Wonderful Words of Life: Faith (4th in a Series)

Faith has one or more “warrants of authority,” that provide us with a solid foundation, from which we can make what many have called, “the leap of faith,” and others, “the risk of faith.”

A 19th Century Moravian Synod declared, :The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are and shall remain the only source and rule of our Doctrine, Faith, and Practice.”  This is very close to the Reformed principal of Sola Scriptura, the Scripture Alone.

By contrast John Wesley proposed a Quadrilateral of Faith, or four warrants of authority 1. Scripture (always primary) , 2. Tradition (meaning the Church and its tradition), 3. Reason, and 4. Experience.

Who is right, Wesley or the Moravians?  Well, it turns out that both are right, for the Bible itself recognizes all four sides of Wesley’s Quadrilateral.  In today’s lessons,  Psalm 19, recognizes  Scripture when it declares, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”  And it recognizes Reason, when it declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament declares God’s handiwork, day to day pours forth speech; night to night declares wisdom.”  Read carefully, Philippians 3 affirms both the Tradition that profoundly affected St. Paul’s life and teaching, and his Experience of Jesus Christ which completely altered his understanding of that tradition.

That’s four for four: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  Let’s examine these four warrants of authority.

Scripture is always primary.  It is the base of Wesley’s Quadrilateral.

What shall we say about the Bible?  In his book, “The Word Made Flesh,” E. Stanley Jones features a picture of Jesus Christ by an artist from India that is made up of all the words of the New Testament, some letters and words shaded darker and some shaded lighter.  He writes, “Out of the words of scripture, emerges the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ.”  We revere the Bible, but we do not worship it.  It is not the end of faith—it is a beginning, by which we draw near to the Living and Abiding Word of God, Jesus Christ.”

This does not mean that the Bible is without problems.  Count Zinzendorf called the Bible “a ragged old book shot through and through with holes.”  “But” he added, “in it God speaks to (humankind) as nowhere else.”  If you think this sounds modern , you must remember that Zinzendorf lived and died in the 18th century!

For a modern  opinion we must look to Karl Barth.  Many regard Barth the leading Protestant theologian of the 20th century, many more regard him as one of the great intellectuals of the era.  He was certainly a prolific writer. The weighty volumes of his Dogmatics fill a shelf and a half in my library.  Some will say, “Barth was too complex.”  At times, he was, but he also attained “that simplicity which lies on the far side of complexity.” When a reporter came to him and asked Barth the most wonderful thing he had ever learned, Barth responded:

Jesus loves me,
this I know,
For the Bible,
tells me so!

Well-meaning Christians sometimes act foolishly.  We stretch a long line from Genesis to Revelation, and the history of the Christian Church, then bob up and down behind that line defending this and that. We get upset when someone doesn’t believe the whale swallowed Jonah, and we forget that it was Jesus not Jonah who “was put to death for our sins and rose again for our justification.”  Let me tell you something:  The Bible is filled with thousands of points of question.  We can ponder and argue those points of question until the cows come home; but when we decide what we believe about one of those points of question, we don’t really decide anything at all, for God decided those things long ago. Jesus Christ is not a point of question to be argued—but the point of decision who calls us to himself.  When we decide to accept and follow him, we make a real decision, a decision that affects us for all our times to come.

I trust the Bible.  I believe it is the humanly produced, but divinely inspired record of God’s revelation of God’s Self in human history.   It is not a scientific textbook, nor is it just a record of historical events, it is a testimony of faith from one generation of believers to another.  The biblical message is so dynamic it authenticates itself.   And the heart of the message declares:

Jesus loves me,
this I know,
for the Bible
tells me so!

The second side of Wesley’s Quadrilateral is tradition, meaning the tradition of the Church. Some well-meaning Christians say, “It is not the church that matters, but the Bible.”  They forget that the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament did not create Israel, but Israel created the Hebrew Bible.  And the New Testament did not create the church, the church created the New Testament. The church is essential to discerning, confessing, and declaring God’s will for each generation.

In John 16:13, Jesus accented the importance of the church when he spoke to his disciples saying, “When the Spirit of Truth (the Holy Spirit)  comes he would lead you into all truth.”  And in Matthew 16:18 when Peter confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus responded,  “You are Petros (which is Greek for Rock) and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter is not the rock—it is Peter the confessor of Jesus who is the rock, and it is the confession he made “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” upon which the  Church is built.  And, in verse 19, Jesus is speaking not just to Peter—but to the church through the ages when he adds, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The church has great authority!

Does this mean that the church is infallible?  Absolutely not. Consider the accusation of Charles Algernon Swinburne. He was somewhat sympathetic to Jesus the teacher and man, but he called the Church, “the leprous bride of Christ!”  Does the Church deserve such criticism?  Yes, for at least part of the Church has been on the wrong  side of every issue from slavery and the role of women, and from apartheid and the Jim Crow laws to birth control. Over the centuries at least part of the Church—often the biggest part, has committed countless atrocities in the name of Christ.

On the positive side, this means that at least part of the Church—sometimes a very small part, has been on the right side of every significant issue!

Take the case of John Hus.  Hus was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance because he dared to challenge the authority of the Pope, spoke out against the practice of selling indulgences, and preached the gospel in the language of the people.  The Church burned Hus at the stake, but when it did Hus was still a part of the Church, and not only the Moravian Church, but the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Counter Reformation grew out of his ashes..

Or take the case of Martin Luther King, Jr.  King preached the New Testament gospel of equality for all people—-black and white, male, and female, etc., etc.   And, just as importantly, Dr. King preached his gospel of equality and hope using the method of passive resistance practiced by Jesus himself.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero.  He saved this country from a bloody racial war.  Yet some of the people of the church where I grew-up were convinced that King was a fake and a charlatan.  One of my Sunday school teachers, a white-haired old gentlemen that most believed to be a saint, was an out and out racists.  I am no longer comfortable even repeating some of the things he taught us on a Sunday. Thankfully, at least some of the boys in that class were not fooled despite this man’s best effort and a church that would not discipline him.  Today, I confess that I am grieved by my love for that man even as I despise the memory of his teachings about Dr. King and race.

The third side of Wesley’s quadrilateral is reason. When I was at Princeton chasing a degree in New Testament I used to run by the modest little house where Einstein lived.  It was next door to a house occupied by Princeton Seminary’s professor of New Testament, a man by the name of Otto Piper. Dr. Bob Lyon, my professor of New Testament at Asbury, studied under Piper, and he passed on to his students a story about both men.  It seems that Einstein was standing on the front porch of his house with a reporter, completing an interview, when Dr. Piper walked by and threw up his hand in greeting.  Einstein returned his greeting.  Then, after Piper passed, Dr. Einstein pointed to Piper,  tapped his own head, and said, “A finer mind than my own.”  That story may be nothing more than a bit of wishful thinking; but it does make a point.  Some fine minds belong to faith, and others to science, and some to both.

I am awed by the intellectual power of Christian theologians like Otto Piper, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, and Christian scientists like Galileo, Florence Nightingale, George Washington Carver, and Francis Collins, who helped to map the human genome, just to name a few.

Of course, I am also awed by the intellectual power of Scientists like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Neil De Grasse Tyson. Many scientists say that, given our present understanding of the universe, God is no longer necessary.  Carl Sagan was speaking for many scientist when he said, “The cosmos is all there is, there isn’t anything else.”  Many people—and not just scientists,  believe only what they can get at through their five senses, sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.  They should listen to the late, great psychologists Carl Jung.  In his autobiography, “Memories, Dreams and Reflections,” Dr. Jung wrote:

“Rationalism and doctrinairism are the diseases of our time; they pretend to have all the answers.  But a great deal will be discovered which our present limited view would have ruled out as impossible.”  Carl Jung

Like Dr. Jung, believers live in a larger world. Like the author of Colossians, we believe that God is the creator of all things seen and unseen, visible and invisible, known and unknown.  This means that we are not surprised by evolution, the Big Bang, the discovery of the Quantum Mechanics, quarks, dark matter, dark holes, multiple dimensions, or a multiverse. Our view of God is so big—that we don’t need to revise it to accommodate the very latest scientific discoveries.

Many people who reject the idea of God are like Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchings.  They set-up a strawman, based on Christian Fundamentalism, and they knock the stuffing out of their strawman with no effort at all. They have a much more difficult time dismissing people who believe in God and science. For me, the harmony between God and science is best expressed in the Educational Liturgy in our old red hymnal.  It was published in 1969, the same year that a human being first walked upon the moon.  It declares:

May we all science and all truth With Eager Minds, Explore.
Lead us alike, in age and youth, Thy (God’s) wisdom to adore.

I believe Karl Barth got it right when he said that theology was the Queen of the Sciences, for a true theology embraces them all science and all truth.

The fourth side of Wesley’s quadrilateral is experience, both personal, and the experience of the community.  I am not going to rush through that, for, as Zinzendorf noted, God uses as many ways of reaching people as there are people.  We will talk about that next week.  In the meantime, think of your experience of God, and, by all means, talk to me about it!


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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