Scripture and Theology

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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What is the role of Scripture in Christian theology?

In dealing with theology, Scripture is the starting point and its foundation.  Scripture is the revelation of God to us, apart from which we could not know God.  The Word of God perfectly and fully reveals the salvation of God for humanity.  Furthermore, it is the call of God to broken humanity, enabling them to live, through the power of the Spirit, in such a way that is pleasing to God.

We could know nothing about the nature of God if He did not reveal it to us.  We might possibly be able to assess things about Him through our empirical senses.  For instance, we could attribute all of creation to a Creator and could arrive at such a conclusion using our senses.  This might allow us to see that God exists.  And, we might be able to make some assumptions based on this conclusion (i.e. God is sovereign and powerful).  However, we could not know whether God is loving, hateful, gentle, merciful, conniving or otherwise without the revelation of the Divine by the Divine.  Scripture, as the Word and Revelation of God, is such a book that allows us with our “spiritual senses”, as John Wesley called them, to see God’s nature and character.  It is for this reason that we must start with Scripture as the provider of data by which we can begin to talk, learn, and know who God is.

Sola Scriptura” was the cry for many of the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther, as they sought to correct the waywardness that they perceived in the Church.  Tradition, for some at that time, was considered just as important and equal in authority to Scripture.  Thus, some fallacies arose within doctrine, such as indulgences which were said to forgive sins through the Church.  Luther believed this was theologically inaccurate and therefore called for a re-commitment to the sole authority of Scripture.  It alone could stand as the evaluator of the Church’s actions… the Church was not independent of that authority.  As has been rightly judged, we cannot speak alone by our own authority.  Scripture is the lens by which we assess the worth of our theology.

Even John Wesley, who was an avid proponent of the Anglican Church, was willing on the basis of Scripture, to venture against the Church by sending out itinerant field preachers and ordaining ministers so that they could serve the sacraments.  He was supportive of the Church in the essentials of doctrine and willing to step outside of those bounds in non-essentials.  These actions were undertaken because Wesley viewed himself as a “man of one book.”  In other words, Scripture held the utmost authority when it came down to determining proper action, even when opposed to tradition.

The early Creeds even show the dependency of tradition upon Scripture.  The Creeds were written to set forth proper belief against and opposed to the heresies that had popped up.  The Creeds, such as the Nicene, summarized the Gospel, as well as, the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  However, those Creeds that came to be most accepted by the whole Church were those that simply asserted what Scripture asserts – no more, no less.  We see that theology can neither add nor subtract from Scripture’s own propositions.  Scripture sets forth proper orthodoxy, not tradition.  Scripture, as a reasonable truth claim, cannot be self-contradictory and must sit in judgment of itself as well.  In other words, tradition alone does not determine the truth of theology, Scripture is the standard.  It must be consistent.

In Wesley’s mind, the secular and the sacred were not distinct realities but enmeshed together.  As such, Scripture did not simply impact the “spiritual realm” but should immediately impact our daily lives.  Scripture was the lens through which Wesley sought to view everything.  All Truth was God’s Truth and would not be contradictory to one another.  And, more importantly, experience and Scripture worked together as mutual components.  Experience’s data can only afford us so much understanding.  Scripture is not merely a supplement to that knowledge, but helps us to enrich and construct a fuller account of reality.

For me, this answers the greatest part of the question: “What is the role of Scripture in theology?”  It is the very starting point of theology and it holds an authority position for determining true, correct theology.  Scripture provides the data and material that can be used by theology.  However, the question becomes how do we interpret correct theology from Scripture, given that there are so many interpreters and interpretations throughout the history of the Church?

Obviously, this is not an easy question.  However, I believe this provides a practical venue for Wesley’s hermeneutical circle.  The hermeneutical circle shows us that our interpretation of Scripture is not an independent authority.  Rather, there are other “tests” by which we may try the validity of our “understanding” of Scripture: experience, reason, tradition, Scripture.  As such, theology may be said to be consistent with Scripture, with reason and logic, with the experience of the faithful, and re-producible in other people’s lives.  A particular theology’s validity can thus be tested in the “crucible of life” where reason and tradition are tools and Scripture and experience are sources and arenas for experiment.  They are dependent on one another and must be balanced as such for theology to be consistent, practical, and true.  So, we see that even Scripture’s interpretation must rely on these other parts in order to function appropriately.

As said previously, Scripture provides the data and material for theology… it is the source of theology.  It is the revelation of God to us, which allows us to know Him.  Therefore, in interpreting Scripture, God’s Word and Revelation, it is necessary that God illumines us so that we might fully and correctly understand!  Theology is not done in a vacuum.  We bring many assumptions and “modern” interpretations to the table by which we have been shaped.  We tend to place those upon Scripture when we read and study it.  As biased readers, we must hear once again from the true Author and Perfecter of faith.  And, it is only by the Holy Spirit that we are led into all Truth.  There is only One who may speak about God and that is God himself.  To speak about God without God is to place ourselves in His role… which is idolatry.  So, although Scripture gives us the raw data, we cannot fully grasp its mystery without the quickening of the Spirit.  True theology does not simply interact with the text, but must engage the Spirit of that Letter.


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