I was recently ordained to the diaconate in the Anglican Church in North America, and as a way of connecting my own spiritual journey with my study of the church fathers, I’d like to share a few thoughts on how my theological method has evolved from a more simplistic “me and my Bible” approach to the path of theological formation that I am walking today.
Theological formation is the process of shaping our minds to “think Christianly” about God, ourselves, and the world around us. Most of us uncritically hold some beliefs and reject others without any articulated theological method by which to discern what we believe to be true. In the Anglican tradition, there are three sources of authority by which we approach the task of theology: scripture, tradition, and reason. The image of a “three-legged stool,” popularly (but probably incorrectly) attributed to Richard Hooker (d. 1600), suggests that these three need to be kept in balance with one another; this is typical of the Anglican via media that tries to balance Catholic and Protestant approaches to theology.
Source #1: Scripture
In a largely evangelical Protestant context, we don’t need to be convinced of the centrality of the Bible for our theological method. We know, after all, that the Bible is the Word of the Lord, inspired by God, containing everything we need for salvation, and our primary source or “norming norm” for theology and ethical behavior. That being said, we do at times run the risk of constructing our theology on a wobbly one-legged stool. Christian Smith criticizes evangelical “biblicism” for failing to take into account the reality of “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which is his way of saying that (as has been true through all of Christian history) all differences of opinion and even heresies claim in their own way to be “biblical.” To put it another way, when sola scriptura becomes nuda scriptura, our stool is about to collapse under the weight of our own idiosyncratic interpretations.
How, then, do we read the Bible well? At minimum, we need to avoid proof-texting and other forms of eisegesis (reading our own culture and views back into the text). A good approach to biblical interpretation is to examine the historical, cultural, and canonical context of the passage at hand in order to find what the original author meant (invest in some good commentaries!). We would of course do well to draw on humbly listening to tradition and reason to help guide our readings (see below), to allow ourselves to be shaped by the reading of Scripture in the worship of the Church, and to remember that a truly Christian reading of the Old Testament takes into account the authorial intent of its ultimate Author, the Holy Spirit, so that Christ becomes the “hermeneutical key” for understanding it.
When we turn to the question of application, shifting from asking “what Scripture means” to “what Scripture means for us,” I have been helped immensely by N.T. Wright’s “five-act” hermeneutic detailed in his Scripture and the Authority of God. Scripture is not a set of “timeless truths” or “inspiring ideas”; rather, the Bible has an underlying structure that can help us make sense of how to apply the Bible. For Wright, we live in the fifth act of a play, and as such are in continuity and discontinuity with previous acts (Creation-Fall-Israel-Jesus-Church). The New Testament is thus viewed as the foundation for this ongoing fifth act; “the first scene is non-negotiable, and remains the standard by which the various improvisations of subsequent scenes are to be judged.” Thus, “our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter, on the one hand, and the complete coming of the Kingdom on the other.”
Source #2: Tradition
In our context, which tends to view the Protestant Reformation as the retrieval of “true New Testament Christianity” (as if everything between the New Testament and the Reformation was all a giant mistake), we are naturally skeptical of tradition. But the importance of tradition can be seen in the simple fact that for the first centuries of Christianity, there was no set New Testament; rather, the teachings of the apostles was handed down from generation to generation of church leaders. It was only in the fourth century that the canon of the New Testament was fixed, with the books chosen for inclusion selected in large part on the basis of their alignment with this apostolic rule of faith. The importance of tradition can further be seen in the fact that certain core doctrines, such as the Trinity, are not explicitly present in Scripture (though they can be deduced from it). Thus, though Scripture remains “first among equals” as a source for theology, we cannot rightly interpret Scripture apart from tradition.
A helpful, albeit oversimplified, test of whether something is in line with church tradition is to apply the Vincentian Canon (attributed to Vincent of Lerins, d. 445), which defined the catholic faith as “what is believed everywhere, always, and by all.” As helpfully articulated by Lancelot Andrewes (d. 1626): “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period — the centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after — determine the boundary of our faith.” Thus, with respect to tradition the weight of emphasis falls on the patristic period, with the creeds of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) representing the most important summaries of early Christian theology.
Source #3: Reason
We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our minds, and therefore we don’t need to be afraid to include reason, rightly understood, in our theological process. As with tradition, reason does not trump Scripture; rather, reason can be understood as guiding our contemporary application of Scripture and tradition. The idea of “reason” is difficult in our postmodern context of “individual truth,” but to the extent that God has created us as rational beings, we are called to critically apply our minds to the project of making the truths of Christianity (revealed in Scripture and tradition) known and relevant today.
For Richard Hooker, the need for reason came about in response to the Puritan belief that since Scripture alone was authoritative, only those practices explicitly authorized by Scripture should be allowed into the worship of the church. Hooker argued instead that because human society is always evolving, the church must also adapt accordingly to new circumstances, and this evolution must be guided by reason as guided by Scripture and tradition.
Whereas Roman Catholicism views tradition as equal to Scripture as sources of authority, and while radical Protestantism regards Scripture as the only source of authority, Anglicanism seeks a third way: Scripture is the ultimate, unique, and supreme source of authority, but where Scripture is silent or unclear, tradition and reason can help us rightly interpret the biblical text.
Next time: how does this method work itself out with respect to some important theological issues?