The Mind of the Christian Independent (Part 02) – Rubric for Truth

The previous post under this title is the basic framework for what I call the Christian Independent position.  The “independent” comes from the fact that I do not identify with any particular denomination or theology as of this moment in time (not that I don’t have theological beliefs, it’s just that I don’t identify with any major system).  It also represents the fact that I will never allow myself to be told what the “truth” is by any person, denomination, or group and expected to accept it as such simply because “they said so” or because they can point to bible verses they purport “prove” their position to be true.  It is in this independent-minded spirit that I claim the label.  I think for myself and if there is one thing I have learned in this whole process it’s that you have to think for yourself.  There are plenty of people out there who would love to tell you what to believe.  If you are going to be a Christian Independent like me, then people need to know that while you will respectfully listen to them explain their beliefs, you will decide for yourself whether or not they have provided sufficient evidence to warrant acceptance of their position. 

Whose version of Christianity to believe?

I want to introduce to you the rubric I use to establish the truth of any claim relating to my faith and one I hope you will use as well.  There are many theologies and so-called “Christian” beliefs out there, so it becomes necessary to have a standard by which to evaluate them.  I have stolen and expanded the Methodist idea of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to include three others:  scholarly research, conscience, and the community/church, all of which I will briefly explain.

1.  Scripture.  The Bible provides the bulk, though not all, of the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.  If something is to be genuinely Christian, it should at least be consistent with the spirit of Scripture.  Notice I said, the spirit of scripture and not the letter, for “the letter (in Greek:  “the literal”) kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).  Following the letter leads to legalism, while following the spirit leads to freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).  Of course, anyone familiar with Christian theology is well aware of the vastly different ways of understanding what the bible actually teaches.  There are two basic approaches to interpreting scripture (a field known as hermeneutics).  The first is the historical-grammatical approach.  This method seeks to interpret scripture by analyzing the writings in terms of their grammatical structure and syntax.  Those believers who adopt this method tend to lean toward a more literal interpretation of the Bible.  The second is the historical-critical approach.  This hermeneutic seeks to evaluate the text from a perspective that emphasizes critical comparison of the literature with other writings of the same time period in order to understand the literary style of the writing.  It probably goes without saying that this method takes an approach that is more focused on understanding the bible in its literary context and relies heavily on identifying the literary device structures in the text such as metaphor, allegory, and various forms of poetry.   You’ll notice that both approaches have the word “historical” in them.  This means that they both believe that the historical and cultural contexts are important in the interpretive process and they seek to do their work in the light of that data.  While both methods are necessary for interpreting scripture on the whole, the historical-critical approach is primary for me.  I do use the historical-grammatical method as well, but only after I have sufficiently understood the literature I’m studying and have determined that its use is appropriate in a given passage.  I’ve also found that the historical-critical approach often leads to a better understanding of the spirit of the text whereas overuse of the historical-grammatical method can lead to rigidity and legalism.  Again, both are necessary.  It is discerning when best to apply the latter that is key.  It goes without saying that without a proper interpretation of scripture, you will never arrive at an accurate conclusion.

2.  Tradition.   Not everything was written down for the early church by the time the apostles had died. The next generation, known as the early church fathers – men who actually knew the apostles and were taught by them – began writing to the churches much in the same manner as Peter, Paul, and the other apostles.  There are admonitions and praxis in the writings of these church leaders for which we cannot find direct prescription in scripture.  It is highly possible that these were included in the body of teachings in the sub-apostolic years because they were part of an oral tradition that was seen to be as equally binding on the early church as was the written word.  Though this was likely the case, I must point out that their teachings are not from the horse’s mouth so-to-speak and so you have to figure in the fragility of human memory and the possibility of slight distortions or misunderstanding (however unintentional these may have been).  If you read these writings you will certainly notice they are a step down in clarity and prose from the apostles.  Despite their lack of literary prowess, however, they can be helpful to understand how Christian thought developed among people who actually knew the apostles and even Jesus (e.g. Clement of Rome), though I cannot stress this point strong enough:  they are not authoritative in the sense that scripture is – that is, in representing the official teachings of Jesus.  The tradition can probably be most purely ascertained among those writers who recorded teachings prior to the first council of Nicea in 325 C.E, although the doctrines were developed even further later on (see #7).  The same applies here as with scripture.  The spirit is what matters and not the letter.

3.  Reason.  If what someone claims to be the truth on a given matter is riddled with logical fallacies and contradictions, then it does not matter how many bible verses or church fathers they can quote.  If God said it, it should be logical and coherent.  If it’s not, it’s pretty safe to assume God didn’t say it!  Some may object by saying, “Logic does not apply to the study of God because it is only fallible human reasoning.”  The problem with this statement is that it is self-defeating.  The statement itself is a logical proposition applying ‘fallible’ human reasoning to the study of God!  Thus, they are using logic to deny the use of logic.  This is another example of violating the law of non-contradiction (see part 01).  While it is true that no one uses perfect reasoning and we all have our blind spots and things we’d rather not see, our reason is not as corrupted as some extreme protestant theologies claim.  If it were, there would be no way to know if we were reasoning about anything correctly – including the bible!  This is another reason to recognize the importance of #7.  Besides, there’s a reason why they call it theo-logical studies.  The best thing I ever did for myself in my search for truth was to take a college level class in logic where they teach you deductive and inductive reasoning.  It was through utilizing those reasoning skills that I was able to recognize and discard many absurd doctrines.  I highly recommend it (if you do not have the time or resources to take a college course, I would recommend the book Come, Let us Reason:  An Introduction to Logical Reasoning by Norman Geisler and Ron Books as a good starting point.  There are also a lot of free resources on the web).

4.  Conscience.  Any teaching that violates a person’s conscience should not be accepted.  We have God-given intuitions about notions such as love, justice, mercy, and many others.  It strikes me as the epitome of absurdity to think that God gave us these intuitions to ignore them.  If someone teaches something like, for example, as some Calvinists do, that God sends certain babies who die as infants to eternal perdition simply because they were not among the ‘elect,’ and your conscience finds this unjust and cruel (as it hopefully does) then you should not accept such a doctrine to be true, no matter how much scripture and logic the person throws at you.  Remember, you must decide what is true and false and not be strong-armed into anything that violates your conscience.  If a person says that your intuitions are wrong, it is their responsibility to provide argumentation for how they are wrong.  A reply such as, “They’re wrong because the bible says they are” is called begging the question and it is circular reasoning.  They cannot just point to the bible to show you your intuitions are wrong because the intuitions in question are seemingly in conflict with the very bible they are quoting!  They have to argue convincingly through objective and sound reasoning (see #3) that what seems intuitive to you is actually misguided.  Only when they are able to do this should you abandon your intuition and consider their position.  Until they do, stick with your gut!

5.  Experience.  While this is probably the weakest of all them, no one should discount their personal experience.  Remember, all of these need to be taken together.  The more that agree, the more solid your grounding for believing something.  If you experience God’s presence through the practice of centering prayer, then don’t let someone come along and tell you your experience isn’t real.  At the same time, you always want to be open to the possibility that you could be misinterpreting your experience or what caused it.  With that being said, your personal experiences with God are important.  After all, isn’t even scripture itself a record of someone’s personal experience?

6.  Scholarly research.  If science (or any academic discipline) and the bible are describing the same reality – the only one that actually exists – then there should be no contradiction in what they claim.  They may describe differing aspects of the same thing in various ways, but should not be saying something altogether different.  The church has gotten itself into a lot of trouble in the past because it insisted on a literal interpretation of the bible in a particular area in the face of indisputable evidence to the contrary.  Don’t fall for the baloney argument that just because something is derived from a secular source that it isn’t true.  That’s called a genetic fallacy and it is unsound reasoning.  All truth is God’s truth, regardless of the source.  After all, you wouldn’t question your medical doctor’s instructions when you have the flu just because he or she were an atheist, would you?

7.  Community/Church.  One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear a Christian say that they think they can just open the bible, read it, and understand it without any instruction from teachers or experts who supply critical background information such as cultural beliefs, customs, philosophies, grammatical and lexicographal considerations, and learned insights from years of study.  Not only is it ignorant, it’s arrogant.  You are not an island unto yourself.  For all of church history, God’s people have come together to talk about the meaning of certain teachings of the faith.  The point here is that you should be building your theology in community with other Christians.  And I don’t mean only those of this generation or those from your particular denomination or theological tradition.  There have passed many generations of believers from a variety of backgrounds since the time of Christ.  If you wish to gain the most accurate understanding of the truth and how it should be applied to your life you would be wise to include them in your studies (see #2).  I apologize to conservatives in having to say this, but, in this case, it really does take a village.

Even if we all were to adopt this rubric for evaluating our beliefs and practices as Christians, we are not all going to come to the same conclusions about everything.  I’m sure this is no surprise, but I remember the days when I used to think that anyone who disagreed with what I believed was a heretic.  As a general rule, never assume that you or your beliefs are the standard for anything.  Remember, as sincere as you are in your belief, you could be sincerely wrong.  Humility is an important part of the process for Christians who want to learn to think for themselves.

Conclusion

I did the best I could to compact my philosophical and practical approaches into these two blog posts.  I hope this provides you, my readers, with an understanding of where I come from and how I arrive at my conclusions.  You may not agree with my approach, but that’s okay.  I simply wanted to familiarize you with my thought process so you would know what I mean when I say I am a Christian Independent.  As long as you have good reasons for taking the approach you do then we can interact with each other in dialogue as fellow believers in the mutual effort to discover the full truth available to us as revealed by God.

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9 thoughts on “The Mind of the Christian Independent (Part 02) – Rubric for Truth

    • Hayden, hopefully there will be emerging themes or a particular direction the evidence points in. The broader the idea you are investigating, the more likely it is the evidence will converge toward a basic point. If you are researching something very specific, it’s possible there will be divergent ideas. A lot of it depends on which points of the rubric are contradicting. If experience and tradition point in one direction and scripture and reason point in another one, then the best thing to do is to reapproach each side and see if there are alternative ways of understanding the data. By generating differing views you may come to a place where you find complementary ideas. If not, then the best thing to do is to put it aside until you are able to get some more information on the topic, because remember – there is no such thing as a true contradiction, only apparent ones.

  1. Hayden…good question. That would be really confusing. Also, I remember my parents always saying that people who don’t want to take the Bible literally just don’t want to listen to what it says. But this post shows there are two ways of interpreting the Bible, I think. Or are they supposed to be used together…I wasn’t so sure on that one. Anyhoo, I think this is the first time I heard anyone talk about using science and all that in understanding the Bible…much to think about.

    • Hey Stef, regarding the use of science, theologians talk about reading God’s two books – the book of revelation (the bible) and the book of creation (nature). They should both be saying the same thing, though they may not be approaching it from the same direction. Yes, the two methods should be used together, but like I said, I prefer the historical-critical approach and use the historical-grammatical one mostly with the epistles.

  2. Jordan, I think you place reason on an equal level as the Word of God. Remember that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways higher than our ways. Also, tradition is a sketchy source of info on doctrine. I believe with the Reformers that our beliefs have to be based on sola scriptura, or scripture alone. It’s not that these other things aren’t important, it’s just that they need to be subjected to scripture.

  3. Bill, I appreciate the high view of scripture you’ve shown in a couple of threads on this site. People quote the Isaiah passage all the time, but it would be erroneous to think that what it is saying is that God operates on a level of reasoning beyond the one we do. If that were the case, by what means would we be able to comprehend anything He did? I think the passage is talking about the depths of his wisdom both in mind and in practice because He knows all things and, compared to us, that puts Him on a whole different level. I do not agree with sola scriptura because often that becomes an excuse to not read or investigate evidence for things outside the Bible. In my experience, it often is a way of holding onto pet theologies that contradict reason and experience. Someone will arrogantly say, “Well you believe science, but I believe God.” Also, you have to keep in mind that an accurate understanding of the Bible is informed by historical scholarship and the text itself is understood through the use of reason. Like I said in the post, to deny this is to use the very reason you are denying. These other methods act as “checks” against blind spots in doing theology and it avoids the problem of inerrancy which should not be assumed at the outset anyway. Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers,
    Christian

    • Thanks Michael…negative comments just spur me on to be a sharper thinker and more compassionate man. Plenty more coming in the days ahead…stay tuned!

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