January 23, 2005

Sources and norms of orthodoxy

In our discussion about Christian ecuminism at last week's post, "God and the Denominations," Nathan of the very thoughtful blog Fighting the Little Fights asked me, "How do you determine orthodoxy? What is your standard and why?"

And wouldn't you know, this very question was the focus of my "Introduction to Theology" class* this week!

Theologians answer your question with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, obviously attributed to John Wesley, though it seems to have existed in proto-form in ancient Christianity. A quadrilateral is a shape with four sides, like a rectangle or square. In this case, the four sides of the quadrilateral correspond to four sources or norms of Christian belief. Those four sources are Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

So, there ya go. Any questions?

Yeah, right. So it's not quite that simple. While there seems to have been at least an implied agreement on these four sources almost from the beginning, the spread on how these sources should be appropriated is pretty wide. Some notes, though, to bring us back to your question...because, after all, it's all about me.
  • By Scripture I mean the Christian canon as adopted by the Reformers, i.e. without the Apocrypha. That being said, I've actually not studied the Reformers' reasoning very well. I'll get back to you at the end of the semester.
  • By Tradition I mean "the consensus beliefs held in common by the early church fathers and the Reformers of the sixteenth century as expressed in common by the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions of faith."**
  • By Reason I mean logic, particularly the rule of non-contradiction.
  • By Experience i mean the spiritual experience of the Christian community (and not individual, private, or personal experience as you might have imagined).
The question that remains is how the four sources relate to one another. Without going overboard with details, I like Wesley's idea of the four sources as having an ongoing conversation with one another, "with Scripture having the primary place of dignity and authority"*** and experience having a role generally subordinate to the others. That being said, I like the little bit I've learned about the Liberation Theology's perspective on the role of experience in the movement from action to reflection to action.

That's probably more than any of you needed to spawn meaningful discussion on the matter. So take your best shot! Like I've written above, my goal here is to develop "an holistic personal Christian theology, inviting the input of the global community to help stimulate creativity and maintain accountability." (But I'm secretly hoping Karl will have something else to keep him busy this week so he'll go easy on me!)

*I should point out here that much of the rest of this post is drawn from that class' primary text, The Mosaic of Christian Belief by Dr. Roger Olsen, who also happens to be a professor at our seminary. He is not, however, my theology professor. Anyway, I think it was Spurgeon who said, "All originality and no plagarism makes for very dull preaching indeed."

**Olsen, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 57. See what I mean about all originality and no plagarism? Er, what Spurgeon meant?

***Olsen, Mosaic, 57.

12 Comments:

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Daniel -

I'm glad to see your post on this and I look forward to some interesting discussions as you work your way through your class. Keep in mind as we talk that I do not have fully formed opinions on these matters - only questions, doubts & hopes.

"* By Scripture I mean the Christian canon as adopted by the Reformers, i.e. without the Apocrypha. That being said, I've actually not studied the Reformers' reasoning very well. I'll get back to you at the end of the semester."

I, of course, assumed you would follow the Reformer's lead in most matters, but this obviously begs the question, why? Since studying some church history, it has always struck me as odd that Protestants fully embrace a canon that was determined by a church that they reject. Obviously the canon was determined by the Spirit operating through the church catholic (the term I will use to refer to the pre-schism Christian body that united both East & West), but at what point do we say the Spirit stopped working through that body, why and how can we know that?

"* By Tradition I mean 'the consensus beliefs held in common by the early church fathers and the Reformers of the sixteenth century as expressed in common by the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions of faith.'"

What do we do if the consensus beliefs of the early church fathers contradicts that of the Reformers? And how early is "early"? Since we accept a canon that was formed in the 4th century, are we to also accept church fathers through that period? That, of course, raises significant problems - there is undeniable acceptance of the Real Presence (not transubstantiation, specifically), a ministerial priesthood, the role of the bishop (and the associated hierarchical ecclesiology), as well as other doctrines Protestants reject. On what basis do we reject them? It cannot be based on sola Scriptura, because the early fathers did not hold to this either.

That's probably enough to spark plenty of interesting discussion, so I'll leave it there.

 
At 1:02 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Nathan, thanks for taking the time to post a lengthy response! Like you, I have more questions than answers right now, but more hopes than fears...

"It has always struck me as odd that Protestants fully embrace a conon that was determined by a church that they reject."

I think you're perhaps painting Protestantism, even very early Protestantism, with too broad a brush here. Luther, for example, didn't "reject" his church; on the contrary, he saw much in it that was worthwhile. That's why we call it the Reformation and not the Rejection. =) There were those who literally sought to throw out all but the first 100 years or so of church history--the Radical Reformers and, IIRC, the early Anabaptists--but few modern Protestants would claim them as their spiritual forebears.

"What do we do if the consensus beliefs of the early church fathers contradicts that of the Reformers?"

I don't know. I suppose I'd first ask if there actually exists any contradiction there. If not, then there's little point in speculating. However, if there is a literal contradiction (i.e. if the Fathers are right, the Reformers must be wrong or vice versa), then I thikn we'd have to consider these on a case-by-case basis. I imagine we might find that any contradictions are on issues that are peripheral to the Great Tradition I mentioned in my original post. I would classify the issues you mentioned (the character of the Eucharist and precise forms of ecclesiology and episcopy) as being in that periphery.

What do you think?

 
At 1:27 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Daniel -

"I think you're perhaps painting Protestantism, even very early Protestantism, with too broad a brush here."

Early Protestantism, at least those who stayed in Luther's stream, were indeed reformers and not rejecters. But I think you would be hard pressed to make that case for other groups. I must admit I am not intimately familiar with post-Reformation history, but I do know that there was a great deal of violence perpetrated against (and by, I well know) Catholics and the Catholic Church in Protestant countries. These may have had more political motives than not, but there were theological underpinnings.

"There were those who literally sought to throw out all but the first 100 years or so...but few modern Protestants would claim them as their spiritual forebears."

I have met many more than a few who are both strongly anti-Catholic and believe the church very quickly fell into heresy, potentially as early as the beginning of the 2nd century. Mainline denominations may be different, but I think there is a strong rejectionism present in modern evangelicalism.

"I would classify the issues you mentioned (the character of the Eucharist and precise forms of ecclesiology and episcopy) as being in that periphery."

But would the Fathers similarly categorize such issues in the periphery? I sincerely doubt that you will be able to find such sentiments in the Fathers though I'd be interested to see what you are able to find. Part of the problem is deeply internal. The Fathers largely regarded the Church (and her consensus) as the legitimating authority by which we can judge our conduct & belief. Protestantism inherently rejects this idea in favor of personal authority in matters of faith & conduct. Clearly that process is not without the influence of outside things, like the church or her leaders, but ultimately it is a matter of personal conscience. On this basis alone we can see a huge disconnect between the Fathers and the Reformers.

I see no resolution to this divide, but I could be wrong. We either find one or we are forced to admit that Protestantism is a departure from the Fathers, which, of course, opens the door to a whole new set of problems. And undermines our quadrilateral.

 
At 12:18 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Nathan,

"Would the Fathers similarly categorize such issues in the periphery?"

I suppose I might argue that the Fathers appeared too early in doctrinal history to have a completely formed understanding of which issues were central and which were not. Recall that doctrinal development, particularly in those very early years, was not a concerted, systematic effort to define orthodoxy, but rather a sporadic, loosely connected set of responses to heresy. The early church, as it became aware of heretical doctrines, seemed to be saying, "I'm not sure what we believe about this or that doctrine, but we don't believe that" and then, given that impetus, sought consensus on statements of what the Christian Church actually believed about that particular issue or topic.

One other thought: So much of what we consider "central" is a function of the age and culture in which we live. For example, because we live (or maybe "lived" would be better) in a scientific, propositional age, many within the church consider the doctrine of Scriptures, particularly of the inerrency of Scriptures, to be central to the Christian faith. This has not been true of other ages; Luther and his colleagues felt grace to be central and so on. Understanding what is truly central (i.e. essential) to the historic Christian faith requires us to look beyond our own age, back across the centuries of Christian history. Here's a radical idea: Perhaps we discover what is truly essential not by simply listing all the "hot button" doctrinal issues, but by combining all that which was assumed in each age--the things nobody was talking about because everyone knew they were true.

...but now I'm just rambling...

 
At 1:12 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Daniel -

I suppose I might argue that the Fathers appeared too early in doctrinal history to have a completely formed understanding of which issues were central and which were not.

"Recall that doctrinal development, particularly in those very early years..."

This brings us back to the question of a cut-off date - when do we draw the line as it regards the Fathers? While the early heresy responses might have been sporadic or unintentional, it is clear that this is not the case later on. So while I see your point, I think it is somewhat limited in scope.

"One other thought: So much of what we consider 'central' is a function of the age and culture in which we live."

This is a good point and one I certainly would not dispute. We do need to keep in mind our generational perspectives when looking for answers on key questions.

"Perhaps we discover what is truly essential not by simply listing all the 'hot button' doctrinal issues, but by combining all that which was assumed in each age--the things nobody was talking about because everyone knew they were true."

An interesting idea, but I'm not sure how it would work. Take the divinity of Christ. The Arian controversy demonstrates that lack of settled consensus in the temporal ecclesial body, but once it was settled, the Trinity became that assumed idea you are talking about. Ever since, that has been the basis of the orthodox understanding of God, but it was once a hot-button issue. Most of the assumed undercurrents were once controversial.

This also takes us past the consensus of the early Fathers and the Reformers. Plus, there are contradictions in the unargued assumptions, as I pointed out above - private judgment versus ecclesial submission.

 
At 2:22 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Your point on the idea of a "cut-off" date is well taken, but I think maybe it assumes something that we should make explicit. When you ask, "Where do we draw the line as it regards the Fathers," do you mean, "as it regards the Fathers' reliability as a source for theology?" If so, I would say that we should never consider them to be 100% reliable. They were men, after all, and while they acknowledged the weight of divine revelation in Scripture, they certainly never claimed it for themselves or for their own writings...did they? (Again, I'm more of a student than a scholar when it comes to this.)

The idea of a "cut-off" date is perhaps more applicable to my idea about finding the central tenants of the faith in the "assumed" things, the things nobody was talking about. Your point that "most of the assumed undercurrents were once controversial" is well made. However, at some point, a body of "assumed undercurrents" developed that was no longer controversial in any way; rather, it was declared to have been believed "by everyone at all times" (can't recall which of the Fathers said that) and then generally assumed. Prior to that time, we might be stretching to say that a corpus of systematic theology existed; after that time, however, such a corpus did exist. What might be a good date to choose? I don't know. A more important question: Why would we chose that particular date? What does such a choice reveal about our theology, particularly our pneumatology and ecclesiology? I have yet to explore these ideas.

I would argue, however, that considering the problem along these lines doesn't take us past the consensus of the early Fathers and the Reformers," but rather puts us squarely in the center of that consensus.

 
At 7:36 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Daniel -

"When you ask, 'Where do we draw the line as it regards the Fathers,' do you mean, 'as it regards the Fathers' reliability as a source for theology?' If so, I would say that we should never consider them to be 100% reliable."

This is approximately what I mean, yes, but I don't think even the Church understands the Fathers to be infallible on an individual basis. It is rather the consensus of their thought lived out in the context of the Church. I think it is called the "fragrance of the Fathers" (or something similar) in Orthodoxy, which is probably a good image - like individual sticks of incense they all send up their own particular aroma, but mingle to present something unique. And doesn't our good friend Karl say "100% of the Fathers are 85% Orthodox"?

"Why would we chose that particular date? What does such a choice reveal about our theology, particularly our pneumatology and ecclesiology? I have yet to explore these ideas."

I think you have gotten to the heart of my question about the cut-off date. Why should we pick that one, whichever it is? Why the nth century and not the 5th, 8th or 11th? A major issue I have with Protestant thought is that it predetermines the answers to the questions you listed and then goes back to find support in the Fathers. With widely divergent Prot understandings of all of these things, I can't help but feel they take on something of an arbitrary nature - one determined by desire or culture more than anything.

"I would argue, however, that considering the problem along these lines doesn't take us past the consensus of the early Fathers and the Reformers, but rather puts us squarely in the center of that consensus."

I disagree - we are still left with defining "early Fathers" before we can come to our consensus about their consensus. :) Using the Councils as an easy reference point, which is the last we accept? If we go all the way up to the 7th, we have clearly left behind the Reformers by several centuries. Do we stop at Ephesus? Chalcedon? Or even earlier at Constantinople I? I am not intimately familiar with the precise thinking of the Reformers, so I'm really not sure where they would have drawn the line, but it is clear that they rejected the authority of the councils even if they accepted their conclusions. Again, we see an subtle but inherent contradiction - the Fathers clearly regarded the councils as authoritative & binding on all orthodox Christians, but the Reformers apparently did not.

 
At 11:41 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

I think, Nathan, that we're beginning to tread very close to the issue of revelation and the distinction between general and special revelation when we discuss that which is "authoritative and binding." If we define special revelation as "that which conveys or mediates salvific knowledge" and general revelation as "that which conveys or mediates any other knowledge of God that is not, apart from special revelation, salvific," then does the information we learn about God through the Fathers or the Councils fall under the former classification or the latter?

My point is that neither you nor I can make a doctrine or statement "authoritative" or "binding." We cannot force anyone to accept anything we say, nor can we bind anyone's spirit or intellect to our propositions; we lack the authority and the power. Only God has that kind of power and that kind of authority over the hearts and minds of people. It seems to me that the way he has chosen to do that is by revealing himself according to these two different modes. Special revelation shows humanity what it must do to be saved; it is the terms by which we enter into relationship with God and (as an effect of that relationship) community with God's people. It is both authoritative (because God has given it special authority) and binding (because by it God binds to himself those who are being saved).

But not all revelation is special revelation; not all knowledge of God is salvific knowledge. I would argue that all of special revelation is contained within the Protestant canon of Scriptures. Note that not everything contained within that canon is salvific; rather, all that is salvific is contained between its covers. The great consensual tradition, along with reason and community experience, serve to verify the salvific nature of special revelation.

I could go on here, but you may not agree with this path. What sayeth you? =)

 
At 4:12 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Daniel --

I think I'm going to be beating this "consensus with the early fathers" thing to death! Because when you ask this:

"If we define special revelation as 'that which conveys or mediates salvific knowledge' and general revelation as 'that which conveys or mediates any other knowledge of God that is not, apart from special revelation, salvific,' then does the information we learn about God through the Fathers or the Councils fall under the former classification or the latter?"

I am immediately forced to ask - "would the Fathers conceive of the Councils or the aroma of the earlier Fathers to not contain knowledge necessary to salvation?" And I have to say that I think the answer is no - they would not submit that the Councils or the Tradition of the Church contained in the Fathers is general, rather than special revelation as you have presented it. I was just reading through book III of St Irenaeus' "Against the Heresies" earlier this afternoon (did you ever get the Church Fathers volumes, by the way?), and it was clear in the first few chapters that he would have disagreed with your distinction - or at least how you have applied it here. Again, I think we're not taking fully into account the difference between the Patristic and Reformation mindsets and how that affects any "consensus" between them.

"I would argue that all of special revelation is contained within the Protestant canon of Scriptures. Note that not everything contained within that canon is salvific; rather, all that is salvific is contained between its covers."

I'm not sure I fully agree with your statement above or that it would truly fit with Patristic thought, but I'd like to see you flesh it out more. For instance, it is clear that the doctrine of the Trinity can be derived from scripture, but it is not clearly stated as such and there are many Christian groups that have moved to a watered down or non-existent trinitarian concept based solely on their reading of the Bible (or so they allege). Is the doctrine of the Trinity special revelation or general, and what is its role in our salvation? I think this would be a good illustrative question to help me see where you are giong with this.

 
At 9:29 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

I'm not going to comment on this great dialogue as you two don't need my help (obviously!)

But I am curious what you both would say to this post:

http://xanthikos.blogspot.com/2005/01/follow-threads-brief-moment-of.html

Of special interest is the 5 questions he asks at the end. Daniel, how would you answer these?

 
At 9:59 PM, Blogger DesertPastor said...

Daniel, I think that fundamentalist protestants, who strictly hold to the bibliocentricity of our faith, are not likely to appreciate the contribution that post-structuralist interpretations are offering us (e.g. liberation, feminist, socio-political, reader-response, etc.). When the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is embraced, I believe it can set the stage for fostering a greater appreciation for interpretive methodologies other than, say,redaction and socio-historical approaches.

Many younger postmodern thinkers, however, want to understand the Quadrilateral from an egalitarian perspective, making all four components equally important (rather than accepting Wesley's view of the primacy of scripture within the four).

 
At 2:23 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

DP, thanks for dropping by. I too find a lot of hope in the quadrilateral formulation. As a personal testimony to the hope you express, it was a realization that true Christianity is not bibliocentric but rather Christocentric that helped open my mind and heart to the validity and usefulness of many of the critical methods. Today, as a seminary student, it's giving me a much deeper appreciation for Scripture than I ever thought possible.

Karl, thanks for following the dialogue and for pointing us to Doug's post. I think I'll devote a separate post to answering his five questions, as it's well within my stated purpose for my blog. However, it might take me a few days. I'm becoming convinced that Ecclesiastes 12:12b was written for the sole purpose of describing my seminary experience: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." =) (BTW, once again, hearty congratulations and much praise to God for the birth and health of your daughter! We're so thrilled for you!)

Nathan, same goes for the "test case" you offered: "Is the doctrine of the Trinity special revelation or general, and what is its role in our salvation?" I think I'll devote a post to that so we can bump this discussion up on the blog and perhaps get others involved. But it may take a day or two for me to get to it. Thanks for the "sharpening!"

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home