When I try to think clearly about God, I start from assumptions similar to Thomas Oden. His systematic theology (originally in three volumes constructed on a trinitarian framework, but more recently combined into a single volume titled “Classic Christianity”) handles its sources in a pyramidal fashion. It relies most heavily on, includes the most references to, Scripture itself. Then it draws on the church fathers—less than it does Scripture, but more than succeeding generations. So you will find fewer references to 20th century theologians than you will to the earliest centuries’ theological sources.
Another assumption of mine is that, because God loves all people and is always at work, we will find fingerprints of the Holy Spirit in all societies throughout history. That doesn’t mean that all claims are true, or that all people are or will be saved (I don’t know that one—only God judges). But (for example) one of my long-term goals is to evaluate the Tao Te Ching for evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. Because I also observe that, even among devoted Christians, different cultures and eras emphasize different aspects of biblical theology and worldviews, I expect to find that the work of the Holy Spirit in other cultures and eras will emphasize things we underemphasize or ignore completely. I would hope that, by looking through the Tao Te Ching for resonances with Scripture and orthodox theology, I would see highlighted for me not ideas that are opposed to Christianity or a biblical worldview, but themes that I might otherwise skip over in our own theology. I would hope that the Holy Spirit would take that work that He initiated in ancient Asian cultures and let it be planted and bloom in my own life and theology.
So, when I try to think and pray through an area of theological and/or spiritual inquiry, I expect that (for example):
- Eastern Orthodox sources will have different emphases and details from Roman Catholic and other orthodox theological streams.
- Sometimes one branch of Christianity will “get it right,” while all the others are off base on a particular point. But I expect that to be the exception, and not the rule. I expect that the Holy Spirit will guide us primarily via (among other ways) the agreement, or at least harmony, between the branches.
These expectations shape my interpretive filter. Thus, where a partisan of one of the branches might be more likely to read another branch’s work and focus on or see mainly differences, I’m looking for the ways the different branches are in agreement. For example, I try to respect the definitions intended by the users of various pertinent terms, but given those definitions, I’m looking for the ways their ideas might legitimately at least rest side by side, if not be wholly in agreement, with other branches’ ideas in that area of inquiry.