oprah_theologyThe next section of course notes is below.  This time, in the Sources of Theology, I am setting out the notes on Experience, Culture and Context, and Reason.  Part a was Revelation, and parts c and d will be on Scripture and Tradition respectively.

Occasional commenter Father Bosco (is this the same author as the other Bosco-like motifs?) has been kind enough to leave comments for me recently which imply that I am the learned one behind all these notes.  I must confess that that is not really the case.  Whilst I am making these available they were most certainly written by one with the learning to do so.

During the tea-break half-way through our last lecture at the college, I initiated a conversation with the lecturer and others about the age-old observation that churches often like to engage in theology at an academic level and at the Sunday School level, but there often doesn’t seem to be a very good connection between the two in terms of learning progression.   That’s one reason why I commented to Jess this weekend that I don’t think the Pilgrim course ought to be seen as ‘lower’ than the more academically oriented course that I am taking.  Rather, they have different purposes.  I am also aware that the Roman Catholics amongst us may well point out that their church has some structured learning programmes, but my limited knowledge of their church’s educational structures leads me to think that they haven’t perfected the issue either.

As this post is about experience, context and reason, what are others experiences, contexts and thoughts: re theology, and on the wider point of theological education?

Sources of Theology

2.    Experience

 The word “experience” derives from the Latin term experiential which may be interpreted as “that which arises out of travelling through life”. In this broad sense, it means “an accumulated body of knowledge, arising through first-hand encounter with life.” When one speaks of “an experienced teacher” or “an experienced doctor,” the implication is that the teacher or doctor has learned his/her craft through first-hand application.

Importantly for theology, the term can also refer to the inner life of individuals, in which those individuals become aware of their own subjective feelings and emotions. It relates to the inward and subjective world of experience as opposed to the outward world of everyday life.

Christianity is not just about ideas; it is about the interpretation and transformation of the inner life of the individual (in a Melanesian context we may say, the transformation of community instead).[5] 

We experience the Holy God, Christ in our lives and we wish to make sense of that experience. Our experience of faith may lead us into the community of faith. At the same time, the community of faith leads us to greater experience of faith. As Christians we feel a sense of wonder and immediate awareness of the transcendent God, a response of the whole person, mind and will as well as heart. In Christian theology this is our response to a revelation which as it were, finds us or meets us, and answers our deepest concerns. It is this kind of religious experience which is the basis for doing Christian theology.[6]

Obviously there are similarities between experience and revelation. But experience may not be so dramatic, but more continual and varied. There are many varieties of religious experience which all of us have experienced in our lives and these experiences inform our faith.

J.G. Davies says: “it is misleading to speak of religious experience as something distinct from ordinary experience”, for the latter possesses a dimension of holiness. The inward life of a human being is touched and transformed by an experience of God in all aspects of life, even the most mundane and ordinary.[7]

All of life—and the life of faith—is a matter of experiencing. Every moment is a moment of experience with bodily, sensory, intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects: waking up, going to sleep, reading a good book or the Bible, voting, dreaming, resisting bigotry, cleaning up the house, even breathing. The life of faith embraces the totality of our life experiences. And although the Scriptures hardly ever call them experiences, this is the umbrella term used by theologians for the varied encounters with God, and for the awareness of God that comes through faith to the people of Israel, New Testament Christians, and to us today. In this sense, experiences of God are indispensable resources for theology.

(Stone & Duke p51)

Signals of transcendence belong to ordinary everyday awareness.

John Wesley—-‘The Warmed Heart’, the experience of falling in love, more tender, more committed, changed life, changed purpose.

Yet, not simply on the level of feeling , but life, body, mind, thoughts, work. We only understand through our own shared experience.

Yet religious experience is still farther beyond that, for the object of faith is unseen too. We can only understand that experience through the faith of the community experience e.g. of adoration, penitence, of vocation, of ecstasy, of trust, of insight into our lives, of guidance, of strength, of our own sinfulness.

There is once again the danger of subjectivity, of being mislead by our experience and therefore our experience must always be tested alongside the experience of the community of the faithful and the other sources of our knowledge of God.

The need for spiritual direction.

Where if you think back over your lives have you had deep experiences of God?


5.         Culture and Context

So far we have been dealing with those formative sources/factors which belong to the life of faith. The first four sources belong to the participation in the community. Now we are moving to those sources which deal with: “finding expression in the clearest and most coherent language available.”

Each one of us lives within a specific historical, social, political and cultural context. This forms a “given” within which we must live our lives and, however much we may wish to, we cannot escape from this history and environment. Theology, like any other human discipline, is therefore always carried out within a particular and specific context. It is not something which emerges eternally in the heavens and descends to the earth untouched and unmarked by the human condition. On the contrary, it is something which emerges from that condition and it cannot avoid reflecting the historical and cultural context in which it is done. To say this is to say that there is no such thing as a ‘final’ theology: theology is always in the making. It is never static, it is always adapting itself and being adapted to new and ever-changing historical contexts.

For example, the Christian faith arose within a particular historical context, that of the Palestinian world of the Roman Empire. Its founder Jesus, belonged to that world and expressed Himself through the thought forms of that world. The terms and ideas that Jesus used in His teaching such as Messiah, Son of Man, Kingdom of God, covenant, law and so on were to a large extent determined by the religious and cultural experience and background of Jesus Himself and His hearers.[12]

Many expressions and meanings were understood within the world-view or social conditions of the first century but have become confusing for us in a different cultural situation.

What happens then, when the Gospel broke through the boundaries of Palestine? There was a process of translation and reinterpretation for that Gospel to be understood in the different contexts of the hearers. For example when Paul speaks of the death of Jesus or of baptism, he does not often do so in the language and symbols of Palestinian Judaism, though he himself understood these perfectly well. More often, he turned to the social customs, Greek philosophy and mystery cults which were part of the world and experience of his converts. Meaning had to be clothed in the terminology of the culture and background of his hearers.

Theology has always and everywhere to follow this principle. It is an ongoing task as theologians continually rethink and re-experience their faith in terms of their own age and context. It is therefore a never-ending task; as the context continually changes, so the language and expression of theology must change.[13]

Of course, the primordial revelation remains and must be safeguarded and not lost in a rapidly changing culture. Yet, each culture and historical context brings its own experiences, situation and needs to bare. This culture also gives new understanding and insight into our God-talk. There must, therefore, be an element within theology which is changing and variable without losing or watering down those formative factors which are essential to our faith.

a.         Putting the Gospel into New Contexts

The implications of this for non-Western cultures is clear. The “Western” world has experienced Christianity for such a long period that the language and symbols of the Bible and Christian tradition have become part of “Western” culture. This is not the case with Asia, Africa or the Pacific. Consequently believers in the newer Churches have to explore and experiment in expressing the truths of the Gospel in the language and symbols of their own culture.

Does this mean that we are trying to express an unchangeable and eternal truth in constantly changing and temporal language? Some theologians have indeed argued along these lines, that the essence of Christian theology is unchangeable and that only the form in which it is expressed changes. In this view theology is a timeless truth, an unchanging “body” which needs simply to be “re-clothed” in modern dress whether European, Asian, African, and so on. This view looks convincing enough and probably there are few who would deny that there is a core to the Christian message which is valid for all peoples in all ages and cultures. But the issue is much more complex than this.

The problem is that the “core” or “kernel” of the Gospel has never existed, and can never exist, in abstract form outside a particular and specific context. There is never a “naked body” of the Gospel which does not wear the clothes of one or other culture. For example the message of Jesus and Paul was expressed not in timeless truths but in terms of the religious cultures and situations of their own time and place. Thus, every time we try to define the “essence of the Gospel” we cannot avoid doing so in terms of our own quite specific context.

This is not to say that there is no eternally valid body of truth in Christianity. It is rather to say that we can only perceive and describe this truth as clothed in our historically conditioned language and culture. Every expression of the Gospel into another context thus involves the use of the dialect and cultural concepts of that context.

Such translation from one language and context to another will always involve some change in meaning. For example a good translation will deepen meaning for the receiver/recipient but that translation will interact with existing pre-Christian concepts, which will alter the tone or meaning of the concepts being translated.

In addition, the missionaries who preach the Gospel into another context are themselves the product of a culture and context. The Gospel they preach is also culturally and contextually conditioned, a version of the Gospel among others.

Doing theology then, involves a sense of discovery. Starting from the original sources of tradition, theology is discovering for ourselves what Christ means to us and expressing that meaning in terms of our own language, culture and context. It is expressing creatively the significance of the Christian tradition at the point of our own experience.

Here then, are the two poles of Christian theology. On the one hand there is Christian tradition, found primarily in the Scriptures and the history of the Church’s doing theology for the past two thousand years. On the other hand there is our experience here and now in our particular concrete historical context. Theologians do not agree on how much weight should be placed on each, not even at which pole we should begin. Yet, are all agreed that both are of vital importance.

If we concentrate exclusively on the first pole, we shall run the risk of producing an academic theology which is cut off from the real world in which we live. If we concentrate only on the second, we run the equally dangerous risk of cutting ourselves off from our Christian roots and perhaps of distorting the Christian message.

Doing theology, therefore, is something of a delicate balancing act (of identity and relevance). So it is not to be expected, nor even to be desired, that we should have one theology which can be agreed by all Christians at all times and in all places. On the contrary, a valid expression of the Christian faith for our world demands that there should be a multiplicity of theologies. This is not a drawback, rather it is a demonstration that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the word of God for salvation to all human beings in all times and contexts. Genuine Christian theology is always situational and contextual, it meets us in our own particular situation and it springs from the context in which we find ourselves.[14]

6.         Reason

Theologians are presented with the raw materials for doing theology which we have examined in previous weeks (revelation, experience, scripture, tradition, culture/context), which are broadly accepted as God’s revelation to humanity or at least essential to that revelation. To make these raw materials coherent they then have to examine them, to sift and evaluate their relative importance, with all the critical resources at their disposal. These are activities of human reason.

Some great Christian thinkers have tended to play down the importance of reason. Tertullian, writing in the third century, for example, once claimed “I believe because it is impossible.” What he meant was that the Christian faith cannot be completely reduced to statements which are “reasonable”, for it is essentially something which comes from a God who is far beyond our fallible human minds. In other words, there are some things about faith which go beyond reason, that cannot be understood by appealing to human reason.

While it is true that reason is a major element in the human personality, it is not the only one, and there are some aspects of religion—love, for example, or mystical experience—which can neither be reduced to or completely understood by reason. There will, therefore, always be something transcendent about the theological task.

Nevertheless, theology is a discipline which seeks to communicate itself and be understood. Consequently it has to present a “reasonable” account of Christian belief and convictions. We would also find it hard to believe in a God who asks us to accept things which are flatly contrary to the reason he has given us!

If Christian theologians try to escape from reason they run the risk of making Christianity appear abnormal and irrelevant. It may simply become superstition.  They have to work on the raw materials of revelation in a way that their findings can be presented and set out in a manner which is not unreasonable. They will at the same time fully recognize that human reason cannot explain, or even grasp, everything about the nature of God. The claims of reason will involve us in an honest examination of the many difficulties we encounter in the sources of revelation.

The claims of reason also mean that we have to try to relate revelation to the world in which we live, and to the possible objections to belief that come from the natural and human sciences. [15]

The function of reason as a formative factor in theology

a) Organising

We have to organise our material for those who wish to study and use it. We have to discover themes, subjects, issues, so that Scripture, revelation, tradition, experience can be understood. Reason, through its organisation of materials and information, helps us to use the other sources of knowledge about God which are open to us.

For example:

We have all heard in Church the kind of sermon where there is no breakdown of information—from Genesis to Revelation in 1 hour.

What the theologian is doing, through the use of reason, is breaking subjects down into manageable pieces.

E.g:     The Incarnation


The Kingdom of God

The Parables





The Passover

Through organisation, we work out how to approach an issue and to teach it.

b) Making Clear and Explaining

  • Establishing logical and systematic foundation
  • Presenting an argument
  • Looking at conflicting viewpoints
  • Finding evidence, examples and support
  • Giving explanation

Arriving at a conclusion which does justice to the evidence.

Reason works in the service of theology

In theology it is not enough to say A is true because vs— ch— of— says so, or because my Bishop told me or because I know it is. There is of course an element of trust and faith in theology, but there is also the need to look logically to examine and to answer the question why? How do we know? What proof is there? What evidence is there for this?

c) Criticising

There has often been a fear of criticism, both of probing and questioning the Bible or the traditions and practices of our Church.

In the past people or theologians who argued against what was considered to be the ‘truth’ were quickly condemned as heretics.

  • Threat of being prosecuted
  • No religious freedom—freedom to express ideas, objections, criticisms.

Christians today have reached a position of maturity on these matters. If the Christian faith is worth defending then it must be strong enough to argue its case and defend itself against criticism.

If the Christian faith is based on truth, then truth has nothing to fear, it will stand up against criticism and attack.

Far from destroying the Christian faith, criticism enriches our faith for it forces us to re-examine the basis of our faith, and sheds new light on old truths.

Most modern theologians would see critical reason not as an enemy but as an ally, helping modern humanity to discern the truth.

d) Leading to Truth

Reason plays a part in leading us to the truth. “How do you know?”

E.g. “How do you know that God exists?”

To what extent can reason lead us to the truth? Obviously reason by itself is not enough, but it does play an important part in informing our theology.


[1] Parratt, 4-5.

[2] Ibid., 113.

[3] Ibid., 5-6.

[4] Macquarrie, 7-9.

[5] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Third Edition, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 189.

[6] Parratt, 9.

[7] Macquarrie, 5-7.

[8] Alister E.McGrath. Theology The Basics. Second Edition. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), xviii-xx.

[9] Parratt, 32-33.

[10] McGrath, Theology The Basics, xx.

[11] Ibid., xxii.

[12] Parratt, 17.

[13] Ibid., 18.

[14] Parratt, 17-18.

[15] Ibid., 7.