Sources of Theology

The following was a paper responding to the topic, "Throughout the church's history Christian theologians have debated the relative importance of scripture, tradition, reason and experience as sources of theology. How do you propose that the different sources should relate to each other, and why?"

The paper was a blessing in disguise, debunking a few prejudices I had with tradition and experience. Of particular interest is perhaps the tight relationship between Scripture and tradition, which possibly due to the reformations within Christianity, are often viewed as being set against each other (i.e., Protestants for Scripture vs. Catholics for tradition). What I came to realise about their relationship spun me out. In addition, rationalists who say everything should be based on reason often fall into conflict with experientialists. Yet, as this paper reveals, reason is highly dependant upon faith in our experiences in order to function.



In this paper I will explore the relationship between Scripture, tradition, reason and experience as theological sources within Christianity.

While each of these sources may be distinguishably separate, I hope to reveal they all share a uniquely important role within Christian theology which is related to another in such a way that they need to taken together holistically.

I will begin this paper by examining the relationship between experience and reason, followed by the relationship between tradition and Scripture. I will then conclude by highlighting the importance of revelation to the functioning of theological sources, and remark on their relationships to each other within Christian theology.

Experience and Reason

I believe revelation provides a great starting point for illustrating the relationship between experience and reason, seeing as both play an important role in the receiving and understanding of revelations. Charles Barrett writes of revelations:

Their function is to reveal something about the nature of reality, and so they are aptly called revelatory. Their character is experiential, that is, prerational. Far from being the mind’s creatures, in other words, they are its illuminators and shapers.1

Within the context of Christian theology, “revelation means basically the activity by which God discloses himself to human beings.”2 The activity by which God discloses Himself to us could be mediated to human experience by the church; be an experience of a religious or personal kind; or simply be our sensory experiences of God’s general revelation through “what has been made” (Rom 1:19-20).

Richard Lennan wraps up the interaction of experience within theology nicely when he says:

Theology is concerned with our experience of God, particularly our experience of God as a community of faith. It is the effort to understand and interpret the faith experience of a community, to bring it to expression in language and symbol.3

It could be said that experience is primordially how we receive a revelation, and reason is the way we “understand and interpret” that experience in light of the whole universe.

Having revealed the role of experience within theology, it seems appropriate to explain what “experience” is. Gareth Jones believes experience “involves sensory perception and reflection upon it.”4 It is also interesting that he elsewhere highlights experience in the form of “experiencing experiences.”5

Jones appears to be defining experience in the verbal form; for example, “experiencing” tends to imply an awareness of something being received and felt. I believe this is what he means by “reflection”; not a deep pondering over an experience, but rather a realisation of our senses experiencing. Such a definition could only be sensibly used of a conscious being who is aware of its experiencing.

Barrett also touches on an experiential form when referring to experiences occurring to “the self”: “[A revelatory experience] occurs to the total self, not to the mind alone, and it originates in a reality or realities beyond, though not unrelated to, the self.”6 (emphasis mine)

However, unlike Jones’ words, Barrett’s tend to objectify a revelatory experience as a noun, so that “experience” becomes something which happens to us. For example, a rock which appears to be non-sentient may have an experience happen to it within the world; however, it seems reasonable to conclude a rock would not be “experiencing” its experiences.

The point both come together on, is that an experience is only “experienced” by an entity with intelligence, or a sense of “self”. I believe such highlights the very close relationship that exists between an experience and the mind. While revelations are disclosed to us by receiving experiences, it seems some sort of “reason” is required in order to have an awareness that we are “experiencing”.

Reason could be described as logical, rational, and analytical thought. It is a power of the mind that can be used to reflect upon, understand, and express experiences; in an attempt to sort out nonsense and pin down truths.

I would agree with Barrett who characterises reason within theology as being “a human power employed to move toward God.”7 However, it should be noted I believe this is only possible because God first reveals Himself to us in varying ways we can experience.

Though reason may provide a way to reflect upon and communicate our experiences, even stand as a judge when interpreting experience within the whole of reality; reason oddly enough relies upon faith in our experiences as facts in order to be useful.

For example, we can see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste the world around us; yet, in order to accept anything as real we have to cross a faith boundary to trust our experiences of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting.

That is not to say experience diminishes reason, rather it empowers reason by providing additional facts the reasoner can work with. As Barrett points out, a revelatory experience “does not close doors to the questioning mind but opens them.”8

I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. summarised the relationship of reason and experience well when he wrote:

The reasoner, then, starts his search with the facts of experience. It must be remembered that it is the duty of reason to examine, interpret, and classify the facts of experience. In other words, experience is the logical subject matter of reason.9

Tradition and Scripture

In defining Christian tradition, Bradley Hanson writes that it “generally refers to Christian teachings and practices outside of the Bible that are handed down from generation to generation.”10 (emphasis mine)

This definition is probably consistent with how most people understand Christian tradition. Not long ago I would have accepted such a definition; however, I believe this definition is too simple as it leaves an impression that Christian tradition excludes the Bible.

Highlighting this point, Unitarian Pastor James Meacham writes:

the early Protestant and later fundamentalist view in faith, relying on the bible only for one's information about the religion, ignores the fact that the Bible was by tradition.11

Early Christianity remained without a canon of Scripture (that is, a group of Scriptures accepted as authoritative), for the first three centuries. Respected historical theologian Alister McGrath points out that it was not until 367AD, when Athanasius circulated his thirty-ninth Festal Letter, that we know the twenty-seven books of the New Testament had been officially identified as canonical.12

So if Scripture originated from tradition (that is, from the development and passing on of early Christian beliefs), it would seem to be a logical conclusion that Scripture is authoritatively beneath tradition. Such reasoning would no doubt be used by some “traditionalists” to justify placing tradition above Scripture.

Evangelical Pastor Richard Vincent defines and distinguishes “traditionalism” against “tradition” as follows:

Traditionalism views tradition as the highest authority and thus relegates Scripture to equal or lesser authority. On the other hand, to consider tradition as a source of authority in the theological task, is not to succumb to the error of traditionalism.13

In other words, Vincent is saying that tradition should be accepted as a valid theological source, but not as authoritative as Scripture. Although I essentially agree, I believe more needs to be said for the relationship Scripture has with tradition.

McGrath, after noting a concerted effort by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches to distinguish between “traditionalism” and “tradition”, explains:

[Traditionalism] is understood as a slavish and wooden adherence to the doctrinal or moral formulations of the past, whereas [tradition] is understood as the living faithfulness of the church to the faith it expresses.14

Within McGrath’s explanation, it appears that “traditionalists” fail to realise that “tradition” is something which is alive and changes. As leading Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff writes:

True tradition is always a living tradition. It changes while remaining always the same. It changes because it faces different situations, not because its essential content is modified.15

It is because traditions change over time, that the traditionalist Christian belief is not entirely justified. For it only follows that early Christian tradition, as associated with the Apostles, would have an authority above Scripture which it birthed.

This is likely why Catholic theologian Richard Lennan writes:

the church has never considered itself free to go against the scriptures, because they express its own foundations, its link to those who witnessed to the death and resurrection of Jesus and the ongoing presence of the Spirit.16

It is important to note that the Apostles were explicitly given authority from Jesus (Jn 22:21), and New Testament Scripture is an outcome of the early Christian tradition which contains the experiences, reasoning and beliefs of the Apostles and early Christians.

So rather than Scripture being something separate from tradition, it appears to be a deposit from early Christian tradition. A tradition inspired by the Apostles which not only laid Christianity’s foundations, but which also indirectly preserves and guides Christianity to this day through Scripture. As Lennan writes, “The Scriptures function, therefore, as a norm for the church’s faith.”17

This creates an interesting conclusion, because it means Scripture is really a part of early Christian tradition. So it does not make sense to say that tradition in a general sense has a higher, equal or lesser authority to Scripture any more than saying tradition has a higher, equal or lesser authority than itself.

Although Scripture is a part of tradition, it also seems to stand outside tradition as the norm by which future Christian beliefs within traditions are refined; protecting the “essential” messages within Christianity from distortion. As Catholic theologian Francine Cardman wrote, “Scripture has a privileged position both in the traditionary process and in relation to the Tradition, though it is not itself simply identical with that Tradition.”18

Concluding Summary

It is important to note that all sources within Christian theology are grounded on the belief that God provides us with revelations, that is, He chooses to disclose truths about Himself to us. As such, theology with all its sources is oriented towards God’s revelation.

This means we can only use these sources to discover what God has allowed to be disclosed. This is an important point to make, as there are those who would argue against God being known through reason or experience. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “[a group represented by Karl Barth] argue that it is almost blasphemous to talk about man seeking or finding God.”19

From examining the four sources (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience); it seems their relationships are so closely dependant upon each other that it is only possible to take them together on a holistic level.

To briefly illustrate their interdependence; facts from experience are required to provide subject matter for reason. The working of these two sources provides fertility for an outgrowth of tradition. In addition, Scripture which was a result from early Christian tradition provides a norm by which reasoning and experiences can be evaluated. This in turn impacts upon future Christian traditions by keeping them in line with foundational Christian beliefs.

To conclude, it appears that each source is called upon by another to play a uniquely important role within theology. Making it not a question of which individual sources are more important, but rather identifying where their importance lies in relation to each other.


1 Charles D. Barrett, Understanding the Christian (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 1980), 180.

2 ibid., 132.

3 Richard Lennan, An Introduction to Catholic Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 14-15.

4 Gareth Jones, Christian Theology: A Brief Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 1999), 53.

5 ibid.

6 Barrett, Understanding the Christian, 181.

7 ibid., 132.

8 ibid., 181.

9 Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker, and Penny A. Russell, eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Called to Serve, January 1929-June 1951 (paper online) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, accessed 12 April, 2004); available from The_Place_of_Reason_and_Experience_in_Finding_God.htm; Internet.

10 Bradley C. Hanson, Introduction to Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 5.

11 James Meacham, Unitarian Christianity 1995: Part II
(The First Unitarian Congregational Society, 1995, accessed 12 April, 2004); available from; Internet.

12 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. 3rd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 14.

13 Richard J. Vincent, Scripture, Reason, Tradition (TheoCenTriC, 2003, accessed 12 April, 2004); available from; Internet.

14 McGrath, Christian Theology, 185.

15 ibid.

16 Richard Lennan, An Introduction, 22.

17 ibid., 21.

18 James A. Coriden, ed., Sexism and Church Law (book online) (Toronto, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1977, accessed 12 April 2004); available from; Internet.

19 Clayborne Carson, Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.


Barrett, Charles D. Understanding the Christian. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Carson, Clayborne, Ralph Luker and Penny A. Russell (eds.). The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Called to Serve, January 1929-June 1951. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Coriden, James A (ed.). Sexism and Church Law. Toronto, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1977, accessed 12 April 2004,

Jones, Gareth. Christian Theology: A Brief Introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 1999.

Lennan, Richard. An Introduction to Catholic Theology. New York: Paulist Press, 1998.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 3rd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

Meacham, James. Unitarian Christianity 1995: Part II. The First Unitarian Congregational Society, 1995, accessed 12 April, 2004,

Vincent, Richard J. Scripture, Reason, Tradition. TheoCenTriC, 2003, accessed 12 April, 2004,