Tools for Discernment
Question from my Certified Lay Minister training material: Read “Our Theological Task,” Part II, Section 4, The Book of Discipline and Chapter 10, “Doctrinal Faithfulness and Continuing Exploration” from Bishop Carder’s book. Four “tools” – scripture, tradition, reason and experience – are proposed as a way of engaging in theological discussion for the twenty-first century while maintaining sound doctrine. Discuss these tools. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?
There is a somewhat trite saying expressed often on t-shirts and posters that reads, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” The saying has become trite and overused because it contains a grain of truth. God is still active in the world, and God desires us to be in mission with him. Since that is the case, we need a way by which to discern truth in a modern world. Wesley offers us a method that employs four tools for us to use in our attempt to discern the will of God and in our theological discussions: scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
“The primary source and criterion for determining doctrine and engaging in theological exploration is the Bible.” (3) Our Articles of Religion state that “the Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation….” This is an echo of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. It is necessary for us to undertake a serious study of the Bible, both individually and in community, so as to allow God’s grace to work through the Word. We do so taking care to interpret scripture in its many contexts, including historical, cultural and biblical. Citing a single passage in isolation can lead to dangerous misuse of the Word of God. According to Bishop Carder, “scripture does not yield its divine secrets carelessly or casually.”(3)
Because “the theological task does not start anew in each age or each person,”(4) we are instructed to recognize the role tradition can play in our theological explorations. It is important to use the light previous theological thought to illuminate our interpretation. The dangers in the use of this tool are an overreliance on tradition – allowing it to negate our own experience and reason as well as a reliance on a narrow traditional source instead of a broad range of interpretations.
Our use of experience is twofold. We are called to rely on our experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the confidence that we are becoming a new creation through God. Our relationship with God should aid us in discerning God’s will. Our life experience is the second facet of this tool that is important. We gain wisdom and understanding throughout our lives. The drawback of this tool is that we can elevate our personal experience above the guidance we receive from scripture, resulting in rationalization or distortions of God’s word.
As United Methodists we are called to bring reason into play. “The human mind is one of God’s most precious gifts and an important means of exploring, discerning and sharing God’s truth and mission.”(3) According to Wesley, religion and reason go hand in hand, and “an irrational religion is a false religion.”(3) As with any of the other tools for discerning God’s will, reason can be misused and abused.
3 - Carder, Kenneth L., Living our Beliefs, Chapter 10 (Doctrinal Faithfulness and Continuing Exploration).
4 - The Book of Discipline, Part II: Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task, Section 4: Our Theological Task.