To my way of understanding, theology is like a river that is formed by three tributaries. One tributary is the process of personal learning which comes as we sit before Scripture. As a Baptist, I wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of soul competency, which affirms our individual privilege and responsibility to hear from God and respond to him. As a believer, God has equipped and empowered us to relate directly with him. We can hear from him and respond appropriately.
The second tributary is the learning that occurs within the community of faith whereby we interact with one another over cups of coffee, honing our views and understanding of Scripture. A good illustration of this is found in church history. Our orthodox faith has been developed over time through conversations and councils that produced creeds and confessions. The doctrines we profess were not developed by individuals but through community. I think the best theological work comes from striving to ask better questions. Healthy community values hard questions over pat answers every time. Thus the work is more about asking better questions and less about clinging to our safe positions.
The third tributary is the practice of our faith in the marketplace and the resulting experiences we amass. Included in this tributary are things like our culture, context, and ministry application (praxis). After all, we are particular Christians living in particular places in the ongoing history. Whether we like it or not, what happens to us in the laboratory of life impacts what happens in us and tempers our view of God and his words, and how we minister those in the marketplace.
The narrative account of the Jerusalem council convened in Acts 15 demonstrates these three influences at work. Through that event we see the dynamics of persons wrestling with Scripture over against their cultural background and experiences. On one hand we see a group whose religious background would suggest the need for circumcision. On the other, another group whose ministry experience revealed that Gentiles were indeed coming to faith apart from strict observance of Mosaic law. They came together, had conversation, and worked out an understanding in community. Even then, their outcomes would not be the same outcomes we would reach here and now in the 21st century. I find this intriguing.
There is a problem, however, with the analogy of the three tributaries in that they are difficult to balance. In a perfect world, personal learning, the informal conversation of community, and life experience are an equilateral triangle: equal sides and equal angles. But that’s not reality. Sometimes we become out of balance due to the fact that one tributary may feed more than its share into the river because of heavy rain. Truth be known, theology is messy yet important work. From it flows our character, our values and convictions, and our conduct. The work is worth it. Otherwise we become victims to the worst of all, taking others word for everything we believe.