Yesterday I began talking about how we arrive at our beliefs (read here for fuller context). It is far more common to hear about how to “believe” or “have faith”, but it occurs to me that some of the barriers to vibrant, passionate belief and faith may be the absence of a personal journey to arrive at the beliefs in question. So I introduced the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is a system of theological exploration developed by the famed theologian, preacher / evangelist, and founder of the Methodist church John Wesley. The four elements of the system are the Scriptures, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. These tools are not all weighted equally, with particular emphasis on today’s element, “the Bible. It is a fairly simply thing at its essence, which is why it is of value to look at.
The first and most vital element of the Quadrilateral is the Scriptures. The irreplaceable standard, and measuring line of truth, in the Christian faith is the Bible. Nothing short of the physical presence of Jesus in front of us will ever replace this book.
I have heard that Wesley was quoted as saying that “we are a people of one Book”, in reference to the Bible. This would be an accurate assessment of the foundation of his theological process. Wesley began with the Bible. There was no theology, no revelation, and no understanding of truth for him without the Scriptures. He found that there was no higher authority available to men than the truth of Scripture. In fact, of the four pieces the Quadrilateral consists of, the Scriptures hold the highest rank in every dimension. The other three elements are seen as lenses that help in viewing the Bible. Images that illustrate the Wesleyan Quadrilateral almost always place the Bible either in the center of an expanding circle, the first rung of a ladder, or as the foundation of a “house of theology”. Wesley’s high view of the Bible is a Protestant mainstay as it was a counterpoint in the Reformation to the heavy weight placed on Papal authority, with the Pope’s words deemed heavier even than the Bible.
Personally, my faith in the Scriptures has been the most heated area of battle that I have faced. Not long after God redeemed me I began to wrestle, doubting that the Bible was actually Divinely “inspired” and whether or not it made any real sense. Also I dealt with the common list of alleged contradictions contained within the text. In hindsight I do not see this as a bad thing, for the struggle forced me to look critically at the history of the Bible and how other people, much smarter than I, had reconciled many of the same problems I faced. But, with that being said, ultimately the movement for me was one of faith. I was faced with a divergent road that was quite literally a life or death decision. By His grace, God gave me the faith to rest in the Scripture’s textual authenticity and Divine authorship.
I refer to this testimonial because the shaping of my theology has been almost solely based upon the Bible through and due to this experience. I allow doctrinal statements and creeds to inform what and how I believe, but I defer the right of definition to the Bible alone. While I understand that the Scriptures are interpretive to a certain degree, I also believe that tweaks in interpretation are not bad or harmful provided the fundamental ideals of orthodoxy are the unmovable foundation. The Bible defines my theology on these two levels. First, it stubbornly declares the universal truths of Christianity without waver. Creation, original sin, the virgin birth, sinless Christ, and Substitutionary atonement are just a few of the short list of “closed” beliefs that are non-negotiable. However, there are many things that I am not only willing to discuss, but also willing to change. Like renovating a house, I would never change the foundations, but the bedrooms, walls, paint, and flooring are up for alteration and new understanding. Theology based on the Bible, for me, has to be this way due to the incredible tensions that the Bible often presents; saying one thing then another that seems almost diametrically opposed requires a flexibility within me as I attempt to “systematize” my own beliefs.
The issue that I’m getting at is one of personal responsibility. As it has been said, “everyone is a theologian…some are just bad theologians.” We all have a belief system that we functionally live out with regard to God, faith, salvation, and the meaning of life. A sad condition that plagues the ranks of Christianity is that of osmosis theology. We allow others to determine what we believe, not because they are smarter, more talented, or more insightful than us, but generally because we are unwilling to put the time in to understand truth ourselves. And while there is definitely a role to be played by authors, church fathers, and perhaps most importantly by local pastors, all of those roles are secondary to the believer’s responsibility to pray through and comb over the Scriptures looking for insight and solid foundation.
There is an interesting story in 1 Kings 13 about a legitimate prophet and another man who claims to be a prophet. The legitimate prophet was called by God to deliver a message, and then curiously instructed to return to his home a certain way (by a different route than he came). After sharing a meal with another man he was set to return home, but the other man claimed to have instruction from God for the legitimate prophet to ignore the previous instruction. This strange story ends with the legitimate prophet – with the legitimate message, who had faithfully done MOST of what he was called to do – laying on the road having been mauled and killed by a lion. The fatal mistake was to doubt what God had told him directly because of a contradictory message another man had given him. God’s Word is one of life and meaning and purpose and joy. Putting things as important as those qualities in hands of someone else is sketchy to say the least.
This piece by Ravi Zacharias is a phenomenal supplement to this discussion. In fact, anything by Zacharias is worth your time.