, later on when talking (of course) about abortion:

    I want to say something tonight. Not many of you are black in this audience. I can’t tell if you are Puerto Rican. But if I were in the minority group in this country, tonight, I would be afraid. I’ve had big gorgeous blacks stand up in our seminars and ask, “Sir, do you think there is a racial twist to all this?” And I have to say, “Right on! You’ve hit it right on the head!”

  10. Andrew permalink
    August 29, 2009 12:55 pm

    More from the same source:

    […] But all the oppression you have ever heard of in Mao’s China, Stalin’s day, Poland, Czechoslovakia — any place that you can name it — Afghanistan — all the oppression is the automatic, the mechanical certainty, that comes from having this other world view of the final reality only being material or energy shaped by pure chance. That’s where it comes from.

    And what about our schools? I think I should stress again! By law, you are no more allowed to teach religious values and religious views in our public schools than you are in the schools of Russia tonight. We don’t teach Marxism over here in most of our schools, but as far as all religious teaching (except the religion of Humanism, which is a different kind of a thing) it is just as banned by law from our schools, and our schools are just as secular as the schools in Soviet Russia — just exactly! Not ten years from now. Tonight!

    Congress opens with prayer. Why? Because Congress always is opened with prayer. Back there, the founding fathers didn’t consider the 13 provincial congresses that sent representatives to form our country in Philadelphia really open until there was prayer. The Congress in Washington, where Edith and I have just been, speaking to various men in political areas and circles — that Congress is not open until there is prayer. It’s illegal, in many places, for youngsters to merely meet and pray on the geographical location of the public schools. I would repeat, we are not only immoral, we’re stupid. I mean that. I don’t know which is the worst: being immoral or stupid on such an issue. We are not only immoral, we are stupid for the place we have allowed ourselves to come to without noticing.

    I would now repeat again the word I used before. There is no other word we can use for our present situation that I have just been describing, except the word TYRANNY! TYRANNY! That’s what we face! We face a world view which never would have given us our freedoms. It has been forced upon us by the courts and the government — the men holding this other world view, whether we want it or not, even though it’s destroying the very freedoms which give the freedoms for the excesses and for the things which are wrong.

    We, who are Christians, and others who love liberty, should be acting in our day as the founding fathers acted in their day. Those who founded this country believed that they were facing tyranny. All you have to do is read their writings. That’s why the war was fought. That’s why this country was founded. They believed that God never, never, never wanted people to be under tyrannical governments. They did it not as a pragmatic or economic thing, though that was involved too, I guess, but for principle. They were against tyranny, and if the founding fathers stood against tyranny, we ought to recognize, in this year 1982, if they were back here and one of them was standing right here, he would say the same thing — what you are facing is tyranny. The very kind of tyranny we fought, he would say, in order that we might escape.

  11. fauxrs permalink
    August 29, 2009 1:57 pm

    But all the oppression you have ever heard of in Mao’s China, Stalin’s day, Poland, Czechoslovakia — any place that you can name it — Afghanistan — all the oppression is the automatic, the mechanical certainty, that comes from having this other world view of the final reality only being material or energy shaped by pure chance. That’s where it comes from

    That is the purest theological claptrap Ive ever heard, oh yes all these evils come from another world view that contradicts his religious one.

    thats right folks all the oppression in Afghanistan had nothing to do with the Taliban, it was all Darwins fault..


  12. Andrew permalink
    August 29, 2009 2:16 pm

    No, that was written in about 1982, so the oppression in Afghanistan was the Soviets, not the Taliban (which didn’t exist at the time).

  13. August 29, 2009 3:22 pm

    I’ll pass.

  14. fauxrs permalink
    August 30, 2009 2:24 pm

    Fair enough, I suppose then that the author who stated unequivically that …all the oppression you have ever heard of …any place that you can name it …is the automatic, the mechanical certainty, that comes from having this other world view of the final reality only being material or energy shaped by pure chance. would have to admit the statement is false once the Taliban took power.

    and if not, then my opinion of the imbecilic statement stands 🙂

  15. Johann permalink
    August 31, 2009 4:30 am

    Not at all relevant, but the mention of Benny Hinn reminded me of this snippet from a while back on the Internet Infidels forum:

    Kid: Mom, I want to be a porn star.
    Me: What?
    Kid: Just kidding. What I really want to be is a televangelist.
    Me: Honey, you are going to be the best damn porn star ever.

  16. Shannon permalink
    August 31, 2009 10:57 am

    I’ve actually a question sir –

    One of the things that’s been raised in one of the communities I frequent is in one of the fundamental differences between theology and any other form of scholarshp. To wit, the statement went something like:

    “Theology is a scholarly study, that is true – but it is unique in that it does not expand any sort of universal concept of understanding the divine. Rather, it exists only within the denomination of its origin, is often roundly rejected by other denominations, and thus forms a perfect circle of closed-mindedness – no matter the scholarship behind it. The bible is viewed within narrow blinders – if the Catholics suddenly came up with a tremendous refinement of theology, you can be certain that the evangelists who view the Catholics as the devil would certainly reject it on those grounds alone – and it is likely that Methodists would simply disagree and not bother to examine it more closely than that.”

    In other words – theology only advances the denomination under which it is performed.

    Another arm of that goes to the question of doctrine – what point is there in modern theology? Is the goal to actually refine a specific doctrine, to adapt a specific doctrine to the modern world, or to differentiate one brand of Christianity from another?

    And.. in events where dogmas collide, how do we determine who is ‘right’, and why does that seem impossible?

    (Please, understand these are serious questions – they are part of my lack of faith, and I’ve been curious about the answers for a very, very long time.)

  17. Knockgoats permalink
    January 21, 2010 6:50 am

    Another arm of that goes to the question of doctrine – what point is there in modern theology? – Shannon

    It provides employment opportunities for people who want an academic career but would never make it in a discipline with real intellectual content, of course!

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