Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (5): Theology Has Everything To Do with Reason, Culture, Experience, and Tradition.

This blog series is based upon the conviction that God can be known. But this conviction raises the question: If we believe that God can be known in a true, trustworthy, and sufficient manner (albeit not comprehensively or univocally), where do we look for such knowledge and how do we speak in such a manner? Upon what sources does a theologian draw when looking for raw material about God? And if there is more than one source for such material, how do we order the sources in priority? “Judgements about sources,” John Webster writes, “go hand-in-hand with acceptance of norms, that is, criteria by which decisions may be reached about which sources furnish the most authentic, reliable, and persuasive Christian teaching.”[1] This post argues that we look first and foremost to Scripture, but always also draw upon reason, experience, culture, and tradition.


As we will note repeatedly throughout this series, faithful Christian theology is built on Christian Scripture as the primary source for theology and the norm above all norms. If Scripture is indeed the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16-17), and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, we would denigrate Scripture only at the expense of losing theology’s goal altogether. We reject any view of theology that explicitly or implicitly allows tradition (Roman Catholicism), experience (Liberalism), reason (Modernism), or culture (Postmodernism) to subvert the authority and primacy of Scripture. However, our recognition of Scripture’s primacy does not somehow deny the significance of tradition, experience, reason, or culture, each of which is essential to the task of theology.


Most theologians agree that reason plays a significant role in the task of theology. However, exactly what type of role is up for debate. David Clark clarifies three senses in which we employ a concept of “reason.”[2] First, one can speak of reason in the sense of autonomous reason, reason which insists on living independently of God. Gerhard von Rad describes this type of reason: “Man has taken leave of the relation of dependence. He has refused to obey and has willed to make himself independent. No longer is obedience the guiding principle of his life, but his autonomous knowledge and will.”[3] Second, one can speak of reason as the totality of our knowledge capacities. In this use, reason denotes the ability to think about anything at all. Third, one can speak of reason in order to denote one facet of our knowledge capacities, the aspect which we use to make valid arguments. Of the three senses of reason, we reject only the first, autonomous reason, because this type of reason subverts sound theology in its attempt to be independent of God (thus subverting God). The second two senses, however, we affirm, as theologians certainly must rely on their God-given rational faculties in order to reflect upon God’s self-revelation in a disciplined manner.


Theology is necessarily conceived in a cultural context and articulated in cultural forms. Indeed, one’s culture provides the language, conceptual categories, media, artifacts, and environment in which theology is done.[4] In fact, God’s act of creation explains the God-givenness of culture. God created his imagers to interact with his good creation, tilling the soil, naming the animals, and otherwise practicing loving dominion over his good creation. The result of such interaction is human culture. The theologian cannot escape his cultural context, nor should he want to. Instead, the theologian works hard to properly leverage his cultural context for the task of theology. Proper leverage flows from lashing one’s theology to the Scriptures, conceptualizing and expressing it in appropriate cultural forms (language, conceptual categories, etc.), and continually bringing the results back to Scripture for correction in light of its transcultural authority.[5] Further, culture directly affects the theologian’s use of other sources of theology, in that it affects one’s manner of reasoning and it provides the linguistic categories within which one conceives and articulates one’s experience.[6]


In a broad sense, one’s “experience” is anything that arises in one’s life journey. In a more focused and theological sense, “experience” refers to our subjective feelings and emotions. In both senses, experience plays an inescapable role for the Christian theologian. In the broader sense mentioned above, our journey in life is what prepares us to understand the words of Scripture. Scripture teaches us about God, and does so analogically. It draws upon our experience of fatherhood, to teach us about God the Father; it draws upon our experience of love to teach us that God is love; and so forth. In order to understand God, one must be situated in experiential reality. Likewise, in the more focused sense mentioned above, our feelings and emotions can be helpful. They can be an impetus for the theological task in that our feelings and emotions lead us to ask questions of the Scriptures, to vigorously pursue the mind of God (e.g. the Lament Psalms, such as Ps. 42; 69). They also can be a result of the theological task in that Scripture, and its attendant evangelical doctrine, calls forth wonder, delight, fear, and other emotions.[7] In fact, as Alister McGrath and others have noted, “Christian doctrine provides the framework within which we interpret our own experience, thereby nuancing, enriching, and deepening our experience.”[8]


Christian theology is always and necessarily written in historical context. In particular it is written in the context of church history and the historical development of Christian theology. Christian tradition provides the context for, and is a source of, theology. But how so? Three theories vie for acceptance. First, the Catholic Church has recognized a dual-source theory of tradition, in which, “‘tradition’ was understood to be a separate and distinct source of revelation, in addition to Scripture. Scripture, it was argued, was silent on a number of points, but God had providentially arranged for a second source of revelation to supplement this deficiency: a stream of unwritten tradition.”[9] Second, some Anabaptists evidenced a rejection of tradition, arguing that we have the right to interpret Scripture however we please under the guidance of the Spirit. For example, Sebastian Franck rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Christ because he thought (through his private interpretation) they rested on inadequate biblical foundations.[10] Third, this chapter recognizes a single-source theory of tradition. Along with many Patristic and Reformation era theologians, we suggest that “theology is based on Scripture, and ‘tradition’ refers to a ‘traditional way of interpreting Scripture’.”[11] The early church fathers referred to the “rule of faith,” in which they recognized that there is a proper order and connection to the biblical narrative, and if this order and connection is ignored, one will misread texts of Scripture and misconstrue Christian doctrine. The rule of faith, therefore, is a safeguard against misinterpretation and self-serving construals of the text.[12]


Christian Scripture is the primary source and supreme norm for Christian theology. Scripture, and Scripture alone, is inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). As the theologian interprets Scripture, he seeks illumination from the Christian tradition and uses his God-given rational faculties and experience in order to appropriately conceptualize and articulate an evangelical theology within a particular cultural context.

[1] John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook for Theology (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007), 2.

[2] Clark, To Know and Love God, 299-301.

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1973), 78.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, in line with his conception of doctrine as drama, puts it this way: “Culture sets the stage, arranges the scenery, and provides the props that supply the setting for theology’s work.” Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 129.

[5] For further reading on this process of contextualization, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Gospel and Culture,” in Bruce Riley Ashford, ed., Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 109-127.

[6] Regarding the relation of culture and reason, we note that one must distinguish between substantive and formal rationality. Formal rationality is built upon basic laws of logic which are transcultural, but substantive rationality is always rooted in a tradition. Substantive reason always operates within a worldview, and worldviews are always religiously oriented. Regarding culture and experience, we note that culture provides categories by which we experience our “experience.” At the heart of culture is language, and one’s linguistic apparatus directly and pervasively affects one’s ability to conceptualize and articulate one’s experience.

[7] This is Karl Barth’s point in his treatment of the theologian’s feelings of wonder, concern, commitment, and faith in relation to the task of theology. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 63-105.

[8] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 71.

[9] McGrath, Christian Theology, 139.

[10] McGrath, Christian Theology, 140.

[11] McGrath, Christian Theology, 138.

[12] See John Behr, Way to Nicaea, 17-48, for a helpful discussion of the rule of faith and its use by Irenaeus in arguing against the Gnostics.

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  1. Lee Beck   •  

    Nice post.

    Building on your theme (has *everything* to do with…) theology has *nothing* to do with science but the two methods of “reasoning” seem to be continually at odds with each other. That is not to say that they are mutually exclusive, only that many find the reasoning of each dimension mutually incompatible. I disagree. As a Christian scientist (not to be confused with a Christian Science advocate) I’d like to see more acknowledgement that science and Christianity ARE compatible. They are only different ways of reason using different tools. Many Evangelicals would consider non-belief in e.g., “new Earth creationism” heresy. I would argue with the same Scripture that you quote (2 Tim 3:16-17). There is nothing in that passage that suggests that the Bible should be used as a science book. The Bible is complete in its instruction regarding man’s relationship to God and to man. Any attempt to use Scripture to determine the age of fossils is using the Bible in ways for which it was not intended. Likewise, any attempt to claim that man was created by natural, random occurrences defies reason.

    We will never “prove” the miracles of Jesus with science nor is there a need to do so. I’ve learned that simply accepting Biblical truth without trying to disprove science is sufficient. God created the universe and established man’s role in it. We don’t need to know how or why.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Lee, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’ll be releasing two posts on theology and science in the next 3-4. The second post deals directly with the issues you mention above. I try to define the relationship between theology and science, and then give some principles for reconciliation when scientists and theologians disagree.

    In a nutshell, I think that theology and science are overlapping research programs which should remain in conversation and partnership with one another, and which are not inherently conflictive or competitive. When theologians and scientists disagree, it is not “theology” and “science” that are in disagreement. In God’s mind, there is no disagreement between the two disciplines when properly done. The problem is that fallen humans are the ones doing the theology and science and therefore both are theologians and scientists are fallible, finite, and limited knowers. Please weigh in on the “theology and science” posts that will release in 3-4 weeks.

  3. Donnie McDaniel   •  
  4. Jason   •  

    Hello Bruce, Christ is risen!

    You cited 2 Tim 3:16-17 and then immediately rejected “any view of theology that explicitly or implicitly allows tradition…[and] experience… to subvert the authority and primacy of Scripture.” That is problematic. Neither that passage, nor the Apostles, nor even Scripture itself ever set Scripture up as “primary” in authority. The holy Apostles taught followers of the Way to hold to the traditions they had taught them, whether by word of mouth or by Scripture (2 Thess 2:15, 1 Cor 11:2), and told them to pass those traditions on. That is what the Church has done, and orthodox Christianity has never seen the holy scriptures as primary above the holy traditions.

    Orthodox Christianity teaches that all who sincerely seek God will find him (Matt. 7:7), regardless of physical access to the Christ, the Apostles, the Apostles oral traditions, or the Holy Scriptures. That is because the Spirit of God is the primary witness of God to the hearts of men, and God is all in all. The Word of God is a person, not a book. Holy Scripture testifies to God, but holy traditions also do, as does the Spirit of God. Indeed, the only reason we have have Scripture in our churches today is because early orthodox christians, by using their access to the holy traditions, defined for us exactly what was and was not holy Scripture!

    You conclude with, “Scripture, and Scripture alone, is inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).” You seem to have added the word “alone” to that passage by way of your summary. Scripture itself actually mentions more than just Scripture being breathed by God, inspired by God, and profitable. It mentions the Spirit of God breathed out, and it mentions the traditions passed along both orally and in writing.

    I don’t mean to diminish Scripture. We should read and know Scripture continually. However, it should take its rightful place along side the Spirit and the holy traditions that gave it to us, not above either of them.

    In Christ,

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thank you for taking the time to comment. Here are a few thoughts in response:

    1. As you pointed out, Christ is indeed risen. He is the Word Incarnate and, thankfully, he has given us the written Word to bear witness to him. That, I think was his point in his sermon on the road to Emmaus.

    2. As far as I can tell you are “new” to BtT. And as far as I can tell, all of your comments on BtT have to do with the matter of “Tradition and Scripture.” I’ll provide a few brief thoughts in response to your comments above, and recommend a book or two that I think are helpful on this topic (b/c unfortunately extensive conversation cannot be had in the comments section of a blog!). Other than that, I would say that this blog series is scheduled to end after 16 posts. I hope that the series as a whole will somehow be helpful.

    3. In building a doctrine of Scripture, I do not rely exclusively on 2 Tim 3:10-17, although I do use that verse for shorthand to represent a robust doctrine of Scripture built on many passages, and on inferences that we can make from those passages (e.g. Mt 5:17-18, Jn 10:35, 2 Peter 1:16-21). But I think the 2 Tim passage makes the point. In the passage, Paul is fairly certain that he will die and he is giving instructions to one of the men who will pass on the faith once for all delivered to the saints. His main point in this passage is that Timothy will face persecution, both from within and without the church, and that if he will remain strong, he must build his ministry on the Scriptures because they are spirated by God. He reminds Timothy that the source for the gospel (the Scriptures, which Timothy had known since his childhood) is also the source for his future ministry (b/c it is theopneustos).

    4. In some of your comments, you’ve mentioned that Christ alone is the “Word.” I can’t agree with you there. God’s has spoken through the prophets and apostles, and then supremely through Christ (Heb 1:1-4). This word was passed on via faithful men (tradition) until it was inscripturated (and this inscripturation is “God’s Word” as testified to by the passages I listed above, and others). The Spirit of God guided the pens of the biblical authors so that what they produced was indeed the word of God. And this word is a more sure word even than eyewitness testimony (2 Peter 1:16-21).

    5. This is why theologians from your own Othodox tradition, such as Sergei Bulgakov, write: “The inclusion of Holy Scripture in tradition by no means compromises its originality and its value as the Word of God; the Word of God is above all other sources of faith, especially of all tradition in all its forms. . . . Tradition cannot be in disagreement with Scripture. . . . Tradition always supports itself by Scripture; it is an interpretation of Scripture.” (Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, 18).

    6. This is also why numerous church fathers held the same view that is espoused in this blog series. Here is the briefest summary of what some of them had to say:

    Justin Martyr: God is to the writers as a musician is to a harp.
    Athenagoras: The writers were stringed instruments in hands of Holy Spirit.
    Tertullian: Holy Spirit bequeaths us the canon; whatever it teaches is true.
    Irenaeus: The Scriptures are “indeed perfect;” this refers to OT and NT; it is the foundation and pillar of our faith; Irenaeus defended the four gospels and gave (rather odd) reasons why there should be no more and no fewer than four.
    Athanasius: In his Easter Letter of 367, he officially endorsed the canonicity of the 27 NT books.
    Gregory of Nyssa: He saw the hand of the Holy Spirit in every statement of the Bible.
    Gregory of Nazianzus: Even the nuances of Scripture are true.
    Origen: He argued that God had a purpose behind all of the passages, even those which our human intelligence might have difficulty accepting.
    John Chrysostom: Because of inspiration, Chrysostom argued that even seemingly trivial biblical statements have more than superficial value; he urged his people to get their own copies of the Scriptures and read them frequently at home.
    Jerome: Event the punctuations are from God.
    Augustine: Verbal inspiration, no error. Both testaments are gifts from the Holy Spirit through the human authors. Textual and historical difficulties do not affect our commitment to divine inspiration.

    7. So those are a few thoughts. I cannot comment more extensively than this b/c of limited time and the scope of the blog format. I encourage you, if you are able and would want to, to follow the whole blog series in the hopes that it will give a better picture of the whole. It’s a 16 part series, loaded to post through February and March.

  6. Jason   •  

    Bruce, again, thank you. Scripture is indeed huge in the orthodox faith. Those citations you mentioned are only the tip of the iceburg for the immense respect for Scripture in the early church. Nonetheless, all of those men also relied on holy traditions for their faith and practice, and I think they would all be shocked at the lack of Scripture found in many Protestant services today.

    In many ways the “prima Scriptura” Reformation actually seems to have pulled the rug out from under the Scripture. I don’t mean that only in the sense that the early church relied on holy tradition to define and hand us Scripture. What I mean is, for instance, the amount of actual Scripture I hear read, prayed, chanted, and sung each Sunday at the orthodox divine liturgy is more that was publicly read over the course of a few months (if not longer) at the Sunday services of the “prima Scriptura” churches I’ve attended. It seems “prima Scriptura” started a new tradition that turned into “prima pastors preaching about Scripture.” Given their immense respect for Scripture, I don’t think the early Christians would view this modern development as a healthy one.

    In any event, I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the blog. I’ll try to quiet down. I apologize if I’ve seemed too vocal and hung up on the tradition vs scripture issue. It just happens to be an instrumental part of why I recently began worshiping with the orthodox. Not many of my former preachers and teachers have ever taught very in depth on the subject. So I appreciate discovering your blog just as you began tackling some of this head on, even if we come to different conclusions.

    In Christ,

  7. Jason   •  

    I meant to write, “…at the orthodox divine liturgy is more tha[n] was publicly read over the course of a couple months…”

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, you are “spot on” that many Protestants have a high view of Scripture in theory, but a low view in practice. Especially significant is the fact that Protestant churches often don’t read Scripture aloud… Can’t argue with you there.

  9. Jason   •  

    Thank you, Bruce. You are a real treasure to be able to say that. 90% of the former teachers and pastors I’ve said these sorts of things too through their blogs have deleted my comments and ignored my subsequent inquiries. Some were even personal friends while I was at their churches. I barely met you 15 years ago, and you have still allowed me to speak freely even in disagreement here, even as I’ve said too much. I pray God will guard and protect your mind in Christ’s service and multiply you in the kingdom. God have mercy on us.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, thank you for your gracious and kind comments. Blessings, Bruce.

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