In Parts I and II of this series, we were introduced to the Wesleyan Quadrangle (WQ), and discussed how theology must be developed with Scripture taken over tradition, but with tradition in mind in order to benefit from tradition’s ability to preserve the enduring and deeply developed truths discovered by those who have gone before us. But scripture and tradition, according to the WQ, are still not enough to develop good theology. Today, we examine the relationship between scripture and reason.
Hermeneutics as a reasoned approach to theology from scripture
Modern atheists, like their ideological progenitors from the 1950’s and 60’s, think of religion as something from our primitive past, and in contradiction to reason. But according to the WQ, reason has a place at the table, but subordinate to Scripture. This view is ably captured in one of my favorite aphorisms:
Before faith comes, reason is king; after faith comes, reason is servant.
Much has been written on the relationship between reason and faith, and the
use OF reason in interpreting scripture – in fact, traditional biblical hermeneutics is an attempt at a rational, consistent approach to scripture. These methods are well defined and captured in this paragraph from Quodlibet:
In interpretation of written documents, hermeneutics makes use of various approaches, most of which are called ‘criticisms’. In terms of New Testament hermeneutics, for instance
- diversities in Greek manuscripts are compared (textual criticism)
- the literal sense is detected (historical criticism)
- the antecedents from which the New Testament writers drew their information are studied (source criticism)
- the literary genre is diagnosed (form criticism)
- theological emphasis of New Testament writers is analysed (redaction criticism)
- passages are examined in the context of the entire New Testament or Bible (canonical criticism)
- the structure of New Testament works are analysed (structuralism)
- the real author is distinguished from the implied author and the real audience is distinguished from the implied audience (narrative criticism)
- the strategies used by the New Testament authors to make what was recounted effective are analysed (rhetorical criticism)
- and the text is studied as a response to the social and cultural settings in which it was produced (social criticism) (Raymond E. Brown, 1997: 21-27).
These sensical rules are merely providing a reasoned framework with which to approach biblical translation and interpretation. In fact, they are so reasonable, they may also, if made generic, be applied to interpreting any manuscript.
Subjective Meaning of Scripture? NOT
Before commenting any more on why reason should not take precedence over scripture, we ought to differentiate between “scripture” and any personal interpretation of scripture.
A lot of individuals defy reason because they hold to some personal view of scripture, but this is not how faith and reason really interact. In fact, scripture warns against such errors:
2 Peter 1:20
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
Though this passage only refers to prophecy, in Protestant theology, it is often said that “all scripture has specific, intended purpose and meaning.” This allows us to use reason to establish the single, public meaning of scripture, which is important. While God may speak through subjective meaning, that is a dangerous game to play, and certainly, and such reason-resistant approaches to scripture (scripture has no objective meaning, only subjective) are not Christian or logical.
One memorable example of this comes from a charismatic female bible teacher I heard many years ago who told the story of how God used scripture to calm her down on a turbulent jet ride. She related how she opened her bible and read a passage that said “I will bring you down to earth” (maybe Ezekiel 26:20 ?), and felt God speaking comfort to her. She later read it in another translation, and realized that it was part of a judgment, in which a better translation might have been “I will plummet you to the earth!” She remarked, “God even knew which Bible version I’d need to be carrying!” Of course, while God can certainly speak to a person this way, it would be awful to use such a subjective approach to scripture, even if it brought false comfort to people.
Reason’s unreliability based on man’s corruption
All that being said, the WQ admits reason as one of the tools we MUST use to arrive at good theology, but not in supremacy over Scripture, lest we allow our corrupted self-interest and reliance on limited human philosophy and understanding to cause us to misunderstand the clear teachings of Christianity. Paul the Apostle warns us against relying merely on human reason and philosophy because of its orientation – this world, and with self-interest lurking in the back of men’s hearts:
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
Summary: In order to develop an accurate theology, you must take a reasoned approach to scripture. This is not the same as taking what many materialists call a “reasonable” approach, because what they often mean is that such things are miracles are “unreasonable.” But it does mean that we are to be consistent in our thinking and approach, using reason to rightly interpret and understand the teachings of scripture. Those two treat reason and faith as opposing ideas are not approaching faith or the scriptures in the manner that most theologians follow, nor is such a view recommended by people of mature faith.
On to the last diad – Part IV: Scripture and Experience.