At this point we still are working with the sources of theology. We have spent considerable time with the Bible as the primary source. We have studied the doctrine of inspiration; and we have dealt with biblical interpretation.
Now we are ready to move to three secondary sources of theology. In the 1960’s a Wesleyan scholar named Abert Outler named the four sources of theology (Scripture, tradition, experience and reason) the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Outler gave us this label, because Wesley overtly tied these four sources for doing theology together in his writings. But theologians in the other traditions deal with them as well.
Scripture as the primary source provides the normative factor. Indeed God’s purpose in inspiring the written word was to provide us with an objective, normative standard for faith and practice. Now it is possible to overemphasize the Bible. This happens when one devalues the other factors and becomes a legalist. But regardless of that danger, the Bible has to have the primary place in theology. Otherwise theology becomes completely relative. That is, when the Bible is not primary, the element that controls the results of theology is removed. Biblical ideas are left to compete in the marketplace of ideas with no special authority. They have no claim of superiority over other ideas, because one idea is as good as another. This has become the view of many in our culture today.
If the Bible is the objective, normative factor, experience is the subjective, personal element. Experience varies from individual to individual. And of course, those who subordinate the other factors to experience become a law unto themselves. Their experience becomes the model for all. Truth is what they perceive it to be.
Tradition, on the other hand, represents the results of the grappling of previous generations with Scripture and experience. Thus tradition is the historical and cultural element in the process. No one is free from tradition. Even groups that have made conscious attempts to break from certain traditions have their beliefs and ways of functioning that make up their tradition. Everyone lives in a given culture at a given time in history. Every group and individual has a particular history. There is no escape from tradition.
Reason is the processing, or coordinating, factor. We have brains; and we think about what God has revealed, if not consciously, then unconsciously. Of course those of us who do theology must consciously think our way through what God has revealed in Scripture, what we have received from tradition, and what we have experienced.
And the result is our personal theology. Not everyone does theology systematically. And not everyone can articulate what they have thought. But everyone who has done this kind of thinking has a personal theology.
Hopefully, the final result will be action on our part. That is, we should make some kind of response to our theological findings. Ultimately doing theology is a meaningless exercise unless we act upon what we learn. Thus ethics, acting on what we know to be right and wrong, should be an important result of doing theology.
Now then, I want to focus our attention more specifically on tradition for a while. And at the same time I want to relate the discussion to Christian higher education in America. There are a multitude of Christian denominations in our country; and most of them support institutions of higher learning. But in spite of this great diversity, American Christian and Church-related colleges, like the denominations themselves, can be categorized roughly into four theological traditions: Roman Catholic, liberal Protestant, Reformed, and Wesleyan. Some might want to make a fifth category for Pentecostals, but Pentecostals normally fall within either the Reformed or Wesleyan theological traditions.
I do not have space in this essay to discuss these all in detail. But we can say something about each. Obviously Roman Catholic institutions reflect Roman Catholic thought and practice.
Years ago, when I was in the military, stationed in San Antonio Texas, I took a night class at St. Mary’s university. The signs of the Church were present everywhere. There was a crucifix on the wall of every room. My professor was a priest, and most of the other professors were either priests or nuns. And of course back in those days, they wore their traditional black suits and habits every day. Much has changed in Roman Catholicism since then. Today most nuns dress in regular women’s clothing, and the percentage of priests and nuns on the faculties of Catholic universities and colleges is smaller. But Catholic symbols still are in evidence in their schools just as in their hospitals.
Liberal Protestant institutions, on the other hand, make little attempt to integrate Christianity and learning. One sees few Christian symbols on campuses, though usually there is a chapel, or a building that once was the chapel. Some faculty members identify with Christianity, but it is not necessary. Indeed some would see diversity of faith expressions among the faculty as an institutional strength.
When I was a doctoral student at Emory University in the early seventies, I found a great diversity among the faculty. A few were atheists, and a few were orthodox thinkers. But most were liberal Protestants. There also was at least one professor of Bible who taught in both the graduate school and the seminary who freely admitted he was not a Christian.
He was raised in another country in a family that was firmly evangelical, or at least very conservative. From what he said, I got the impression that he still was rebelling against that background. But he never explained what it was that had turned him so strongly against his orthodox heritage. That particular professor seemed to have as one of his life’s missions the goal of shaking students out of their cultural Christianity. And he succeeded with some of them, especially at the seminary level.
He knew something very important; namely, that cultural Christianity has no more ultimate value than no Christianity at all. Cultural Christians are persons who refer to themselves as Christians, because they grew up in a Christian environment. They may have attended church services all their lives, but they have no first-hand relationship to God in Christ. They are Christians; or they think they are Christians, because their Daddy or Mommy was, not because they themselves have been converted.
These cultural Christians are very vulnerable to teachers like the professor I mentioned, because when intelligent, knowledgeable people like him challenge their faith, they have no solid basis for their Christianity. Many of them cave in under the pressure and reject their cultural Christianity, without even realizing that what they are rejecting isn’t the real thing.
When I was a graduate student, that professor immediately honed in on me. At first, it seemed that he was determined to drive me out of the doctoral program. In the fall of 1972, I was one of two men enrolled as doctoral students in New Testament. That very first semester, the other new student and I were the only two students in a graduate seminar with the professor I have been speaking about. The first week the professor announced that I didn’t belong in the program, because I was too evangelical.
I couldn’t believe it. He hardly knew me, and yet he was telling me that I shouldn’t have been accepted as a student. As time went on, the professor’s hostility turned to tolerance. When he became convinced that I was a genuine believer, rather than a cultural Christian, he became considerably more accepting. But he still would make strange comments.
For example, once at a party at his home, the professor said in response to a theological question, “Ask Bob; he’s God’s friend.” In another context, I no longer remember where it was, he referred to me as “the Holy Spirit.” I always took these types of statements as compliments. Eventually the professor came to terms with the fact that I not only was a real Christian, but I was not going to be driven out of the program. And he began to give me a kind of begrudging respect.
Now this is an extreme example, but most supposedly Christian institutions of higher learning do not emphasize religious life. They generally concentrate on academics and leave the whole matter of Christian living to the individuals, their families and churches. Thus the differences that separate genuinely Christian institutions of higher learning from typical Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant schools are fairly clear.
The same is true in theology. Identifiable differences spring from the differing theological emphases in differing theological traditions. For example, Wesleyan and Reformed theologians produce identifiable differences in theology, because they emphasize different aspects of the Christian tradition. I remind you that every orthodox Christian who does theology deals with the same four sources of theology that we have discussed: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. But all do not put their emphasis in the same places.
Both the Wesleyan and Reformed traditions strongly emphasize the Scriptures. Reformed thinkers may interpret certain portions differently from Wesleyans, but they agree that the Bible is the written Word of God, and is our authoritative guide to Christian faith and practice.
In addition both groups have a strong commitment to their traditions, but in different ways. For example, the Reformed heritage places greater stress on what one believes, and thus on intellectual inquiry. That means that they do not emphasize experience very much. But experience is a Wesleyan emphasis.
This has had definite consequences. For instance, the Reformed tradition, which was deeply involved in the beginnings of the camp meeting movement, did not stay with that mode of fellowship and evangelism very consistently. But the Wesleyans did, because it was an outlet for emotional as well as evangelistic fervor.
On the other hand, because of their intellectual emphasis, the Reformed group developed more quickly a strong commitment to scholarship. And they still excel in intellectual endeavors. It is a solid part of their tradition. This is not to say that the Wesleyan movement has no strong commitment to scholarship. But we Wesleyans diffused some of our energies into our emphasis on experience; and we have been slower to produce our share of outstanding scholars.
On the other side, the Reformed tradition certainly believes in experience. But their institutions are not as likely to experience a spontaneous revival, as Wesleyan institutions, where there is more emphasis on experience.