Theological reflection is the act of critical thinking seeking discernment through the authority of the Holy Scriptures. Theological reflection is a spiritual and practical discipline used by all believers. However, Theological Reflection is an indispensable pastoral practice of identifying, evaluating, and responding to a presenting issue of the human experience through faithful engagement with and wise response from a prayerful study of the divine revelation, viz., the Word of God. The practice, whether called theological reflection, moral theology, practical theology, or merely “pastoral wisdom,” is at the heart of the pastoral task according to Scripture. Yet, such an assertion demands evidence for its supposed primacy in the work of the minister.
The Ground of Scripture in Theological Reflection
Scripture is replete with a self-understanding of its divine nature. Thus, while it is possible to identify several anchor passages to demonstrate the primacy of scripture in theological reflection, it is simultaneously redundant. For scripture writes of itself as divinely given from God to Man through the Holy Spirit moving through the ordinary lives of men. Consider:
- Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” This verse highlights the transformative power of God’s Word in guiding and illuminating our understanding of the human condition and our existence in the world. Through faithful and prayerful engagement with the Bible, we gain insight into life’s challenges and find direction for our lives.
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This passage emphasizes the comprehensive nature of Scripture and its role in shaping our understanding of the human condition. It teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains us, enabling us to navigate the complexities of life and fulfill God’s purposes.
- Romans 15:4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” This verse emphasizes the instructive nature of the Scriptures and their capacity to provide hope and encouragement. By engaging in theological reflection rooted in the Bible, we gain wisdom and insight that enable us to navigate the challenges of the human condition and find hope in God’s promises.
One of the most striking theological statements among the English-speaking peoples is the Westminster Confession of Faith with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms (teaching guides of the summary of biblical doctrine). John Murray declared that the genius of The Confession and Catechism is its brevity and its succinctness. The product of the meetings from 1643 to 1649 states no more than Scripture affirms. The meetings of the Westminster Divines took place between the years 1643 and 1649 to formulate the Westminster Confession of Faith along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These meetings were convened by the English Parliament and were held at Westminster Abbey in London. The purpose of these gatherings was to produce a comprehensive statement of Reformed Christian doctrine, which would serve as the doctrinal standard for the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The resulting documents, including the Westminster Confession of Faith, were completed and approved by the Westminster Assembly in 1647 and ratified by the English Parliament in 1648. The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms the divine authority and inspiration of Scripture in several places.
Chapter 1, Article 4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith states: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.”
This article emphasizes that the authority of Scripture is derived from God Himself, who is the ultimate source of truth. It implies that Scripture’s divine nature is self-attesting and does not rely on external human testimony.
Additionally, the WCF, in Chapter 1, Article 5, summarizes the internal evidence for the supernatural nature of Scripture and how the Author of Scripture “recognizes” His undeniable activity in both the Sacred Text and the human soul. The statement is a remarkably concise and precise assertion of the relationship of the Bible to the one who reads it:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
Thus, a distinctly Christian and believing theological reflection affirms the indivisible and immovable nature of the Bible as essential in inaugurating the sequenced of critical thinking that leads to insight applied.
Evaluating Theological Reflection
If one conceives of theological reflection as a sort of vacant mindfulness without intellectual boundaries or cogent classifications, then it follows that any and all attempts to assess this pastoral exercise will be futile. However, our definition of theological reflection includes standards that allow the exercise to be observed, assessed, and, when necessary, amended for the sake of the stated goals (the glory of God and the good of others, i.e., divine worship and human flourishing).
I have prepared a guide to writing and evaluating (a grading “rubric” in the parlance of contemporary pedagogical methodologies) theological reflection papers. For our purposes, theological reflection is a pastoral practice of identifying and responding to a presenting issue in the human condition through faithful engagement with divine revelation in the Word of God. I had one class in my seminary experience that was completely focused on writing theological reflection papers. I found it to be one of the most helpful classes in my education as it related to the everyday work of the pastorate. My appreciation for and desire to teach theological reflection was formed in my ministerial training, residencies, and internships, lifelong learning, the pastoral practice of applying prayerful Bible study to the presenting issues of the human condition, and an adult lifetime of teaching ministerial candidates in theological higher education. No single one of those experiences qualifies one as an expert. Furthermore, this presentation is not intended, nor could be, the last word on the subject of writing theological reflection papers for seminary. However, I trust our submission to the wider theological education community can be of some help to those first-year students entering theological college or seminary this year. If the simple product finds use by colleagues in teaching or ministry, then all the better.
This is a general guide that I use in grading theological reflection papers (“rubric”).
Theological Reflection Attained
A reflection paper, here, assumes an appreciable knowledge of or scholarly interest in a larger category of learning and, thus, an aptitude to interact with others in the field. In Theology and Religious Studies, the student conducts such reflection and composes a theological reflection paper. This kind of research paper is comprised (regardless of other criteria) of the following six measurable components:
The work of theological reflection is an act of critical thinking grounded in the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God. Such a process is practiced by all believers at any age. Nevertheless, theological reflection is an invaluable resource and a pastoral activity to be practiced and honed. Beginning with the observation of a presenting issue, the theologian follows a sequence that seeks to move from observation to synthesis and application. The sequence involves at least the following (See Figure 1):
I read Augustine’s Confessions (presenting issue). I found that this classic text raises the perennial concerns of the human condition through self-disclosure, the need to be forgiven, redemption, and God’s love (theological issues). I began to think about how these concepts could apply in my ministry as a student intern at St. Paul’s Church (new insights). I found that as I put the book aside, I could articulate my own ‘confession.’ I began to sense the possibility of release from negative thoughts that had haunted me for some time. Perhaps, Augustine’s Confessions is as powerful today as it was in 398 AD. I began to see that there is a redemption here that transcends Augustine’s own life and touches our own (solutions).
We offer the following Theological Reflection Paper as a template for writing your own paper. This theological reflection paper is a spiritual biographical genre. For an example of theological reflection on journaling as a means of prayerful learning, see:
A Rubric for Theological Reflection
This rubric is designed to assess the key components of theological reflection at the graduate and postgraduate levels.
Criteria for Writing and Evaluating with Points Available
I. Classification 40
- Identifying (10 points)
- Clearly identifies the presenting issue or topic.
- Demonstrates a thorough understanding of the context and scope of the issue.
- Naming (10 points)
- Provides appropriate and accurate terminology related to the issue.
- Demonstrates familiarity with relevant theological concepts and terminology.
- Integrating (20 points)
- Integrates biblical and theological sources to contextualize the issue.
- Engages with diverse perspectives and sources to provide a comprehensive understanding of the issue.
II. Synthesis 60
- Applying (20 points)
- Applies theological principles and insights to the presenting issue.
- Demonstrates critical thinking and creativity in relating theological concepts to real-life situations.
- Analyzing (20 points)
- Analyzes the presenting issue from multiple angles and perspectives.
- Engages in a rigorous examination of the issue using theological, ethical, and philosophical frameworks.
- Knowing (20 points)
- Demonstrates a deep understanding of the theological concepts relevant to the issue.
- Integrates theological knowledge with practical wisdom and ethical considerations.
Total Points: 100
Table 1: Rubric for Guidance and Evaluation of Theological Reflection in Graduate and Postgraduate Student Papers.
Note: This table provides an overview of the rubric for Theological Reflection.
Ligonier Ministries. “The Westminster Confession of Faith.” Accessed May 25, 2023. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/westminster-confession-faith.
Davis, John Jefferson. Practicing Ministry in the Presence of God: Theological Reflections on Ministry and the Christian Life. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015.
George, Timothy. God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice. United States: Baker Publishing Group, 2006.
Murray, John. Collected Writings of John Murray: Volume 1, The Claims of Truth. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976.
Other Writing Resources for Theological Reflection
Booth, Wayne C., Gregory Colomb G., Joseph Williams M., and Kate Turabian L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers.
“The Chicago Manual of Style Online.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online. Accessed February 04, 2017. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html.
“Citation Builder.” UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries. Accessed February 04, 2017. http://library.unc.edu/citationbuilder/.
Frame, Dr. John. “How to Write a Theological Paper.” How to Write a Theological Paper (John M. Frame). Accessed February 04, 2017. http://www.proginosko.com/docs/frame_theol_paper.html.
“Handouts.” The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Accessed February 04, 2017. http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/.
“Research Guides: Style Guide and Templates: Home.” Home – Style Guide and Templates – Research Guides at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Accessed February 04, 2017. http://sbts.libguides.com/style.
Smith, Jonathan, and William Scott. Green. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion: Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion. London: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Vyhmeister, Nancy J. Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
“Westminster Theological Seminary – Becoming a Better Writer.” Westminster Theological Seminary – Becoming a Better Writer. Accessed February 04, 2017. http://www.wts.edu/resources/westminster_center_for_theolog/become_writerhtml.html.
Sam Lamerson says
This is great Dr. Milton! Thanks so much for sharing it.
Michael Milton says
Thank you Dr. Lamerson! The Lord bless you and our friends at Knox Seminary.