Early on in my training for Christian ministry I was introduced to something called ‘the BRIE Diagram’. Based, I think, on Wesley’s quadrilateral (though this term was coined centuries after his death, Wikipedia tells me), the diagram is four quadrants each representing four potential sources of authority, the Bible, Reason, Institution, and Experience. The point of the diagram was to teach us that our final authority should be the Bible and not any of the three others. In so far as this is a statement of classic Protestant evangelicalism, it’s a good point well made. We can see around us those, within and without the church, who make one of the other three their operative authority, with disastrous results. The evangelical understanding of Scripture’s relationship with tradition, for instance, isdifferent to that of the post-Council of Trent Church of Rome and I, for one, firmly believe the Protestant position is correct. Of course, as the inspired, breathed-out words of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is our inerrant, infallible standard against which all other sources of knowledge should bow. Scripture is the norma normans, the rule which rules all other rules. (You can find a good discussion of this in Tim Ward’s book ‘Words of Life’ p140-151.)
However, recently, I’ve heard the relationship between the various ‘sources of authority’ used not to defend the evangelical position, but to advocate for one particular understanding of Biblical authority against other evangelical and protestant ways of understanding and engaging with Scripture and theology. The other day I listened to two talks given at a conference on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. (You can find both of them here to see if you think I’ve understood them correctly). There was much to agree with in both of them, indeed they were given by an old friend of mine. However, I noticed that the argument pursued set the Bible, not merely above, but against listening to the voices of previous generations of theologians. The impression was given that to spend time studying in order to appeal to Calvin’s, or Augustine’s, theology was to diminish Scripture and therefore denude Christ of his authority. The same line of argument was pursued vis-à-vis reason and experience as well.
An argument like that has obvious rhetorical and logical force for anyone who wishes to be a faithful disciple of Christ. Of course, if Jesus and His word have supreme authority, why would I not listen to them alone and not anything else? If my choice is to spend 100% of my time listening to Jesus or 50% of my time listening to him while I spend the other 50% listening to lesser authorities, who would choose the latter over the former? In the end, however, such a dilemma is a false choice and in offering it I fear we do not establish the authority of Scripture but actually undermine it. In short, the irony is such an approach has too low a view of Christ and his word. Let me try to explain.
The argument made was that since Christ has supreme, exclusive, authority, Christ’s words, given through the prophetic and apostolic writings, also have supreme authority. Therefore, the Bible, as those words, has supreme authority. Now, I agree with all that. So far, so good. The problem is when such things are set against the deposit of teaching in the history of the church, or against rational theological reflection on what the Scripture teaches. This is because for us to access the words of Jesus, the words which have supreme authority, some kind of institution and some kind of rational reflection is inescapable.
Let’s start with the question of institution and take as an example the very conference talk we’re discussing. At the conference the attendees did not hear the words of Jesus unmediated. They heard them through the speaker invited to speak by the conference organisers, an institution. Even if you read the Bible on your own, untranslated from the Greek and Hebrew, you are relying on a complex web of institutional apparatus to tell you what the original Greek and Hebrew text is. And where did you learn Greek and Hebrew? Being part of, and relying upon, institutions and tradition is inevitable and inescapable and is itself envisioned by Scripture. Paul himself initiates and endorses a tradition when he tells Timothy, ‘and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.’ (2 Tim 2:1).
What about reason? Well, language itself has no power unless it is rationally understood, as Jesus says in Matthew 13, it is the word that is heard and understood that bears fruit. Let’s again take our conference talk as an example. The whole argument, for an argument it was, was set up as a series of logical deductions. Since this, therefore that, etc. There were, therefore, at least two sets of rational operations going on, first that of the speaker as he sought to discern the voice of Jesus in the original text and then that of the listener as they sought to follow the speaker’s logic and assess whether it matched the source material. Again, rational reflection on the Biblical material is inescapable and not only that, again, it is also commanded by Scripture itself, ‘Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything’ (2 Tim 2:7).
Now, I can imagine the conference speaker responding to all this and saying that I’m being very unfair. His point was not that reason and institution (I think tradition is probably a better term) were bad in themselves but simply that they were not authorities. Of course, reason and institution have a part to play, but not as authorities rather as a mere means for us to hear the word of Christ in the Scriptures. And I’m sure that’s right in so far as it was what was intended. However, if institutions and reason are inescapable realities in engaging with Jesus’ words, then to give the impression that we can do without them, that we don’t need them, actually diminishes Scriptures authority. How so?
Those that listened to the conference talks, were engaging Jesus’s words through an institution and through their, or more importantly the speaker’s, reason. Now, if, as we agree, Scripture must stand over institution and reason as a supreme authority, the question must come: did that institution, the conference, and did that reasoning, the speaker’s, accurately reflect the voice of Jesus? If that question does not arise in our mind then that shows that the institution and the speaker’s reason have become our supreme authority, functionally, for we cannot imagine a scenario in which they could be in conflict. But if the question does arise, and it should, then we must ask how do we go about testing the faithfulness of the institution and the reasoning which we heard? Of course, one way is to read the Scriptures carefully for ourselves, and certainly we must do that. But how do we know that our reflection on Scripture is right? We are very restricted in our ability to do so if we have no other institutions and no other reasoning to compare this institution and this reasoning to.
This is why setting Scripture against, rather than above, institution and reason actually undermines its authority and clarity. Doing so does not deliver us out of the hands of institution and reason, for that is impossibility, but into the hands of our institutions and our reason; with no checks on their authority to mediate Scripture to us. Without noticing it, we simply assume that whatever our institution and our reason tell us the Scriptures are saying must be true: no matter how eccentric or at variance they are with the thought of other Christians, even other orthodox, Protestant, evangelical, Christians. If we are to have a high view of Scripture’s authority then the first step is to have a concomitantly low view, not of ‘institution’ ‘tradition’ and ‘reason’ as abstract concepts, but of our institution, our traditions and our reason. Only then do we have a sufficiently low view of ourselves to allow space for a high view of Scripture.
This is why checking what my church says against what churches have taught down the centuries or checking what my reasoning from the Scripture says against how others have reasoned from the Scripture does not detract from the authority of the Scriptures but actually allows it to operate fully. It does so because it allows us to hear the voice of Christ in the Scripture with the least amount of distortion caused by the folly and sin bound up in our hearts, and therefore in our institutions. This is most definitely not to say that the Bible is unclear and needs clarifying by a supplementary tradition. No, it is us who are unclear, prone to twist the Scriptures to our destruction, prone to harden our hearts as we hear the Lord’s voice, as indeed the Scriptures teach. Therefore, God has been enormously generous to us in giving us other voices, just as prone to blindness but prone in different and varying ways, to which to listen as we learn the Scriptures together. By listening to them, we do not turn away from the voice of Christ but allow them to amplify his life-giving words in our hearts.
It is true, as I began, that we should have a healthy scepticism about human reason and human institutions. Yet, the place that that scepticism should begin is with our reason and our institutions. They, more than the ones to which we do not belong, are the ones likely to lead us astray into error. The best way for us to be sure that what we hear is the authentic voice of Christ is to check that what we have heard from him is what those who faithfully sat at his feet through the centuries, led there by His Spirit, have also heard. To do anything else is to give a perilously high level of authority to our institutions and their leaders and our reason and its conclusions and to risk them distorting, or even deafening, the voice of Christ contained in the Scriptures. Instead, we should listen to the wonderful deposit of sincere, if sometimes conflicting, voices who, through the Spirit, can help train our ear to better hear the life-giving words of our Saviour.