The Tools of the Trade

“All right,” you say. “So defend yourself! You say that Godde is a spirit, that Godde is omnipotent, that Godde became a human being and died on the Cross to save us from sin and death. On just what basis do you make these bizarre claims?” The basic “tools of the trade” of theology are Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

What does the Bible say about Godde? Scripture is dogma’s first and most important tool. Here it is important for you, the fledgling theologian, to remember — or to learn for the first time — that the narratives contained in the Bible are not history, at least not as modern Western society understands the word. They are salvation- history, or (here’s a great ten-dollar word for you!) heilsgeschichte (HILES-guh-SHIK-tuh). The author of Genesis 5 did not seriously expect you to believe that Methuselah lived to be 969; the author was pointing out that Adam and Eve lived an amazingly long time, their children lived slightly shorter lives, their grandchildren shorter lives still, and so on, until by the time of the flood humans had devolved so much — this is the important point: had become so corrupted by sin — that they lived only to the ordinary 70 years or so we still pretty much expect today. The author was not saying that humans used to be capable of living 14 or more times longer than we do even today; the author was saying that sin doesn’t just corrupt us, it debilitates us.

“But if you can’t prove that the incidents recorded in a biblical story actually happened — or if you can prove that they couldn’t possibly have happened — why should I believe it?” you ask. A philosopher/storyteller named Black Elk used to begin a story by saying, “I don’t know whether the incidents in this story actually happened or not. I just know that it’s true.” Truth doesn’t reside only in names and dates and Social Security numbers, students’ permanent records and doctors’ files and the scribblings of historians. We know in our hearts that Santa Claus is a myth — and that the stories about Santa are true anyway. We know that humans evolved from earlier species, all the way back to a mammal that looked like a mouse — and we also know that Godde created us in Godde’s image.

Look at it this way: A myth is a story, often a sacred story, that attempts to convey an abstract truth using symbolic language. If you are trying to teach a young person that Godde is in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the victimized, and that it’s right for humans to feel and act the same way, do you make that youngster read a set of dry, dry scholarly books on the subject, full of ten-dollar words and no pictures — or do you tell that youngster some of the stories about the Exodus?

Modern theologians apply modern tools to Scripture: They compare independent historical records and the scriptures of other faiths, they look at the evidence found in archeology and cultural anthropology, and they do their best to use the brains Godde gave them.

Remember the place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus talks about Gehenna (some translations say “Hell”), “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (9:42-48)? Gehenna was a ravine just outside Jerusalem where King Solomon let some of his foreign wives worship their god Molech/Chemosh; this worship, as many religions did, included an Eternal Flame, a sacred fire that carried the delicious aroma of burnt offerings up to heaven. (Burnt offerings were only sacrilegious if they were made by some other religion than Judaism, but it should be noted that before King Josiah’s reforms, some of even Judaism's sacrifices were human children [2 Kings 3:27].) After the practice was put a stop to, Gehenna became Jerusalem’s cesspool and was “alive with worms.” [FN1] In other words, Jesus was not describing the traditional Christian idea of Hell. In Mark 9:42-48, Jesus was telling his disciples, "It is better for you to break the sacred rules of your religion than it is for you to come between someone else and Godde — if you do that, you're as worthless as the garbage dump where they used to worship false idols."

In this context of the theological “tools of the trade,” the phrase “the Word of Godde” refers to the Scriptures — and to the widening ripples engendered by this splash into the human consciousness. (There is a completely different meaning to the phrase that I will be discussing elsewhere.)

At the center of the concept “Word of Godde” are the Scriptures that the Church has agreed are holy, the principle means by which we reach our understanding of who Godde is, what Godde has done, and how we are to respond.

A ripple out from this core contains the creeds and confessions of the Church, what are called (here’s another ten-dollar word) our kerygma (care-IG-ma) — the proclamation of the good news that Godde is love, that Godde created us out of love, and that Godde’s purpose is to welcome us into Godde’s eternal life and make us holy too.

Yet a further ripple contains the writings through history that support this proclamation, such as apocryphal writings (scriptures that not every denomination of the Church considers holy) and writings that reflect the faith of early witnesses to the risen Christ (for example, the Didache [pr. DID-a-kay] of the Twelve Apostles).

Another ripple consists of the liturgy — how we have proclaimed Godde’s loving activities in our worship throughout the centuries, and how we still proclaim it.

The “final” ripple might be called how Godde’s Word affects us today: the Word as it is proclaimed from the pulpit, the Word that echoes in our secret heart of hearts and says, “Yes. This is true.”

Tradition is a tool of the theologian’s trade that is particularly important for Christianity. Beginning with the earliest witnesses to the risen Christ — the women and men who remembered Christ’s actual presence and words — traditions about how we are to respond to Godde’s love have been handed down from Christian to Christian — that’s what we call apostolicity. The Bible does not say that animals were present when Jesus was born, for example, but we “just know” through tradition that the ox and the ass kept time as the Little Drummer Boy played for the infant king. The Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene (Christ's favorite disciple) was a sinner, much less a prostitute — but the imperial Roman Church taught as much for more than a thousand years, and most people today “just know” that it must be true. The Bible says nothing about crossing oneself, or genuflecting, or that bishops should wear purple, but it’s all tradition.

Christianity began as an “underdog” religion, persecuted both by the Roman Empire and by every other of the dozens of religions that were then being practiced — and then, early in the fourth century, Christianity became the “Establishment” religion. Over the next thousand years and more, the Church became so close to a second Roman Empire that many Christians still today feel free to persecute those who do not share their beliefs.

How can we stay in touch with our roots, with what made us Christians to begin with? The Church is a living organism, and tradition tries to keep us in touch with our beginnings. The challenge today for people who call themselves Christians is to distinguish between the traditions that keep us in touch with Christ (e.g., prayer) and the traditions that come between us and the love of Godde (e.g., persecuting homosexuals — or anyone else).

Godde gave us minds and expects us to use them, and thus the test of reason comes next as a theological tool of the trade — what the New Testament calls “testing the spirits,” to make sure that what is being proclaimed (Scripture) and handed down (tradition) actually makes sense.

The Enlightenment of the late 1700s and early 1800s has given today’s world some strange notions: that rational thought is all humans need to attain perfection; that the scientific method is our only truly useful tool in rational thought; that all evolution is Progress and that all Progress is good; that if a story related in the Bible isn't factually accurate, it therefore isn't true.

One side effect of the Enlightenment is the idea that many of us hold in our subconscious minds that human beings can save and perfect ourselves — all we need is a some good old American grit and determination. (This idea is known, by the way, as the Arian heresy, and the Roman Emperor Constantine saw to it that the Church declared it a heresy in 325 C.E.)

The Enlightenment said, in effect, unless you can prove that the scriptural record was factual history, it must be discounted entirely — that there is no truth except that contained in logically demonstrable fact. This touched off a “war” that still goes on today, with conservative theologians twisting themselves into metaphorical pretzels to prove that every word of Scripture is the factual truth, dictated by Godde to human stenographers in beautiful 16th-century English, and that hares do so too chew their cuds.

This is not what is meant by reason. Reason means simply the ability to think, to draw judgments, and to reach conclusions. "Reason" is what the people who wrote the various books of the Bible meant by "the Word" — their thinking being that if you cannot use language, you cannot think well enough to use logic.

As a tool of the theologian’s trade, reason simply means, does a teaching of the Church make sense? If Jesus did not denounce slavery, does that make slavery all right? Did Jesus really want us to conduct pogroms, to try to systematically wipe out practitioners of other religions? When Jesus proclaimed the resurrection of the dead, did that mean that we should carefully save every scrap of our physical bodies over the years — hair, nail clippings, accidentally severed limbs? When Jesus told us to live as though Godde’s Domain were a present reality, did that mean that we are to abjure all advances in modern technology, such as electricity (the Amish) or medicine (Christian Scientists)? If Godde has no gender — that is, is neither male nor female — then why have almost all writers for the past two thousand years referred to Godde in exclusively masculine terms?

This brings us to the final tool of the theologian’s trade: experience. The word refers not merely to individual experience — what one has heard with one’s own ears, for example — but to how the Church’s teachings have interacted with history. Since the Promised Land was taken over without reference to the feelings of those who were living there already, did that make it all right for the pioneers of the American West to wipe out the Native American tribes they encountered? Since Jesus was rejected by the religious Establishment of first-century Israel, did that make it all right for the Church to turn a blind eye to Hitler’s attempt to exterminate all Jews? How has Jesus’ depiction as a blue-eyed blond affected the spiritual lives of the world’s non-Caucasians? If Godde is to be referred to exclusively as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the World Council of Churches demands in Confessing the One Faith [FN2] doesn’t that imply that women are neither created in Godde’s image nor eligible for being baptized or redeemed?


Christopher Morse, a systematic theologian, has elucidated ten criteria for “testing the spirits” — that is, determining whether a dogma of the Church is faithful to the Christian kerygma. Some of these we have already touched on briefly. These criteria are:

Think of these criteria as the last important part of the theologian’s toolbox: the check to see whether a tool is doing its job properly. There is not much point to a saw without teeth or half a pair of pliers; there is not much point to teaching that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin (the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception”) if one’s denomination doesn’t believe in the virgin birth in the first place.

A theologian named Kendall Soulen has been heard to remark that studying theology is like trying to unraveling a sweater with a complicated design — you pull at one strand only to discover that everything is connected to everything else. In the fullness of time, the documents in this web site will be full of cross-references — a multi-dimensional "web" where you'll be able to follow all sorts of threads of thought.

In the first draft of this text, I began with the rather casual “structure” of Who Godde Is, What Godde Has Done, and How We Should Respond — only to discover that there are dozens of threads of thought linking the three. How can we consider Godde in Godde’s aseity [FN4], for example, when we have only human perception and ability to reason with which to do so? Who is to say that Godde is not so far beyond human perception and reason that to try to consider Godde without reference to what Godde has done is simply ludicrous? Let us unravel the sweater as best we can, then. . . .

[FN1] Smith's Bible Dictionary, Sir William Smith (1813-1893) (Thomas Nelson Publishers), pp. 249- 50; The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 243; and Robert Graves, The White Goddedess: Amended and Enlarged Edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948, 1966, 1986), p. 125. Return to text.

[FN2] In its supposedly ecumenical statement Confessing the One Faith, the World Council of Churches makes a half-hearted gesture in one or two paragraphs at acknowledging that the Goddehead is not merely two men and a bird. This frees it to devote the rest of its screed to insisting that “We may not surrender the language of ‘Father,’” as if there were a war going on, and Godde must be defended from feminist marauders who would emasculate the patriarchy. In 120 pages and thousands of words, the WCC refers to Godde exclusively in masculine terms, and a strong case could be made that as far as the WCC is concerned, Godde is exclusively male. World Council of Churches, Confessing the One Faith (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1991), p. 31 (and others). Return to text.

[FN3] Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), pp. 46-69. Return to text.

[FN4] Ah-SAY-ity, or Godde considered in the light of the Latin a se, or Godde considered all by Goddeself, without reference to what Godde has done — created the Universe, created humanity, and so forth. Return to text.

Visit Tanit by clicking here