Friday, April 20, 2007

What is Right Belief?

I was raised as a Christian believing that right belief comes from the scriptures alone. If there was an issue that appeared to be “in the gray” then I would attempt to make a final determination from a broader evaluation of biblical principle. After reading Chapter 2 in “The Mosaic of Christian Belief” by Roger E. Olson I came to more fully understand the idea that there are other factors outside of scripture that can aid in making conclusions about right belief.

One representation for this is found in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which teaches that proper Christian belief is shaped by four main sources and norms: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Tradition represents what Olson often refers to as the “Great Tradition” which is the “consensus of beliefs held in common by the early church fathers and the Reformers of the sixteenth century as expressed in common by the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions of faith.” (p 57)

I am not going to take a lot more time to unpack the quadrilateral in this post, but do want to make clear that scripture is still the primary and final authority (sola scriptura) in determining belief; however, we are likely in error when we do not take into account tradition, reason, and experience when making determinations about right belief. Next time you wrestle with an issue of controversy such as women’s and men's roles in the church, gifts of the Spirit, or the inerrancy of scripture go to the scriptures first, but also take into account tradition, reason, and experience as you seek to confirm proper belief.

For a more “scholarly” take on this issue check out this post by Josh Malone on First Theology or take the introductory course in the Theology program, which will likely begin in September.


Anonymous said...


I stumbled on your blog a few weeks ago. It appears that you love your work and its good to see that you're making use of your many talents!

Concerning your quote, "want to make clear that scripture is still the primary and final authority (sola scriptura) in determining belief." I'm a little confused. If it's your church's tradition to believe in sola scripture, who's to say that this tradition of sola scriptura is correct (assuming tradition has any importance at all)? I'm not trying to be a flamer, but didn't the early Christian fathers you mentioned equate Church Tradition with Scripture;or more specifically, believe Scripture is a part of Church Tradition (and not the other way around)?
I'm glad your exploring the issue of "right belief" in the light of Christianity as I have also struggled with this issue.

Your brother is Christ and former member of the great Bearcat track program,

Jim B.

First Theology said...

Jim - I'll poke my nose into this one. The point you raise is a good one to explore... historically, the doctrine of sola Scriptura was articulated most clearly during the Reformation and thus it is part of our Protestant tradition. However, we'd probably argue that the doctrine itself is implicit in Scripture when it claims to be God's divine speech - thus "the highest authority." So even if our recognition of this fact comes to us historically, via tradition, in some sense it's already consonant with the testimony of Scripture. While that understanding of sola Scriptura seems a bit circular - because we believe Scripture implicitly claims this for itself and at the same time we recognize it was historically articulated by the Reformers most clearly to whom we are indebted (altho the concept goes back much further IMHO) – the circularity can’t be considered a weakness (in my mind) since all arguments to authority are subject to this same critique (if that makes no sense I’ll try to explain it). You might want to see the link to my blog on this (or you might not!).

In terms of what the “early church” thought about tradition, you have to put that question in the context of the process of canonization – by that I mean the process by which the church recognized which books were in fact inspired by God (usually b/c heretics claimed something else!). Before the process of "collection" of the NT books... the earliest Christians (first 30-40 years after Jesus’ resurrection) passed on oral "Jesus stories." The stories are now what we now have recorded in the gospels in written form. So “tradition” in this sense was key then. Within the 1st or 2nd generation something called the regula fidei = rule of faith, developed and it was appealed to as authoritative (early Fathers appeal to this). That was also likely an oral tradition about what "right Christian belief" was. We seem to have a snapshot of that today in the Apostles Creed (2nd or 3rd century). It’s a very simple "doctrinal statement", if you will, that folks might have known then b/f they had access (or a concept) of the NT Scriptures as we have them now. As Protestants we believe that the regula fidei was really just an accurate summary (i.e. – interpretation) of Scripture - thus not an alternate source of information, merely a concise summation. It was only later on in history that what the Roman Catholics call "dual-source theory" - which means Tradition + Scripture are both equally authoritative sources of revelation - came about. This concept viewed tradition as an alternative, and complimentary, source of revelation which provides additional and unique information. This is NOT what Scott (or I!) mean by the Great Tradition. Instead, the regula fidei concept of (Great) tradition is that tradition is merely “an accurate summation of Scripture” – we see that historically the things which have by taught by the spirit-gifted community of believers since the beginning (what all Christians, at all times, everywhere believe). In this way, tradition means nothing more than what your pastor/teacher instructs you in – the very things that he himself learned from others as an accurate way to read God’s word. In this way we can say we have tradition as a source, that is in a very real way dependent on Scripture.

Honestly, as Protestants (and especially as post-enlightenment Westerners) we have no idea how to deal with tradition… we often want to think we just “read our Bibles”, but further reflect appears to reveal that would be impossible. If you are interested in a book I’d suggest Retrieving the Tradition: A Primer for Skeptical Protestants by DH Williams.

ALong said...

Well, since the conversation is now underway, I may as well weigh in. Scott, nice chop: "there are other factors outside of scripture that can aid in making conclusions about right belief." Too true. Hence the endarkened state of those Christians who have embraced "solo scriptura." Honestly, such Christians are an apologist's nightmare. They don't think they need to articulate their reasons for their high view of scripture; they just believe in it, and "thus saith the Lord."

To draw on Josh's thread (hopefully he'll see this comment), I was having some trouble swallowing this statement, Josh:

"Since Scripture uniquely originates from God, it alone is His authoritative and sufficient word (2 Timothy 3:16-17)..."

I'm happy with the first clause, and totally on board with the descriptor "authoritative," for indeed, "there is no one like unto the Lord," especially when and where moral statutes are concerned. There are even many atheists who recognize this (see Arthur Allen Leff, "Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law," in Duke Law Journal, vol. 1979). But the question arises at the word "sufficient."

I have three issues with it. First, in this case "sufficient" is an ambiguous term, inasmuch as its referent is buried somewhere in one of the other four premises in your exposition. From the context of your entry, I'm assuming that you mean that scripture divulges a sufficient amount of knowledge and teaching on matters of right belief and right practice.

If this is what you mean, then my second misgiving is that in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 there is no indication of the sufficiency of scripture with regard to knowledge, teaching, wisdom or truth. There is the indication of inspiration and thus authority, but these do not necessarily entail veridical sufficiency. To affirm scripture's veridical sufficiency, one must rely on reason, not scripture (!):

1. Scripture is divinely inspired.
2. A divinely inspired thing is veridically sufficient.
3. Therefore, scripture is veridically sufficient.

Scripture supports (1), but not (2), and (2) is demonstrably false, as evidenced by the fact that God has revealed Himself in more than one way. Thus if a divinely inspired thing is veridically sufficient, scripture cannot be both the revelation of God and veridically sufficient: it must teach the truth in conjunction with the conviction of moral law within us, the evidence of order in the cosmos, and most importantly, with the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, all of which constitute other elements of propositional revelation.

My third misgiving is simply what I have already mentioned: there is evidence of God's revelation in other ways, which detracts from the veridical sufficiency of scripture. So the word "sufficient," when applied to scripture in this way, excludes other revelation we might need to draw on veridically in order to arrive at right belief. Ultimately, dropping this word from your point (4) would separate you from the "solo scripturists." Maintaining it needlessly places you dangerously close to their position. So if you need it for some other reason, what?

One might object to what I've written here on the grounds that if scripture lacks veridical sufficiency, then the canon is technically still open. And so it is. But the stringency of the requirements for what was included therein is so high, it is practically (but not logically) impossible for an author in this day and age to fulfill them. For instance, no one now could demonstrate his or her close ties to Jesus or one of his disciples. Ergo, even though God may still be revealing Himself beyond what's been said in scripture, that revelation (a) doesn't contradict scripture, (b) doesn't "update" or abrogate scripture, and (c) doesn't sit on authoritative par with scripture for all believers everywhere (although a spiritual experience, when understood from the context of scripture, may inform the life of one or a group of individuals--we're finding that this is probably how Parkview came to be located where it currently is).

Humorously enough, however, I've arrived at most of this via reason, so if you disagree, I'm not going to be able to lash back with "thus saith the Lord." (At least the solo scripturists can have more interesting arguments and discussions...)

Come, let us reason together some more, you two. And if Scott's not interested, Josh, then I'm all in favor of moving the party elsewhere so we don't clutter up his blog.

Grace and peace, brothers,


First Theology said...

Aaron- Since your comment is longer (no pun intended) and more specific I'll respond on my blog hopefully sufficiently (pun intended).


Scott Sterner said...

Jim, it is so good to hear from a fellow Bearcat. As you can see, my theologically-minded friends are having a bit of a hay-day with this one. Josh and Aaron, thanks for your insights and discussions. I will move my participation regarding the most recent thread to discussion that is beginning to develop on Josh’s blog First Theology.

To chime in just a bit more on your original question Jim, I have always rested my affirmation of “sola Scriptura” upon the Scripture’s claim for itself; namely that all the words in Scripture are God’s words. This is affirmed hundreds of times in the Old Testament with the introductory phrase “thus saith the Lord.” There are also numerous NT passages that affirm this like 2 Timothy 3:16 which says, “All Scripture is God-breathed…”

Regarding the view of scripture held by the early church, I will simply defer to Josh’s original comment which developed this with great clarity.

For the sake of discussion, the Roman Catholic tradition does practice Papal authority; therefore, they do appear to put the authority of tradition on par with the Scriptures themselves. The reality is that different expressions of Christian faith have at times elevated different norms within the Wesleyan quadrilateral to unhealthy proportions; for the Roman Catholic “tradition”, for the charismatic “experience”, for the philosopher “reason”, for the fundamentalist “Scripture “ (i.e. solo-Scriptura), etc…

Scott Sterner said...

Josh, I just noticed that you have not added a post on your blog regarding Aaron's new thread. I assume you'll develop the discussion a bit more early next week?

First Theology said...

Scott- Got the posted response up. It's kinda long (as is my custom). read just the "thrid misgiving" if you want the summary :)