How many of us, as we grew older and, hopefully, wiser, discovered that our mothers, and our fathers, maybe, just maybe, actually DID know more than we did? I was the only member of my birth family to attend college and for a while I thought that somehow gave me an advantage over my parents and siblings in terms of knowledge and wisdom. Over the years, I have come to see that, while there were some things that I learned in college that my family didn’t know, it was the things that I had learned in my family that were really responsible for my view of life and love of learning that made the things I learned and undertook later in life possible.
When I look at what really has influenced my view of life, I have discovered that it was the influence of my childhood that has lasted the longest and meant the most. Who among us who no longer have one or both parents with us have wistfully thought, “How I wish Mother, or Daddy, was still around for me to ask about this?” They would know the truth!
I’ve been thinking about truth lately, especially in regard to the way in which truth is discerned in such a way that one is willing to stand by it and even die for it. In the long arc of Christian history truth has often been sought in the ancient early traditions, along with the Scriptures. Tradition and Scripture have often defined how individuals and the Church discerned, evaluated, and tested truth.
Many great church leaders throughout history have proclaimed that Scripture is the source of truth. Some used the standard of “sola Scriptura” as either the primary source of truth for our faith and doctrines or, more fundamentally as the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.
Yet even before the New Testament was written in the first century after Christ’s life, a tradition had arisen from the philosophy of Plato and his student Aristotle who lived in the 4th century before Christ that greatly influenced the early Church. Greek philosophies about the natural realm and the spiritual realm were already well established by the time of Christ. It was part of the Hellenistic influence that spread with the Roman Empire across the known world. Christ life and message challenged them, though they were well entrenched even among Jews of his day. Aristotle believed the universe is finite and spherical with a stationary Earth at its center. He envisioned the universe as a sphere set in motion by the Prime Unmoved Mover. Inside that sphere were the fixed and unchanging stars, planets, moon and sun. Aristotle was a brilliant philosopher and based his philosophy of the natural realm on his own observations, his confidence in his senses, and his personal experience.
Six hundred years later in the 2nd century after Christ, early Christian fathers Clement and Origen, both of Alexandria which was the center of intellectual pursuits at the time, sought to reconcile Aristotle’s Greek wisdom in philosophy and sciences with scriptural wisdom. Unfortunately, this burgeoning mixture of natural philosophy with Scripture created a very Earth and man-centric view of the universe that would later be fiercely challenged and
lead to the beginnings of conflict between theology and science that only became even more contentious with each generation’s advances in technology and scientific discovery. Origen’s efforts at validating truth by reasoning through the philosophical traditions of Aristotle and Scripture influenced Augustine in the 4th century after Christ who further intertwined philosophy, culture, and theology. Augustine was a prolific thinker and writer. One biographer noted that Augustine “spent the first half of his life searching for the truth that would give meaning, purpose, and significance to his life. The second half of his life was spent reflecting upon, explaining, defending, and living out the truth that he had encountered through faith in Jesus Christ.” His philosophy of knowledge, how truth is revealed to and known by mankind, is based on the belief that God illumines the human mind, and makes the worldly and divine truths intelligible. Human knowledge is thus directly dependent upon God. The church at that time was a more or less unified Catholic Church that came to recognize these philosophic principles of Scripture, tradition, and personal human experience as authoritative criteria for the revelation of truth. It became harder and harder to challenge the Catholic Church’s view of the world, its view of humankind, and its view of God. In the 13th century after Christ, Thomas Aquinas, another influential Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher, influenced by Aristotle and Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, raised the scholasticism of his age to new heights, further institutionalizing reason and the traditions of the Church as co-operant with Scripture in the pursuit of truth. The Renaissance Period of the 14th -17th centuries after Christ saw a continued rebirth of Greek philosophy arising from the influence of Augustine, that was
already firmly embedded in the Roman Catholic Church’s theology and tradition. Augustine had reinforced Aristotle’s philosophy and observational science that was more intent on proving the truth of what was observed rather than testing one’s observations by rigorous scientific methodology which didn’t come into being until much later. However, the more rigorous scientific work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Keppler during the Renaissance contradicted many of Aristotle’s observations and philosophy of the natural realm, including Aristotle’s earth-centered and man-centered view of the cosmos. Even so, this Aristotelian error fit well in the man-centered theme of the Renaissance and Augustine’s prolific promotion and refinements on Aristotle’s works caused even these errors to die hard and amid great controversy and conflict within the church. But science would not be denied and developments soon began to undermine Aristotle’s stronghold on the Church’s understanding of truth, especially with regard to the natural realm.
In the 15th century Nicolas Copernicus’s development of a cosmology with the sun at the center, the Earth rotating around a polar axis, and the Earth and planets circling the sun, essentially as we know it today, presented a challenge for the Aristotelian philosophy which had been embraced by the Catholic Church for well over 1000 years. While the Church’s persecution of Copernicus essentially silenced him, the later works of Galileo in the 16th century made additional discoveries which shook the foundations of the Aristotelian cosmology and the tradition of the Catholic Church. Never fearing a fight, Galileo actively, passionately, and powerfully defended his evidence which supported the Copernican view of the cosmos and caused Galileo to develop some formidable enemies, too. One biographer of Galileo, Phillip Johnson, observed that he seemed “intent on ramming Copernicus’ sun-centered system down the throat of Christendom” and claims that Galileo’s position and manner alienated many and left the Church authorities no room to maneuver. It appeared that the Catholic Church had backed itself into the corner by trusting so entirely in Aristotle’s 1800 years’ old observations, and feared that if Aristotle was wrong, Christianity was wrong. After Galileo’s contentious and rancorous conflict with the Catholic Church, he was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Galileo’s forceful reiteration of Copernicus’ theories and Galileo’s rebellion against the teachings of the Catholic Church on the basis of reason and the new development of science was made even more potent was the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther which further questioned the authority of the Catholic Church on different grounds, Scriptural rather than philosophical or scientific in nature. The Roman Catholic Church lost significant power and influence. It reacted with a list of literature forbidden to Catholics that included any writings challenging the Catholic Church’s traditional Scripture interpretations based on its historical positions that arose from Aristotelian philosophy. One man’s observations, experience and philosophies had come to define the Church’s doctrine and traditions so strongly there was no room for other newly emerging views.
The Reformation and Renaissance eras gave strong defense for the authority of Scripture, as well as validating the rising role of reason and redefining tradition. The lower case “t” tradition of the first century church’s apostolic witness of Christian practice instead of the upper case, capital “T” Traditions of an authoritative Mother Church gained traction as the Reformation expanded. At the same time science and religion diverged and grew so skeptical of one another that we often find them viewed as mutually exclusive of one another today.
Copernicus, who was one of the fathers of scientific observation and theory did not ignore the Bible. In fact, he was very devoted to the truth of Scripture. As a scientist and a Christian he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict truth of the Scripture when Scripture was rightly understood. He quotes Augustine relating true reason to Scriptural truth. In fact, both the Church in Rome and the new Reformers often referenced Augustinian teaching, as his prolific work and writings left plenty of room to debate widely all issues that came along.
Two other developments concurrent with the Renaissance and Reformation ages forever changed the Church… Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and movable type in the mid 15th century and the King James English translation of the Bible as the 17th century dawned.
Catholic theology had historically recognized the traditions of the Church in the interpretations of Scripture (or papal pronouncements) as being equal in authority with written scripture itself and had been slow to question its own history and authorities. They were slow to adopt reason anytime it conflicted with the Church’s interpretations of Scripture or its own long-standing traditions. Given a widely distributed and readable Bible (instead of reliance on the Church’s interpretation of the ancient Latin, Greek, or Hebrew texts) now being available to a broad population opened up the Scriptures to everyone and diminished the authority of the Catholic Church to control and define Scripture for others through its own interpretation and traditions.
The sixteenth-century Reformers were fighting on two fronts: first against Rome and second against a burgeoning radical protestantism. Against Rome, the Reformers invoked the authority of scripture and the traditions of the ancient apostolic church of the first century, in order to counteract medieval corruptions. Against a new breed of what was perceived as narrow minded puritanism, they added reason to counterbalance rigid interpretations of scripture as well as pointing to the tradition of the early apostolic Church in the first few centuries after Christ.. And so, as the 17th century progressed and the era of Westward expansion continued in the New World, Christianity settled on these three criteria for testing truth- Scripture, the tradition of the early apostolic church, and reason.
So when the 18th and 19th century revivals of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers John and Charles, Thomas Chalmers and others of The Enlightenment came along, the established churches- Catholic and Protestant alike were very leery of personal “experience” being included in tests of truth, especially if such experiences were mystical or profoundly spiritual or overly pious. Such spiritual “enthusiasm” was viewed with suspicion and disdain by the proper Church- both Catholic and Protestant alike. . Staid and enlightened reason brought to bear on Scripture was surely the only way, and tradition was defined as that of the informed early church before Constantine’s alliance with Christendom had institutionalized the influence and authority of the Catholic Church and the pope in the 4th century.
So, one might ask, what does all of this ancient church history have to do with my faith, here and now, today? Well, it invites us to ask of our own selves, by what criteria do we seek and test “truth”.
Look back to brief conversation just before Jesus’ crucifixion, when the priests and Jewish officials brought Christ before Pilot in John 18: 29-38.
Pilate asked them- What charges do you bring against this man?
The Priests and Officials replied- If He weren’t a lawbreaker, we wouldn’t have brought Him to you.
Pilate said -Then judge Him yourselves, by your own law.
The Jews replied- Our authority does not allow us to give Him the death penalty.
The author, The Apostle John, notes here that – All these things were a fulfillment of the words Jesus had spoken indicating the way that He would die.
So Pilate reentered the governor’s palace and called for Jesus to follow him.
Pilate asked him- Are You the King of the Jews?
Jesus replied- Are you asking Me because you believe this is true, or have others said this about Me?
Pilate said- I’m not a Jew, am I? Your people, including the chief priests, have arrested You and placed You in my custody. What have You done?
Jesus answered- My kingdom is not recognized in this world. If this were My kingdom, My servants would be fighting for My freedom. But My kingdom is not in this physical realm.
Pilate- So You are a king?
Jesus- You say that I am king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the cosmos: to demonstrate the power of truth. Everyone who seeks truth hears My voice.
Pilate said to Jesus- What is truth?
It appears at that point from John’s text that Jesus did not reply. The question appeared to be more rhetorical than actually a demand for an answer. That suggests that even in Pilot’s time the pursuit of truth is a solitary pursuit and each person must come to it through his own journey.
And so I ask you, “What is truth?” How have you settled things in your own heart and mind…about life and its meaning, about faith, about the human condition, about suffering and evil, about God, about hope, about the limits of free will……about anything?
In my spiritual journey I battled these issues after surrendering my world-weary and sin-savvy soul to Christ at 38 years of age. I began exploring the Bible for answers to these and other questions of faith, morality, ethics, practical Christian living, and more. I ran into something called the “quadrilateral” that utilized 4 criteria for testing truth….It arose out of the post-Renaissance and post- Reformation establishment of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as the primary criteria for discerning truth. But it restored the ancient concept of personal experience…but not so much in the observational aspect of the natural cosmos as Aristotle had used that got the Catholic Church backed into such a corner for relying so heavily on the observations, experience and philosophy of a single man and which the early Protestant Reformers had virulently rejected, coming as they did out of the eras of Scholasticism and the emerging scientific method for pursuing truth…
John and Charles Wesley became perhaps the most vocal proponents of the experiential aspect of faith and its contribution to the testing of truth, much to the annoyance and chagrin of their high church Anglican bishops and peers. Their Father, too, an Anglican priest had often said that it is the “witness of the Holy Spirit in the heart”, one’s own knowledge of God granted through the presence of God’s Spirit within that attests to the truth revealed by the other three criteria. A Wesley biographer and systematic theologian, Albert Outler, in the 1970’s coined the phrase “The Quadrilateral” and identified it as being the four means of discerning and confirming truth for one’s self that the Wesley’s taught. But John Wesley himself had witnessed the power and assurance of faith in a little group of German Moravian missionaries who, in the midst of a storm in the Atlantic Ocean, sang and prayed peacefully while others screamed in fear for their lives. Wesley recognized that they had something—- a faith so profound and trusting in God—-that they could maintain great hope and peace even in the midst of a raging storm that he did not have. It began a journey for him that did not rely solely on his knowledge of Scripture or on his own capable ability to reason or even on his extensive study of the tradition of Christian believers since the time of Christ as well as other faith traditions. He was an avid student of theology, philosophy and the history of the church. But none of that had given him what he saw in these true Moravian believers. He desired the personal strength and confidence in God that he witnessed in this little group. He sought out some of their leaders, Count Nickolas von Zinzendorf, Peter Boehler, and others.
The Moravian sect had been founded in the mid- 15th century by Jon Hus, a Catholic priest who dared to open up the sacraments of Communion, which had been the privilege of the clergy alone, to the laity, and in doing so he violated the Catholic Church’s tradition but restored the early apostolic tradition of communion being extended to all believers. For that he was burned at the stake but his little group of Reformers sought God’s protection and persevered and emerged as a significant influence in later revivalist movements of the 18th
century as John Wesley himself experienced, embraced and offered their distinctive personal and corporate experiential aspects of faith practice to his own generation.
My own struggle with how to understand and engage with the four elements of this test of truth was long and difficult. I was becoming a serious student of the Bible and had significant concerns about how some appeared to be rejecting the authority of Scripture and defaulting instead to their own personal experience or their own reasoned-out understanding or their own religious traditions as the primary test of truth for them. It has brought us to the point that every person defines truth by his or her own means to his or her own satisfaction. It appears that there are few, if any, broadly accepted and understood truths…..in ethics, morality, relationships, civic life, or anything else. It is a “to each his own” kind of world today that exalts individualism and relativism.
I finally conceptualized a way of thinking about my own pursuit of truth using the 4 elements- Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. It looks like the blue figure at the top f this blog, a Venn diagram of three intersecting circles representing Tradition, Reason, and Experience contained within the overarching space of a sphere that is the context of Scripture within which they reside. (See Venn diagram)
Then a few years ago I read a beautiful description by a theology professor, Dr. Paul Chilcote, of the elements of the quadrilateral and how they work in our lives and in the church.
If you will bear with me I will share this with you and ask you to consider whether this image is something that could inform your own pursuit of truth, wherever you find yourself seeking it.
Chilcote described observing a mobile hanging over his daughter’s crib and realized that the image offered a plausible description for thinking about this dynamic concept of the four elements at work together. The top disk he called “Scripture”. Reason, Tradition, and Experience were attached to it. A student of his suggested that a wind chime is even more descriptive than a mobile.
Chilcote wrote in a Christian magazine in 2005, “In this wind chime image, Scripture, again has central place. It is the foundation, the base, the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine and life. But Scripture itself must be balanced by the counterweight of the chimes (Tradition, Reason, and Experience), all of which are tied directly into the biblical witness. None of these stands, as it were, independent of the Scripture or of the other norms with which each interacts. Each has its own voice that needs to sound out for music to be made….Moreover, the music of these chimes is not produced by their collision. Rather, in most wind chimes, a clapper or ball is suspended from the very center of the base….rooted as it were in the heart of Scripture…swinging back and forth among the chimes to strike the tones. This ball is, for me, the community of faith, the church, that is involved in a dynamic way with each and all of these norms related to Christian practice. One final touch. The purpose of the wind chime is to make music. If there is no wind, then the chimes stand stagnant, purposeless, and silent. But when the wind blows…when a dynamic force sets the wind chime in motion.. then the music begins. The wind in this image is, of course, the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that, as the Wesleys would say, animates the whole.
When the fresh wind of the Spirit blows, and the church struggles to deal with the issues, questions, and concerns of the day in this dynamic way, the consequence is a song. …The music comes nonetheless from our faithful interaction with God’s Word. ” (See wind chime picture.)
Dr. Chilcote’s imagery is a beautiful and poetic way of thinking about the quadrilateral and helped me to interact with the four dimensions more faithfully and fully. But, just as many quibble with the concept of the Trinity- God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit- because the word “Trinity” itself doesn’t appear in Scripture, I struggled with these concepts of the quadrilateral because of not seeing them at work in a cohesive and coherent way in the Bible….until six years ago
I was asked to read John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well and prepare a prayer based on the text for a Lenten season devotional. So, I was reading with attentiveness. As a result I saw something in this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman I’d never seen before.
As I read this familiar story, I suddenly realized that the Samaritan woman was employing all 4 of these elements- Tradition, Reason, Experience and Scripture! In her first response to Christ’s request for water she seems quizzical, even perhaps a bit defensive and argumentative, employing reason to try to discover why a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman for anything, given the disdain and prejudice with which Jews generally regarded Samaritans. And possibly also given the improbability of a rabbi such as Jesus initiating conversation with a woman like her due to the inequity of their status and social restrictions on contact between men and women. Then she points out that he has nothing with which to draw water himself, another question related to common good sense reason. Then she shifts into tradition, pointing out the history of the well and its importance to her people. Jesus responds to her. Intrigued, she references personal experience – thirst and the labor of drawing water- and expresses the desire for what he offers. When Jesus directs her to get her husband, she answers honestly and continues in the personal, experiential mode.
When Jesus has shown his knowledge of her circumstances, she deflects and shifts the conversation to tradition again- asking a question that has little to do with drawing water, but rather speaks of worship and where one is to worship. Jesus responds. Then finally, she refers to the writings of the Jewish prophets ( part of the Scripture of believers in God of that day) and states what she knows and her belief that answers will ultimately be had when the Messiah comes. It is in that moment, as Scripture is brought to bear on their conversation that she sees the truth of who Jesus is.
In this conversation with the Samaritan woman, we see one of the longest and most interactive exchanges in all of Scripture involving Jesus and another individual. I find it interesting that the woman employs every way she can to figure Jesus out, to get to the truth, to understand Him and what He is offering. And the means she uses, ultimately, are the four criteria that generations of Christians struggled to discover and use appropriately. She has used Reason, Tradition, and her own experience. But it is only when Scripture is brought into
the mix that suddenly all four made sense and brought her to the revelation of the truth of who this stranger at the well was ….the Messiah himself!
In the end, when she has this “aha” moment, she goes to get others to come to hear Jesus. She wants to know if they see what she sees, if her conclusion is right. When they hear her testimony and hear Jesus themselves, they are convinced that her conclusion is correct. One believer’s witness has been confirmed by the witness of others. The community has confirmed the truth of one person’s understanding and experience.
Are we as persistent, as dogged in our pursuit of the truth of Jesus? Are we willing to reveal our doubts? Are we as honest in acknowledging the reality of our circumstances and our dependence on comforting traditions? Are we as knowledgeable of the Word? I have revisited this text on the Samaritan woman’s pursuit of truth many times. It reveals the Samaritan woman’s persistence and the extent to which she is prepared to go to in exploring all the ways she can to discover the truth of this stranger and his unusual availability to a person of seemingly questionable worth like herself. It also reveals Jesus’ patience and willingness to come to us, any one of us, to listen and respond to us right where he finds us, to engage all of who we are as products of our experiences, our reasoning, our traditions, and most importantly, our knowledge and understanding of Scripture.
Have we sought out the truth of Jesus? Have we experienced his revelation of himself using all of these criteria for examining truth? Or have we, like Pontius Pilot, simply washed
our hands of the effort, surrendered to the opinions and demands of others, and asked with skepticism and disdain, what is truth?
Truth is actually right in front of us, just as these four criteria for discerning truth were right in front of me in this story of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We don’t have to struggle to find the truth. We simply have to desire it and begin the journey. Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you.
Jesus is not shrouded in secrecy or mystery. He tells no after his resurrection to keep quiet. He says, in fact, that if we do not proclaim the truth of who he is, the very rocks will cry out. Use all the tools available to you to discover and proclaim truth- Tradition, Reason, Experience, but especially Scripture ….joined with community and the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst!
The Discipline of the United Methodist Church gives language that helps keep the four components of the quadrilateral within their respective parameters:
“Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” (Book of Discipline, 2008, page 77)
When we faithfully and fully employ these tools in community, we can trust that Christ, the fullness of grace and truth (John 1:14), will be present and revealed in our midst.
If these historically developed parameters for discerning, evaluating, testing, and employing “truth” have indeed been refined over 2000 years of Christian history, why isThe UMC in such a quandary in dealing with the issues before it now – homosexual marriage and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals? Because it has made the mistakes that Christian institutions have made throughout history……allowing one or two quadrilateral criteria to displace the use of all of them together. It appears that the failure to assert the authority of Scripture and how it has been understood and interpreted on these issues since the time of Christ and the time-honored tradition of the church regarding marriage between a man and a woman have brought us to the place that the personal experience and reason of a minority have been allowed to ram the cultural march of liberal progressive desires down the throats of everyone else. The LGBTQ activists have sought to storm through the order and polity of The UMC, as they have in other denominations and other cultural institutions. It seems virtually impossible to do anything now to bring peaceful co-existence in the same house to the divided parties. This is another of those cases, it appears, in which even Christ might point to the hardness of hearts, and acquiesce to divorce. The differences do appear to be “irreconcilable.” With the recent ruling of the Judicial Counsel in support of the current position and wording of the Discipline and the defiant posture of those who say it makes no difference to them, it would appear that the work of the Commission on the Way Forward is likely going to end up being the negotiation of the terms of the divorce, the separation already having been more or less in place for some time.
The emerging trend of churches discussing and taking steps toward an orderly departure from The UMC and the initiation of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association are making clear the reality that those opposed to changing the wording will not continue to accept the leftward social and theological tilt of The UMC and the unresponsive leadership of the last 40-plus years in failing to enforce the Discipline. The UMC had already yielded to pressure and changed its polity and practices to accommodate the fractious racial issues of the 50’s and 60’s, giving cover to those jurisdictions that were not yet willing to abandon the barriers to election of minorities to episcopal leadership. That failure of The UMC to stand for what was right in the case of race and gender equality for the sake of peace gave precedence and strategic roadmaps to those with new social and political agendas to push. The lack of courage to stand for what was right then was wrong. Lack of courage now to stand firm for what is right will also be wrong. Tossing aside 2000 years of scripture, reason, and tradition with regard to homosexuality for the sake of the personal experience and preferences of those who desire to see homosexuality “normalized” in society is not going to bring peace and unity. Christians may unify around a number of things, but normalizing and celebrating homosexuality will not be one of them, I expect. The issues through the millennia may have changed but the fact of contending for the faith, both beyond and within the Church hasn’t. And the criteria for sorting out the issues to get to the revelation of Truth in Christ hasn’t changed either. But depending on the willingness to rely exclusively on one or another of the four criteria, alone or in pairs, instead of employing all of them in accordance with their proper place in the process and in community with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will surely lead us away from Truth, not toward it.