This article has been adapted from a post published on 25 August 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz called “Sources and Norms.”
Where do we discover theological information and how we evaluate it? To illustrate I’ll be using the four-legged stool.
Sources for Christian belief are those things that deliver information about God and act as vehicles for what he reveals. Norms are standards by which any information is tested to be accurate and true. Evangelist, revivalist and founder of the Methodist movement, Charles Wesley described four sources and norms for Christian belief. Although he was not the first, what he articulated came to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Like a four-legged stool each source and norm acts as a prop to uphold the Christian who sits down to develop his theology. These are Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.
Scripture. Jesus declared to his disciples the Holy Spirit will “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:25) Very early the writings of those apostles and their associates came to be considered by the churches as possessing the same authority as the Law and Prophets (what we call now the Old Testament). Thus the Bible is for Christianity the most authoritative and respected source directly available for correct theological information. It acts as a norming norm – a standard by which none can contradict. Just as it would be unthinkable for a U.S. Supreme Court judge to say, “The constitution says all Americans should have the freedom of speech, but I disagree!” so it would be unthinkable for a Christian to deny the explicit teaching of Scripture. To remain faithful to Christian doctrine one must remain faithful to the scripture, and if on some point you think differently, it is there you cease to think Christianly.
Tradition. Everyone who starts a church that runs it for more than a week has tradition – even if the goal is to avoid all tradition. The two thousand year history of the church provides a wealth of theological information – some good, some bad – that has arisen and been affirmed by what is called the Great Tradition. It is very difficult to maintain that this history is not in some way influencing a person’s theology. The Reformers, especially Luther, who affirmed Sola Scriptura, which rightly expresses the idea that scripture alone is the final word, nonetheless accepted that scripture was always interpreted in the light of the Rule of Faith, which effectively became the four ecumenical creeds (the Apostolic, Nicean, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian). Tradition is a normed norm (a standard which itself is held accountable to another standard), which holds within it the compass of scripture.
In the past I have been critical of the role of tradition as a source for Christian belief. That has only been when I have been evaluating what good theology is. I take it that good theology is that which is objectively true, which is what I’m most interested in. Tradition then becomes at most a useful guide, as it generally has been through the ages faithfully responsive to the instruction and guiding of the Holy Spirit. Vanhoozer says, “Canon may be the cradle of Christian doctrine, but tradition is its wet nurse.”
Reason, or the deliverances of the cognitive faculties. It includes wider disciplines such as philosophy, science, history, and especially logic. It is with reason we delineate premises and evaluate arguments. Reason helps us to explore the internal consistency of an individual’s theology. Reason is essential in communicating the gospel and is vital for apologetics: that branch of Christian theology that seeks to defend Christian truth-claims.
Experience. Theological castles are not constructed in a vacuum. We naturally look to the world that God created to inform us about him. Against the background of our experiences in this world our theology will inevitably be influenced. One example is the Swiss-born, Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth, who abandoned Liberal theology because of all the evil he saw perpetrated in Germany during WWI. Another example of experience acting as a source and norm within Christian belief is the once popular position called Cessationism. A Cessationist holds that the gifts of the Spirit (such as miracles and prophesy) are no longer operative today, but ceased to function sometime after the passing of the first or second generation after Christ. Due to the overwhelming amount of miracles today preformed in the name of Jesus, and the availability of testimonies of witnesses to these miracles, this doctrine is being renounced (or at least reformulated) all over the world.
Some theologians suggest another leg be included. Creation, it is argued, is also a source and a norm. For myself, I do not see how creation constitutes anything substantively different than what is already covered by Reason and Experience.
Precisely how these four legs are ordered in terms of importance is a matter of some dispute. Different tradition-communities lean more heavily on certain legs giving rise to most of the variety we see in Christianity. For instance, many differences between Catholic churches and Protestant churches stem from the different emphasis placed upon the role of tradition as a source and norm. Let me suggest that scripture should be considered the most authoritative, directly available source and norm for Christian belief – a norming norm – for all who seek to build their theological castle to last.
But a stool has more than its four legs. The supreme source for all Christian belief is Jesus Christ himself. As the incarnate Word of God he is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible. The disciple declared Christ as “the true light that gives light to every man,” (John 1:9) and “These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” (John 5:39). The author of Hebrews agreed.”In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” Hebrews 1:1-3
Luther described Christ as the “canon within the canon.” If we want to know of God, we must ultimately look to God himself, revealed specially in the person of Jesus Christ. Our clearest picture we receive of Him is through the scriptures.
1. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The drama of doctrine: a canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) p. 234.