Methods, Norms, and Sources: Doing Theology as Normal People (aka Theological Hermeneutics for Dummies)

In theology, methods, norms, and sources refer to the building blocks, process, and standards for theological work.

Sources are the places from which we derive theological content. It is important, when crafting a theological argument, to consider theological source material. For example, there may be sources about MAiD that give medical or sociological information about it, and that information is important, but ultimately the reasons Christians form conclusions about MAiD are drawn from what we believe Scripture and other explicitly Christian sources say and imply about human life and death. The same is true for other topics as well.

Sources that are truly theological talk about what should be in relation to an explicitly Christian way of viewing the world. There are other sources that make claims about what should be based on political or other priorities that are not necessarily Christian; these agendas represent ideologies, not theologies. They may be useful to some degree, but we need to read them using Christian wisdom.

Doing Theology well means that Christians discern not simply based on what is – using factual information such as scientific or sociological sources provide – but rather in light of what God tells us in Scripture will happen and should happen. Theology is partly about making the best of things, but it is also about making God’s world better, the way God has always intended it to be.

Experience is an important source for theology, but it is one that needs to be used to corroborate and flesh out other sources (like the pattern Jesus lived as recorded in Scripture) rather than being a primary source itself. Unaided experience is not a reliable theological guide.

Methods are ways in which we correlate, prioritize, and evaluate sources. For example, think about process questions like these, that theologians ask: Is it rational? Does it make intuitive sense? Is it experientially valid? Does it look like, or point to, Jesus? Our goal is to think and live integratively, so our method helps us do this by framing issues in terms of good questions.

Good method also helps us identify the ways in which we believe God speaks reliably to us. Method helps us order our convictions, sort sources in order of reliability, and also defines the degree of specificity we seek – for some, loose ends are not good, while others can live with ambiguity or mystery.

Norms are the standards by which we measure our substantive theological statements. Ultimately, the norm I think Christians should use to measure theological worth is the life, teachings and example of Jesus Christ. He is the author and perfecter of our faith.

Broadly, theology needs all three of these because it needs a place to go for reliable content, a way to do theology, and a way to measure it once it’s done. The materials we use to reflect on a theological topic need to fit into this large scale way of thinking theologically so that Christians can have a fruitful conversation towards theological discernment.

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