If you spend any time on the internet you’ve seen articles about all sorts of crazy theological ideas. Or maybe your out-of-state cousin that’s a real Bible-thumper gave you an earful over the holidays. Perhaps you grew up in a church that now just seems crazy.
On top of views that most discern as not true, many legitimate variations on doctrine exist. This is one of the main reasons for denominations. Each denomination practices their different views through the way they do church. But, more and more many Christian denominations are coming together and working together, making it even harder for the non-theologically trained person to know what to believe.
So, how do you sort through the myriad of different theological opinions out there? Somewhere along the way I came up with, or heard about, this three-pronged way to test theology and understand how others view theology. It’s through using tradition, scripture and experience as the three concepts through which all theology filters.
Methodists talk of a similar tool, called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and Anglicans focus on Scripture, Reason and Tradition.
In theory, someone could become a Christian through only knowing one of these categories. While it doesn’t make for a well-rounded faith, a person can come to faith in the true God through traditions of the Church, reading Scripture, or their experiences such as looking at creation. (See Romans 1:20 for the last.)
What has the Church traditionally believed? This can be from any part of Christianity considered mainstream including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox faiths, and any within – any thought that’s been around and practiced legitimately for centuries.
Key issue “Tradition” prevents: Thinking you’re the first one to figure something out. While it could be true that you discovered this theological concept that no one has ever thought of before, honestly, it’s probably not. We have 2,000 years of Christians thinking about these things, as well as thousands more years before that of Jewish thought. This helps prevents cults and extremism.
What does scripture say? Sounds simple, but since serious, studied Christians can interpret the Bible differently it’s hard to rely on this alone, although many want to do so. That said, on the broad strokes of Christianity, tradition (see above) says that the overall themes and meanings of scripture are easily interpreted and always should be interpreted in line with said tradition.
Key issue “Scripture” prevents: Not being grounded in what God actually wants us to learn and know. Scripture is God’s Word. God gave us the Bible to communicate with us. As it says in 2 Timothy 16-17, “Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.”
What do you know to be true? To me, this category includes reason, feelings, and things you’ve seen or heard. For much of church history the idea of experience, especially personal experience, seems to have been minimized. Lately denominations that focus on experience are quickly growing, and I do think this makes for well-rounded views on theology.
Key issue “Experience” prevents: Minimizing or completely excluding the current work of God in this world. Without experience there is little room for miracles, the Holy Spirit working, and your personal thoughts on an issue based on your observance of how the world (that God created) works.
I find this three-pronged tool nice because if I figure out which area a theological argument or church tradition focuses on, most of what they believe and practice falls into place.
Most denominations have a focus on one, maybe two of these areas. Such as:
Where Catholics focus on tradition, Baptists focus on scripture and Pentecostals focus on experience. This tends to be the modus operandi for each. If you have experience with any of these traditions you’ll easily see what I’m talking about.
Some denominations do try to balance two, and once in awhile all three, of these areas. Also, there are many churches within all denominations that recognize the importance of all of it – tradition, scripture and experience – and while their tradition may not focus on it, they do make room for it and encourage it. Those are the best churches.
So, next time you’re trying to figure out what’s theologically correct – try filtering it through tradition, scripture and experience. Hope it helps!
Photo by ♔ Georgie R