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Living Theologically
September 11, 1994

PROVERBS 1:20-33

How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will...fools hate knowledge? Proverbs 1:22 could very well have been written to our generation. The author uses even stronger language in 1:32, Good News Version, Inexperienced people die because they reject wisdom. Stupid people are destroyed by their own lack of concern. Ignore wisdom at our peril.

Education and wisdom are held in low esteem in our country. There is a general lack of respect for teachers. They are at the low end of pay scales. Professors are the butt of jokes. There is an absence today of great philosophers like Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, or Plato. There is an absence of esteemed theologians like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, John Wesley or Martin Luther.

What has happened to the search for wisdom? What has happened to thinking? In this month's Portal, I quoted an indictment of modern thinking as being "exclusively subjective and uninformed activity." John Cobb of Claremont Seminary says that many church people today suppose that their gut feelings represent the truth of Christian teaching. We are too quick to express what we think or what we feel as being the last word on a subject. We are manipulated by TV ads that condense sensitive issues to 30-seconds of drivel aimed at our fears rather than our intelligence.

There is a movement to remake God in our image. We would rather create and shape God, than acknowledge that it is God who has created us. The ancient, traditional definition of theology--faith seeking understanding--has been reversed in our day. Now, theology has become understanding seeking faith. Rather than developing a world-view and belief system that explains and expresses our faith in God, we manipulate our faith in God to support our world view and belief system. In other words, the question asked today is, "Can I find a faith that fits my view of the world?" rather than, "How does my view of the world need to be transformed by the gospel?"

The author of Proverbs 2:2-4 offers a challenge that is extremely relevant to us today, Listen to what is wise and try to understand it. Yes, beg for knowledge; plead for insight. Look for it as hard as you would for silver or some hidden treasure. My plea this morning is for us to live theologically. Christians should never be content with someone else's opinions, and never be content with basing our beliefs on what "I think" or "I feel."

I am offering an approach this morning, a method for you to use to begin to think and live theologically. The traditional Methodist approach to thinking theologically is called the Quadrilateral because it has four ingredients: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. When you are deciding what to believe, when you are deciding what is the right course of action for you to follow, ask four questions:

1) What does the Bible say? The Bible is our authority. It is our special book. It's most important role is the revelation of Jesus. Jesus Christ is our ultimate authority, and most of what we know about Jesus comes to us through the Bible. But, there is always the danger that we will find in the Bible only what we take to the Bible. There is the temptation to use the Bible, to use the Bible to confirm what we already think. Nazis found justification in the Bible to slaughter Jews. Slave holders argued from the Bible that it is right to buy and sell humans. Some churches quote the Bible to keep women "in their place." When you study the Bible for insight, study all the relevant passages, not just those that support what you think. Study a text in its historical context. Do not read the Bible as if it is speaking directly to you. Read it through the eyes of the author. Why was it written? What situation was being addressed? What was the word of God? Then ask, what is the word of God to me/us?

2) (And the order of these questions is not important.) What does tradition, the lessons learned from history, say? What has the church learned? What do the creeds say? If you are a United Methodist, study the historical positions our church has taken.

3) What can I learn from my own experience, and from the experiences of others, especially those I respect, and those from whom I can learn? I wonder what would have happened if slave holders had looked at slavery from the experience of the slaves, if settlers and the U. S. Army had considered what the Native Americans were experiencing as they were chased, slaughtered, and moved from reservation to reservation, if heterosexuals would try to feel what homosexuals feel as they struggle to live their lives, if autocratic men would look at the world as women experience it.

4) Is it reasonable? Trust the mind and intelligence God gave you. Every interpretation of scripture and tradition is an act of reason. To reason is to think. To think theologically is to develop your belief system in accordance with what you have learned from scripture, tradition, experience, and as God inspires you. The purpose of education, at least what I hope the purpose is, is to teach us how to think, how to reason, how to research, experiment, evaluate, and make decisions.

Let's apply this method in the remaining moments to the moral dilemma of abortion. Next week, we will look at Whatever Happened to Truth? and the following week, What About School Prayer? Today, let's look at abortion as it, again, is in the forefront of world news. The United Nations has been trying to hold a conference in Cairo on the extreme necessity for population control. Family Planning, it is reported, is having a significant impact, but the Vatican representative has kept the conference bogged down on abortion. What about abortion? What do you believe about abortion?

The easy answer is to say, "I think...." or "I feel...." and express your opinion. It is also easy to take someone else's position. But, a Christian needs to live theologically and seek understanding, insight, and God's will. Let's apply the method.

1) What does the Bible say? The Bible says nothing explicitly about abortion. The Bible certainly affirms that innocent people are not to be killed, but the Bible says nothing about if or when a fetus is a person. The only biblical passage that comes close is Exodus 21:22-25 which is about the rights of a pregnant woman who has been beaten and miscarries. The rights of the fetus are not mentioned.

2) What does tradition teach us? You might want to read the position of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church as recorded in the Social Principles found in the Book of Discipline, 1992, p. 92. There is a copy of the Discipline in our church library. In the early centuries, Christians debated about when the soul appears in the fetus. St. Augustine argued that once the soul was in the fetus, the killing of the fetus would be murder, but it is not murder before the soul is present. Some contemporary philosophers argue that the fetus is not a person until the mind has come into existence. The Roman Catholic position is that a fetus must be considered a person from conception. Others argue that the fetus only gradually becomes a human person.

3) Take experience into consideration. Have you had any personal experience with abortion, or know people who have?

4) Use your reason--your mind--and do theological thinking. Developing a theology, a belief system, about abortion involves the answering of questions like, what is a human? What is life? When does a fetus become a person? What makes a human being one of those especially precious creatures for whom God cares so much? Is it membership in the biological species? Is it the potential to become a person? If it is wrong to kill a fertilized ovum, is it right to force a woman to bring an unwanted fetus to term? If a woman has a right to decide what happens within her own body, how does such a right relate to the right of the fetus to live?

Abortion is not an easy matter, and easy answers are a disservice. To live theologically requires work, study, reflection, and prayer. Your church provides classes to help you formulate your own theology. Listen again to the challenge. Proverbs 2:3-4, Beg for knowledge; plead for insight. Look for it as hard as you would for silver or some hidden treasure.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris