Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Paideia: Theological Method

Last night was my first class at Western Seminary... at least the first class of my full time attendance at the actual location in Portland. To be honest, it didn't strike me that I was starting school at all yesterday - I'd become pretty comfortable hanging out with Noelle all day, going on walks, runs, bike rides, playing tennis, and so on. I knew it would have to end come August 30th, but sort of didn't want it to. So when I went to class from 6-10 pm last night, it was a bit of a rude awakening.

One of the bigger topics we covered last night was Theological Method - that is, which approach someone takes when studying a topic of theology. The truth is that everyone has a theological method even if they don't refer to it as that, or if they don't use the three formal categories I'm going to present. But perhaps that's why understanding your theological method (and considering the downsides of each) can be so important - it may help you understand better why some people are content with conclusions and others aren't. Let's dive in.

The three Theological Methods are "Deduction", Induction", and "Retroduction". Let's define these ideas and then get into the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Deduction: this method is employed when someone pursues the thoughts and expertise of a more learned person than themselves. So, when someone approaches a pastor or professor, or picks up a commentary or a book, this is deduction. The key is this: the deduction method typically means receiving the person's (or perhaps a few people's) thoughts on a matter to be authoritative and becomes the person's position.

Induction: this method is used when someone comes across a topic or difficulty in theology, puts away all commentaries and human assistance, and solely digs into the Bible to find an answer. The goal is to come up with a Biblical argument for something based on your own personal research and prayer in the Scriptures.

Retroduction: this method occurs when someone comes across an issue, seeks opinions from multiple sources who most likely disagree with one another, and does their best to reach a personal conclusion based on which resonates the best with Scripture. An example would be the question "What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit?" and asking four or five different denominations for answers, comparing them with Scripture, surveying the answers, and finding out which one had the least "holes" in their argument according to Scripture.

So, which method is best? First off, each method does have good biblical basis and perhaps each method is right in certain circumstances. Hebrews 13:17 speaks about coming underneath the teaching of an elder/pastor (deduction); Acts 17:11 refers to the Berean Christians studying Scripture for themselves to validate the preaching of the Apostles (induction); and Acts 15 recounts a story in which Pharisees, Paul, Peter, James, and others gave their thoughts regarding the necessity of circumcision to be in the family of faith, compared them with Scripture, and made a conclusion (not that they all made the same conclusion) - this is retroduction.

Each method is also not without its own set if potential dangers. If you rely too heavily on one or two people's opinions and they are wrong, then you're led astray easily because you adopt their views without thinking. If you hole up and shove away the wisdom from theologians or pastors and only take the "me and God will figure it out" approach, you may not have the necessary knowledge or interpretation ability to come up with a solid, biblical answer. And if you get too many opinions (retroduction gone wild) from other perspectives, even if they are all Christian groups who believe Scripture to be their highest authority, you might get so much knowledge about something that it's impossible to really come up with a consensus.

In the end, my professor is a Retroduction kind of guy. Get several opinions on a matter, seek God's Word, discover the strongest position, and come up with a conclusion. He sees this method as sort of marrying the first two together: you're not just relying on one brain (yours or one other person's), but you're not pushing everyone away and falsely believing you can come up with the answer on your own. Your going to God's Word, hearing other people, and moving forward. Perhaps this is sort of "teacher's pet" of me to say, but I'm convinced this is the right method as well. Truth be told, "retroduction" was a brand new word to me last night... but I think that's been my approach for a long time.

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