Saturday, September 25, 2010


Craig Adams posted this excerpt from N. T. Wright addressing what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (a concept I touched on at an earlier point in my own journey). Wright disparages the idea of allowing personal experience to influence our theology, pointing out how often it ends up becoming a trump card in which one's personal feelings override all other considerations.

And certainly Wright's concern is valid, if we allow something as shallow as how a particular command or belief makes one feel to dictate whether or not we accept it as valid. I would argue, though, that experience plays an inextricable role in one's theology whether or not it is consciously acknowledged. How a person interprets the Bible is going to be colored by one's culture, language, teachers, peers and personal biases as two thousand years of church history - and countless theological disputes - ought to make abundantly clear.

"The heart is deceitful above all things," Wright quotes from Jeremiah 17:9 - but that applies just as much to the sola scriptura adherent as it does to those who employ the quadrilateral. Scripture may be a Christian's primary source of information about God, but our ability to interpret scripture to correctly divine God's will is considerably more fallible. One need look no further than the abuses (and even atrocities) that otherwise devout Christians have cited "Biblical" commands to justify to recognize the danger of declaring that scripture is the sole source of our doctrine.

Hence the quadrilateral (and the Anglican church's "three-legged stool" from which it was derived). Scripture constitutes a single leg of the stool not because it is of limited value, but because we humans need additional guideposts to keep us from straying too far off course when we make errors in our interpretations of what God is trying to tell us through its pages (as we inevitably will).

The ex-gay movement is a textbook example of how focusing entirely on scripture (with perhaps a nod to tradition) can lead to harm. Based on the prevailing evangelical/fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, it seemed logical to conclude that God ordained that everyone was really heterosexual, and that homosexuality was therefore just a sinful illusion that could (and should) be dispelled through prayer, counseling and/or conditioning.

By the time that Exodus was founded, however, reason already stood in opposition to that conclusion. The APA's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders is still dismissed by some Christians as a purely political move, even though it was the "Christian" side of the debate that refused (and all too often still refuses) to even acknowledge the existence of any evidence that didn't fit its preconceived dictates.

And since that time, the experiences of countless participants in ex-gay programs have demonstrated that "freedom from homosexuality" is little more than an exercise in semantics; extremely few have experienced a genuine shift in their attractions, while far more have found that wholeness lies in self-acceptance and living openly as gay and lesbian individuals. Even most of those who remain committed to the ex-gay path acknowledge that their "change" is primarily in behavior and perhaps in the intensity of their same-sex attractions. The idea that one can name and claim one's way to heterosexuality has led to far more harm than good, as disillusioned ex-gay participants have left the church in droves.

While it is possible to sincerely disagree over whether God will bless a same-sex union, the allegedly biblical notion that being gay is merely a sinful choice or a psychological aberration has led to a trail of damaged lives and done much to undermine the church's credibility. Through such episodes we see the value of the quadrilateral:

-Scripture necessarily plays a central role in the formation of any Christian doctrine; without the Bible, Christianity could never be more than a hollow institution or a vague cultural notion. But as history has demonstrated over and over again, interpreting the wisdom contained in the Bible's pages is a considerably more problematic venture.

-Tradition, the second side of our quadrilateral, helps us to understand how we got to where we are today. Just as parents can continue to offer valuable advice long after their children are fully grown, so past generations of believers can guide us around certain pitfalls and give us a leg up in our own explorations. But an overemphasis on tradition can lead to stagnation and irrelevance; just because people did things a certain way for centuries doesn't guarantee that those methods will continue to work in our current situation.

-Without reason, we might still live as peasants subject to the whims of all-powerful kings as we burn alleged witches at the stake and kill the cats that could have stopped the latest plague from spreading. Although most churches in the West now champion the ideals of democratic society and individual rights, they came to do so in the wake of the Enlightenment, not at its onset. Human reason is not infallible by any means, but to ignore what the philosophers and scientists have to say is to surrender to superstition and impoverishment (both material and spiritual).

-Experience is, admittedly, the most easily abused of the four. If we allow experience to be shallowly used as a trump card whenever a proposed doctrine makes us uncomfortable (as Wright accuses others of doing), then we might as well quit pretending that we have anything worth taking seriously. But to dismiss experience because some would abuse it is equally shallow, and equally dangerous.

Experience is the forum in which our theology becomes practical. If we never stop to evaluate the fruits of our beliefs, then we risk becoming oppressors of the worst sort. When a doctrine of ours demonstrably causes more harm than good, it is time to reevaluate what we thought to be true rather than blaming those we have harmed for their supposed failure. Without experience as a guidepost, our mandate to love others eventually devolves into an abstraction in which the needs of the people we claim to love are not truly the focus of our concern.

By listening to experience we have one final quality test to ensure that we have not veered too far off course. We allow our lives and the lives of those around us to inform our doctrines, not because we don't value the Bible, but because we value it too highly to allow it to become a symbol for oppression and injustice. We take the experiences of others into account not because truth is relative, but because truth is complex and so much larger than our finite ability to fully grasp it.

Stated in this way, I don't know for sure how far apart Wright and I really are on this issue. Since I haven't read much of his writing I hesitate to put words into his mouth. But I would hope that he recognizes the importance of stepping outside the sterile confines of the seminary before claiming to have divined God's will for those who live in the everyday world.


TheMan said...


Jendi said...

Incredibly well-put. We can't *not* bring experience to bear on our Biblical interpretation. Pretending otherwise lets us avoid the self-knowledge that leads to repentance.