Theological Method and the Prioritization of Sources in Theological Work

A Model for Theological Method: Balancing the Sources and Norms of Theology

(by Jesse Gentile)

Clarifying one’s theological methodology instead of doing theology is like sharpening a knife without cutting into anything. ( Cited by Paul Allen)FOOTNOTE: Footnote

A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife. (Common warning from chefs)

 A motivating concern for this blog post is that theological projects go awry when individual sources or steps in a theological process are given too much authority. They go wrong in two ways. First some theologies make something other than Scripture the norming norm. Alternatively other theologies fail sufficiently engage other sources of theology such as  Experience, Science and Tradition.

The Process in a Nutshell

Theology focuses on what we should believe and say about God and all things in relation to God. [1] Historical theology focuses on what we humans have said about God and things in relation to God. Sociology focuses on what we tend to say contemporarily about theology. Theology however, focuses on what we should say today.

One can begin the theological process from a variety of data sources: Scripture, science, tradition, experience, philosophy, other religious perspectives. Any source (e.g. Scripture, the Nicene Creed, discoveries in neuroscience, the suffering of refugees) can provide a provocation to start theological investigations about God and his relation to those sources. “Doing” theology represents an iterative cycle where we bring various truth claims from one source (i.e. Scripture) into the presence of other sources: Tradition, Science, and Experience. (I will clarify eventually why I keep naming science rather than “Reason” as would be expected from a Wesleyean Quadrilateral).

The model in this article assumes, largely from other voices at work in theology, that theology must attempt to guide the church in what it should believe about God today given the circumstances and knowledge claims we face in today’s world. It further proposes, nearly like the Weselyean Quadrilateral, that theological work should engage at least four sources (i.e. segments of reality): experience, the sciences, tradition, and Scripture. Let’s consider these four sources.

Primary Sources for Theology. The current model suggests four primary sources that should be accounted for if theology wishes to guide the church of today (not merely the church of yesterday). These are in no particular order (see [#2] on diagram). (1) Experience. Theology should engage experience because theology must speak to the present situations we find ourselves in.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Experience here is more than just religious experience (e.g. a sense of God’s presence). It implies that theology must engage — obviously not all at once — the genuine experiences of contemporary life (e.g. persons with disabilities, racial struggles, gender confusion, longing for God, pentecostal phenomenon, women’s experience, the 9-5 workplace, childhood).

(2) Sciences. Today, massive libraries of knolwedge about our world have been delivered to us by the seicnes.  . Theology should engage the sciences because God has created us as embodied and placed us in a physical world. To talk about sin, anthropology, creation, marriage, family, community, race, suffering will require talking about the discoveries of the sciences (broadly considered) in these respective domains. Our theology speaks about the same world that the sciences speak about. God calls us to pursue truth and thus the theologian should speak about God’s relation to the same physical and social that the sceicnes speak of – and in that speaking theologians should so accurately and truthfully. This requires engaging the sciences in a manner that avoids folk-science and engages the ideal sciences as they stand today. FOOTNOTE:

Before moving on to Tradition, a small point must be made about “science” versus something like scientism. At some point in the sciences, especially in areas like cosmology or the intersction between neuroscience and the philospohy of mind – scientists can slip into the role of philosophers. When that happens, what some people call “science” is no longer science but is really philosophy. As a sorce it shifts from #2 (a primary source ) to #10 (a secondary source for theology – which we will have more to say about in the next section.).

(3) Tradition. Theology should engage Christian tradition in search of wisdom and waymarkers from the past. This is grounded in the assumption that the Spirit of God has indwelt, led, and taught the church (the body of Christ) of the past, not just the present.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Much could be said in support of traditions importance for theology, especially for evangelicals to whom this may not seem like a priority. Space does not permit a full defense. However certain key reasons come to mind. First the early church made use of tradition (i.e. “this is how the apostles taught us to read scripture”) to justify its reading of the scriptures in relationship to the regula fidei against Gnostic interpretations.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Second, Protestants, not just Catholics, already do take deep guidance from the past fifteen-hundred years of post-Reformation exegesis and practice. Third, the magisterial reformers like Calvin made generous use of the church fathers in an effort to demonstrate that their read of Scripture was in keeping with the early church. For them, innovation was another word for heresy.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Ideally then, theology must receive substantial guidance — for its particular project — from the major landmarks of historical theology. A theologian engaging the “experience” of global Pentecostalism cannot merely respond with Scripture. She must, at some level, engage the church’s past interpretation of charismatic and Pentecostal phenomenon.

(4) Scripture. Scripture contains multiple genres of literature, dual-authored (by God and humans), to be used by the Spirit in guiding God’s people in a variety of cultures, times, and languages.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Scripture is the primary source of God’s revelation of the words and works of God. Scripture also presents Christ, the Word of God within the Word, as the ultimate image and self-expression of God prior to the eschaton.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

In keeping with much Protestant tradition, this model takes Scripture as its norming norm. Confessions, and doctrinal statements serve as authoritative norms. They were drawn from Scripture, presumably, by the guidance of the Spirit of God. Science, culture, and private experience increasingly exert a normative pressure on life and thought in the West. Each source attempts to vie for norming authority. This model recognizes the path charted by the overall Canonical or Biblical message, as the last word (if genuinely necessary) on what we are to think about God and all of life. (More will be said on Scripture as a norming norm below).

The heart of this paper concerns the fact that different theologies arrive at where they do by, among other reasons, allowing science, tradition, or experience to stand as a norm over what Scripture might say about the other domains. This is a fundamental question in theological method – what ultimately norms our theology and why?

Secondary Sources of Theology. Besides the four primary sources of theology, two others stand out. Philosophy at point [10] represents a use of “philosophy” different from that at point [4]. Philosophy at [10] is philosophy in the sense of schools of thought (e.g. Aristotelian, Platonic, Kantian) and religious schools of thought (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism). These compete with Christian theology as alternative interpretations of God and reality; alternate theologies. While comparative theology can be extremely thought provoking for the theologian, the model in this paper does not hold that engagement with secondary sources like philosophical or religious systems is nearly as essential for theology as is deep sensitivity to the four primary sources above. Only if the theologian wishes to engage them directly or if a system of religion has begun to comprise a regular part of the theologian’s experience, as in a cross cultural encounte, would it become more essential due to the fact that it had become part of the “Data from Public & Private Experience” at level [2 and 3] .

Another secondary source of theology is other contemporary theological systems [11]. Contemporary theological writings are analogous to religious and philosophical systems in that they offer alternative theological interpretations of reality (Christian interpretations in this case). Where one draws the line between “Data From Tradition” and data contemporary theological systems will differ from theologian to theologian. Theological writings from a contemporary theologian play a role in our theological work, but they don’t constitute “tradition” in the same way that drawing on the counsels or Augustine does.

Why do secondary sources not norm theology like the four primary sources? This is because they are interpretations of reality in themselves, not direct sources of data about reality. Theology must be normed by data from reality [#1 on the diagram represents reality that surrounds the believer at the center] (e.g Scripture, Science, Sprit’s leading in Tradition, Experience) but not from interpretations of reality [10 & 11] (e.g. Hinduism, Barth, Frei) One could say that a theologian had gotten their theology wrong because they built it around of a wrong view (i.e. non-truthful) of nature or of Christ. By contrast one’s theology is not automatically wrong if it does not follow Barth’s christology or the Buddha’s view of reality. Secondary sources inform theology, primary sources norm theology.

Method. A method is a repeatable way of doing something usually intended to produce certain results consistently. Bernard Lonergan defines method as “a normative pattern of recurrent and related operations yielding cumulative and progressive results.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote While there is no hope of mandating a universal method in theology, it seems unrealistic to assume that theologians, as individuals, go about their work completely randomly. This paper seeks to offer a set of priorities and actions that appear to be justified in theological work.

A helpful place to begin, by imagening something like stepping into the hermeneutical circle – where instead the theologian is stepping into the theological circle/cycle. One steps into the cycle from any of the primary sources of theology (see  [#2]) because they stand as sources of reality (see [#1]). Often one begins with a question. For example, “What does theology have to say about wealth?” The more general the question the more complicated the task of doing theology. General questions may need to be broken up into more specific and concrete questions.FOOTNOTE: Footnote For example, “What does Christian theology say about the use of wealth?”

One then inquires as to what the four primary sources of theology indicate is true about the question. For example: what has the Church historically taught about use of wealth? What do the social sciences indicate broadly about the use of wealth? What experiences does the theologian have with wealth and its distribution in her society? Finally, what do the deliverances of Biblical theology (e.g. in Job, under the Mosaic Covenant, prior to the exile, in the Gospels, in the Epistles) teach about wealth? Where is Scripture more vocal about the use of wealth and where is it silent? Where does science, tradition, and experience contradict or amplify what Scripture seems to teach about use of wealth?

After having cycled through the various sources, one has new insights with which to answer the original question about using wealth. Typically, discoveries along the way will send the theologian bouncing back and forth between the various sources as she re-focuses and reorients her understanding of the question and its answers; thus the reference above to the hermeneutical circle. The answers she discovers will ideally cause her to form beliefs (see the center of the diagram) about a theology of wealth and its use. For example, if something learned from the domain of “Experience” seems oddly out of line with what Scripture teaches, the theologian may go back and seek to untangle the tension. Here she is seeking coherence in her theological system (see [#9] in the diagram). Attempting to harmoinze sources of theology will always require some form of reasoning, logic, and philosophical reflection (see [#4]) even if the theologian does not want to consider themselves as deploying logic or philosophy.

All primary and secondary sources of theology undergo interpretation. This brings us to the heart of the theological method. Things do not proceed so smoothly in theology as described above. There are competing factors at play. Interpretation is always afoot. A theologian may, for example, realize that experiences with “wealth” differ from culture to culture (i.e. Experience). Perspectives on wealth differ in the Tradition. Psychologists and economists (i.e. the sciences) offer differing stories on the impact of wealth. The Scriptures may offer more verses on wealth than at first realized. As a result, interpretation constantly occurs as we move from sources (see level #2) to reasoning about sources (level #4) One could argue that level #3 and #4 should overlap as interpretaiton and reasoning about sources are heavily mixed. This is true but the diagram makes the factors a bit tidier.

Equally important, the theologian faces not on her own interpretations, but also those of experts in each field. Historians, scientists, economists, theologians, our own experiences – all declare to use the way reality “really is.” Something needs to act as a control over the theological process otherwise the theologian will be awash in authority claims and  ways the data could be combined.

The Norming Norm/Authority in Theology. Here we come to an essential component of this article. I hesistate to say the “heart of the article” because the sources of theology are as essential to any theological project.    What emerges from a theological project is not merely a result of the sources one engages during it. The result is heavily impacted by what is allowed to “norm” (i.e. decide what is most significant) out of the sources engaged. Liberation theologian, James Cone, explains the relationship between norms and sources of theology in a helpful manner:

Sources are the “formative factors” that determine the character of a given theology. The norm is “the criterion to which the sources . . . must be subjected.” That is, the sources are the relevant data for the theological task, whereas the norm determines how the data will be used. It is often the case that different theologies share the same sources, and it is the theological norm which eleates one particular source (or sources) to a predominant role.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

This model agrees. Cone goes on to illustrate how Barth used Scripture as his norm whereas Tillich used gospel relevance (Experience?) as his norm. Cone then makes a point about the importance of what norms our theology that gets to the center of the norming problem:

It is clear therefore, that the most important decisions in theology are made at this junction. The sources and norm are presuppositions that determine the questions that are to be asked, as well as the answers that are to be given. Believing that the biblical Christ is the sole criterion for theology, Barth not only asks questions about the human nature that arise from a study of Christology, but he also derives answers from the man Jesus. Tillich on the other hand deals with questions that arise from the cultural situation of humankind, and endeavors to shape his answers according to that situation. Both approaches are conditioned by their theological perspectives.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

 

Perhaps just here this blog post could introduce more about HOW the sources norm or why? For example… could it be that there are certain sine qua nones in each primary source of theology… such that if any other source contradicts them, it appears that something has gone wrong… NOT … because scripture shouldn’t norm science… but because … truth isn’t being gotten at. For example, talk of the earth being flat – just seems to be impossibly wrong – and so any theological position (pardon the toy example here) that takes theology this way, is obviously wrong. Myron Penner has suggested that each source of theology should be allowed to norm questions in its own domain. 

The problem here is how we know we’ve gotten down to the bedrock of reality? How do we know we have a sine qua non  of that source of reality?

Another suggestion is that we allow each source to offer something like creedal boundaries. Rather than saying positively what is, these boundaries say minimally what we must NOT say. Or they may say minimally what we should say without trying to say exaustively what we should say.

One reason here is that this is the way we see the church… in many centuries doing theology – a constant return to scripture.  

This model takes Cone to be right about the central importance of what norms our theology, however it disagrees with Cone, as to what that norm should be. It may help then to clarify the model proposed here, by contrasting it a bit to some points suggested by Cone’s method in a Black Theology of Liberation.

Following the points above, James Cone goes on to name the sources and norms of his Black Theology of Liberation. The sources are: black experience, black history, black culture, and Revelation. The sources suggested in this paper’s model are Scripture, Public & Private Experience, the Sciences, and Tradition. A theology like Cone’s then would be a secondary source; informing but not norming. Three of Cone’s “sources” (black experience, black history, black culture) would all fall under the single category of Experience on our model. More significantly, Cone has an additional source; Revelation. Rather than see Scripture as a sufficient Revelation — which the Spirit (in illumination) applies to our experiences or interpretation of tradition — Cone suggests God comes to and speaks to the theologian in the current experience of blacks. In his urgency to hear God speak on the matter of black experience, a completely justifiable urgency, Cone declares the black experience to be the location of God’s revelation today.FOOTNOTE: Footnote While it seems that Cone wants to value Scripture as a guardrail for that process of extended Revelation it is hard to see how Scripture can push back at all. Cone associates those interested in the inspiration of Scripture as guilty by association with white racists. When it comes to Tradition as a source of theology, it, like everything else, is measured by Black experience. What is useful in Christian tradition is what supports Black liberation. Black experience and Liberation are the judge, jury, and verdict, of anything theological. When Cone describes the “norm” of Black theology, he makes it clear that the questions and answers of the theologian must play out in a way that serves Black experience rather than any other source of experience. It is hard to see how Cone will hear anything other than what he longs to hear from a Black Christ in a Revelation found only in Black experience, in a Tradition filtered by how it can support the Black Liberation and thus in a theology normed only by what relevant results it will produce in an urgent crisis for Blacks.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

The worry here is that it is that it is hard to see how Cone is not crafting a theology that, ironically, gives power to the enemies of blacks. Here is the worry that drives this paper towards a model that is normed differently than Cone’s. The worry is that anyone can re-trace Cone’s general method but derive an opposite theology in the process; a theology that supports White power for example. This can be accomplished by allowing a different set of “crisis” experiences to norm theology, by selecting a different set of exemplars from tradition, by re-imaging Jesus as the champion of a different crisis, and by shifting the scriptural center of gravity to a new set of passages. At the level of emotion (see [5] in the diagram), White racists (or slave owners) can feel justified in the shift by focusing on a new set of injustices. Cone would certainly disagree with this appropriate of his method, and we would agree with Cone. However Allowing experience to norm theology opens the door for a different experience to re-norm theology in a way that undercuts that of the first theology. What adjudicates between “experiences?”

By contrast, this model seeks to be normed by two things: (a) a sensitivity to all four sources of theology (b) a commitment to Scripture as the norming norm. By contrast, Cone’s theology differs in that it is normed powerfully by (a) — his theology is very sensitive to experience — but it does not seemed to be normed by (b) so as to prevent others from using Scripture to push back.

How is Scripture the Norming Norm? At this point something must be said about what it means to allow Scripture to stand as a norming norm. On one hand, this model reaffirms the locus classicus for many Protestants on Scripture; the Westminster Confession of Faith. Section 1.10 of the Confession reads, “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of counsels, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other than the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote However, this merely kicks the can down the road. How does one know whose interpretation counts as the Spirit speaking in the Scripture?

The question is obviously a mountainous one. We can only point out a few factors that help to sketch the boundaries of how the Scriptures should be interpreted so as to hear the voice of the Spirit speaking through them. First, the work of Hans Frei and others — which argues that the narrative coherence of the Biblical stories, the building characters, and its realistic history-like quality — seems to have gotten something right. Theologians should beware of anyone who handles scripture from a position of suspicion, turning them inside out in attempts to expose redacted sources, borrowings, errors, and then leaves the pieces scattered.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Frei seems right in calling us to allow the Bible to absorb the world, rather than break it into pieces and arrange those pieces around what we take the world to be like from our perspective now. He writes that the direction of pre-critical interpretation “was that of incorporating extra-biblical thought, experience, and reality into the one real world detailed and made accessible by the biblical story – not the reverse.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote This can be an expression of faith as well. It assumes that the narrative coherence of the Scriptures, however they originated, was not accidental or the product of human genius, but was intended by God.

Respecting the narrative integrity of the Christian canon brings us to the insights of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine. Vanhoozer suggests that reading the scriptures as a canonical whole reveals a drama of God’s redemptive acts and covenants in human history. Scripture is not merely a collection of literature. The collection unites to reveal a running story that God has authored about Himself. Furthermore, at the center of that story is Jesus Christ. It is about him. Christ also models for us how to read the unfolding drama by using himself as the interpretive key to the drama and the drama as a key to interpreting himself.FOOTNOTE: Footnote He then comissionis others to do likewise. Readers can follow along as Paul and others interpret the story in ways that are in keeping with the centrality of Christ’s person and work. Lastly we find that we are part of the story and called to live out the drama of redemption faithfully in new contexts.

So much more could be said here. The minimal point is that allowing Scripture to norm theology requires approaching the Scriptures, not as a sourcebook for our own theological projects, but as a divine document whose thoughtflow, characters, repeated themes, culmination in Christ, spread in Acts, exposition in the epistles, summation in Revelation offers us far more structure and norming power for theology than we might expect. It is this coherent narrative that we should find our theological questions in rather than breaking it apart so as to carry the pieces away to form an answer for our questions. The model presented in this paper assumes that this sort of reading is that type which stands the best chance of hearing the Spirit speak through the Scriptures in a way that will provide a norming norm on the other sources of theology.

The Remainder of the Model.

Reality. Movement from reality down through belief and back out to reality forms a sort of “U” shape in this model. At point [1] on the diagram is the word Reality. Reality encircles the theologian and is interpreted in the theological process. Each of the four sources of theological data (light-purple) are limited sources of a wider reality that we cannot access all at once. The containers (see [2]) represent what the theologian knows about Science, Scripture, Experience, etc. This knowledge is only a fraction of the possible knowledge about the wider Scriptural, Historical-Tradition, and Scientific reality. The more a theologian knows; the better.

Truth. While George Lindbeck’s post-liberal perspective is surely correct in insisting that doctrine serves a descriptive and regulative function within a religious community, the model presented here holds that doctrine must retain a propositional skeleton.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Doctrine (rising from theology) certainly regulates what we should and should not say. What grounds this regulative authority however? Hopefully something beyond the mere historicity of the doctrine; hopefully the conviction that what is taught, and the theology that undergirds it, truthfully reflects reality and the God who reveals himself in Scripture. Thus its authority beyond tradition. Like Wolfart Pannenberg and others, this model assumes that there is a truth of the matter to questions about reality that exists independently of human beings and their social construction of perspectives on the world.FOOTNOTE: Footnote While the truth of a matter cannot be known exhaustively, especially in regards to God, this model assumes that a great many important truths can be known about God and the word as it stands in relation to God.FOOTNOTE: Footnote These truths form the skeleton of our theological beliefs and worldview.

Foundationalism & Coherentism: Our model depends strongly on a coherentist concept of truth while not requiring a denial of something like a more modest foundationalism or the possibility of a correspondence theory of truth at certain points (see points [8] and [9] on the diagram). Additionally, the model makes room for properly basic beliefs [7], such as the possibility of a sensus divinitatis as a source of non-inferential belief in God as argued for by Reformed Epistemologists.FOOTNOTE: Footnote This leaves room for the possibility of a modest-foundationalism at minimal points in theological work. However, given the systemic or weblike integration of various doctrines, coherence is more important in this model. Modifications to one point of understanding (e.g. the nature of God) will reverberate throughout other doctrinal loci and to a lesser extent, how we think about other sources of theological knowledge (see [9] on the diagram). During the interpretive process (addressed below) the theologian may encounter what appear to be serious conflicts between various sources of theology (e.g. Tradition and Science). While not discussed further in this paper, the model assumes the methodology of Analytic Theology (see the gear icon at [3] on diagram) as a resource at these sticking points. Analytic Theology, with its roots in recent Christian philosophical theology, has been successful at helping theologians find ways to integrate what appear to be conflicting truth claims from multiple sources of theology.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Analytic theology is deeply helpful to coherence building [9].

Interpretation. The darker purple regions at level [3] represent our interpretation of the data that comes to us from Scripture, science, experience and tradition. While we can access some of that data in a nearly uninterpreted way, the attempt to derive theological meaning out of the data sources of reality typically involves interpretation. The line between the data of theology (light purple) , and the hermeneutical-interpretive process (dark purple) is curved and uneven. At some points very little interpretation is involved (i.e. the interpretive process is thin) between the individual and understanding data from reality [1]. At other points interpretation is very thick. In terms of Scripture, the hermeneutical process is deeply complicated. This paper acknowledges but does not engage the complicated nature of interpretation, especially Biblical hermeneutics, beyond earlier points.FOOTNOTE: Footnote This is the weakest feature in this model currently. Furthermore, all the sources of reality, which are used in theology and norm it in a limited way – undergo interpretation. Culture for example, is an interpretation of experience. Science too is interpreted. This model holds that reality can be known in a limited way; despite interpretation.

Reason/Philosophy. At point [4] in the model we come to the place of integration and the deeply personal nature of theological work. The circular shape is the level where information from various domains is integrated. Unlike Warren Brown’s resonance model or the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, our model places “reason” at the center as an unavoidable process that impacts anything the theologian does when they work through the various sources of theology. While this section [4] naturally blends with the various hermeneutical processes [3] (i.e. we obviously use our reason during interpretive processing) there is also a sense in which there is a distinct and second-order phase of reasoning that goes on separate from interpreting the primary sources of theology. For example, we “reason” our way through the hermeneutical process of reading Genesis 1. Then, in a separate sense, we also reason our way through the implications of Genesis 1 — in light of science and experience — without necessarily doing further exegetical work on Scripture in that moment. This is the more coherence building nature of theology where various sources are integrated. One may of course return back to Genesis 1 ([2] on the diagram) to do further hermeneutical work at [3] if necessary. There is thus a hermeneutical circle constantly going on between [3] and [4] not just between [2] and [3].

Emotion/Language. At the heart of the theological process (note the centrality of [5] on the diagram) is the individual’s deeply integrated sense of language and emotion. Language and certainly emotion seem to function at a deeper level than reason [4]. One could also add intuition here (not on the diagram). Theologians, like all humans, have deep emotional leanings towards certain ideas which can in turn affect attempts to be objective in theological work. Often, philosophical differences [4] bottom out in “intuitions.” In many cases theological thought involves, if we are honest, pursuing evidence for something we want to be the case and failing to pursue evidence to the contrary.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Sometimes this involves pursuing a position that “just seems right” to us without being able to effectively say why that is the case. This is an inescapable although not necessarily overpowering factor in theological work. Accountability against the emotional component is one reasons theology should be done in community.

Theological belief. At the center of the model is the result of our theological and integrative work; belief about God and belief about reality in light of God. Unlike the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, this model puts belief rather than truth at the center. The point is not to suggest that we cannot know truth; this model assumes that we can. (We have worked our way to the center of the diagram and can now move back outwards.)

Truth. At points [8] and [9] are two factors vital for this model; the relationship between belief and reality [1]. This is where truth comes in. Truth, philosophically speaking, is a relation between a belief and reality; a correspondence relation. If what we believe does not correspond [8] to reality it is not true in one sense. Knowledge of correspondence is not required for correspondence to hold however. Not being able to demonstrate the full correspondence between our beliefs and reality does not indicate our beliefs are not true. The more complex our belief networks are however (theological structures are quite complex) the more difficult this process of justification becomes. As a result, robust coherence relations between the various beliefs in our theology (see [9]) are taken by most as evidence of truth. However, a theological system that maintains its coherence at the expense of correspondence with too many factors in Scripture, science, or experience is a questionable system.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

Authority Structures & Figures. Authority structures and figures can play a significant role in theological process (see [6] on the diagram). When people are younger this may be the primary way “theology” is done; an authority figure injects beliefs to the individual which bypass theological method. (Notice how the triangle pierces directly to the level of beliefs at [6])FOOTNOTE: Footnote As a person matures in theological work, this model holds that authority, as an unquestionable justifier of beliefs, should give way to the more routine theological model offered in this paper. However, in certain theological systems, a prophetic figure, a governing body, a cult leader continues to insert beliefs into the theological process in a way that bypasses interpretation and evaluative thinking. This is a controversial issue that is not discussed further in this paper. Authority is very convenient in that it speeds up the theological process. It gives one a sense of foundational access to reality. It frees the thinker from needing to do further work on seeking out certain answers.

This concludes the exposition of the model/method of theology presented in this paper. It is a high level model that looks at how the sources of theology interact. It does not explain in detail how the theologian interprets each source (e.g. Scriptural hermeneutics, philosophy of science, emotional and cultural analysis, historical theology). At the core of the model is the commitment that (a) Scripture is a norming norm, and (b) theology must be sensitive to at least four key sources or norms of input from reality. The remainder of space will be spent holding up a few examples of contemporary theology to the model to see how it works as an evaluative tool. Ideally, a good model will not only indicate where we have gone wrong, it will also suggest where we might make changes so as to get things right.

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