Forming Our Theology

As a woman prepared dinner for her friend, she cut off the end portion of the ham she was planning to serve. She placed the ham on a pan and put it in the oven. Her friend inquired as to why she cut off a portion of the ham before cooking. The woman explained that this was the way she was taught to bake a ham. Later, the woman asked her mother, whom she had watched cook ham, the reason for the cut. Her mother replied, “My pan was smaller than my ham, so I had to cut it in order for it to fit in the pan.”

This story reminds me of the way one’s theology is often formed—holding to beliefs, but not knowing why they hold to their beliefs. Through my readings, I am now more aware of the many layers underlying my beliefs and convictions. Without understanding these layers, I, nor anyone else, can defend beliefs. Though I believe that God is revealed primarily through the Scriptures, I realize other questions must be asked such as: What is the role of revelation in presence? In experience? In history? And what role does tradition play in our beliefs? (Matthew 15:3-6 contains some of Jesus’ strongest warnings about dangers of religious tradition.) Also, important distinctions in interpretation must be made between the role of church tradition exercising authority over the Scriptures and discerning the texts’ existing authority (McGrath, 111)—and in understanding allegories and metaphors. Origen’s allegorical approach seems much too subjective, as its critics note (118). Luther’s principle gives much more authority to Scripture as he states, “In the Scriptures no allegory, tropology, or anagogy is valid, unless the same truth is explicitly stated literally somewhere else” (118).

The study of theology reminds me of “new math.” Intuitively, I know how to work math problems, yet I can find it annoying or difficult to explain how I got the answer—thus, I find “new math” cumbersome. However, I can peel back the layers to better understand, and thus explain, how I arrive at my solution—or my theology. Christian theology helps me understand the formation of various belief systems and better prepare myself to answer for my beliefs (1 Peter 3:15).  The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” of Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience (104) provides a good starting point for sifting through such layers of beliefs.

Thinking minds have struggled throughout centuries with similar thoughts and questions to those of today. Whether they are labeled rational discipline, enlightenment rationalism, or postmodernism, man has continued to question the meanings of God and life. Theologians, from Augustine to Luther, and philosophers, from Plato to Kant, have argued these meanings. Yet, philosophy can be useful to theology, as Augustine and Justin Martyr espouse (152). Paul’s conversation with the Athenians in Acts 17 shows a friendly relationship between philosophy and theology.

At the heart of many arguments in theology (in my opinion) are humanism and human pride—trying to explain God rather than honoring and obeying God. “The fool says in his heart there is no God’ (Psalm 14:1). I believe one cannot say this with their mind—it’s a moral issue. While understanding is important to securing beliefs, we are not God, and according to the Scriptures, God’s thoughts are beyond ours (Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Cor. 2:1-14).  Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways,” (McGrath, 158) resonated with me as helpful discussion points for engaging non-believers.

The study of theology is valuable for evaluation and deepening of personal convictions, and for gaining insight into the formation of all belief systems. Natural science and theology are compatible, in my opinion. Science has data because of what God has created and set in motion. Barbour, in his comparison of science and religion defines religious data as characteristic experiences, stories, and rituals (Barbour, 115) as he explores paradigms of thinking.

As theologians recount possibilities of what can be said and known about God, it seems clear that God desires to make himself known. In all the theological debates, the person of Jesus, who as the Scriptures states, is God in the flesh (John 1:14) and rose from the dead, is the climax to all theological questions raised. We all must answer the question Pilate posed when he asked, “What shall I do then, with Jesus, who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22).  Otherwise, if not careful, He can be discussed and analyzed more than honored, followed, and obeyed. 

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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