The UMC holds that Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason are sources and norms for belief and practice, but that the Bible is primary among them. What is your understanding of this theological position of the Church?
It is my understanding that the authority by which we establish our beliefs and practices is rooted in Scripture, tradition, experience and reason because the Word of God is not dead on a page but very much alive and active in the world. It is vital for the ongoing discernment of God’s work in the world and God’s call on our lives that we take seriously the role of these four sources, first of which is Scripture.
Scripture is that witness of God given to us by an act of Grace. It roots Christians in the life God desires for individuals and society. It not only contains the wisdom of past saints and the Story of the people of God, but it also contains the witness of God through the work of Christ by way of the Spirit, who is the ultimate disclosure of God to the world. It is inappropriate and belittles Scripture when it is used as a way to “proof text” an argument or to take lines of Scripture out of context in order to gain a personal edge or push a political agenda. It is therefore the role of tradition, experience and reason to help ensure the integrity of Scripture is being upheld its application.
If the Triune God is the driver, and Scripture is the road map, then tradition is the source which rides “shotgun” in the car of the UMC. It is that source to which we turn to in order to hear the witness and testimony of the Saints who can no longer speak. It is the source we can turn to when someone says “Jesus told people to not pay taxes because of what he says in the Scripture”. We can check that interpretation with the larger tradition of the Church and validate or invalidate this interpretation. Tradition also passes along things to the Christian that are not located in Scripture, but are authorities in our lives, such as the Creeds or the theological understanding of the “Trinity”. Scripture is the source and tradition builds upon that source in order to put into practice the Scripture.
In the metaphor of the UMC car, experience and reason are the energetic passengers in the back seat. We tend to want to rely upon our own experience as our primary source because it has a powerful emotional connection. When we experience church in a specific way we tend to want to believe that experience to be universally Christian and other experiences of Christianity to be apostasy. Experience is the source that pushes us into the ‘new’ and the ‘unknown’ so that we might grow. It is the voice in our ear that whispers, when we take detours in our journey in order to find new paths and experience new things. While this is not a bad thing, it can become a hindrance to the Christian if we are only seeking out new experiences and not checking the roadmap of Scripture and the wisdom of tradition. Experience is powerful and authoritative but it must also take into consideration not only the individual experiences of people but the collective experience of the Body of Christ. If my personal experience is counter to the collective experience of the Body then I must be humble enough to be aware that personal experience is limited and may not be within the bounds of Scripture or tradition of the Church. This humility is what I understand to be the fourth source of our norms – reason.
It is well documented that our senses can fail us and what we perceive can actually be incorrect (as when we view an optical illusion). When we allow ourselves to read Scripture or listen to tradition or follow our experience without the humility of our reasoning then we are very close to idolatry of the ego. To follow the Scriptures blindly without reason is to put ourselves at the center of the world and to view only those who see as you see as correct. This elevates the ego to a point that is equal to the Divine will or even above the Divine. Reason is a great source for interpreting Scripture, tradition and experience but left unchecked it can lead to a world in which the ego reigns supreme and Christ is no longer Lord. Therefore, the role of reason is one of humility and one source we can constantly develop and fine tune. It is the one source we can actively choose to develop by attending upon the ordinances of God. When we grow our reasoning skills in the ways of God, then soon our reasoning will be syncopated with the ‘reasoning’ of God. This process is one way we are moving on toward perfection. However, if we choose to grow our reasoning skills upon the ‘reasoning’ of humanity, we are not using the source of reasoning in a Christian manner. As a Christian we are moving onward to perfection. We are moving toward life in harmony with the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus. The sources we have to help us move toward that goal are Scripture, tradition, experience and reason.