Last night at our Brew Theology gathering, our group talked about the sometimes-tense relationship between faith and reason. Over the course of our conversation, we talked about situations where reason falls short and faith picks up the baton, but we also identified instances where misplaced faith has to be checked by reason. The more we talked, the more clear it became: a healthy worldview must draw on both faith and reason, even when it seems like they’re in tension. But do our religious traditions leave space for this? In particular, how can we hold these forces in balance when approaching a sacred text like the Bible?
There’s a popular bumper sticker you may have seen: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The assumption behind the sticker is that the Bible can be taken at face value– that any reader can pick it up without any knowledge of context or concepts and automatically understand its meaning. There’s a problem though: the Bible is often exceedingly difficult to understand. That’s why we have sermons, study groups, footnotes, multiple translations, and all manner of other tools designed to help us make sense of the book’s words. Stepping back and looking at the history of Christianity, we can see where large groups of wise and faithful people have read the words of this book and walked away with entirely different meanings. Even within the Bible itself, there is disagreement over its meaning! Clearly, this book has some layers to it, and we’re reading it with notoriously imperfect human eyes. As such, in the absence of other guiding forces, we easily project our own experiences, biases, and misunderstandings onto the Bible’s words, so when a person says his or her whole worldview looks like this:
she or he is really saying,
No one reads the Bible in a vacuum. No one.
Now that we’ve established this, you may be feeling a little helpless in making sense of this book, so I have some good news: you don’t have to go it alone. Christians have always depended on one another in making sense of the Bible, and John Wesley (the progenitor of Methodism) even came up with a helpful system for understanding it.
When facing a decision, Wesley used three other tools alongside the Bible to make sense of its words: church tradition, reason, and lived experience. Combined, these four factors are known as The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but the model isn’t universally accepted. I often hear critics say they’re not comfortable equating lived experience or human reason with the authority of the Bible. That’s fine; neither was Wesley. While the chart to the right is the most commonly presented form of the Quadrilateral, it’s also the least accurate. A truer diagram might look more like the one below:
Wesley ranked the Bible above the other three, seeing tradition as the Bible’s most consistent interpretive lens, followed by human reason, with personal experience being the least reliable. I wonder if you have a different ranking though; are there points on this diagram that jump out to you? Portions you might change?
Different denominations of Christianity tend to place more emphasis on different points. For example, many Baptists and Pentecostals place greater emphasis on personal experience, while the Catholic and Orthodox Churches value tradition deeply, and there are a whole swath of Protestants who prize reason over the others. That’s okay. We need these different voices for balance and perspective, so however you arrange these points, your voice is important. None of us can read the Bible in a vacuum, so why try? Let’s read together, learn together, and grow together. And if you’re not sure where to start, well, I know of a group that meets every other Tuesday.