Session 1

The Foundations of Theology: How We Know What We Know

In Christian theology, we often talk about four pathways to learning about God...

#1

Experience

Experience is a profound and foundational way through which individuals encounter God. It encompasses the personal and communal moments where the divine touches lives, transforming hearts and minds. Through spiritual experiences, individuals feel the presence of God in moments of joy, trial, and everyday life. These encounters provide an intimate knowledge of God that goes beyond intellectual understanding, making faith a lived and felt reality. Personal experiences of God affirm the truths found in other sources of spiritual knowledge, grounding them in the reality of human life and emotion.

Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.

Meister Eckhart (1260 - 1328)

Correctly then is this world called the mirror of divinity; not that there is sufficient clearness for man to gain a full knowledge of God, by looking at the world, but that he has thus so far revealed himself, that the ignorance of the ungodly is without excuse.

John Calvin (1508 - 1564)

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does.

Karl Barth (1886 - 1968)

Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and the genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being. This relationship is not external or extrinsic to our identity but wells up as the defining truth from our deepest being.

Elizabeth Johnson (1941 - )
Can you recall an experience where you felt a profound sense of God's presence or guidance?
What did that experience teach you about God?

#2

Tradition

Tradition connects individuals with the rich heritage of the faith community throughout history. It includes the teachings, practices, liturgies, and insights passed down through generations of believers. Tradition offers a wealth of wisdom, grounding contemporary faith in the rich soil of historical understanding and communal experience. It provides a sense of continuity and stability, linking present-day believers with the vast community of faith across time. Tradition serves as a guide, offering tried and tested pathways to encountering God, and a framework within which individuals and communities can grow and understand their faith. Sometimes, these traditions are passed down to us formally (e.g. Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Buddhism). Other times, these traditions are passed down to us in the values and lessons impressed in us by our families.

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936)

Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.

Jaroslav Pelikan (1923 - 2006)

When we respect our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors, we feel rooted. If we find ways to cherish and develop our spiritual heritage, we will avoid the kind of alienation that is destroying society, and we will become whole again. ... Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions, and this will benefit everyone.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1926 - 2022)
What traditions have formed you most deeply? What gifts do you take from them? What baggage?

#3

Reason

Reason offers a critical and reflective dimension to the understanding of God. It involves the thoughtful exploration of spiritual truths, the discerning engagement with theological concepts, and the intellectual wrestling with the mysteries of faith. Through reason, individuals analyze, question, and interpret their beliefs and experiences. This intellectual process enriches faith, ensuring that it is not only heartfelt but also coherent and credible. Reason challenges believers to think deeply, ask tough questions, and seek a faith that engages the mind as well as the heart.

For since the truth the human mind arrives at by natural reason can in no way be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith, it is clear that such truth, when found by philosophers and transmitted in their writings, can serve in a powerful way to demonstrate and clarify the very truth which divine faith teaches.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274)

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

Pope John Paul II (1920 - 2005)

Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and... know nothing but the word of God.

Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)
Can you think of a time when asking tough questions or exploring challenging concepts led to a deeper or more nuanced understanding of your beliefs?

#4

Scripture

Scripture holds a place of special importance as a foundational and authoritative text for Christians. It is within the pages of the Bible that followers of Jesus meet the cornerstone of their faith, the guiding principles for their lives, and the moral and ethical framework that has shaped Christian thought and practice throughout the ages. Scripture's authority stems from its central role in conveying the historical narrative of God's interaction with humanity, the teachings of prophets and apostles, and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

While scripture is central to Christian theology, there are competing views about its nature.

Fully Inspired

The words of the Bible came directly from God. The Bible is perfect and without mistakes in its original languages.

Dictation Theory: God dictated the books of the Bible word-by-word to the original authors.

Verbal Plenary Theory: Every word of the Bible was inspired by God, but not necessarily dictated to the original authors. God used the authors’ individual backgrounds, personality traits, and literary styles to produce the words that God wanted.

The Bible has stood the test of time because it is divinely inspired by Almighty God, written in ink that cannot be erased by any man, religion, or belief system. Through the many dark ages of man, its glorious promises have survived unchanged. That is because God’s Word is pure – the beginning and the end.

Billy Graham (1918 - 2018)

God’s way is perfect and his Word is flawless. A perfect God could have nothing less than perfect communication with his people. It is we who read hastily, skip prayer, and fail to meditate on his Word, who find it confusing.

Tim Keller (1950 - 2023)

Partially Inspired

The Bible contains truths inspired by God, but it is also a product of the times in which it was written. We must sort through the values, opinions, and assumptions of the original authors to discover God’s truth.

Dynamic Inspiration Theory: God specially inspired the original authors with the underlying message of the Bible, but left them to choose the words used to express that message.

Spiritual Illumination Theory: God spiritually illumined the minds of the original authors as they penned the words of scripture, but in the same way that God illumines the mind of any devout Christian and inspires them to action.

Natural Inspiration Theory: The authors of the Bible were wise men whose superior insight into religion, ethics, and morality enabled them to discern and record divine truths.

What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first "day", then a second and a third "day" – evening and morning – without the sun, the moon, and the stars … Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden … I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings, by using an historical narrative which did not literally happen.

Origen (185 - 253)

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.

Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430)

To read the Bible as God’s word one must read it with His heart in His mouth, on tip-toe, with eager expectancy, in conversation with God. To read the Bible thoughtlessly or carelessly or academically or professionally is not to read the Bible as God’s Word. As one reads it as a love letter is read, then one reads it as the Word of God.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855)

Not Inspired

The Bible was written by authors with no extraordinary inspiration.

Neo-Orthodox Theory: The Bible was written without any special inspiration on the part of its authors. However, inspiration can take place in its reading. God can use the entirely human words of the Bible to communicate divine truths.

Intuition Theory: The authors of the Bible were merely wise men. The Bible consists of human reflections on the nature and activity of God in the world.

The Bible is a human product: it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not how God sees things. So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don't have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death.

Marcus Borg (1942 - 2015)

My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

John Dominic Crossan (1934 - )

Bible stories don’t have to mean just one thing. Despite what you may have heard from a pastor or Sunday school teacher along the way, faithful engagement with Scripture isn’t about uncovering a singular, moralistic point to every text and then sticking to it. Rather, the very nature of the biblical text invites us to consider the possibilities.

Rachel Held Evans (1981 - 2019)
Which of these views most closely matches your own?
What value have you personally found in the study of scripture?

Break out into pairs or trios and share your reflections on the role of experience, reason, tradition, and scripture on your understanding of God.