Bruce McCormack’s distinction between sources and norms in theology

What do we mean when we speak of “sources” of theology? Are “sources” the same thing as “norms” or are they different?

Logically, a “source” may mean at least two things. First, it may mean a point of departure for theological reflection, a body of data, a content which we presuppose and on the basis of which we then pose theological questions and seek answers. Where “source” is taken in this sense, it is impossible that it should not also function as a “norm” (a criterion) for making judgments, since a point of departure will necessarily control what kind of questions are raised and therefore what kind of answers we are able to give. Though some theologians will make a theoretical distinction between “sources” and “norms” in theology, if they consciously or unconsciously use the word “sources” to speak of starting-points for reflection, they are treating their “sources” as normative. But, then, alternatively, a “source” may be used in a much more modest way — and this brings us to a second possible meaning of the term. A “source” may be simply an occasion, a stimulus for theological reflection which finally looks elsewhere for its norms. Here a clear distinction of “source” and “norm” is maintained.

from personal lecture notes

With the above McCormack invites us to adopt a distinction between two kinds of sources: (1) points of departure, and (2) occasions. The former function as norms of reflection; the latter merely as stimuli that themselves remain subject to antecedent norms. To illustrate what work this distinction does, McCormack continues as follows:

We do have an obligation as theologians to address issues raised by the world we live in and that means addressing [for example] scientific theories [as well as philosophies, or political or cultural phenomena, etc]. But the fact that scientific theories are “constructs” of the scientific imagination ought to warn us against taking any theory at face value. Scientific theories may rightly provide the occasion for theological reflection and so be a “source” in the modest sense that I sketched earlier, but they must never be allowed to become a “source” in the bold sense of providing us with a point of departure for doing our theology. The results of scientific research need to be assimilated carefully through a process which grants to theology its own integrity and does not sell out to the “spirit of the times.”


3 thoughts on “Bruce McCormack on sources and norms in theology

  1. kellydeanjolley

    Although I am far from having a worked-out thought here, I wonder how this distinction sits alongside, say, PI 89, 90, 92, 109, 126 and 129. Might we think of Wittgenstein in those remarks as rejecting empirical science as a *source* of philosophy? –Just thinking aloud.

    1. llwilmoth Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Feel welcome to think aloud here as you please.

      If we keep McCormack’s distinction between strong and weak senses of “source,” then I’d agree that philosophy, particularly as Wittgenstein wants to practice it, would have just as much an interest as theology does in refusing to let the categories, procedures, and results of one mode of inquiry dictate how another is to be pursued. So in McCormack’s strong sense, science wouldn’t be a source for philosophy anymore than it is for theology. I think the story changes some though when we consider the weaker sense of source.


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