The following is a paper I wrote last semester, for my Introduction to Theology class.
Scripture, Experience, Tradition and Reason: the four parts of the classic “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” now commonly accepted as the authoritative sources of the Christian faith. Debate about how these sources should be ordered or placed in a hierarchy is common ground for theology. This paper asserts that Tradition is the primary source through which is the Christian faith is apprehended. Experience, Scripture and Reason are each brought to bear on our faith, but only through the prism of Tradition. This isn’t simply an assertion that Tradition should come first in the hierarchy of sources; rather, Tradition should be understood as a dependent variable in the functioning of the other three primary sources.
The concept of tradition is made up of multiple understandings. Merriam-Webster defines it first and foremost as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom.)” Tyron Inbody, in The Faith of the Christian Church, gives three different understandings of tradition in the Christian context. First, “tradition is the set of practices and beliefs we learned in our local church.” (Inbody, 39) He extends this first definition not just to that which the average Christian learned locally in their church, but in the sense of churches being connected to a history two millennia in the making.
Next, Inbody says that tradition “is used in a narrow sense to refer to the official teachings of the church that interpret Scripture or complement Scripture.” (Inbody, 39) As he points out, “dogma” is a way of referring to this understanding of tradition, tied to the Councils of the church and the inherited teachings of the early church leaders. Finally, he defines tradition as “The whole sweep of Christian history, which we can call ‘the Christian past’, ‘the Christian heritage,’ ‘the Christian inheritance.’” (Inbody, 40)
Using these definitions as guides, we can understand tradition as the sum of teachings, histories, practices, beliefs, ideas, and behaviors passed down by our Christian forebears in their own lives in the Christian faith. These accumulated pieces of tradition are then appropriated in two distinct ways by each Christian. First, in limited form, as the multitude of concepts contained in the different pieces listed above are too vast for any one person to comprehend in whole; rather, each Christian in influenced by it all not directly, but indirectly, in the sense of the weight each piece bears on the others. Second, the pieces are interpreted through specific contexts unique to each Christian. These two pieces could be classified as unmediated experience, the lived experience of each and every person as a whole. (Not to be confused with religious experience, which is the theologized experience of each person.)
Tradition is mediated through the religious institutions that Christians build and inhabit. The most common of these institutions is the church, where the majority of Christians go to learn about and interact with their faith. To this setting, Christians bring their own experiences, read the Scriptures, and deploy reason. The tradition of the church provides the guideposts for engaging these three sources in a way that makes sense in a Christian context. “Theology that does not root itself deeply in what Christians understand to be their sacred traditions cannot speak meaningfully to those Christians, nor can it hope to guide them in any meaningful way toward the God for whom they long.” (Ray, 16)
This received tradition, then, interacts with the other three primary sources of faith in a way that makes tradition essential to understanding those sources as legitimate lens for interpreting the Christian faith. Scripture is held by Protestants to be the central and most important source of the Christian faith. Inbody notes that “almost all Christians agree that without Scripture, theology would be unthinkable.” Yet, without tradition interpreting and orienting it, Scripture would be inscrutable and nonsensical. The stories, teachings, and psalms contained in Scripture all hold religious meaning for Christians because they have a tradition of meaning built behind them by the church and passed down from generation to generation. For instance, the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience would simply be an ancient story of a mysterious encounter if tradition did not preserve the importance of the story for Christian lives today.
The road to Damascus also illustrates the importance of tradition in making meaning out of religious experience. For Paul to draw meaning from his vision, or from any believer to ascribe Christian relevance to their experiences, the tradition of the faith must be brought to bear. By interpreting our personal experience in the here and now through the lens of tradition, which includes the lived experience of more than two millennia, we are able to link our experience to Christ, and thus understand it’s relevance for our understanding of God and it’s role in our salvation.
Experience is the primary source of human knowledge, generally speaking. All human epistemology is experiential at the most basic level. But as Inbody points out, “Everything we know, including what we know through experience, we know through our language and culture. Thus experience does not, and cannot, exist apart from a social context.” (Inbody, 50) In the Christian context, this language, culture and social situation is part of the tradition of the church.
Finally, reason used in understanding the Christian faith is conditioned by the tradition of the church. As Inbody points out, reason has a variety of meanings in the Christian context. (Inbody, 43-47) For simplicity sake, reason here is understood in essence as “faith seeking understanding.” Christians seek to understand their faith; the base human desire for order and understanding does not evaporate in religious settings. But, in Christianity, tradition still must play a role in the reasoning process. No one person is capable of comprehending and systematizing all of the Christian worldview on their own. Each person is indebted to the tradition of the the faith, worked out by a variety of minds across the history of humanity, as they construct their own view of God and Christ. For instance, a person may have their own unique view of the purpose and function of the Holy Trinity. But that person is dependent in the first place on the tradition of the church regarding the existence and structure of the Trinity, something that is not necessarily self-evident in Scripture itself, but was arrived at through the traditioning process in the early centuries of Christian history.
Of course, their are limits to the role of tradition in the interpretation of Christianity, and dangers inherent in it’s use as the primary source of theology. As Ray and Schneider point out, tradition co-opted by hegemonic power can become destructive: “A religion formed and sustained by top-down power reveals only human power.” (Ray, 40) Tradition can be wielded against the interests of God’s people; it’s normalizing power can be used in the pursuit of power at the expense of others, shutting down alternate views as on contradiction to itself. This is why it is important that the traditioning process be open to all Christians, no matter their station or situation, and that they each be allowed to interact with tradition in a way that sustains and promotes abundant life. God is revealed as the primordial powers of life and love; any tradition or use of tradition that denies or obscures this fact is illegitimate and hegemonic. Theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher puts it beautifully: “The God of life is the norm and ultimate concern of theology…Without the power of life, there is no breath for God-talk.” (Baker-Fletcher, 39) To put it in the words of a contemporary cry for justice, tradition without the life-giving and loving presence of God inspires the lament of the late Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe!” Life is choked out by a tradition bent on power and control rather than abundant love.
Christian theology is inevitably a construct serving a specific purpose. As Ray and Schneider write in Awake to the Moment, “All theology is constructed out of the best efforts of human beings to understand the ineffable reality and experience of divinity in the world.” (Ray, 12) Luckily, each Christian is not required to construct out of nothing. Their is a rich and powerful tradition available to Christians in the making of theology. Crucially, this is not an optional mode of theologizing; all Christians are subject to the tradition: “all of our theological ideas are also constructed – none of them fell straight from heaven without passing through the sieves of human interpretations, languages, wonderment. This is not to say that theology is not inspired by revelations of God, rather that our attempts to understand those revelations always involve interpretation.” (Ray, 38) That interpretation requires an interpreting tradition that delineates what is and isn’t within the bounds of Christian thought. This isn’t to say that bounds can’t be pushed and stretched to envelop new ideas. But even that pushing and stretching requires the tradition already established to relate to and orient towards the center of the faith, which is Jesus Christ.
Baker-Fletcher, Karen. Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2006.
Inbody, Tyron. The Faith of the Christian Church: An Introduction to Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.
Merriam-Webster. “Tradition.” Last Modified September 11, 2017. Accessed October 10, 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tradition.
Schneider, Laurel C. and Stephen G. Ray Jr., eds. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016.