Series 1 Episode 3
How to Discern Doctrine - Scripture
So far we’ve talked about why doctrine matters and what doctrine is. Today we’re going to focus on: how do we discern doctrine.
As a Wesleyan, it’s natural for us to start with what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience – usually in that order). The United Methodist’s book of discipline says that
“Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.”
Now, Wesley didn’t call this the quadrilateral and he didn’t ever purposefully formulate it that way but a theologian, Albert Outler, who looked into how Wesley discerned doctrine referred to his method as The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
In this episode we’re going to look at scripture
As Christians we hold scripture to be the primary source of truth and authority in our lives. Of course, this is a matter of faith as well as some exercise of reason. When we read scripture we see that scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17), Trusted by Jesus (Mark 12:24), Trusted by the Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and we also see that The Apostle’s recognized each other’s writings as scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).
I want to take a moment to explain the difference between Inspiration vs Dictation that will help us understand more about what we mean when we talk about the scriptures being inspired.
Christians believe that The Bible was inspired but not dictated. This has some natural benefits:
The scriptures can be translated into other languages and still retain their authority. In other words, because the scriptures were inspired by God but written by man – we can assume or infer that man’s genuine involvement won’t diminish the meaning. We can also assume that the Holy Spirit is still playing an active role in the translating and passing on of scripture.
We also see that there’s a Great dignity bestowed upon Mankind who was permitted to write scripture. God entrusted scripture to people who were human – just like us.
Muslims believe the Quran was dictated. As a result, the only “authoritative” version is Arabic. Because that’s what it was originally written in and how it was meant to be heard and understood. And this was a one time moment or occurrence in human history so any translations would involve the work of an imperfect man without God’s help and so every translation deviates from the true meaning of how god originally intended for it to be heard and understood.
You have to understand too that the inspiration of scripture means that God allowed the writer’s personalities, culture, language, historical life events and many other things to be a part of scripture. And in all of those things, again, God is honoring and giving dignity to the life of humanity.
This also means that things like of Bible Codes, Secret Messages, and extreme forms of Gematria, aren’t Christian. Christians believe that God’s truth is readily available to everyone. It’s the Gnostic philosophies of pagan mystery religions that believe that secret information is available to a limited few special group of chosen people.
For Christians we also believe that the Reader is inspired, not just the writers – that when you and I, indwelled with the Holy Spirit, come to scripture with open ears and open eyes – we’re asking the Spirit to speak to us through His Word.
Here’s a reason that this is significant: Spiritual interpretations for personal and corporate devotion are appropriate.
We have this tendency to think that in order to receive from the Bible, we need to know what the original author originally intended for his original audience. Well, historically, that hasn’t always been true. That’s one way to study the Bible. And it’s an incredibly valuable and important study. BUT we can also ask God to use scripture to speak truth to us beyond what the author intended to his audience.
What we mean by inerrancy and infallibility:
Inerrancy and infallibility are usually used synonymously but they might carry with them different connotations.
Inerrancy usually means: 100% free from error. Meaning that nothing willy truly contradict. And all the trivia – the dates, the numbers, the ages, the history, it’s all 100% accurate and true.
Infallibility usually means: 100% truthful. Meaning that the ideas and truths and principles being communicated are totally dependable and true.
And some will talk about original manuscripts being 100% infallible or inerrant and that there might be differences in translations and copies but none so great that they change anything significant. So original manuscripts also becomes a part of the conversation.
Literary Genres and figurative language.
These have to be acknowledged. You’ve probably seen this happen before where someone takes a bit of scripture like Revelation 7:1
“Then I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds so they did not blow on the earth or the sea, or even on any tree.”
Now, is the author claiming that the earth has four corners and is some sort of flat rectangle? No, the author is employing figurative language to say that this is a worldwide event. And then take note that we’re using a quote from Revelation. It’s apocalyptic literature which means the genre itself is chock-full of symbolism and many commentators would argue that even the “Wind” being spoken of here is talking about something else.
Now look, I can ask google for the time of tomorrow’s sunrise. And google will answer me. Am I or is google claiming that the sun actually rises? Of course not. It’s at the center of our solar system. It’s the earth that’s moving that causes us to experience what we call a “sun rise” but even that is figurative language. But we don’t say that meteorologists are wrong to talk about the sun rise.
I love the view that the Bible is as accurate as it means to be. That’s where I tend to land. The Bible is as accurate and truthful as it wants to be. There are times, like Genesis, where the author has intended to tell a story in order to illustrate something about God and something about creation but it’s not meant to be a Biology or History textbook. Maybe you’ll disagree with that statement, it’s fine if you do. We wouldn’t consider someone’s view of scripture to necessarily be a dogma issue.
I want to take a moment a share with you a spectrum of views when it comes to the inspiration of scripture. This will give you a broader and perhaps more accurate view of what we talk about when we say that scripture is inspired.
So as you can see there are a variety of views when it comes to scripture, I’ve already pointed out what I believe to be the safe, orthodox, or correct teaching when it comes to how we view the inspiration of scripture. Of course CS lewis was a strong Christian and so it’s quite possible to be further out along the spectrum and still be a Christian.
But you might still be asking yourself – well, where did scripture come from? Why these books and why not others? You might also be asking – how can I trust scripture after it’s been passed down and translated for so long.
Let’s briefly cover those topics.
I have met several people during my time here in Minneapolis who have thought that the New Testament was simply an edited version of the Old Testament. Not having read either, they genuinely asked the question, “Why would the Old Testament need to be rewritten in the first place?” I mean there’s a growing trend of people who have never investigated the scriptures, they don’t know where to start, and they’re confused about where these books came from. Fair enough. I remember growing up and in high school having a conversation with my friend Kyle who was a staunch atheist and in one of our conversations I realized that he thought the King James Version of the Bible was the only form of the Bible that existed. He had been to one church and had been exposed to one translation and just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to read this huge shakespearen esque book.
First of all there are 66 different books. The word Bible itself basically means a collection of books. Just like Biblioteca means library in Spanish. Bible means a collection of books – in this case, holy. There are also over 40 different authors and this thing was put together over the course of 1600 years. This wasn’t written by one person or a group of people looking to exert their authority over people. As a matter of fact, writers of scripture often received a very low place in society and some were killed for their writings. The idea that religion, in this case, Christianity, was invented in order to gain power and control the masses, just isn’t true.
So how did we get to today’s Bible? Well Christians believe that it was a process that was guided by God. Basically the Christian Church came to a consensus on which books were scripture and which weren’t.
You see - Jesus, told his disciples that when “He, the Holy Spirit comes, He will guide you in all truth.” That “you” is a plural “you” which is equivalent to the southern “ya’ll.” In other words, “The Holy Spirit will guide the church in truth.”
An early pattern started to develop all the way back in Acts in which we see the council of Jerusalem meeting together to discern truth and make incredibly important decisions. This pattern of church leaders coming together for councils on making important decisions continued throughout the early church after the book of Acts and one of the things that these councils decided on was, “what scriptures are considered authoritative and which ones aren’t?” Now, as we mentioned before… Peter was clearly aware that some of the Apostle’s writings at the time could be considered scripture. In other words, when councils formally decided what was “Scripture” they weren’t coming up with a new idea – that some writings were sacred and some weren’t and they weren’t starting from scratch – they had some idea about what writings were already considered authoritative and holy and which ones weren’t. In essence, a lot of what councils were doing was making the record official.
Now, there’s no formal list of criteria that New Testament scholars can point to and say “these were the principles the church used to determine if something was canon or not.” If you google “Canon criteria” you’ll find a number of websites and articles that act as if there is some formal list of criteria. The truth is, new testament scholars infer these criteria from writings that are available. A well written article comes from new testament scholar F.F. Bruce in his book The Canon of Scripture. He says there are basically 7 criteria that the early church used for deciding whether or not certain books were legitimate scripture.
1. apostolic authority – was it written by a church leader?
2. antiquity – is it old? Did it come from the 1st Century
3. orthodoxy – Does it support what we already know to be true about God?
4. Catholicity – Does the whole church agree, not just Christians from certain regions
5. Traditional use – Has anyone ever heard of this work before? Was it something our elders knew about?
6. Inspiration – While some stressed apostolic concerns others stressed inspiration. Origen once said “the crucial point … is not apostolicity but inspiration.” There were different ways of coming to conclusions about whether or not something was inspired by the Holy Spirit and church leaders would discuss their evidence for their belief of certain texts being inspired. Some texts, like Revelation directly claim to be from Spiritual revelation. Other texts were willing to make spiritual interpretations of Old Testament texts which showed that the writer was under the influence of the Spirit in order to make some of those claims.
7. Lastly, FF Bruce mentions other issues – When it came to coming to an agreement on what was to be considered scripture, and what wasn’t – the choice wasn’t always between good works and bad works or true works and false works or orthodoxy and heresy or authentic vs forgeries. It wasn’t always black and white. We have very very early church letters that aren’t included in the New Testament. They’re authentic letters from church leaders that were passed around and read in churches even for prolonged periods of time – being read over and over again at the same church but they weren’t considered as authoritative as scripture. They were respected and cherished but they weren’t seen as holy writings. You have seemingly perfectly good books to learn from – why aren’t they making the cut? The early church councils had to wrestle with all of these things. Just because a text is helpful and edifying doesn’t mean it’s to be treated as authoritative as other scripture.
So how do we discern doctrine? We use inspired scripture. We consult our Bible. Now that we’ve given a quick overview of understanding the different views of scripture as well as seeing how scripture got to the point that it’s at today… I want us to finish by asking ourselves the next “how”. How do we use inspired scripture in order to discern doctrine?
I think a quick answer to that question is that we need to allow scripture to speak in context.
In other words… what does this passage mean according to it’s surrounding context. In other words, what does one verse mean not when it stands alone but when you read the whole chapter and what does that verse mean when you read the whole book. And what does that verse mean when you read it in context of the whole library of books – all the scriptures? If scripture doesn’t contradict itself, then we need to find how to scriptures which on the surface appear to contradict each other correlate with each other. Then we also need to understand the context that the scripture was written in – in other words… what did the world look like when these words were written? Who was the audience? How did the audience receive these words?
Check out this verse: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
When we read this verse out of context is appears to be saying: God gives good things to good people and bad people and God gives bad things to good people and bad people. Right? We all enjoy the sun rise but no one wants to get rained on. We even have a phrase: Don’t rain on my parade.
BUT in Jesus’ time the sun rise was good: it allowed people to work and live (there was no electricity) AND the rain was good: it provided drinking water and made crops grow.
So now when we read the verse in the context of Jesus’ day it means: God shows love to good people and bad people everyday in many ways.
Now here’s the issue with this: You’re fallible. You get stuff wrong. You don’t know everything. You’re biased. On and on and on. One early church writer said that Due to the depth of scripture, there are just as many interpretations as there are interpreters. In other words: everyone is coming to different conclusions.
That’s where our next episode comes into play. Trust me, it’s worth it. See you later.