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A Question of Order


Every Christian I know says that they believe in the Authority of Scripture. Problem is, those same people often have very different ideas of what that means. Ask someone to explain how they come to a decision about a topic using the Bible and that’s where things get muddy.  The particular branch of the Vine into which I was grafted (baptized, taught, formed etc) taught me well that what is true is grounded in an ordering of authority and based on the trustworthiness of the source of that authority. This is another way of saying that some things matter more than others. When making sense of Holy Scripture, there are four sources of ‘knowing stuff’ and they appear below in the order in which they ought to be trusted:

Word → Tradition → Reason → Experience

This is Biblical hermeneutics 101 (Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible.)The content of the Bible is the greatest authority, followed by how others who have gone on before us have interpreted the Bible (Tradition), then the responsible use of human reason, and then- last and least– human experience.

First things first. We need to first become familiar with the  larger framework of Word, Tradition, Reason and Experience. The four sources are listed in order of weightiness or importance. This is vital to understand as nearly every confusion that has plagued the Church has been rooted in re-ordering this list.

A classic example was the Arian Controversy.

The early history of the controversy must be pieced together from about 35 documents found in various sources. The historian Socrates of Constantinople reports that Arius first became controversial under the bishop Achillas of Alexandria, when he made the following syllogism: he said, “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten and had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing”. Huh?

Arius basically asserted that the Son was not equal to the Father but was rather a created being, like the rest of us. To Arius, Jesus was certainly special, but not God . This contradicted key bible passages that clearly taught that Jesus was God in the flesh- equal to the Father and fully God. Not to mention the chorus of voices that had (Tradition of Interpretation) affirmed this key understanding. This subtle but foundation -shaking claim was rooted in Arius placing human Reason over both the claims of the Bible and the generally accepted Tradition of interpretation up to that point in the Church’s brief history.

During the time of the reformation, Luther and the other Reformers faced the same thought disease. Church Authority masquerading as Tradition, trumped both the witness of Theologians of years gone by (Tradition) and even the direct witness of Scripture itself. If the current  Church Authoritahs said it, then it must be true- even if the Bible said otherwise, even if centuries of other pastors and teachers had taught otherwise. For our age, the same error of judgment is taking place. Rather than make human reason an idol, that role is being played by human experience.

Human experience is how the culture of day organizes thought. My truth and your truth can conflict and somehow that’s ok.  This leads to good Christians rethinking human sexuality, the mission of the Church and in the process- losing its mandate to be a light to the nations. Now many are trying to just blend in with the crowd. The solution is as it always has been when our pride gets in the way- confession and repentance. The gift our Lord gives to us all.

Blessings as you move toward this Sabbath Day,

 Mark Wilhelm

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 1July2011 17:55

    From the Epitome of the Formula of Concord coming just after the Reformers assert that the Holy Scriptures are the “only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged. . .” they go on to say that the AC, the Apology to the AC and the Smalcald articles, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther have in them everything in summary “that is treated in detail in Holy Scripture and that is necessary for a Christian to know for salvation. All teachings should conform to these directives, as outlined above. Whatever is contrary to them should be rejected and condemned as oppose to the unanimous explanation of our faith. . . Holy Scripture alone remains the only judge, rule, and guiding principle, according to which, as the only touchstone, all teachings should and must be recognized and judged, whether they are good or evil, correct or incorrect.” p. 486-487 BC, Kolb/Wengert edition.

    • 2July2011 09:54

      Well said! I wish there was this kind of clarity among denominational officers, bishops ect.

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