Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral Step by Step (by T) 4

posted by Scot McKnight


We’re discussing how we build our knowledge of God, our theology, and using Wesley’s Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) as an outline for our discussion.  Again, this whole topic was spurred by the argument made by Al Mohler and others that theism, the idea that God is active in the world, is at stake in the age of earth debates; this is an argument I strongly question, especially as I form my belief in theism from Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. Again, I’m somewhat undecided on many issues concerning origins, but I am not undecided on theism, and my experience of God is a big part of that.

Here is the introduction to the role of “Experience” from the website of the United Methodist Church, which I’d like to follow with a personal story.

            “A third source and criterion of our theology is our experience. By experience we mean especially the “new life in Christ,” which is ours as a gift of God’s grace; such rebirth and personal assurance gives us new eyes to see the living truth in Scripture. But we mean also the broader experience of all the life we live, its joys, its hurts, its yearnings. So we interpret the Bible in light of our cumulative experiences. We interpret our life’s experience in light of the biblical message. We do so not only for our experience individually but also for the experience of the whole human family.”

mentioned the initial “spur” for these discussions because nowhere
should our experience be more relevant than in forming our belief that God is
active today in the world.  The
bible can and does promise God’s present activity; it even gives a multitude of
examples we could look for today; and Tradition is full of the same kinds of
things, but it is through Experience that I personally become a witness of
Christ and of God, and not merely a person who hears the testimony of
others.  I’m not saying that my own
belief in theism isn’t also supported by Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  What I am saying is that I am not
personally a theist because of those alone.  The first reasons I would give to others for my belief in
God’s present activity are the things I’ve personally seen God do, not my
understanding of origins or a host of other biblical narratives. 

was very important in my corner of Christianity growing up.  One might think (and even hear) from
the churches I grew up in that “witnessing” was the reason Christians weren’t already in heaven.  In the same vein, it was critical that
one knew his or her testimony.  One of the ironies I discovered over
the years was that we were actually using the term “witnessing”
incorrectly and being unjustifiably narrow in our concept of our
“testimony.”  You see,
what we meant by “witnessing” was telling non-Christians about the
gospel, which is no doubt good. 
But that’s not actually “witnessing.”  “Witnessing” is prior to
that.  Witnessing, whether in legal
or biblical usage, is personally
something or someone. 
In this case, it was assumed that we had actually seen God do something. And what we meant by
“testimony” was almost always limited to our conversion.  The implication was that our conversion
was the only thing any of us ever really saw God do, or at least the only thing
that mattered.

was conversion the only thing the original “witnesses” of Christ saw
him do?  Was their own conversion
their only “testimony” about him?  Is it the only observable thing that the Spirit of God and
Christ does today?

churches of my youth would often say that the lack of “witnessing”
was the biggest failure of the Church today.  I actually agree with them, but I feel like Inigo Montoya in
my agreement
.  In the Church in
the West, we need to seriously consider the following question: Is God still making witnesses of Christ today as a/the central missional strategy?  If we answer in the affirmative, then
we’ve just started to realize the critical role that experience must play not
only in our own theology but in the knowledge of God we attempt to give to
others as his witnesses.  From there the question needs to become
more personal: What have I witnessed the
living God do?  What is my testimony?  What is the significance of what I’ve observed?  How does it rightfully shape what I do
and what I think about God?
And it needs to become communal, too:  How can we as
churches facilitate our people becoming Christ’s witnesses?  How can we train people to observe God
work, whether through them or others or otherwise and the skills to remember
and relay what they’ve seen in harmony with Scripture, Tradition and Reason?  How can we better embrace and
facilitate our vocation to be the witnesses of Christ?

says that believers overcame Satan by the power of their testimony and the
blood of the Lamb.  Personally, I
am totally convinced that this testimony contains far more than just our
observations of Christ in conversion. Rather, it is everything we’ve seen God do from conversion forward and sometimes
even pre-conversion.  The fact that
such experience is placed next to the blood of the Lamb as one of two things
through which believers overcome Satan should give us all serious pause about
dismissing the importance of experience with God.  Our victory over the powers of darkness seems to be at stake
at least in part because of our experience.  Do you see God’s
intention as being both/and regarding embracing his past acts and his present
acts with us (the testimony of scripture, of tradition and our own current
experience)?  Or do you or your
camp see it, more or less, as either/or for one of the Quads?




Comments read comments(14)
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posted August 6, 2010 at 9:43 am

One thing I don’t understand: conservative Christians have been very reluctant to buy into “experience” as a means to interpret scripture, yet evangelical circles emphasize personal experience in other areas – “personal relationship” with God, prayer, witnessing. It seems contradictory to me, but perhaps I just don’t understand the approach. Perhaps it is overreaction to folks like Schleiermacher (sp?)

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posted August 6, 2010 at 10:59 am

This is a good topic because it gets to the heart of what I consider to be the problem with Protestant theology (I am not a theology in any sense so forgive me if I overstate this). The problem with Protestantism in general is that it has internalized the belief in Jesus to such an extent that the people no longer have any need to actually change their lives. To me, a conversion experience is nice, but it has little to nothing to do with being a Christian. A Christian is not defined by what he believes, but by what he does. That is what it says in the new testament.
Then witnessing is not telling people about some interior conversation that allegedly happened, but instead it is the manifest changes that people should see in ones actions. The witness to a belief in Jesus is someone who behaves differently, not believes differently (though that may too me true.

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Kenny Johnson

posted August 6, 2010 at 11:46 am

Or the change that was emphasized in Evangelical churches was generally personal/individualized. So a testimony focused on a conversion story where a person: stopped doing drugs, stopped partying, stopped sleeping around, etc. And little change was expected in relational attitudes: more loving and accepting, merciful, gentle, seeking justice, etc or actions towards others (being with the outcasts, serving others, etc.)

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posted August 6, 2010 at 11:52 am

There is a danger in putting our focus on the concrete when we think of experience. There is so much more scripture about God transforming us to be new people than there is about God transforming our circumstances. Paul still sat in a prison cell even though he knew Christ. Early Christians were still persecuted. Jesus died.
When we give up the idols of affluence, achievement, appearance, power, competition, consumption, individualism etc. and bow down offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God, dedicated to serving Him, our lives will be witnesses for Him.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 12:13 pm

You’re right, there are very mixed teachings on the value of experience with God in conservative Christianity. We often stress, expressly and/or impliedly, that one’s conversion must be a personal decision, often with the experience of the Spirit drawing us, sometimes even coordinating circumstances around us to bring us to that decision.
But at the same time, there is discomfort with the Spirit doing similar things outside of initial conversion.
And in my experience, churches on the left are often equally uncomfortable with the idea that we would experience God outside of very limited categories.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I don’t know that we want to be hostile to “the concrete” either based on the New Testament. The gospels and the book of Acts are dominated with stories of both. If there is a danger to external versus “internal” activities of God, then the gospels are dangerous books, and even Paul did ministry in a dangerous way.
I’m with you, though, that we have to become people who will have the fruit of God’s Spirit, even when the power of that Spirit isn’t at our whim.
I see a danger on each side of what you mention: believing that God never acts to change circumstances strikes me as counter to the faith Jesus praises in the NT, just as faith that cannot endure and even have joy amidst hardship is counter to a robust faith.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 1:36 pm

To be fair, I see the comments regarding the emphasis on personal conversion stories without evidence of change, but I hesitate to place that at the foot of evangelicalism, and think it is more properly attributed to the Americanization of the church/faith. Obvious statement but hyper-individuality is a hallmark of the West and the US in particular. As well, a balance of both an interior conversion experience and external displays of the fruit if you will. I am afraid there is just as much danger in placing an emphasis of external acts (Matthew 7) as with the over-emphasis on internal conversion.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I agree, that there is danger in both, but I also believe that the answer is a both type answer and not an either or. The eternal sin is being oblivious to what is needed and not believing in Jesus, the eternal sin is to sin against the Holy Spirit. If you know in your heart what you should do and do not do it, then that is a sin. So that perspective is much more oriented around believing in your heart then having your actions follow your heart. Integrity.
I believe the integrity is the defining characteristic in Christian witnessing to others. And, that is exactly what seems to be lacking in Churchianity more and more. The actual experience of the Spirit is something to be dealt with, not appeased on Sundays.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I meant:
The eternal sin is NOT being oblivious to what is needed and not believing in Jesus, the eternal sin is to sin against the Holy Spirit

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posted August 6, 2010 at 6:15 pm

“A Christian is not defined by what he believes, but by what he does. That is what it says in the new testament.”
Are you serious? Wow. Must be a new translation…

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posted August 6, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Jeff, are you serious? With the you will be judged based on what you do in your life? Isn’t that what it says?
I don’t want to get into the whole faith vs works argument, but what exactly does faith mean? That you believe in your heart that you believe Jesus is god but not that you have to actually follow what he teaches? It is an interesting conversation, and it seems to me that faith leads to works. Sure there is the corner of the board play where the criminal says he believes at the last moment of his life, but that is not what we are talking about in general.

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posted August 6, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Jeff, I want to qualify my “are you serious” comment in the last post. What I mean is that it is not really debatable that it says you need faith, and that you need to do good, but what I am saying is that the message is that both is needed. That is the message.

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posted August 7, 2010 at 3:01 am

I grew up Methodist and have always appreciated Wesley’s inclusion of experience as a necessary part of the foundation of faith. But my childhood church focused on the conversion experience to the exclusion of others. It’s easier to define and talk about conversion experiences, I think, than the less dramatic but equally important ones that come from a life lived in discipleship to Jesus.
My conversion experience was memorable and life-changing. But if that had been my final experience of the living God, I would have stopped believing long ago. Instead, my long walk with Jesus has created a wealth of accumulated experiences that build on that initial conversion, and continue to convince me that God is at work in the world and in my life.
I see the healthy Christian being strengthened by the acts of God reported by the early church (tradition), as well as those that he experiences in this present age. My experience with God becomes part of a continuum of God’s working in the world and in the church throughout history, including my tiny participation in it.

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posted August 7, 2010 at 8:38 am

Charlie, yes.

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