Following on from my post of yesterday, which partially examined the question of whether a belief in Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews is reasonable and/or sustainable (the answer to which was yes), today I would like to take as the basis for my post a few verses from that epistle, which talk about the hope we can have in God’s promises, and the trust we can place in them, because of Who has made them:
‘So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of his promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should be proved false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchiz’edek.’
Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:17-20.
From this passage we can glean several things: that God’s purposes are unchangeable; that He chooses to reveal them to us; that it is ‘impossible that God should be proved false’; that we can fly ‘for refuge’ to God and His promises, having ‘strong encouragement’ in them, and taking them as ‘a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’; and that it is in Jesus, who has ‘gone as a forerunner on our behalf’ that we can know this and in Whom we can place our hope – we find that ultimately, we must hope and trust in Him, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, fully man and fully God.
Not only this, but we know that we can have such ‘encouragement’ in Jesus, taking Him as a ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’, because we will not be deceived by what He reveals to us and what God promises us in Him. This immediately raises the question though – how do we know God/how do we get to know Jesus? Surely, according to the passage from Hebrews above, it cannot be a way in which we are misled, or it would indeed be possible for God’s purposes to be proved false, and His unchangeable character may well appear changeable, if the medium through which we receive His revelation is unreliable.
A useful framework for examining the most common ways in and through which people claim to know God’s will is provided by what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – a four-fold method for theological reflection, interpretation and development, named after its originator, John Wesley (though the term was not coined until the 20th Century, by an American Methodist called Albert C. Outler). It is essentially the Anglican ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, with another leg added on – Experience (this leg, incidentally, seems to be covertly included within the ‘Reason’ category by much modern-day Anglican debate, although this is never explicitly stated).
Wesley believed that Holy Scripture was the foundational resource for Christian theology, just as Anglicanism historically sees the Bible as taking precedence amongst its three ‘legs’ (again, modern-day discussions sometimes give the impression that all three are equal in significance, but this was not originally the case). He also believed however, that scriptural interpretation should be done in light of the continued witness of Christians throughout history – i.e.; Tradition – and that the process should be conducted in such a way that both employs reason and does not produce results that are contrary to it.
Finally, he placed a great emphasis on experience, believing that one cannot have real assurance of something if it is not experienced personally. This can range from experiences that corroborate known doctrine, to those which contravene it in some way, but here the sense of personal assurance gained from that experience allows one to trump received opinion – that someone ‘just knows’ something is seen as part of ongoing tradition, and of inherent benefit because experience is something ‘simple’, as opposed to the often complex sifting and comparing of Christianity’s great wealth of traditions.
Wesley also believed that these four elements were not only good guides to theological work, but also descriptive of how most people go about it anyway. To a certain extent this is true – each one of us values all of these four, and they do indeed form part of the interpretive framework that we all (whether consciously or not) employ when thinking through theological issues. However, to return to the original question posed in this post – namely, how we are to know God, and in a way in which we will not be misled – these four elements are unable to provide the stability (either individually or corporately) which can do justice to the promises of assurance that we read about in Hebrews.
It seems plain, if not from personal experience then from a glance at the enormous range of denominations in existence that have resulted from this approach, that the view seeing Scripture as clear and self-interpreting is not only self-defeating in theory, but highly destructive of doctrinal/moral clarity and of Christian unity. Holy Scripture is a book which needs interpretation, and so needs interpretive guidelines. Tradition can provide this to a certain extent, so that the scope of individual interpretation is limited by the collaborative voices of orthodox Christians throughout the ages, but immediately the question of ‘which tradition’ comes up – in the post-Reformation world there are many, and it is by no means obvious which is the most orthodox, or where our bench-mark for orthodoxy even comes from.
Similarly, whilst it is very important to use our reason, and for our conclusions not to conflict with what is reasonable, the very question of what is reasonable is itself something that will be up for debate – most often in important theological discussions. For instance, in the arguments over women’s ordination that have re-emerged after General Synod’s decision to admit women to the episcopate, both sides of the dispute considered their rationales and conclusions to be highly reasonable, but clearly both cannot be right. Reason must be consonant with orthodoxy, which is something that we have already ascertained cannot be known with confidence through Scripture and Tradition alone.
Taking into account contemporary experience, whilst a necessary part of being a living religious tradition, and which stops it from becoming ossified, only introduces another competing voice, which in an already uncertain situation, creates more ambiguity, and leads us further away from being able to lay claim to that ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’ – from being able to know Jesus Christ, and so God Himself. Whilst it is very important to be aware of the experiences of Christians in contemporary culture, taking into account the different perspectives that need to be engaged with, the voice of experience can never be allowed to conflict with known Christian doctrine, or we will most certainly end up trusting in ourselves, not God.
So, how can we then lay our hands on this anchor; how can we know God and His will with assurance, so that we might flee to Him for refuge in a world beset with forces at odds with the Faith? The missing ingredient in Wesley’s Quadrilateral is the Church – something hinted at in the ‘Tradition’ element, but which unfortunately stops at a conglomeration of voices over the ages, not something that has a unified voice and can speak definitively here, now. The institutional Church, visible, with defined offices, and that speaks with divine sanction, is the only means by which we can properly know a.) the limit of valid interpretive possibilities, b.) what orthodoxy actually is, and c.) how to discern the validity of contemporary experiences.
I have examined this at greater length in another post, but what seems clear enough to me here, is that if we are to experience the sort of strong hope and confidence in God that we are urged to by Scripture, and if we are to get to know the One who ‘has gone as a forerunner on our behalf’, knowing Him truly and deeply, and not worrying about whether we are travelling in the right direction or not, then we need an infallible Church. Even if some do not like this, or even the like the idea of it, I do not see what possible alternative there is for anyone sincerely seeking to know Our Lord better, and to trust in Him wholeheartedly in the way we are called to.