What are the four principle sources or foundations of Christian theology: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience? What relationships do they have to each other and in defining theology?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Christian theology is the research into and examination of Christian beliefs and practices. Theologians primarily use biblical exegesis, analysis, and arguments to interpret the old and new Testaments, alongside historic Christian traditions. The study of theology can help a theologian more thoroughly understand Christian doctrine, draw comparisons between Christianity and other faiths, defend Christianity, and even initiate reforms. In the 1700s, John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement, also developed a method for reflecting on theology that has been dubbed the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Wesleyan method draws on four different sources: experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture. There are also relationships between experience and reason, as well as between tradition and Scripture. The complex definitions of and relationship between experience and reason are explained below.

The relationship between experience and reason goes hand in hand with receiving and understanding revelations. Revelations can be understood as any activity through which "God discloses himself to human beings" (Charles D. Barrett, Understanding the Christian, p. 132). Furthermore, God can reveal Himself to us through experiences perceived by the Church, through any personal experiences, and through any sensory experiences.

Once we receive a revelation through our experiences, we then use our reason to interpret the experience. Theologians disagree on whether or not interpreting the experience requires actually deeply pondering the experience or simply reflecting and realizing that the experience did happen. However, theologians agree that something can only be experienced by beings that have intelligence and the ability to perceive one's self, the ability to see one's self as an "I." Theologians also agree that reason can be defined as the ability to think rationally, logically, and analytically.

Hence, the study of theology requires revelations, and revelations must be experienced. But, we can only fully experience revelations through our reason, and reason also allows us to both accept and develop an understanding of our experiences.

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