Summary: What is theological reflection, as a modern concept? Theological reflection is the process by which we come to understand reality as it truly is. The goal ultimately is to see God, the universe, the inspired word, and ourselves, as God sees it.
What is theological reflection, as a modern concept? Theological reflection is the process by which we come to understand reality as it truly is. The goal ultimately is to see God, the universe, the inspired word, and ourselves, as God sees it. This will naturally entail a limited status, for humanity cannot see as God sees, but we can see as God intends us to see. Therefore, theological reflection is the practice of seeing what is true about all aspects of reality, to the dimensions possible by the human mind. Essentially this is to see reality from a purely Christian worldview, and to perceive in the dimension of time, how God is unfolding his sovereign plan in the world. On a more personal basis, the goal is to perceive God’s will for my life, and how to obey and serve in that will to the utmost. On an institutional level, as I serve as a pastor in the Salvation Army, it is to perceive God’s will for the Salvation Army corps I lead, as well as the larger will for the Salvation Army in the Central Territory. The most effective model of theological reflection I have found to do this is Wesley’s Quadrilateral. Models that I considered and rejected include Speaking in Parables, Telling God’s Story, and Theology-in-Action (Graham, Walton & Ward, 2005, p. 13-14). The Wesleyan quadrilateral is appealing because of its emphasis on scripture, simple straight-forward method, and many applications to practical ministry. In applying it to ministry in general, the goal will be to set aside time each day to meditate on the precepts of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience and then apply conclusions drawn to daily ministry life. In a corporate leadership sense, the goal will be to make use of four questions, presenting the quadrilateral, through which we can discern God’s will for the ministry and put it into practice.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
The classic Wesleyan quadrilateral is my preferred method for theological reflection. Now there is a fair amount of controversy in some circles regarding if the Wesleyan quadrilateral can even be credited accurately to John Wesley. For our purposes here, the question is irrelevant. The fact as to whether John Wesley originated the Wesleyan quadrilateral is immaterial. The fact is, the quadrilateral came into common usage in various church movements, and has shown itself to be a useful method for theological reflection. Thus the question of its origin should be considered set aside for the purposes of this paper.
The Wesleyan quadrilateral asserts one primary and three secondary measures for truth in theological reflection. The one primary source is the sacred scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The three secondary sources are tradition, reason, and experience. The Wesleyan quadrilateral appeals to me greatly because it emphasizes the scriptures as the primary source of discerning truth. With increasing post-modern ideology attempting to invade and transform the church, and the threats of extreme theology, the importance of scripture in our day and age must be emphasized and re-emphasized.
According to theologian Shirley Macemon: “The image of quadrilateral fails if we expect some relative equality among the four sides. For Wesley, tradition, reason and experience simply were not meaningful in a theological context except in the context of scriptural truth. Wesley was clear that scripture carries deep truth: when the literal sense of scripture is bound in a cultural context, or is contradicted by other scripture, then its truth must be discovered beneath the literal surface” (Macemon, 2003).
First we examine the scriptures. According to the Asbury Bible Commentary (1992): “John Wesley considered himself to be in the Reformation tradition of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), and he liked to refer to himself as homo unius libri (Carpenter & McCown, 1992). The chief criticisms of theological reflection point to the fact that much of the time theological reflection can be based more on personal experience and less on the scriptures (Hey & Roux, 2012, p. 194). Reflecting on the sacred scriptures of the old and new testaments should be the chief aim of every Christian. The scriptures are exceedingly useful for teaching, rebuking, training in righteousness, and correcting, so the people of God can be rightly equipped for good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV). The word of God is like a two-edged sword, and it cuts to the depths of the heart, discerning the intentions and thoughts deep down within us (Hebrews 4:12-14 NIV). The word itself says in Psalm 119:15 (NIV): “I will meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” There are so many ways to effectively reflect on the word of God. The important part is that we know the scriptures through and through, and reflect on them on a daily basis, until the scriptures become an active part of the mind. That way in given situations, the word will come into our minds to teach us how to respond to all manner of events and difficulties in life. Of course the word alone is not where the power comes from. As John Wesley said, “We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord's Supper; but that it is God alone who is the giver of every good gift, the author of all grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby through any of these [means] there is any blessing conveyed to our soul” (Carpenter & McCown, 1992). God communicates through His word, and from the word we discern our doctrines. Our doctrines are the base truths derived from the scriptures, as given by the Holy Spirit. This leads us to consider tradition.