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Sources of Theology & Commonly Confused Terms

Theology is not a made-up field of study; we have sources that inform our theological understanding. Perhaps the most well-known approach to discerning a doctrine is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – named after the famous reformer John Wesley. (It is important to note that, although the concept is named after Wesley, he himself did not create it.) As we seek to understand a Christian belief, we go to four points on this geometric hermeneutic:

Scripture. God’s word is the first and foremost source for informing our theology. It has complete authority and trumps all other sources.
Tradition. How has the Christian church historically handled this doctrine? Often, the church has been faced with opposition, which forced it into crafting a specific doctrine, as we will discover in our studies on Christology and pneumatology.
Reason. God gave us minds for a reason. Does it make sense?
Experience. This is the weakest of the sides, but how we experience God does matter. The key is to be able to discern how the experience was theological. In fact, many rely on experience rather than beginning at Scripture to craft their theology.

Talking Right about Theology
Before we begin, it is important to lay down definitions of some important terms that I will use throughout this book.

A doctrine is not the same thing as theology. A doctrine is a particular teaching or belief. In Christian theology, we have many different doctrines, such as the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of baptism, the doctrine of the church, and so on. If theology is a grand system of thinking and talking about God, then a doctrine is piece of that masterpiece, a brush stroke in God’s cosmic work for the universe. When taken together, doctrines comprise the Christian faith and glue us together by determining a basic Christian identity. So, despite differences between denominations and other groups, these doctrines form Christians into who they really are.

A dogma is a non-negotiable doctrine, one that is absolutely essential to the faith. These include the doctrine of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, of the Trinity, and of salvation. They are so crucial to the faith that, if they are removed, it completely morphs Christianity. Dissention on a dogma often leads to heresy, saying something that is theologically incorrect – an “out of bounds” teaching as dictated by doctrines.

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