Thursday, February 26, 2015

Is the Bible the Only Source of Theological Authority?

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. This portion is part of the chapter on Reclaiming the Bible. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at A Kindle version is also available at

The book is written for group discussion.

Can scripture stand on its own as a basis of authority?  On the one hand, we would have to answer this in the affirmative.  The stories of scripture, both from ancient Israel and early Christianity have stood the test of time and, although they have been translated and transmitted down through history, they have stood on their own authority and have influenced the faith of millions across time and space.

On the other hand, given the fact that these texts have been translated, as well as interpreted since their beginning, we would have to at least qualify our affirmative answer to the question of whether scripture alone is the authoritative basis of Christian faith and practice.  That is to say, a text, though standing on its own, can only have meaning through the exchange between text and reader.  Meaning may be found in a text, but meaning does not come to life until the text is read and interpreted.
One of the foundational theological shifts that occurred during the Protestant Reformation was an emphasis on the sole authority of scripture as that which is sufficient for faith.  Indeed, while Martin Luther is known for challenging the Roman Church most notably on the issues of indulgences and salvation by faith alone, his arguments were based on his belief that theological doctrines must be based on scripture alone, or sola scriptura, and not on any church authority, whether bishop or council.  This belief continues to serve as one of the hallmarks of Protestant Christianity, particularly in free church traditions.
Yet, even so, it is difficult to say that sola scriptura has ever been fully practiced even in Protestantism.  Indeed, Protestant confessions that have developed since the time of Luther and his fellow reformers are in and of themselves interpretations of scripture.  Moreover, the commentaries that began to appear from the Protestant leaders, most notably Luther and Calvin, lay out a Protestant faith that is an interpretation of scripture.  Thus, even these great heroes of the Protestant faith do not allow scripture to stand on its own, but offer their own interpretations of scripture.
Yet, in the 18th century, a new leader in the Protestant tradition, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, re-framed the understanding of the authority of scripture in what has become known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.[1]   Many historians, however, believe that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was most likely developed by Albert Outler, a twentieth century Methodist theologian, who derived this way of viewing scripture from John Wesley’s writings.  From whatever source this methodology developed, we can use it as a way of recognizing the authority of scripture, but not as the sole authority.
In the quadrilateral, scripture holds primacy of place for normative Christian understanding and practice, but there exists an interdependent relationship between scripture, church tradition, personal experience, and logical reason.  Scripture serves as the foundational authority for the church through its time and space existence in the world, but scripture must be interpreted in light of church tradition, personal experience, and logical reasoning.  In this sense, scripture is what the human biblical author believes to be the revelation of God to his specific historical situation, the time of the text, but that revelation lives on the existence of the text and the interpretation of the text in future generations who must rely on tradition, experience, and reasoning to formulate meaning for the church in its current context.
This means that although the text of scripture still serves as a basis of authority for the church’s faith and practice, indeed it must remain as such, each generation and locality of the church must find its own interpretations that are in conversation with the text of scripture and church tradition, but that are open to the influence of personal experience and logical reasoning.  In this way, the Bible still remains valid as a source of Christian faith and practice, but the literal understanding and interpretation of the Bible now has a more rational filter through which the text can be sifted so that it remains relevant.
Thus, sola scriptura, or scripture as the sole authority of faith and practice, is a misnomer, and does not reflect the reality of how the text of scripture has been used and continues to be used in the church.  Indeed, it is erroneous to suggest that sola scriptura has ever really been practiced.  While the reading of scripture in worship and community is important, someone must interpret the text in order to formulate legitimate interpretations that represent the fullness of the gospel of grace and peace in each and every context.

            For more on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral see Michael Kinnamon and Jan G. Linn,  Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice, Chalice Press, 2009; and Don Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology, Emeth Press, 2005.

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