Below is a copy of my first theological paper written for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It was written for Dr. Graham Cole’s ST 5201 class, Theology 1: The God of the Gospel. It was a joy to write and if you find yourself enthralled (unlikely), perhaps you should consider a degree from a seminary (I know a good one).
“So, which denomination is right?” In my short two years as a campus ministry staff member at a state university, this question was raised more than once by students. It does not take long for new Christians to consider the diversity of Christian congregations and beliefs. Even those well-versed in their own system of beliefs have trouble comprehending the justification of other viewpoints. With such a plurality of Christian thought, and how does one sift through it all?
For those in the evangelical world, this question is monumentally important. As an association of various denominations aligned with certain truths, the inquiry is crucial to understanding the extent of unity for the groups that claim the name and where that unity ends.
One such person who sought to address this conundrum was John Wesley. To Wesley, there were four primary authorities that informed how one is to approach the study of God, often called one’s theological method. These authorities are Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
The product of a venerated figure in evangelicalism, Wesley’s method of these four authorities would give some guidance to the soul examining the range of theological thought. To do so, we must first distinguish the ways these authorities interact with each other. The question then becomes, “How ought Scripture, tradition, reason, and human experience to relate in an evangelical theological method?”
To begin, let us direct our focus on the authority of Scripture. It would be helpful to first identify what we mean by the term Scripture. Roger Olson, in his work on the unity and diversity of global Christian, claims,
By Scripture most church fathers and Reformers would mean the written form of divine revelation—the writings of the Hebrew prophets and early Christian apostles. Disagreement may exist about the parameters of the canon of Christian Scriptures (primarily over inclusion or exclusion of the Apocrypha), but that does not undermine the general agreement about the Bible’s special authority for giving rise to and shaping correct Christian belief.
As mentioned by Olson, debate continues concerning the accepted canon in Christian belief. For this study, we will limit our recognition of Scripture to include the sixty-six books recognized as divine revelation in most Protestant evangelical circles.
Scripture testifies to its own divinity and authority. 2 Timothy 3:16 claims that Scripture is “God-breathed.” Being God’s own Word, it proves to be true and beneficial for all mankind (Prov 30:5-6). Along with this, severe warnings are given for those who reject its truth and attempt to insert their own words into the divine (Deut 4:2, 12:32; Gal 1:6-9; Rev 22:18). These passages present Scripture as the highest authority for the Christian.
Olson again helps in understanding this. He states the traditional view of Scripture “rightly expresses the conviction that the Bible is the norming norm (norma normans) and most important source for determining right belief in all matter of Christian faith and practice.” Rightly understood, this places Scripture above all other sources of authority. As the norm by which all other authorities are measured, Scripture is the touchstone of Christian influences.
This supreme authority of Scripture is vital to the evangelical theological system of belief. The DuPage Declaration, signed in 1990 by evangelical leaders in North American mainline denominations, clearly proclaims Scripture as the authority over reason, experience, and tradition. With this, signers draw attention to the humanity of the authors through which the words of Scripture were penned. Recognizing this human element, they deny that this relegates Scripture to man-made documents of little to no authoritative weight. Rather, they hold that Scripture remains divinely firm as perfectly written by the Holy Spirit through human authors.
As was touched on above, Scripture is a closed work of God and those attempting to add to or detract from it are warned of the severe consequences of doing so. Wayne Grudem argues that revelation to God’s people has been completely sufficient at every phase of God’s unfolding plan:
At each stage in redemptive history, the things that God had revealed were for his people for that time, and they were to study believe and obey those things. With further progress in the history of redemption, more of God’s words were added, recording and interpreting that history.
Later, Grudem further elaborates on the sufficiency of Scripture:
This means that we can cite Scripture texts from throughout the canon to show that the principle of the sufficiency of God’s revelation to his people at each particular time has remained the same. In this sense, these verses that talk about the sufficiency of Scripture in earlier periods are directly applicable to us as well, even though the extent of the Bible to which they refer in our situation is greater than the extent of the Scripture to which they referred in their original setting.
We conclude our focus of Scripture with a few observations. First, Scripture is the perfect Word of God revealed to humans, authored by the Holy Spirit, yet penned through human hands. Second, it is the ruling authority over all authorities in the Christian life. And lastly, all of Scripture is sufficient and authoritative regardless of the historical moment.
Now we move our attention to the study of tradition. We will define tradition as the theological consensus of thought in Christianity both on topics the Bible is clear on and those that are opaque. This definition will pose problems as we identify how tradition plays into the quadrilateral of authorities we have at hand, but it is helpful moving forward.
Often a good way of understanding one’s own position is understanding the differences in dissenting viewpoints. For evangelicals, the Catholic position on tradition can be helpful for this very reason. One Catholic catechism’s stance is this: “Holy Scripture contains the whole faith in substance, but the faith can be grasped in its totality and fullness only in the light of Tradition.” The work goes on to detail the necessity of tradition for proper interpretation of Scripture. For Catholics, Scripture and tradition are inextricably bound, unable to be separated and equally authoritative.
In many ways, the Catholic position lines up with the evangelical. It differs, however, in some key ways. Martin Luther agreed with the notion that Scripture could not be read properly outside of tradition; but his survey of tradition yielded vastly different conclusions from that of the Catholic church in his time. Luther held that the early councils of Church Fathers established proper understanding of Christian doctrine in response to the heretical teachings prominent at the time of the councils. The councils merely affirmed the universally held beliefs of Christians dating back to the founding of the Church.
As evidenced by the presence of modern day Catholic and Lutheran traditions, Luther and the Catholic church could not come to a consensus on what they considered tradition. However, the two agreed the presence of a tradition is essential for interpreting Scripture in an orthodox, historically-accurate way. For evangelicals, this tradition covers the core doctrines of Christianity, and can be determined through study of Christian consensus over the last 2,000 years back to the apostles (Heb 12:1). We will refer to this as the Great Tradition, as others have referred to it before.
To harken back to the question posed by the student in the opening line of this work, we still do not have an answer to the question of why there are so many different denominations within Christianity and which is truest. The Great Tradition does not cover every doctrinal issue, only the ones of supreme significance. It acts as the national border for Christianity—everything within the border holding true to Christian orthodoxy, and all outside departing from the faith.
Furthering this analogy, what would be considered states, provinces, or territories within this national structure could be considered what we will call lesser traditions. These traditions (found in the various branches of Christianity) hold true to the Great Tradition yet also elaborate on doctrines not clearly addressed there. While what is covered in the Great Tradition cannot be rejected without risk of heterodoxy, lesser traditions, no matter how adamantly their proponents may disagree, can be abandoned without leaving true Christianity. With this distinction clearly laid out, we can shift our focus now to lesser tradition in the evangelical theological method.
Citing Ephesians 2:20, Calvin argues,
It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to the Scriptures, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. But because the church recognizes Scripture to be the truth of its own God, as a pious duty it unhesitatingly venerates Scripture.
To Calvin, lesser tradition could never stand in authority over Scripture or even hold the same authoritative weight. Further evidence for this point can be found in Mark 7:1-13 where Jesus condemns the traditions of the Pharisees that contradict Scriptural commands.
A similar claim has been made by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The document holds Scripture as the “supreme norm” and denies “that Church creeds, councils or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.” While on the surface this seems to contradict the claim that the Great Tradition is essential and authoritative in interpreting Scripture correctly, we must remember that the authority inherent in the Great Tradition comes from its consensus of Christian thought concerning Scripture. This leaves us with another voice declaring the reduced authority of lesser tradition in comparison to Scripture.
In summary, tradition has been shown to be more complicated than at first glance. While tradition can be good (Eph 2:20; Mt 23:3), it is only authoritative to the extent to which it reflects well-defined scriptural doctrine. The tradition extending from Christian consensus of thought dating back to the apostles is essential for interpreting Scripture properly. Tradition which extends past these parameters holds a lessened authoritative power.
Moving on to our next authority, we now focus our attention on reason. Wielding the mighty power of logic, reason generates insight from the progression of understanding based upon presumed truths. Reason’s authority comes from a belief of a rational, consistent creation (1 Cor 14:33; Rom 8:28). If God’s world is made with order and connectedness, then one should be able to gain further insight on creation and his or her role in it through the study of the world.
Scripture itself testifies to knowledge gained through observation of the earth. It declares, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psa 19:1-2). Commenting on this verse, Grudem claims, “To look at the sky is to see evidence of the infinite power, wisdom, and even beauty of God; it is to observe a majestic witness to the glory of God.” Here we not only see general knowledge of creation but insight into the character of God.
Calvin takes this understanding of God found in nature even farther. He contends that every human being implicitly knows that there is a God. He argues,
There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. . .If ignorance of God is to be looked for anywhere, surely one is most likely to find an example of it among the more backward folk and those more remote from civilization. Yet there is, as the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God…So deeply does the common conception occupy the minds of all, so tenaciously does it inhere in the hearts of all!
For Calvin, the presence of iterations of God in all parts of the world indicates that all peoples conclude the reality of the divine. When combined with Grudem’s insight, we see that God can be reasoned both externally and internally.
While both Calvin and Grudem agree that much of God and the world can be understood through observing the creation, both make clear distinctions between what can and can’t be learned through reason alone. Grudem clarifies this distinction,
The knowledge of God’s existence, character, and moral law, which comes through creation to all humanity, is often call “general revelation” (because it comes to all people generally). General revelation comes through observing nature, through seeing God’s directing influence in history, and through an inner sense of God’s existence and his laws that he has placed inside every person. General revelation is distinct from “special revelation,” which refers to God’s words addressed to specific people, such as the words of the Bible, the words of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, and the words of God spoken in personal address, such as at Mount Sinai or at the baptism of Jesus.
He goes on,
[I]t must be emphasized that Scripture nowhere indicates that people can know the gospel, or know the way of salvation, through such general revelation. They may know that God exists, that he is their Creator, that they owe him obedience, and that they have sinned against him . . . but how the holiness and justice of God can ever be reconciled with his willingness to forgive sins is a mystery that has never been solved by any religion apart from the Bible.
Clearly, we see the danger in elevating general revelation and reason above its much more authoritative companion of special revelation through Scripture. However, the danger posed now is to throw the baby out with the bath water. Church Father Augustine would have us do no such thing. While considering the popular philosophies of his day, he equated ideas that could be reconciled with biblical concepts to the treasures given to Israelites by the Egyptians (Exo 13:35-36). Augustine counsels, “When the Christian separates himself in spirit from their miserable society, he should take this treasure with him for the just use of teaching the gospel.”
Lastly, we direct our consideration towards human experience. Since Wesley was the one to popularize the inclusion of experience in his list of authorities, we will return to him for a helpful definition. Though the distinction was never made explicitly clear, Wesley recognizes two forms of experience. First, “Empirical knowledge is that founded on experience, observation, facts, sensation, practice, concrete situations, and real events.” Second, “experiential knowledge relies on understanding, insights, or information that derive from personal or interpersonal sense experiences.” To combine the two, experience is any insight or revelation gained through an external sensory event or internal, personal reflection.
John 16:13 is foundational for insight into biblical experience. In it, Jesus declares to his disciples that the Holy Spirit will soon come to reveal truth in a special way, through indwelling them—an internal experience. Calvin declares, “The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.” To both Jesus and Calvin, experience, particularly through the Holy Spirit, worked to illuminate the truth of Scripture in a way nothing else could. Wesley would agree, for to him, “the authority of Scripture is certain because of the authenticating testimony of the Holy Spirit’s confirming that Scripture is true.”
While experience plays an important role in the Christian’s life, historically it has often been used to usurp the supreme authority of Scripture. The Montanism movement is one such example. The group held their leader, Montanus, had been used by the Holy Spirit to proclaim new truths that overruled the authority of Scripture. Against this, Winfried Corduan cautions, “Any experience, however moving, any conviction, however plausible, becomes suspicious as soon as it cannot possibly be reconciled with the truths or rules found in the Bible.”
Experience disconnected from Scripture can be troubling. 2 Corinthians 11:4 explains that Satan can masquerade as a being of goodness, while spewing evil. For this reason, we see in 1 John 4:1 the admonition to “test the spirits” to see if they are indeed from God. This brings up the question, “How does one do so?”
As we have already established, a true experience from the Lord will not contradict his Scripture. Not only will the experience not diverge from Scripture, it will enhance the realization of the truth of Scripture for that person. According to Calvin, “[T]he Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.” Considering this, it is worth noting that when the apostle Paul spoke of his experience of being taken up into the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2), he did not return boasting of his experience (in fact, he spoke in the third person almost as if he were embarrassed of it!). Rather, the experience led to the ministry and writings of arguably the most systematic and scripturally honoring author of the New Testament.
Now that we have covered each authority, we can come to some conclusions as to how they operate in concert. Our first finding is the supremacy of Scripture over all other authorities. As we have found, Scripture is the “norming norm.” The only other authority that attains this ruling power is the aspect of tradition pertaining to proper interpretation of the clear and essential doctrines found in Scripture. We have referred to this as the Great Tradition, and its authority comes from the Christian consensus of thought on the primary doctrines of Christianity over the last two millennia.
Second, we see that lesser tradition, reason, and experience hold tremendous value for the Christian but become dangerous if elevated to or above the authority of Scripture. Each of these authorities help in filling out the theological matters not explicitly clear in Scripture. However, we have seen that when separated from scriptural influence, these authorities often lead into dangerous waters. The true weight of each of these authorities comes in their ability to illuminate or clarify Scripture—the higher the valuing of Scripture, the more significance the authority has.
Understanding how these authorities interact is crucial for many areas of the Christian life. Recognizing the clear aspects of Scripture (the Great Tradition) as the only areas of true Christian consensus aids ecumenism. When humbled that secondary theological beliefs are important, yet not supremely authoritative, we will be able to love those who disagree with us on nonessential matters yet agree on the necessities. This is at the heart of evangelicalism.
Not only does our study produce greater fellowship among fellow Christians, it enables us to interact better with those outside of the church. To believe with Augustine in treasures of truth among non-Christian groups aids in affirming unbelievers and finding shared ground. But, this overlapping of beliefs will not keep us from holding tightly to supreme truths found alone in Scripture, forcing us to challenge our non-Christian neighbors within our unity with them.
In a world where many elevate personal experience above all, the evangelical theological method presented here empowers Christians to hold to divine truth above subjective experience. Where many in the Church abandon traditional views on Scripture concerning topics of same-sex attraction and transgenderism because of experiences with members of these communities, the evangelical ordering of authorities will leave Scripture to influence our experience.
Scripture alone has the divine ability to help us interpret our world properly—both internally and externally. The evangelical must hold on to it as the ultimate rule over all, but let us not forget that the Word of God is not simply a code of rules to order one’s life and beliefs. We must remember that this Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so that we might not simply have a supreme ruler, but an intimate friend and brother.
 Donald A. D. Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: F. Asbury Press, 1990), 15.
 Ibid., 67.
 “The DuPage Declaration: A Call to Biblical Fidelity,” BRF Witness 25, no. 5 (Oct. & nov. 1990), accessed October 21, 2017, http://brfwitness.freeservers.com/Articles/dupagedec.htm, Article V.
 Wayne Arden Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 130.
 Mark D. Jordan, and Walter Kasper, The Church’s Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults (San Francisco Ignatius Press), 1987. 47.
 Martin Luther, Selected Writings of Martin Luther: 1529-1564, edited by Theodore G. Tappert. vol. 4. 4 vols. (Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1967), 313.
 Olson, 32
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill, John Baillie, and Henry P. Van Dusen, vol. 1, 2 vols (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 76.
 International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 2014, “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 25, no. 1: 1-10, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 21, 2017).
 Grudem, 121.
 Calvin, 43-44.
 Grudem, 123.
 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Translated by D. W. Robertson (Jr. New York, NY: Liberal Arts Press, 1958), 75.
 Thorsen, 203.
 Ibid., 204.
 Calvin, 79.
 Thorsen, 99.
 Olson, 59.
 Winfried Corduan, Mysticism: An Evangelical Option? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1991), 118.
 Calvin, 94.
Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. Translated by D. W. Robertson, Jr. New York, NY: Liberal Arts Press, 1958.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill, John Baillie, and Henry P. Van Dusen. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960.
Corduan, Winfried. Mysticism: An Evangelical Option? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.
“The DuPage Declaration: A Call to Biblical Fidelity.” BRF Witness 25, no. 5 (Oct. & nov. 1990). Accessed October 21, 2017. http://brfwitness.freeservers.com/Articles/dupagedec.htm.
Grudem, Wayne Arden. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001.
International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. 2014. “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 25, no. 1: 1-10. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 21, 2017).
Jordan, Mark D., and Walter Kasper. The Church’s Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987.
Luther, Martin. Selected Writings of Martin Luther: 1529-1564. Edited by Theodore G. Tappert. Vol. 4. 4 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Thorsen, Donald A. D. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: F. Asbury Press, 1990.