My Personal Theological Method

Introduction

Theological method may be one of the most important topics when it comes to “doing theology,” yet it is also one of the least discussed issues, at least in the Protestant world in which I was raised.  I have my suspicions that there are a variety of reasons this is the case, but I will venture to name one here.  Discussions about theological method, much like discussions about worldviews, are not particularly exciting to most people.  This does not mean that either topic should be dismissed or ignored; on the contrary, I think theological method is literally foundational to all theological practice.  In some ways, our theological method determines not only how we do theology, but also the content and organization of our theology.  Understanding the theological method of other traditions will inevitably help us to understand how they have come to certain conclusions about specific doctrines, whether we end up agreeing with them or not.  With this in mind, the purpose of this paper is to explore my own theological method both before and after taking this course.

Method Prior to the Course

To give you an idea of where I was coming from before the course, I am not sure I could have told you what “theological method” is.  Sure, I probably could have figured out that it basically meant “how we do theology,” but beyond that I was rather clueless.  Nevertheless, I had a theological method.  It is impossible not to have a method when you do theology!  And to a certain extent, not being cognizant of your operational methodology can be quite dangerous for any theologian.

There are a few epistemological assumptions that undergirded my previous theological method.  At the bottom, reality is something which truly exists; life as I know it is not merely an illusion.  Next, that reality is both knowable and communicable.  I would not have said that reality is exhaustively knowable or that human words automatically convey the fullness of the reality about which we speak.  But I would have said that we can truly know reality and communicate in legitimate terms about that reality.  In this light, I was a critical realist.

All of my methodological practices sprouted from the roots of critical realism.  As a Protestant, my starting point was a simplistic version of sola Scriptura.  The ultimate authority, I would have maintained, for doing theology was the Bible alone.  While I still believe this to be the case, my new method has a few important nuances that I will discuss later.  Before this course, though, I held to an extremely simple view of the perspicuity of Scripture.  In my explicit method, I would have held that the only genuine source of theology was Scripture.  To be sure, I would have said that reason, tradition, and experience are important in their own rights, but they are not legitimate sources of theology: they can help us understand what Scripture means, but beyond that they have no helpful function for theological understanding.

My functional method, however, was quite different than my explicit method.  I would not have admitted it, but I am indebted to a number of Reformed theologians for my transition into the Reformed tradition.  To be honest, I am not sure I would have become Reformed at all had it not been for several theologians answering my questions about the Christian faith.  I still think Scripture functioned as the ultimate authority, but I cannot deny the real impact tradition has had on my transition.  The things I saw in Scripture simply were not being answered by the people in the tradition in which I was raised, so I turned elsewhere in hopes of finding the answers.  Thus, Scripture, reason, and tradition featured quite heavily in my functional method, even if I would have denied it explicitly.  Experience, however, did not have much of a place at all.  This was the case for several reasons, the primary one being that I saw the widespread abuses of doing theology by experience alone.  I wanted no part in that!

Method for Future Endeavors

After this course, my method is largely the same, but it now has certain nuances which I think serve to make it more biblical and more effective and useful in real life.  For example, my starting point is still Scripture, and I continue to adhere to sola Scriptura.  The difference now is two-fold: First, I have an explicit reason for doing this; second, I adhere to the necessary qualifier of tota Scriptura, “all of Scripture.”  As far as having an explicit reason for the Bible being the ground and fountain of all my theology, my reasoning is simple.  If the Bible is given by the inspiration of the Spirit, and if it sufficient for life, worship, and knowledge of God for salvation, the obvious implication is that the Bible is the foundational source of all our theology.  Put another way, the Lord Jesus Christ rules his church by his Word, which he has given to us by his Spirit.  If the Scriptures are viewed as a covenantal document, and as a Presbyterian I have every reason to believe that they should be, it simply must be the case that the Bible is the controlling source of all our theological talk.

The qualifier of tota Scriptura is equally as important as sola Scriptura.  When I speak of “all of Scripture,” I mean that every part of Scripture is equally authoritative in what it asserts.  This is an obvious implication of the inspiration of Scripture.  The authority of the Bible comes as a result of the authority of the Lord who inspired it for us.  And since God’s authority is all-encompassing, so too Scripture’s authority is all-encompassing.  At this point, though, I must note that Scripture must be interpreted rightly and according to its genres and contexts.  This ensures that we take the text literally, that is, on its own terms.

There are a variety of ways to organize theological content, some better than others.  One new piece of my theological method is the central theme of divine lordship.[1]  For Frame, “The most central meaning of Lord is to designate God’s role in a relationship with his creatures, called covenant.”[2]  The importance of this theme cannot be understated.  A right understanding of this concept ensures that a theologian never elevates himself (or anything else) above the text of Scripture, the ruling covenantal document of the Lord.  Frame delineates three specific ways in which we should understand the role of the Lord within the covenant relationship: control, authority, and presence.[3]  Each of the three implies the other two.  Underneath this banner, the rest of my theological content can be organized.

There is good reason to place divine lordship at the center of my theological method.  For one thing, it ensures that my theological work will always be subordinate to the covenant Lord.  This is not to say that my work will be meaningless; rather, it ensures my work has real meaning.  But divine lordship acts as a control because it is the Lord who is the all-controlling, authoritative presence in the theological task.  I operate underneath his sovereignty and authority, but he is also present to me through his Word, even as I embark on the theological task.  This means that I am not simply talking about a deity who is “out there.”  On the contrary, the covenant Lord is present as I do theological work.  The effect of this is both humbling and liberating: I am humbled that as a mere creature I have the privilege of speaking of my covenant Lord; and I am freed to pursue the Lord even as he has pursued me and made me free to pursue him.

In some ways, the divine lordship categories of control, authority, and presence function to organize all the other theological doctrines.  Yet there is another crucial issue at play here.  In a covenantal framework, there is no such thing as merely intellectual commitment to the Lord.  The whole being is either fully engaged or fully unengaged; there is no middle ground.  What I mean is this: In order to truly know the Lord, it is necessary to first love the Lord.  It is impossible to rightly know God without love for God.  To be sure, it is God who saves and God who enables and empowers us to love him rightly.  Moreover, we will never love the Lord perfectly so long as we live in these fallen bodies.  But for theological method, it is necessary to note that doing theology rightly is impossible without genuine love for the Lord.  This is where the experience piece comes into greater focus.  Experience cannot function as a theological source on its own, but it is utterly necessary for doing theology rightly.  If one has not been delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred…to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), one cannot know God rightly.  This signals a major change from my previous method, where I would have held to a knowledge of God leading to love for God.  While I think this is true in some respects, I am more comfortable saying that love leads to knowledge.

There are a few reasons why I think a method focused upon the centrality of divine lordship is the best method for doing theology.  First, I think it is the most biblical.  That is, divine lordship is arguably the central theme of all of Scripture,[4] so to employ the same theme in our theological task as we seek to apply Scripture to life[5] seems to me to be the most logical thing to do.  Second, I think the theme of divine lordship will control our method in such a way to remind us who we really are: creatures of the covenant Lord.  In this way, we will not think too highly of ourselves as we operate under the control and authority of the present Lord.  We can never function autonomously apart from God; indeed, everything we have been given, even the ability to do theology, has come from him.  Third, this method has an implicit “rule of faith” that, at least when used rightly, ensures that a theologian properly interprets and applies specific passages.  God’s Word comes to us as a controlling authority, and we cannot escape that reality.

There are also a few implications for faith and ministry.  First, this methodology ensures and enables faithful theological reflection.  Underneath the sovereign presence of the Lord, theology is made possible and rendered faithful.  This is not to say that I will be correct in every jot and tittle; it simply means that I operate from a stance of love for God and obedience toward his authoritative Word.  Second, this method ensures that people have the highest possible view of the authority of Scripture without engaging in bibliolatry.  If the Bible is God’s means of control, authority, and presence for his covenant people, it makes sense that we should hold the Scriptures in the highest esteem.  At this point my method diverges significantly from the method Douglas has mentioned in several class discussions.  Of course, I affirm that God can work outside of the Bible.  But it must also be affirmed that God has designed the Bible to be the ruling document of his covenant people; there is no covenant without it.  If we are to love and know God rightly, it is to be through his Word.  Third, this method has a significant impact on preaching and teaching.  For the preacher, this method helps to both humble and free him, as I mentioned earlier.  The preacher always operates under the authority of God, and only has authority insomuch as he faithfully preaches the Word.  Yet he is free to do this because the Lord has freed him from bondage and to a true knowledge of God.  The preacher need not be a slave to fear, always hoping to say everything correctly with the tightest possible precision.  Rather, he is free to faithfully proclaim the nature and character of the covenant Lord.

Conclusion

To close, I will say again that theological method is one of the most crucial aspects for doing theology.  It may not excite the average layperson, but it is nevertheless a critical area of reflection and thought for any theologian.  My own method has undergone a variety of changes as a result of taking this course.  I think this is a good thing.  With a new method and divine lordship as its centerpiece, I only hope to be as faithful as possible to my covenant Lord.  In this way, I will be able to engage the world with the redemptive power of the gospel.


[1] Here, I follow John Frame.  He works this method out in greater detail in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 15-35.

[2] Frame, Systematic Theology, 17.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] See footnote 1.

[5] Frame’s definition of theology is: “the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life.” Systematic Theology, 8.


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