In this series, I want to discuss the various sources that inform our theology – that is, our understanding of God. For an outline, I will use John Wesley’s Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I realize that this is not new information for many of my readers. However, perhaps we can all help ourselves think about this important topic.
Almost every religion has some form of sacred writings, and Christianity is no different. There are very few Christians who would not list Scripture as their top theological source. This has been true from the beginning – even from the writing of the New Testament. If we go back even farther to a time when believers could not actually be called Christians, we still see an emphasis on Scripture, especially in the form of Torah (or Law or Pentateuch).
Of course, this raises a big question: When we say “Scripture”, to what are we referring? When most Protestants say “Scripture”, they are referring to the 66 books usually called Old Testament and New Testament. However, it seems fairly clear that the word “Scripture” in the Old and New Testaments did not refer to these same books. Thus, in the Scriptures themselves, the word “Scripture” refers to the Pentateuch, the Pentateuch and the Law, the entire Old Testament (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings), or the entire Old Testaments and parts of the New Testament. We may infer that the word “Scripture” in the writings themselves can refer to our entire Bible, but we will not find that designation within the pages of the Bible.
But, then, we must also ask ourselves why the 66 books (Genesis-Revelation)? Some Christian Traditions (a term which will be examined later, but has to be introduced here) include additional books when they refer to Scripture. Some Christians, whether intentional or not, remove certain books when they refer to Scripture. In many ways, a person’s Tradition helps shape their view of Scripture. But, to what extent? That is a question that cannot be answered here, but perhaps we can pick it up at the end of the series.
So, as you can see, before we even begin to ask ourselves how should we learn about God from the Scriptures (a question of hermeneutics), we must first ask ourselves what we mean by the term “Scripture”. This meaning cannot be determined from Scripture itself. For example, it is reported that the early Christians used three tests to determine whether or not a certain writing would be considered part of New Testament “Scripture”: 1) Was the writing by an apostle or based on the teaching of an apostle? 2) Was the writing universally accepted by the church? 3) Does the writing claim inspiration? However, we should recognize that different Christians applied these tests in different ways with different results. But, of course, these tests fall under the realm of Tradition, not Scripture.
Are we then left completely clueless about Scripture? No, I don’t think so. However, we can’t use Scripture itself to define the term “Scripture”. This definition must come from another source, and this source is very important in our understanding of God, since it helps us define Scripture.
Once we are confident that we understand what we mean by Scripture, we should ask another question: How does Scripture help us understand God? The simple answer is that Scripture speaks of God, narrates God, describes God, and even speaks for God. But, history repeatedly demonstrates that different Christians read Scripture in different ways and come to different understandings of God. Why is this? Because Tradition, Reason, and Experience all play a role in understanding and interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics). There is no such thing as a completely neutral hermeneutic, and in fact, it can be argued that Scripture was not meant to be understood with a completely neutral hermeneutic.
The early Christians talked about something called the regula fidei or rule of faith (analogy of faith). According to the apostolic fathers, this rule of faith is the faith that was handed down from Jesus to the apostles, and from the apostles to their followers, etc. So, for them, Scripture should be understood through the hermeneutical lens of the rule of faith.
But, what is the rule of faith? Unfortunately, the rule of faith changed from writer to writer. While each post-apostolic writer agreed on certain aspects of the rule of faith, they all disagreed over other aspects. Similarly, as time progressed, more and more “doctrines” were added to the rule of faith. However, we must recognize that even if we knew exactly what the rule of faith encompassed, this is also part of Tradition, not Scripture.
So, we are left with Scripture being a very important theological source, but not a source that can or should stand on its own. In fact, two believers can both believe that Scripture is the most important theological source (even claiming sola scriptura), and the two may interpret Scripture in different ways because of the influence of Tradition, Reason, Experience, and possibly other sources.
When we are discussing our differences with other Christians, it is not always helpful to argue points from Scripture without understanding the person’s Tradition, how they apply Reason, and what Experiences they bring with them. Without understanding these additional sources, we will not understand how the other person is interpreting Scripture.
Even for those of us who pride ourselves in being un-Traditional or even anti-Traditional, we must recognize that we bring our own Traditions to the hermeneutical task. We have our own methods of interpretation. Even these hermeneutical methods affect the way that we interpret and apply Scripture. Sometimes, un-Traditional or anti-Traditional hermeneutical methods lead to haphazard interpretations of Scripture.
While we may not be able to remove all influences outside of Scripture – and we probably should not attempt to remove all influences – we can recognize our Tradition, Reason, and Experience, and how these three interact with Scripture to inform our theological understanding. Then, we may be able to recognize when an outside source is causing us to misinterpret Scripture. Perhaps, we may also recognize that there is another source (or other sources) besides these four which is/are important in our theological understanding.