Reflection 1
How Do We Do Theology?
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

Picture of TRACE cycle It seems that everybody else has their own methodology underlying the way they do theology, so I thought I would describe mine.

Why bother to do this, apart from the obvious ego trip? There are a few reasons.

I call my personal methodology 'TRACE' - mostly because I have copied the best bits from other people, but also because the name can function as an acronym. The letters can stand for:

Using the methodology

The Process Diagram

At some point, I will probably draw up a process diagram, but in the meantime please imagine some 'flow of information' arrows on the diagram. All the lines should have arrows going both ways, apart from the Action-Consequence line, where the arrow goes from Action to Consequence, but not the other way.

Another part of the process diagram will be a store of expectation based on past experience, and a store of pre-existing theological understanding. These both feed into the Response and Exploration, and are modified by both (although expectation is probably modified very little by Response).

If you don't know what I mean by a 'process diagram,' any standard work on systems analysis will explain the term and show how they can be used.

Teaching

Teaching comes in many forms. People do occasionally learn from books, lectures and sermons, but this seems to be a very rare occurrence. They more often learn from stories (films and soap operas), the people around them (social norms, how to behave, what to say, what is acceptable and when), worship (songs and prayers),and, once in a while, from their own mistakes (but rarely from the mistakes of others).

The reason I have this at the start of the methodology is not because it is the start in any procedural sense, but because it is (or, I believe, should be) the part of the process which is undertaken with the intention of sending someone round the cycle. In my understanding, the purpose of teaching is to stimulate a response which leads to action, from which we can learn and grow.

In one sense, all Teaching comes from God. The difficulty is that we either think we understand God perfectly, or fear we don't understand Him at all, and both attitudes are generally disastrous for creative Teaching. In any teaching session, many things are said. The important question is: is God saying this? Or, perhaps, which bits of this are from God? What is coming from Him to me, here and now?

People have some strong views on sermons and teaching. My feeling is that a sermon should not normally be pure teaching, but it should normally contain a significant amount of teaching. Most sermons have a variety of purposes (such as providing inspiration and encouragement, reinforcing group identity and articulating corporate values), and the teaching aspect needs to integrated with the other elements.

It can, of course, be questioned whether most people want to be taught in this sense. It seems to me this is a side issue, and is mostly to do with principles of church leadership. God, it seems, wants us to be taught well so that we can grow to maturity. The old saying “when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear” may not be Christian in origin, but it seems to express a scriptural understanding of the purpose of teaching, and a Christian confidence that God is deeply concerned with the appropriate application of good teaching.

Response

For Teaching to be of any use, I must interact with it. 'Interaction' is probably a better term than 'response', but I needed to make a few compromises for the acronym to work.

For it to be of much use, the Response to the Teaching will generally need to be deeply personal. It must make sense to me, and must take into consideration my values, obligations, limitations, goals and priorities. The Response may change any or all of these, but they must all form a part of the Response.

One of my pet hates is when the preacher makes some good and helpful points, but then goes on to spell out in detail how you should respond. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to help me hear and respond to God's leading in my own individual and unique situation, but many preachers seem to think they can do the Spirit's job for Him.

And even if the preacher gets it completely right - where is the opportunity for growth? If I cannot learn to hear God speak and respond to His Spirit, what level of reality is there in my Christian life?

Action

I define the Action as what you do as a result of your Response to the Teaching. The Action is the initial, or short-term purpose of the Teaching. God gives us doctrines in order to change our behaviour: both for our own sake, and also for the sake of the Kingdom.

The main point to remember here is that the Action does not need to be physically different from what you usually do. In fact, it does not even need to be an action.

Most of the other methodologies seem to imagine that the only valid response to a theological exploration is to undertake some radically new activity. This seems very limiting, both as a concept, and also because few of us are capable of undertaking many significant new activities in the middle of our busy lives.

Surely it is equally valid (and, often, much more important) to do the same things as before, but with a new and deeper understanding or greater enthusiasm, or an enhanced awareness of the possibilities inherent in the situation.

And sometimes the action God calls us undertake is to refrain from the action we would normally perform. If someone slaps you on the cheek, it is commendable to turn the other cheek, but the really important response (clearly implied by Jesus' teaching, even if it is not explicit!) is to not punch them back.

Consequence

For adults, action is rarely undertaken for its own sake: our actions generally have purpose, and what we do is affected by what we want to achieve. However, there is often a mismatch between the desired consequence and the actual consequence of our actions.

One vital discipline we need to master is simply to perceive what happens. This can be seen as a generalisation of the pastoral and counselling discipline of listening. The difference is not a question of which sense to use, but an awareness of the need to use all the senses at our disposal at times when we are outside the pastoral or counselling context.

The other vital need at this stage is to grasp the links between the Action and the Consequence - or, at least, to attempt to grasp the links. The point is not to establish some causal link between the two, but to recognise that some link exists. The reason for this is simple but very difficult: without some idea of what Actions lead to what Consequences, we have no idea what to look for as a Consequence.

One of the key achievements of our scientific worldview is that (much of the time, at least) we are freed from trying to make links between events where there is clearly no causal link. We don't perform a certain dance in order to produce rain, or examine the shape made by clouds to predict the success of a business deal.

Our understanding of what may be linked tells us what to look out for when we seek to understand the Consequences of our Action. This understanding may, of course, be affected by the Exploration we undertake.

Exploration

This is where it all comes together: the Teaching, the Response, the Action and the Consequence. There are two main aspects to this Exploration.

Firstly, we can seek to discover what can be learned from our sequence of Teaching, Response, Action and Consequence - especially by comparing the actual Consequences against the anticipated Consequences. In short, we can learn from our experience.

Secondly, we can explore what we need to understand more completely in order to bring about Consequences that are more in line with the purpose behind our Actions. Perhaps we need to improve our understanding of how the world works - maybe some aspect of economics or politics. Perhaps we need to improve our understanding of some aspect of the Biblical text. In short, we can learn from other people: books, teachers and the resources they can provide.

Conclusion

The Bible tells us that God speaks to us: He reveals Himself, and He commands us to imitate Him. We can choose to listen or ignore Him. If we listen, we can choose to obey or disobey. If we choose to obey, we benefit through reaping the good seed we have sown, and God rewards us for our obedience.

Which leaves us with one simple question. Many voices speak to us: how do we discern the voice of God? The subjective answer is: we learn to recognise the voice of our Beloved. The objective answer is: we understand His will by understanding His teaching. Both modes of understanding can be gained and improved by going through the process described here.

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