A Guide to Theological Reflection: A Fresh Approach for Practical Ministry Courses and Theological Field Education. By Jim L. Wilson and Earl Waggoner. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020. 192 pp. Paper, $18.99.
Wilson and Waggoner have written a welcome guide to theological reflection for Evangelicals. The book is divided into two sections: the first presents their model of theological reflection, while the second offers tools for implementing the model.
Most books on theological reflection are predominantly written from a mainline and liberal perspective, with commitments often at odds with Evangelical ones. Recognizing this, the authors note that other models of doing theological reflection “elevate subjective observations to the level of authoritative insights,” (p. 30), see “action as a primary source of theological knowledge” (p. 35), and allow situations and ministers to “determine what theology is” (p. 41), all of which positions Evangelicals are unlikely to accept.
By contrast, Wilson and Waggoner say their model of doing theological reflection take the Bible as their primary source of reflection, is ministry-focused, and has the goal of transforming future ministry.
Wilson and Waggoner say that theological reflection happens during “the pause” (p. 22). This is the pause that occurs after you have acted and before you act again. This is known as the “action—reflection—action” approach (p. 23).
Unlike mainline approaches, Wilson and Waggoner say they put Scripture at the center of their model of theological reflection. “Scripture should be the first and primary source for the reflection process” (p. 32). But they are careful to clarify that the primacy of Scripture does not exclude “using truth outside the Bible as a resource for theological reflection” (p. 34). Insights into a situation can also be found in sources such as “social sciences, literature, the arts, and philosophy” (p. 34). To give my own example, the primacy of Scripture does not mean a pastor ministering to someone with childhood trauma cannot also learn from the discoveries of psychologists and counselors.
Wilson and Waggoner call their model “the reflection loop” (p. 37), and summarize their approach with the words identify, align, and explore.
First, you identify the gap between “operational beliefs” and “confessed beliefs” (pp. 45-46). People do not always act according to what they believe, and their actions might even contradict what they are supposed to believe. Hence, there is a gap that needs to be identified, which requires reflection. Suggested questions to ask include, “What beliefs drove my actions?” “What beliefs should have driven my actions?” And, “What are the appropriate doctrinal themes that inform this ministry situation?”
Second, you seek to align your actions with the best theological understanding of the practice. Instead of changing truth to better fit your ministry, you want what you do in ministry to better reflect theological truth. At this stage, reflection questions might include: “In what ways can I better match what I did with what I believe and think?” “What are the issues?” And, “What are the blind spots?” (p. 49).
Third, you explore the different possibilities of responding in future ministry (p. 51). This does not mean already deciding how to act but imagining the possible ways someone could act. Reflection questions include: “How have I navigated similar situations in the past effectively?” “What is the most fitting course of action and why?” “How can we live Christianly in this situation?”
Being familiar with some of the mainline models of theological reflection, I welcome Wilson and Waggoner’s more Evangelical alternative. A slight criticism of this section is that while the authors claim the Bible should be the primary source for theological reflection, they only appeal to Scripture by way of quick illustrations. The authors could improve their proposal by including a chapter developing a Biblical theology of theological reflection. And they could add a chapter explaining how using the Bible for theological reflection led them away from mainline models. I want a practical example of Bible-driven theological reflection in action.
The second section suggests different ways of encouraging and supporting theological reflection. These chapters cover topics such as dialoguing with mentors, peer groups, and ministry recipients; writing a journal; making verbatim records of ministry events; and setting realistic goals for professional and personal growth, all of which help to provide material for reflection.
Each chapter makes good practical suggestions. For example, the authors emphasize that theological reflection happens in community. That is important to remember, because it is so easy to stay trapped in your own head, and to forget that God has gifted the Body of Christ to do ministry.
By way of criticism, I highly doubt many readers will put most of their suggestions into practice (which should not surprise anyone in ministry!). For example, as an avid reader of Quaker spiritual journals, and as a journal-keeper myself, I strongly agree that it is a useful theological practice. However, the authors’ “journal samples” are so detailed, and so involved, I think most readers will find it too overwhelming or intimidating to put into practice.
Compared to other works on theological reflection, this is not very academic. Depending on the audience, that can either be a strength or a weakness. This book will be helpful to Evangelical seminary professors looking to assign an introductory reading on theological reflection. It may also help ministers who want guidance on improving their ability to reflect upon their ministry. I recommend it for those audiences.
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