The steps of our theological method
So without further prologue let’s begin with the steps for our method.
- The Goal of the method: an understanding of the demands, goals, rules, and designs which the divine being or beings have placed upon humans and the universe
- The Starting Point: our core doctrines or teachings
- The Work: the interpretation of divine revelations based on the rules established in the core doctrines
- The Results: a systematic theology complete with moral rules, a telos of the universe, the conditions for a community of believers, and a sense of personal identity
In doing theology you must always keep the goal firmly in mind, since for the religious person knowing God is the aim of all activities. Then, keeping that goal center in your thoughts you take up and learn the core doctrines.
The core doctrines
Whether they are the 10 commandments, the Gospel, the five pillars, or the way the core doctrines are as essential as they are mysterious. Strictly speaking the core teachings do not come from a book, or from a person, or from an event. Instead these core teachings come directly from the divine.
Now I have already lost the atheist who will insist that I provide some kind of proof that the core teachings have indeed come from a divine being. This may be accomplished by engaging in some kinds of philosophical proofs for God’s existence, but to the theologian that is all unnecessary.
The core exists as a series of statements which you are asked to either believe or doubt. There can be no proving the core doctrines since these are the doctrines which serve as the logical foundation for all the more complex teachings of any religion. These doctrines are true and beyond all doubt or question, not because the religious are dupes, but simply out of logical necessity.
In order to establish any set of ideas as true we must rely on certain basic presuppositions as given. Even in the scientific method we rely on the given-ness of our ability to have accurate observations of the world. That is a starting point for science and to doubt it would be either unthinkable or else hopelessly esoteric. The philosopher may entertain the notion that nothing can be known, but the rational person must accept a starting point, a simple set of knowledge, which defines the possibility of learning anything at all.
So the theologian accepts as their basic posits of reason, their foundational principles, and their a priori knowledge, the core doctrines of their faith.
As for the historical origins of these teachings, even if you can prove that a particular person in a particular place in history simply invented those core doctrines you have not undone them. The core derives its authority from the divine, and that the core teachings are given infallibly by the divine is the most basic of all notions in the core teachings.
Though this might seem circular it would be more accurate to call it logically necessary. These are the basic propositions which cannot be false, since if they were false that would lead to a logical contradiction. The contradiction in question would be that we have a set of teachings which by simple merit of its definition must be always true and reliable, as it is the source of all of our knowledge including the knowledge of all that we know to be true and reliable. Yet if that set of teachings is false then the source of all of our knowledge, including the knowledge of all that I know to be true, is false. Yet if the knowledge of all that I know to be true is false, then it should not be possible for me to know that it is false. Since if my starting point were actually false then I of course would never be able to know this since that false starting point would falsely determine even my understanding of true and false. Thus I would be living as though my knowledge were true when in actuality it would all be false.
This is a philosophical problem in the highest regard and there are several logical ways to resolve it. But to keep things simple let’s just go with the obvious way. I accept my core doctrine to be true, since doubting it would prove to be impossible.
The work of theology
Thus, having taken my core doctrines well in hand, I now turn to the real work of theology, the investigation of divine revelation.
Divine revelation can take many forms but the most common are: sacred texts, mystical visions, the words and deeds of a prophet or holy person, miracles, holy artefacts, ordinary occurrences, and the apparent natural order of the universe.
No matter what the chosen revelation is, the method is always the same. The revelation must be interpreted in line with what the core doctrine says. So we must consult our understanding of the core doctrine and determine how best to categorize the revelation we are witnessing.
For example: If I hear the preaching of a holy person, I will know that they truly are a holy person if what they say accords with the core doctrines. If it counters or goes against that core, then they are a false prophet or heretic and are to be avoided or punished. The same is true of the sacred text. If I read a book which claims to be a sacred text then I will test it by seeing how well it fits the core doctrines. If it fits then it is indeed sacred, and if not then it is blasphemous.
Now where this really starts to work is when a divine revelation is so well confirmed by the core doctrine that I am able to use it to form the basis for a system of theology. Keep in mind that the core is always separable from any system of theology. Yet once I find a revelation which is completely confirmed by the core then that revelation may form the basis for a complex theological structure.