parsing truth

I think I’ve heard this more than once through the past couple decades, that Christian theology is in a flux, with the idea that much will have to be worked through. I think this is a major reason some evangelicals have become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, and also is a factor in the rise of the neo-Calvinists, or as Scot McKnight has called them, neo-Puritans, gaining a significant following among those who are younger. People are attracted to clear answers from some authority, in the case of the Roman Catholics, the Magisterium giving the final answer on biblical interpretation, and in the case of the new Calvinists, their understanding of a system of theology from John Calvin and from his followers, having the final say.

I am by nature open minded, maybe to a fault, but as a Christian within my basic commitment to follow Jesus and adherence to scripture as the written word of God. For the most part the differences between Christians are really not a big deal, at least in my book, nor in the minds of many. What unites us is so much more important than the matters which divide us.

But there are issues which are quite contentious, where true Christians have parted in recent years. And which can cost Christians who work in Christian institutions their jobs. That alone makes these issues momentous in scale, but even more important is the impact these matters have on people. How this is handled is practically more important than which side one comes down on. Not to minimize the differences in such matters.

I think of what has been called theistic evolution, recently coined evolutionary creation versus creationism as in scientific creationism, or some other variety of that. I also think of the issue over homosexuality and gay covenant unions or even marriage and ordination into Christian ministry versus the traditional view which sees all homosexual activity as sin. Anyone alive today and aware of the evangelical landscape will know that these are ground shifting issues, in which much is at stake. For me much more is at stake in the latter issue, than the former, but for many it is more an opposite problem.

How do we parse truth? This is a question which is important for all Christians, but seems especially an open matter to Protestants, and especially those Protestants who are open to a certain kind of biblical criticism. This “criticism” is not about criticizing or critiquing the Bible and what it says. But it is really in terms of parsing it according to its original context within the scope of the whole brought forward to the present in application. Two good examples of that are slavery and women’s roles. Both are judged to be different than what one might make out in certain biblical passages. Scripture itself seems to indicate the truth with the light that comes at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, when all is said and done.

I think the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral can help us through difficult issues. First is scripture followed by tradition, then reason followed by experience.  I might like to make an emphasis like that, putting scripture over tradition and reason over experience, and yet holding all four as important.

Scripture is first, we must work on exegeting passages faithfully, letting each passage speak for itself into the whole of the biblical narrative. The Protestant stand of solo-scriptura (along with the other solos) is important here, though I would prefer to accept the suggestion that we understand it as primera-scriptura, or scripture first.

Next is tradition. Scripture in God’s work came from the church and yet scripture informs and we could say in a sense forms the church. The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth as scripture says, and I understand that to mean in its totality. God leads the church so that in spite of all its divisions, it gets the essence of the faith right. The church is certainly not infallible in all its interpretations, but many would disagree,  taking comfort in the Roman Catholic tradition of the Magisterium, or in the Eastern Orthodox position which itself has remained constant through the centuries.  Protestant liberalism is the exact opposite in which tradition is thrown to the wind, and all is up for grabs according to what seems right in the spirit of the age, how I take it, which they might say is according to one’s reason and experience, or experience and reason, all of that being God’s revelation along with the good Book.

Reason is necessary, because God’s word is an appeal to our reason, written, spoken and heard in rationalistic terms. And experience is important, because God’s word and revelation is in terms of real life, where we live, what we experience. Scripture certainly covers the gamut of that.

I don’t like the tension of working through difficult issues, but when we’re forced to do that for one reason or another, it can end up being a strengthening exercise. It is akin to younger people perhaps questioning what had been certain to them for many years, so that the faith might become their own, not in their own terms, but worked through so they can accept it on God’s terms for themselves.

What have you found to be the case in your own practice and experience of this?