Fully Human: How to Think Part II

In the second part of the “how to think” section I explore the unique status ithat Christians grant to a 4th source of human knowledge:  the Scriptures.

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            The purpose of this course is to look at the difference that the fourth source of knowledge, i.e. the Scripture, has on our ethics.  We will look in detail at this source in future weeks but for now we will speak generally about the Scriptures as a concept. Christians place the Scriptures in a special category because they believe it to be the word of God.  It is understood to be an inspired and authoritative revelation to human beings of God’s character.  Now to be fair we may argue that God’s character can be known through the other 3 sources of experience, tradition, and reason just as well as it can be known through Scripture.  And indeed, I believe that people can obtain at least some knowledge of God through these other sources; however we must understand the knowledge from these sources in the right way.  Insights about God that comes from experience, reason, or tradition must be examined in light of what we know about God through in the Scriptures.  If the insights are congruent with Scripture they may be understood to have a degree of validity if they are incongruent or contradictory in comparison with the picture of God in the Scriptures than believers must defer to the Bible and reexamine/rethink their insights.

            Part of the reason why Christians defer to Scripture can be observed through lessons learned from our history.  For example I belong to a denomination that traces its origins back to Menno Simons.  Menno Simons was a part of a larger movement called Anabaptism and in his day there was an extremist minority within Anabaptism that justified all kinds of heinous behaviour and doctrine (including polygamy, a complete disregard of personal property, and the belief that they were God’s soldiers sent to purify the world of evil through violence) because they believed they had experienced God telling them that this was the case.  Menno Simons’ main contribution to the Anabaptist movement was to say that the reason why these extremist Anabaptists ran amok in their belief and behaviour was because they did not properly understand how to interpret their experience.  He said that our experiences of God come from the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures and it is therefore impossible for that Spirit to communicate something that directly contradicts the Scripture.  For that reason Menno said that the inner word (i.e. experience) must be interpreted under the authority of the outer word (i.e. Scripture).  I think that Menno is right on the money here.  In my observation, understandings of God that privilege experience, reason, or tradition above the Scriptures tend to fall short.  They look far more like products of the human imagination rather than the dynamic, surprising, and loving God of Scripture who always does the unexpected and departs so significantly from anything that human beings could dream up.  

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2 comments

  1. garethbrandt · February 13, 2014

    The trouble is that the Munsterites whom you refer to did not merely base their actions on their experience of God but on their literal obedience to Scriptural laws and examples. Thus it does not necessarily lend credibility to your argument. They used Scripture as much as Menno, but they read it differently. What you will hopefully yet deal with is “how” Scripture is used. Therein lies the key.

    • travisbarbour · February 13, 2014

      Hey Gareth,

      Thanks for responding on here. I appreciate your push back here in this area. I am always open to modifying my argument if the data demands it be modified! Perhaps I can nuance my thinking a bit further here to satisfy what you’re saying.

      I’m not trying to make the case that the Munsterites didn’t use Scripture and that Menno did but rather am trying to get to the question that you’ve touched on i.e. how to use Scripture. It seems to me that the impetus for Munster came through a conviction that God had spoken to the “extremist Anabaptists” that the end of the world was imminent and that it was up to them to usher in this end of the world through the use of the sword. The Munsterites then read the Scriptures through the lens of this interpretation and so drew on Biblical imagery and example to further support their position. What I believe Menno was trying to do was say that it is important to start with Scripture and then analyze our charismatic experiences to see if they are congruent or not…

      Now of course from a 21st century experience this needs to be further nuanced since we know that there is no such thing as approaching Scripture with a “blank slate” (i.e. free of tradition, reason, or experience). That will be the purpose of the next post…

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