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Theological Reflection

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Posted by Kirsten Birkett, 8 Dec 2020

Kirsten Birkett unpacks what is meant by 'theological reflection', as referred to in Living in Love and Faith.

At the start of the Living in Love and Faith book, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York introduce what LLF is doing as ‘an Anglican method of theological reflection’ (p. viii).
It’s easy to hear this phrase ‘theological reflection’ and think it just means, say, ‘thinking about the world biblically’, or ‘applying theology to the world’. However ‘theological reflection’ is more than that: it is a specific method for doing theology, for discovering what God is saying to us now. If we are going to use it to come to a decision about doctrine, we should be sure that it is a correct way to come to conclusions about God.

‘Theological reflection’ is a relatively recent term. This term started to dominate discussion of theological education, especially in the US, in the eighties. It arose from Latin American Liberation Theology, relying on the seminal work of Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian.

How Theological Reflection developed
In his book A Theology of Liberation[1], for instance, Gutierrez began by putting his task firmly in the lived experience of today’s oppressed:
This book is an attempt at reflection, based on the Gospel and the experiences of men and women committed to the process of liberation in the oppressed and exploited land of Latin America (p. ix).
However, he did not present his book as a work of social history or political commentary, but as a work of theology. This idea caught on.

Take, for instance, a 1996 book which explains how to do theological reflection. It states that ‘one of the key tasks of ordained ministry or church leadership is to facilitate more informed theological debate, so that the Church may be led into all truth (John 16:13)’[2]. This comes by ‘reflecting theologically on the situation in order to see where it fits into the mission of God’.  To this one should bring knowledge and experience of the Bible but also other disciplines, own self-knowledge, and out of the ‘critical conversation’ between these, comes theological reflection.

This process of theological reflection starts with a pastoral event -  which could be a bereavement, a meeting, or a resignation (or in our case, a disagreement over the doctrine of marriage); it continues with exploration, with the insights of other disciplines; then it becomes reflective, understanding the event ‘in terms of the theological tradition’; then follows action, what to do about it.
One can undertake reflection this by a ‘linear method’: seeing what the Bible says and obeying it. Equally valid, however, is the correlational method. In this method, one uses human science (for instance, psychology) and ‘the theology which bears most directly’.

How much weight, for example, is to be given to what the Bible says about homosexuality and how much to the plethora of confusing insights from scientific and cultural studies? To reject all that science and anthropology say on the subject because of the teaching of Leviticus and Romans would be folly (Practical Theology, p. 124).

Hearing God
Is this what is happening in LLF?

The authors aren’t naïve about this. The book rejects the idea that this is a Bible vs culture debate:

The real debate here … is not between those who are faithful to Christian truth and those who have capitulated to the surrounding culture. Some people involved in the debate think that an insight has arisen in the culture surrounding the church that chimes with, or prompts fresh insight into, a deep truth of the gospel. They believe that, now that they have reread the Scriptures in the light of that insight, they are called by those Scriptures to penitence and change….Both groups are seeking to be faithful to Christian truth (LLF, p. 351).

But how do you come to that Christian truth?

In LLF, we have a very detailed, and in many ways very good, description of a whole range of factors that come into understanding LGBTQi people and their reality within the church. We do hear from the Bible, with a description of what the Bible text says, and disagreements over how to understand that text. We also hear from science, from other religions, we hear about other Anglican responses from around the world, movements within culture, and a range of personal stories and people in conversation.

We are told that by doing ‘theological reflection’ in this way, we are in the process of discerning God’s will, of finding out what he would have us do.

The trouble is, this kind of theological reflection is not how God tells us to discover his will. He has told us everything we need for salvation and godliness, in Scripture. We do theology by reading the Bible and thinking about the Bible, with all the tools of scholarship and reason to aid us, yes – but the Bible is the source of our information. We then take that information and decide thoughtfully how to apply it to a complex and changing world. We may use our powers of reason to reflect, with this theology we have been given, on what is happening in the world. We do not do it the other way around.

Part Four of LLF is titled ‘Seeking answers: how do we hear God’. It surveys a range of options, openly acknowledges disagreement, but concludes hopefully: ‘Despite the extent of our disagreements about how to do it, however, we all remain committed to listening attentively to what God is saying – with all our heart, mind, soul and strength’ (p. 368).
But if we don’t listen in the place where God is speaking, we will not hear him. The focus of our debate, of our process of discussion and discernment, should be the Bible. This is a crucial point. Let us talk openly, and honestly, and think about our opinions critically; but let these discussion focus on Scripture, not anywhere else.

[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez A Theology of Liberation (trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, London: SCM Press, 1974).
[2] Ballard and Pritchard, Practical Theology in Action: Christian Thinking in the Service of Church and Society (SPCK 1996, 2006), p. 118. For further discussion of John 16:13, see a next week’s blog.

Dr Kirsten Birkett is the Theological Consultant to Church Society.

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