Through further study and reflection, this post has been replaced. An updated post can be found here
This is the essay I am turning in for my Theology of Wesley final exam. It is my account of what is called a “Neo-Wesleyan” view of the primacy of Scripture interpreted through the hermeneutical lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.
(Note: I think it’s a bit silly to call this “Neo-Wesleyan” considering it was discussed only 20 years after the creation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral-again people, John Wesley DID NOT invent the concept of the Quadrilateral)
I do believe, “the rule of Scripture within the tri-lateral hermeneutic of tradition, reason, and experience,” is a viable way of theologizing for United Methodism. Further, I believe this is both an accurate portrayal of John Wesley’s theology and is the most viable way for the modern church to retain its theological integrity in the contemporary world. For the purposes of this essay I would like to articulate this stance by expounding what I believe about each of the four elements of interpretation in question, what the modern United Methodist Discipline says about them, and how I see them functioning as a working unit in the modern age.
Reason can be defined as the means by which efforts can be made to discern the revelation of God’s activity in the world. I believe reason is important in making the needed connections between revelation and experience, faith and science, grace and nature in an effort to construct a credible and communicable assessment. Often experience will happen that does not fully coordinate with past tradition. Reason is then a tool one can use to discern the discontinuity between the two. When used along with Scripture one hopes that a new reality is formed in light of such discernment. Wesley believed revelation could be above reason but never contrary to it. This is why reason is part of the via media of the Church of England. Reason, for Wesley, is not only a tool of interpretation but a piece of his context that enables him to understand faith. For this reason, reason is a very important interpretive tool for Wesley. In regards to Christian authority, however, reason cannot be used exclusively from Scripture.
Experience is a powerful tool in understanding life. Experience in continually in need of assessment both on a corporate and individual level. For the purposes of understanding the nature of Christian authority, experience can be defined as the tool that vivifies the truth of Scripture in a contemporary manner. The argument against experience as the primary norm of making Christian assessment is that experience is undoubtedly subjective from person to person. Wesley acknowledged that human experience could not truly capture the entire reality of God’s presence. If all truth were measured primarily by personal experience then relativism would rue the day because truth would become subjective depending on a person’s context and perspective. On the other hand, experience cannot be ruled out when understanding Christian truth. One of John Wesley’s greatest contributions is the idea that often, human experience can be just as reliable and vivid as any empirical senses. Experience is one of the major ways in which God continues to work in the present age. To rule experience out as a norm of interpretation would run the risk of relegating God’s activity to a past subject. Experience is a method by which God continues to move among us in the present age. Therefore, I believe experience is a powerful tool one can utilize in the endeavor of understanding Christian truth, just as long as it is used as a means of attempting to vivify the truth of Scripture along with the discernment of reason.
Christian tradition is a time-honored concept used in the making of Christian assessment. Past tradition is the reminder that the theological task of Christians does not happen in a vacuum. Christian assessment does not make the leap from the New Testament Church to the modern church as though nothing is to be learned from the saints of past. Therefore, tradition is an important tool one can use in the quest for making Christian assessments. The argument against using tradition as the primary means of making Christian assessment is that just as experience alone relegates God’s activity to that which is new, tradition alone relegates God’s activity to that which has already happened. This emphasis makes tradition similar to Christian confessions in that it is a means of understanding doctrine that discounts the fact of God’s continuing activity in the world. Further, there is no tradition that can claim the primacy of Scripture in regard to Christian authority. As Karl Barth asserts, “Holy Scripture and the Confessions (or tradition) do not stand on the same level.” Therefore, Christian authority incorporates tradition insofar as it helps to illumine the truth of Scripture interpreted in one’s experience and discerned by one’s reason.
Finally, I believe that Scripture is of primary importance in regard to Christian authority. One must remember that Scripture is never used alone. Interpretation always accompanies Scripture. It is in interpreting Scripture that one must use one of the secondary norms outlined previously. But, in the end, it is the truth of Scripture that is primary when attempting to make Christian assessment. If a question of Christian authority is what are we to think and say, one can turn to the words of Karl Barth when he says, “we have learned from Scripture where to draw this ‘what’ from.” Scripture is the source of all truth for Christians. I understand how bold the previous statement is. But I believe this is the unique offering of Christians to the world. Christians follow the truth of the Word of God found in Scripture. It is the secondary witness to God only behind the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. All of Scripture then points to this revelation of God in Jesus and it stands as the primary source of Christian authority. This does not change the fact of the need for the aforementioned tools of interpretation. Scripture is interpreted through reason, tradition, and experience. But Scripture can also, and often does, serve as an interpretive tool for reason, tradition, and experience as well. Scripture then is both passive and active in its being. It is passive as a source of norms for Christian assessment and living. It is active as a means for measuring the validity of one’s reason, tradition, and personal experience. One must remember, however, these two characteristics are not easily separated.
I come from a context where the majority of Methodists uphold my view of Scripture as primary. It has been my experience, however, that this notion carries no weight if it is held simply because “it’s just how it is.” Inevitably human experience will run counter to scriptural evidence and present reason cannot adjudicate the difference and tradition will offer no precedence. But this is not a reason to diminish the primary role of Scripture as a source of Christian authority. Scripture must be a conversation between the text and the reader and not simply a reference book. It must be read with a sense of vocation and curiosity. But it cannot be read in an attempt to arm one’s self with “Bible bullets” for future use against those with whom we disagree. Scripture is an account of the character of the living God and of the incarnation of that God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It will not have an index of issues we can turn to for advice for all things. But it can direct us to the One who has acted toward us and on behalf of us. This is also the One who sustains and inspires us in times of confusion and doubt. Therefore, to assert that Scripture is the primary source of Christian authority within the hermeneutical lenses of tradition, experience, and reason, is not a limiting statement or a period denoting the finality of all Christian understanding. It is, rather, the small opening we are granted into the exciting and life-changing world of life with the Living God, revealed in Jesus, and accounted in but not limited to Scripture. This method is not the end of Christian understanding at all-it might just be its beginning.
 Heitzenrater, Dick Wesley and the People Called Methodists p. 10
 United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2008 ¶104
 Heitzenrater, Dick Wesley and the People Called Methodists p. 318
 Barth, Karl Dogmatics in Outline (Harper Torchbooks: New York 1959) p. 13
 Ibid p. 12
I am sitting in my first preparatory meeting for the World Methodist Evangelism Institute Brazil Seminar. We are assigned to do journal entries so I want to use this journal entry to discuss some thoughts and reactions I have as I learn about Brazil and its culture in regards to Christianity and this seminar.
I think I would like to try to do a Wesleyan Fast/Prayer on Fridays. This requires me to not take solid food from sundown Thursday to mid-afternoon Friday. I am supposed to fast and pray for this trip. Fasting has always been hard for me because I work out a lot and love to eat. This is why I think I want to try to make this sacrifice for the benefit of praying for this conference.
Dr. de Souza is discussing how Atheism is the fastest growing “religious” group in Brazil. Much of Brazil is culturally Christian and Atheism is now growing among the people. This strikes me as interesting. I guess I just figured this was an American anomaly. Also, the Prosperity Gospel is rampant in Brazilian churches. It’s interesting to learn Christianity is facing some of the same difficulties as the American church. Oddly, I feel a real bond as the holy catholic church in learning this. If one struggles, it seems we all struggle.
I am very excited about this trip. The church I am being appointed to is planning to offer some money for this trip. They want to invest both in me and my views of evangelism. This means a lot to me. But more importantly, I am beginning to feel most at home in my call for ministry both in that church and through this trip. Thanks be to God.
It’s now my last day of classes during the second year of seminary. I’m not normally a fan of doing personal reflection on experience in my blog because I tend to be very private. That’s why I keep my posts to “preachy” reflections on things outside of my personal faith journey and personal life. But I would like to discuss some of my formative experience from this year as I now look to the final year of this journey known as seminary.
The year I met Karl Barth. I know for many, this Swiss theologian with his sometimes abrasive commentary on the God none of us gets but who gets all of us can be a turn-off. I recognize that Barth and his uber-Christology can be a bit judgmental in who that potentially leaves out of the discussion of life with God. And I know he doesn’t do much for those of us who cling to the historical-critical way of reading Scripture because that’s what makes us comfortable about uncomfortable passages. But for me, my faith journey took a new road when I met Karl Barth. I won’t get into the deep discussion of Barth and his dialectical theology and neo-orthodoxy except to say that I believe it’s the “middle-ground” theology I came to seminary in search of. Barth’s socialist leanings keeps him sensitive to those outside of the Church. He doesn’t buy into the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” theology that became very popular around his time. In fact, his notion that it’s only by the action of a proactive God that any of us have any glimmer of hope flies in the face of a theology that says I’m the captain of my own journey. This is why I don’t like sayings like “when I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.” This is also why I don’t buy into “well Christianity is what works for me.” For Barth, we don’t accept Jesus-Jesus has accepted us. And he’s not my personal Lord and Savior-that’s too small. As is the idea that Jesus is but a choice on the buffet of personal and private religious expression. Jesus is either Savior of all or none at all. Barth’s advocation for a “wholly other” theology is where I believe the modern church should look if it has any hope of remaining a force in contemporary society. This type of theology doesn’t advocate the Church as the source of all answers-but rather the Church as the place where the right questions are being asked in light of God’s revelation in Jesus. It’s about the journey of faith just as much as (if not more than) the destination. And this changes everything about how we do ministry.
The year I found my voice. This school year I spent a good deal of time searching for my voice in seminary. Now at Candler we push this idea of people and their respective voices in the great theological discussion. I found that I have a minority voice in many respects in comparison to my context at Candler. I learned that diversity cannot stop of race, background, and ethnicity. It must include difference of opinion if diversity has any hope of being the tool that creates the most accurate reflection of the Kingdom of God. This school year I’ve learned to get comfortable in my skin as a person that doesn’t always agree with the status quo on many issues. I’ve learned to listen-something I own that I’ve never been great at. I’ve learned to hold fast to my opinions and beliefs-not because they’re mine but because I’ve weighed them respectfully against those that differ and found them to be best through the rigors of critical evaluation. For this new skill I will continue to cultivate, I can’t thank my Candler education enough.
The year my call to the church was solidified. When you come to seminary you learn quickly that it can easily be a holy ground where we can gather and exchange war stories on how awful the church can be. This is actually okay because it gives voice to those who’ve not had the opportunity to give voice to real hurt and pain. But now, after two full years of seminary I can say with all the confidence and theological belief I have that I believe in the church. It can be a good thing to be able to recognize the shortcomings of folks. That way we don’t elevate them to lofty places they don’t belong in. The same is true for the Church. As someone who has been raised and nurtured in the church for my entire life it would be easy to put the Church on a pedestal it will surely fall from. But, to recognize the Church for what it is-an institution made up of the ungodly for whom Christ died, and the witnesses to the greater world of such a gift of grace and mercy, this has been one of the greatest and most humbling gifts during this past year.
There are many other things I could talk about as this has been a very busy year. I am very glad for a short break. I’m tremendously nervous about my upcoming appointment as as Associate Pastor but that’s for another blog post. Until then there is the matter of 1 final and 2 papers to attend to. This journey is 2/3 of the way done-I only hope the last 1/3 is as fun and exciting as the rest has been!
In the same way that college is that time when students cast off the chains of tradition or parental bounds or conservative ideology or whatever, seminary is that place where students feel liberated from their previous (insert word for whichever prior unenlightened perspective they held) and accordingly feel free to preach the good news to any and all within earshot, in a spirit of evangelistic fervor and confidence they heretofore had never felt for the actual gospel. Because serious theological reflection is a virtue in seminary, and thus students ought to have their worlds shaken to some extent, the ensuing theological shrapnel, disordered and painful, ought not to be discarded or ignored or discouraged as if the experience is unexceptional. Rather, students ought to be taught, led, and formed in such a way that the theological bombshells laid before them neither send them running for cover nor lead them to the high-and-mighty condescension of having finally reached the theological nirvana unmet by so many of their peers — “peers” meaning “congregations.” There is a way to be faithful in the midst of so much tension and questions; and the following are some suggestions to keep one’s theological head on straight even in disagreement
1. No scholar, theologian, saint, bishop, deconstructor, ideology, professor, or preacher in all of history has discovered the answer. Attachment, therefore, in rigid discipleship to any such person, ancient or living, is foolish and unhelpful to the extent that it both creates an allegiance which makes enemies of those those who do not share membership in the club and substitutes a merely human expositor of Christ for Christ himself.
2. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever identify your own perspective on any issue whatsoever as “radical.” Nearly every viable theological perspective strives in some way to be, or to present itself as, “radical” because “radical” means “revolutionary” as well as “from the root” — all things attractive to non-members. What it really means, however, in academic jargon is “more committed to x issue than you.” If you value being radical — whether regarding church, politics, poverty, sex, gender, race, media, whatever — live out your convictions. Do not inform others of your own radicalism.
3. Develop the self-awareness to know that any overarching, newly discovered, or subordinate theological or social system of thought is inherently transitory. That is not to say one ought to reject such systems of thought (Thomism, dialectical theory, Radical Orthodoxy) or to treat them with disdain — only to remember that not only are they not The Answer (see #1), but also that what you believed yesterday is not stupid, what you believe today is not infallible, and what you believe tomorrow may yet replace today’s yet-to-be-discovered flawed worldview — and tomorrow’s will still not be “it”!
4. Explicitly or implicitly the centrality of Scripture for Christian faith and praxis cannot and must not be replaced.Origen, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Barth, Yoder, et al, are, every one of them, servants of the Word. The same goes, in various ways, for the traditions they represent. Their and others’ writings, alongside your own opinions, do not negate or antiquate the question, “What does the Bible say?” It is not the only question, nor is it necessarily the most important (for example: “What is the will of God?”), but it is the question for the people of God when treading the depths of theological thinking and especially when training ministers and theologians for service in the church. The moment that question becomes passé is the moment “Christian” is removed as a descriptor for theology or ministry.
5. If you are led by a class, your reading, or experience seriously to question, reformulate, or reject a practice or tenet of faith kept by the church’s tradition throughout history, do not be hasty in your judgment or decision. It may well prove that you are right or that you cannot honestly go on without changing your belief or practice, but beware of swift turnabouts devoid of long discernment and communal wisdom. Perhaps you read Yoder and cannot go back regarding violence and discipleship, or you hear a compelling case made for the ordination of gay Christians and are shot to the core; but do not reject your friends, leaders, church, tradition, or previously-appreciated authors: in fact, do not reject anything. Be patient in prayer and discernment, and trust that God has not abandoned you to discover alone what is true and right. You belong to a people, and the fact that university education in America wants you to believe that you are an individual master who must settle in your own mind a thousand minute points of fact or opinion does not mean seminary, however similar in practical function, asks the same of you.
6. Learn the virtuous practice of hospitality to strangers — both personal and ideological. There is a rhetorical way of excluding any possibility of sane disagreement with you, and it goes something like this: “I know of no respectable scholar who holds such a view…” Such a statement is the equivalent of saying, “Nobody likes that guy. He’s a dork.” Instead, learn the practices of friendship and of love for enemies, otherwise known as hospitality. There will be fellow students whom you dislike, just as neighbor and congregant alike are not tailor made for your pleasure; this is for your benefit. Learn to love them, to be their friend — and likewise to love their (potentially) wrong opinions, to befriend their thoughts. You never know when you might be entertaining (theologically proficient yet simplistically deceptive) angels. Practically, this means reading John Piper if you prefer Joel Green, Neuhaus alongside Hauerwas, Heim next to Hick. Learn to listen.
7. Find and bind yourself to a church community. You will be swept away by the tides of ever-changing theological perspectives if you do not belong to a local church (and, furthermore, if you do not have some kind of spiritual mentor). This might be my greatest pet peeve: Listening to a fellow seminarian discuss some subject derisively regarding an item of high regard in most churches, him or herself not actually belonging to or even attending a local church body. Not only does it slice the legs of your credibility right out from beneath you; it ensures from the outset that you will be a cloud without rain, carried along hither and thither, rather than rooted in the foundation of the life of God’s people.
8. Unequivocally, it is okay — indeed, not only okay but properly Christian – not to know everything. To be sure, theology as vocation (ministry included) is a hard road. You are expected to be able to comment intelligently on just about every subject under the sun. But it is essential to recognize human limitation: theologian neither as renaissance man nor as intelligentsia. Nor as con man. It is untenable to know every good theological book, every good literary work, every good poet, every good movie, every good composer, every good band, every good piece of art, every historical event, every modern political machination, every religious fact. It is not only untenable but impossible and ludicrous. Thus you will be tempted to act as if you know these things even when you do not. To be a commentator when not a reader or participant. Do not quote or cite or offer an opinion on that which you do not know! It is academic gossip, and nothing less.
9. Keep following Jesus. The joy of obedience does not find its vacuum in seminary. Supposed liberation from this or that “archaic” tradition or moral injunction does not free you from continuing to walk the narrow path of discipleship. So you realize the Bible is not the Prohibitionist Manifesto — don’t start getting drunk! So you hear someone wax an elephant (hat tip, John Willis) on Christian sexual ethics as properly lax — don’t start sleeping around! In the same way, social issues, however important, cannot trump Jesus or his church such that they become a means to a larger social end. Rather, learn true sociality (and thus true justice) in the life of that church which follows Jesus Christ.
10. Be on your guard against prefacing comparisons or explanations of your theological perspectives, especially with or over against others’, with “my.” To describe a conviction you hold as “my ethics,” or to explain your difference of opinion with another by beginning, “My theology is/does not…” is narcissistic and even goofily overbearing. “You” do not have “an” ethics or “a” theology. You have theological, ethical, social, ecclesial views and perspectivesand opinions and thoughts – all belonging to a mostly disordered but perhaps sometimes coherent worldview — but the only capital-Ttheology which is “yours” is that of the church. It is (sometimes) good to differ in opinion or even conviction from the church on this or that matter, but you are differing precisely on a matter which belongs to the church — to which you belong! Thus “you” do not “have” a hermeneutics; you submit to a hermeneutics found in the church’s reading of Scripture. Theology is not an Easter egg hunt in which you run around like a chicken with its head cut off, swiping this or that opinion until you build up your own personal mountain of unassailable Truth. The people to which you belong, the church, is the proper home in which theology abides. To the extent that you are welcomed and schooled in the practice of participating in it, do so. But it is never your possession, and it is never atomistic. Do not fall into the temptation to think otherwise.
11. Swearing is not cool. What society deems vulgar or unfitting language may be required or defensible at times — following not far behind the daring speech of Israel’s prophets, or, analogously, Stanley Hauerwas — but you have not discovered what was so long stifled or repressed in small or conservative communities yet now gloriously revealed, namely, that cussing is awesome. Consumerist hip culture might have goaded you into thinking that such “rebellion” is cool but it is not. If what you have to say can only be said coated in language offensive for the sake of being offensive, learn again the virtue of disciplined speech — and better yet, silence.
19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” 26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
I’ve always been a doubter. My grandma used to tell me I was from the “show me state.” I never believed anything until I could prove it for myself. As I’ve grown up I’ve realized I’m really not that strange compared to the rest of the world. When did we all become so cynical? Think about it, how often do we say: “I’ll believe when I see it.” When did doubt become such a part of who we are as people? We’re probably the most skeptical people humankind has ever seen. We don’t believe politicians because they lie. We don’t believe ads because anything too good to be true usually is. We don’t believe in promises because we get let down. We figure it’s much safer staying in our little skeptical worlds filled with unbelief and dismay-at least then we know what to expect.
Our text joins in progress the first meeting of First Church Jerusalem. Some church this is. Here they are sitting together with the doors locked. Open hearts and doors apparently aren’t seen as important for this church. We’re told they’re gathered in fear. We assume they’ve been told about the Easter event because in the previous verses Jesus tells Mary Magdalene in his appearance to her to go and tell the others about what’s happened. How do they react? They lock the doors, stare at the walls, and sit in fear. It’s as though they don’t believe until they have some sort of proof of this wild story. And then, without warning, the Risen Christ bursts on to the scene, walks through the locked doors, and appears among them. And it’s only then that they’re overjoyed.
My mentor in the ministry was appointed as the pastor of a church that looked around and realized they looked a lot different than their neighborhood. Once in a conversation he shared with me, that when he got to this church it was as if they had locked their doors and just sat in fear of the future. That’s all they did. Sunday after Sunday was a cycle of this fear-driven life where it’s safer to keep the doors locked. Now I’ll tell you that in 15 years this church went from 25-30 people to over 700 people and became a beacon and voice for the surrounding community. He told me he really didn’t know whether they unlocked the doors or if God came in despite the locked doors. What he did know is that this church had an encounter with the living God, despite their fear and closed doors and doubt; they were never the same again.
If the story of First Church Jerusalem wasn’t enough, we meet one of their most active members, Thomas. Thomas wasn’t in the worship meeting where the Risen Lord appeared. He missed the miraculous event. Frankly who can blame him? He probably thought he could find something a bit more exciting than sitting behind locked doors staring at walls. We learn that it’s not enough to tell Thomas of the miracle of Easter. It’s not enough to tell him about the locked doors and the walking through walls and the whole spectacle of the Resurrection. Nope. It’s not until he can touch and see for himself. In other words, Thomas says, “show me.”
How many of us, in our most honest moments, can relate to Thomas? Think for a moment real hard. How often to do come to church because that’s what we do? How often do we come and wonder to ourselves in the car on the way over here, “why am I doing this in the first place?” Our friends can tell us all day long about their experiences with God. They can tell us of the moments when they just “knew” God had been so close to them. But we don’t believe them-not until we touch and see for ourselves.
So if we all doubt and fear then what does this text have to say to us today? Well here’s the turn we aren’t expecting in our text. This text isn’t about us-it’s about God. There’s no example here of how to live versus how not to live. There’s no superior exemplar of Christian values. The truth is, no one gets it. Everyone in this story is like doubting Thomas on some level. Everyone’s from the “show me” state here. And that’s why this text can’t be about us. If it were, we’d still have our doors locked and we’d be sitting in fear of what comes next.
This story is about God. This story tells about a God who dares to intrude right in the middle of our lives. This story tells us that even though we have church more like First Church Jerusalem with their locked doors and doubting attitudes, the Risen Christ can still move among us. Here we’re able to bring our doubts and our fears and confess that we don’t always get it. And you know what-it can be the most liberating thing we do sometimes! What better than to say out loud those fears and those doubts about our faith we have week after week? What’s more freeing than to admit we don’t get it? We don’t have to fake it anymore. We don’t have to pretend like we always understand what we do in church. We don’t have to put on the persona that our faith life is the most vibrant part of who we are. Deep down we know we struggle with doubt at times. Deep down we know we fear that we don’t have everything together. And here, Thomas and First Church Jerusalem show us that it’s okay.
But be forewarned-as we sit in this place of doubt and fear we’d best be careful. It may happen when we least expect it. It might be in the words of a song, in the words of a prayer, in a smile of a neighbor, in the call of a loved-one. It might even be in the deafening tenor of the utter silence. But we’d best be careful. The Risen Christ might just come through those walls of doubt we pretend aren’t there and shake us at our very core. He’ll remind us that it’s okay to doubt, but now we can believe too. Now we’ve seen and touched the miracle of the Resurrection. In the meantime, we’re left rocked to the foundation of our being. And all we can say is, “My Lord and My God.”