Theological Method

Dr. Don Payne is fond of saying that theological method is akin to clearing one’s throat before talking. That is to say, theological method is what gets you ready to talk theologically. According to Mary Veeneman, there are generally three things to be considered when deconstructing theological method. First, one should look at what the theologian uses for primary sources of theological reflection. Second, consideration should be made for what questions the theologian is answering. In other words, are the questions being answered by the theologian based on a “standard set of questions” or do they arise from contemporary concerns?  Third, the starting point of the theologian’s work should be examined.

A starting point in theology at this point for me is triperspectivalism grounded in the Trinity.  I view knowledge as being rooted triperspectivally such that one can discover knowledge from the normative, existential, and situational perspectives. A primary source for theology for me in this starting point is the Bible. The Bible is the guiding document for the theological enterprise as well as the main source for theological reflection. However, our reading of God’s word is always imperfect. Therefore, I never want to overestimate my own ability to fully understand what God says. Not only is the normative the Bible, the normative also contains rules and laws both natural and created in my mind and the world. My internal and subjective experience is an additional source of theological reflection. While my internal and subjective experience is not necessarily true, it is a source of theological reflection. The third perspective, or the situational, describes the context and embodied nature of my reality which I can utilize as a source for theological reflection. This situational reflection is the place in which theology gets played out. As I experience God and learn more about him, I attempt to obey him in my life. This is not to say that it is linear. The way I live my life can also inform what I assume to be true and how I read the Bible. 

I still maintain the gospel as a second starting point in my theological method as I did before this class. When seen through the lens of triperspectivalism, the gospel shows us what is true, good, and beautiful. I would align myself with a more centered set approach to theology with the gospel being the center. I find Michael Bird’s systematic theology especially helpful in seeing how the gospel can be a useful source for theological method. Bird provides a very robust understanding of how the gospel informs others doctrines.

My methods for organizing or relating doctrines would be to show them in relation to the Trinity with a particular emphasis on the centrality of the gospel as highlighted by all three members of the Trinity acting in concert. For example, in ecclesiology, I can highlight the particular relationship the church has to the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father chose those in the church. The Son serves as the head of the church which is his body. The Spirit is the animating presence of God in the church. If I had to order a sequence for a systematic theology it would be: Trinity (General Revelation) (Father, Son, Spirit), Word (Specific Revelation) (Christology), Gospel, Anthropology, Sin, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology. 

I think this is the best method for doing theology because it allows for me to maintain a connection to tradition and to common questions addressed by people. The situational perspective of triperspectivalism allows for me to constantly be re-thinking my theology based on contemporary questions. The existential perspective allows for me to stay in touch with my story and how my feelings and perceptions affect my trust of God and others. Triperspectivalism allows me to not stay entrenched in tradition or context but utilize both in doing theology. It provides the benefits of both a bounded set and centered set. I can think in terms of what is true, how I experience what is true, and how that should play out.

This method plays out in my personal faith by shaping my prayer. My prayers have become much more robustly Trinitarian over the last few years. I find myself better to articulate and celebrate the various ways the Godhead has acted in the gospel. I find myself coming back to the reality of sin in my life and yet forgiveness in Christ because of the gospel. 

This method also plays out in my studies. I am constantly seeing triads connected to the Trinity. For example, in a class on May 2, we discussed coherence, consistency, and compatibility as three ways of doing theology biblically. I view these three as complementary instead of competing based on triperspectivalism. One could call the consistency method the normative perspective. The coherence method would be the existential perspective. The compatibility method would be the situational.

I see the gospel and the Trinity in various things in the world. In some ways, I understand how Edwards become so fixated on typology. Once I see the gospel and the Trinity as a central theme in the world, it is hard not to see every story and all of creation through those lenses. 

This method plays out in my ministry by allowing me to be patient with people when they are confused. Prior to having a more balanced theological method, I became frustrated when people would not understand or see the logical conclusions I was making theologically. For example, when I was teaching about Calvinism, I would become frustrated because the system makes sense and I couldn’t understand how people could not see that. Instead, I can now see that the logical ruthlessness of Calvinism can get in the way of people knowing God sometimes. I am still very Calvinistic in my preaching and ministry but now I am more sympathetic and understanding with people. 

When I look at the ministry we have at The Well, I am looking for the gospel to come alive in everyone through a triperspectival lens. I’m looking for people to grow in their trust of God with their desires and affections (existential). I want people to grow in their trust of God with what they believe (normative). And I want people to grow in their trust of God with their behavior and lived lives (situational).

This method plays out in my calling in many ways that are similar to when I wrote my summary of my calling for graduation in my M. Div. I feel called to lead God’s people (situational), to experience more of God’s love (existential), and to study more of God (normative). This allows for my calling to be well balanced. I refuse to embrace some kind of modern linear ‘being’ and ‘doing’ paradigm split when it comes to calling. I also feel that this triperspectival allows for flexibility in my vocation. I can lead God’s people in a variety of ways whether or not I am a professional minister. Ministry becomes an opportunity for gratitude rather than a begrudging ‘calling’ which I must suffer through. My experience of God is not determined by success in ministry but instead God’s love for me in uniting me to Christ and indwelling me with his Spirit. My mind does not become the only thing which must be redeemed and informed. It is one aspect of who I am called to be and something I am to steward rightly.