the weblog of Alan Knox

Theological Sources – Scripture

Posted by on Feb 18, 2008 in discipleship, scripture | 13 comments

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.

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Theological Sources Series:
1. Introduction
2. Scripture
3. Tradition
4. Reason
5. Experience
6. Conclusion


13 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 2-18-2008

    Alan, what you’ve been writing about lately has greatly inspired and challenged me. I haven’t left comments because I’m still processing it all, but I just want to encourage you to keep studying, asking, and learning.

  2. 2-18-2008

    Alan

    I’ll have to admit when I first read about this series, my first thought was “Why, the only true source of theological information is scripture. Neither experience, trandition or anything else should be invovled.” However, after reading your post and thrinking about what you said in it, I do see your point. The conversation you and I had in the other comments section is a perfect example. I am a cessationist and you are not. We are both coming to that conclusion from the same Bible.

    For my part, I understand what you are saying when you write about how we define what scripture is. I mean the 66 books of the Protestant Bible when I refer to scripture and I suppose it is because that is what I was taught and what I have read from other teachers. Of course, I’m not sure that I am prepared to do the kind of research it would take to corroborate their findings. Most people who use something other than those 66 books generally hve a different take on theological subjects than I do, so I suppose I have taken the word of people whom I agree with.

  3. 2-19-2008

    Mary,

    Thank you for the encouragement. I needed it today.

    Joe,

    Yes, our previous discussion is a very good example of what I was talking about in this post. It is easy to say – and I’ve said it myself – that our theology should only come from Scripture. But, that doesn’t happen.

    -Alan

  4. 2-19-2008

    Alan, it would be hard to ask many more difficult and important questions about Scripture than were raised here. I’m wondering, do you intend to answer some of them, or are they more for consideration?

    Also, where does the information about the so called “canons of canonization” come from? You mention three rules for determining Scripture in the early Church; I’ve heard some people give five or six. But, I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen a source for them. Just curious. The ironic thing is how difficult it is for the un-/anti-Tradition folks to answer the all important question: “Why these 66 books?”

    You said that we can’t let Scripture define Scripture. Admittedly, as you said, there are times when the same term for a body of writings refers to different things. But, isn’t the NT idea–whether the reference to the Law, Prophets and Writing, or to Scriptures–that of the Hebrew canon? Obviously, that still leaves a question about the NT, but can we start with the OT?

    Nice post to start with. Tough questions.

    -Alan

  5. 2-19-2008

    Alan,

    It seems that those who hold to a 66 book canon are the same people who place scripture above the other sources in terms of importance. However, those who add books to the 66 seem to rely on tradition as much or more than they do scripture when it comes to importance. Why do you think this is the case?

  6. 2-19-2008

    Alan,
    what a thought provoking topic :) i would hazard a guess that most evangelicals claim that their theology originates “sola scriptura.” Your blog may help us all to understand the interplay between scripture, tradition, reason, experience, etc
    Is the assembling of the church part of experience? For most certainly participating in Body Life contributes a great deal to our theology. Obedience, or “walking in the light,” also broadens our understanding of God. And obviously, the indwelling Holy Spirit gives understanding and enlightenment. All of these, plus many more i’m sure, seem to contribute to one’s theology.

    Because none of us has an infallible vantage point or a complete understanding of God and His ways, the call to “love one another” and to walk before God and man with much humility is of the utmost importance and how we have failed miserably in this calling :((.

    The Body has been splintered and fragmented because of different understandings of Scripture, different traditions, different experiences and the world is watching……It seems to me that “Christ IN US” should be the unifying theme for the Body…..and yet our doctrinal differences seem to be the “rallying point.”

    The “church” quibbles over varying interpretations of “truth” at the expense of love. The world desperately seeks love at the expense of truth. How the church needs to hear the call to EMBODY the truth; to ENFLESH the truth; the INCARNATE the truth…..in love….
    Sharon

  7. 2-19-2008

    Alan Reynolds,

    The primary purpose of this series is to ask questions to help people think about the issue of theological sources. So, no, I don’t plan to answer these questions here. Suffice it to say that I think all believers should answer them. I don’t know where the “canons of canonization” come from. Honestly, I listed those three from memory of what I had been taught (Tradition). Usually the word “Scripture” in Scripture refers to the Old Testament, either in part of in whole. However, in 2 Peter 3:16, the word “Scripture” refers to at least some of Paul’s letters.

    Eric,

    The King James translators included more than the 66 books in their translation of the Bible. Of course, those books were removed in later updates. I think that all of us (myself included) rely on Tradition – and probably more than we would like to admit. This is not always a bad thing, as I discuss in the next post in this series.

    Sharon,

    You bring up some very important points. Primarily, how does “obedience” and “the Holy Spirit” inform our theology? Could one or both of these be considered a separate theological source, or are they intrinsically included in one of the other four sources?

    -Alan

  8. 2-20-2008

    Alan,

    I certainly appreciate your willingness to stir the muddy waters of what is often held precious, without any thought as to why it is so.

    My concern for many years has been that God’s people not only know what they believe, but why they believe what they do. As a consequence, when preaching and teaching I’ve made it my practice to tell my listeners that they are fools if they believe what I say without question and personal research.

    Those of us who have been entrusted with leading God’s people would do well to constantly challenge their own theology, against the Scriptures. Who knows? They may even find they are correct!

    May the Lord bless your efforts.

  9. 2-20-2008

    Aussie John,

    Yes, I think it is important to understand what you believe and why you believe. Understanding the sources that inform your theology is a step in that direction.

    -Alan

  10. 2-20-2008

    Alan,

    Would nature ,i.e. God’s creation(s), be considered a source that informs our theology? I’m thinking of Romans 1 and Psalms 19:1. Can we understand God and His invisible attributes by looking at what He’s made?

    Jeff

  11. 2-21-2008

    Jeff,

    Perhaps nature could be designated as another theological source. How do you think nature interacts with the other sources?

    -Alan

  12. 2-22-2008

    I had thought of nature as being a part of experience. But, yes, creation is one of God’s revelations of Himself (and thus more than just the written text of scripture).

  13. 4-7-2012

    I thought that the Tradition is one of the most important sources of Theology. But, the most important one is the written text of Scripture.

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