The Bible is one source for informing your theology. There are other sources that can inform your theology as well, including experience, logic, and tradition.
These four sources are the primary means for informing Christian theology. We’ll explore them here, but first, let’s dive into why this matters.
Why This Matters?
Simply put, this post will give you a framework through which you can categorize and make sense of your life and your theology. Let me put it this way…
Throughout your life, you’ll come across thousands of books, songs, sermons, podcasts, etc. all claiming to understand who God is and what He/It is like. You’ll have to determine what you take and what you leave.
You’ll come across opinions, events, behaviors, and situations that are described as Christian. You’ll have to determine what you accept and what you reject.
You’ll have your own experiences where it seems like you heard a small voice or had a feeling in your gut or had an inclination to take this action or say this thing; others will have theirs. You’ll have to make sense of it, call heads or tails on it.
You’ll read historical accounts and study saints of old and see what others have said about God over the centuries past, and you’ll have to determine what stands the test of time and what doesn’t.
How important is each of these things in informing your theology?
Do you give the same weight to the Bible as you do to a pastor’s sermon? Do you give the same weight to that life experience you had as you do to what early Church fathers wrote?
If you were trying to make buckets out of these things, you’d first have to sort what things go in which bucket. Then, you’d have to determine which bucket is most important, how much weight and authority you give to each one, and then from that magical math, come up with your view of God and your place in this world. So let’s dive into this a bit further and see what we come away with:
Source 1: Bible
The Bible is a great source for informing Christian theology. While there is some debate as to what should be included in the Bible and what should not, overall, there’s a pretty general consensus on at least 66 of the books. And the canon of Scripture has been mostly agreed upon for approximately 1700 years.
Therefore, it seems like the Scriptures, aka the Bible, would be a good foundation for determining your theology. Those 66 books seem to hold true and stand the test of time, regardless of world events over the course of history.
By standing the test of time, across nations, across languages, and across denominational lines, the Bible also seems to have this level of trust that experience, logic, and tradition don’t have.
What I mean by that is with 7 billion people, experiences can be all over the place. Just ask a Reformed Baptist how they connect with God, then ask a Pentecostal. Wildly different.
Logic can be a good factor in developing your theology until you’re asked the question, “Could God microwave a burrito so hot that even He couldn’t eat it?”
Tradition can be a good factor in developing your theology, but we’ve seen throughout history that certain traditions don’t stand the test of time (for example, Catholic indulgences before the Reformation, or slavery being justified by Christians pre-Civil War). We’re much better off without those traditions now.
While interpretations of the Bible vary substantially, everyone in Christendom sees the importance of the Bible in informing your theology. It’s the one standard most everyone can agree on. Now whether it’s infallible and inerrant and all the rest of it, I don’t want to dive into all of the debates here.
Suffice it to say, if Christians for centuries have been able to agree that the Bible exists as a good source of theology, I’m going to take it, because it seems we can’t agree on much.
I find all the stories, historical accounts, letters, and other forms of literature within it to be highly valuable and useful. It informs doctrine, demonstrates truth, exposes rebellion, corrects mistakes, and shows me (and all of us) how to live in a way that pleases God.
What’s this mean for me? If I’m making a pie chart of how much weight I give to the Bible, I probably put it around 60%.
Source 2: Experience
The experience between Christians varies greatly.
Our experiences can include our views on prayer, on communion, on mentoring and discipleship, and on life events. There’s more to it, but let’s just quickly touch on those few things.
Prayer: When I was in seminary, there was a guy who said he prayed to God about everything, even asking God what he should wear that day. Now I’m a big advocate for prayer and I believe you should pray about anything that’s on your heart. But to pray about what to wear — I don’t know?
I could be wrong, but I feel like God may want us to use our brains and make some simple decisions. (For what it’s worth, that guy had no style and couldn’t match if his life depended on it, so I wonder if God was just toying with him if He was indeed telling him what to wear!)
Some people pray before meals, some pray every morning and evening, some pray at various intervals throughout the day.
Some recite their prayers, some improvise and develop them on the spot, some pray in special languages.
All I know is prayer has been super valuable to me and helped me connect with God in numerous ways throughout the years.
Communion: Communion is one of those things that varies from denomination to denomination, person to person. It’s a great way to reconnect with God and reconnect with fellow believers. It can even remind you of saints of old. But if you go to 10 different churches, you’ll see 10 different ways you can experience this.
Mentoring and Discipleship: This is a way of life in some Christian circles and other Christian circles don’t seem to think about it at all. For a good book on the topic, check out The Invested Life by Rosenberg and Koshy.
In my experience, a good mentoring relationship can really help you grow in your faith and help you experience God in deeper ways.
Life Events: It’s obvious that life experience differs greatly for Christians because 7 billion people can see things in 20 billion different ways. That said, if you ever have a personal experience where you believe God was definitely involved, you hold that in your heart and mind for the rest of your life.
If you heard that still, small voice, or you followed that nudge in your spirit, it’s likely you’ll never forget it.
We live in these bodies and in this time / space continuum, and we have to put some stock in what we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and otherwise sense.
What’s this mean for me? If I’m making a pie chart of how much weight I give to experience, I probably put it around 20%.
Source 3: Logic
Have you ever talked to that person who claims they just believe the facts? If it can’t be proven scientifically, they can’t believe it?
Those people drive me nuts.
And trust me, I value facts and logic. Just ask my wife.
When someone is making an argument, I often ask where’s the data to back it up. When someone is presenting their case, I can dissect and point out the flaws quickly (though I do keep my mouth shut most of the time for wisdom’s sake). When someone’s emotions are getting the best of them and rational thought is being thrown out, I’m often sought to bring calm to the situation by bringing another perspective (aka a more rational one).
I earned A’s in college logic. Let’s just leave it at that.
Now, all that said, there are thousands of things that happen in this world that I can’t wrap my head around. Logic simply can’t explain it.
Did God give us logic? Yes, absolutely.
Can logic explain everything that happens in this world, in this galaxy, and beyond? Not a chance.
Logic can take you a long way, but it can only take you so far. Then, faith has to enter the picture. Faith in something – be it God, yourself, or something else. Just listen to this podcast from Rob if you want to go further down this trail.
What’s this mean for me? If I’m making a pie chart of how much weight I give to logic, I probably put it around 10%.
Source 4: Tradition
Tradition is made up of all those things saints of old have believed for thousands of years. Some of it is good; some of it is bad; some of it is ugly.
The ugly stuff would be indulgences, slavery, the Crusades, witch hunts, and other atrocities done in the name of God throughout the centuries.
The bad stuff would be things like arguments over baptism, arguments over end times, which feast days matter, etc.
The good stuff would be things like that have been handed down through the centuries like: meeting in healthy small groups, reading liturgies and catechisms, and artists who have made paintings, sculptures, books, and music that resonate with the soul. These traditions are good and worth holding on to.
But personally, tradition doesn’t do much to inform my theology. It seems to come and go in waves. I’ve studied church history and honestly, there seem to be very few bright spots that made it in the history books. I’d much prefer reading the original sources and sift through it myself.
Although I don’t put a lot of stock in tradition, I do find it has its place. It can be a great way to have checks and balances when supposedly “new” waves and movements come along.
What’s this mean for me? If I’m making a pie chart of how much weight I give to tradition, I probably put it around 10%.
Source 5: The Unknown
You can have the Bible memorized, have journals stacked with personal experiences, be an ace in logic, and recite volumes of church history, and it still wouldn’t account for everything there is to know about God and about the nature of life.
Why? Because we as humans are not all-knowing.
So I find you need a healthy dose of the fifth source, which I call the Unknown. Curiosity. Peculiarities. Oddities. All those things that can’t be classified.
What’s this mean for me? If the pie is 100%, the Unknown is 1000%. It’s the infinite permeating all the gaps. It’s everything I don’t yet know or may never know. The Unknown. I know less than 1% of everything there is to know and I’ve read a book a week for over 10 years. So that humbling fact of knowing less than 1% needs to inform my theology just like the things I do know.
The History: Wesley’s Quadrilateral
According to the history books, this concept was developed by John Wesley and was named Wesley’s Quadrilateral. Others have since named it the Wesleyan or Methodist Quadrilateral: Scripture, Experience, Logic, and Tradition.
I can’t help but wonder if someone had this idea much sooner than John Wesley and even taught it. But he must have formalized it or drawn a picture of it to gain credit for it.
Personally, I’m not Methodist, but when I first came across Wesley’s Quadrilateral in my freshman year of college. I found it to be a very useful concept. In those formative years of my life, it helped me think about how my theology was / is / will be shaped.
Hopefully, you’ve found it to be helpful as well.
Visit this page for more posts in this series on “What is the Bible?”.
Visit this page for commentary on different books in the Bible.