The United Methodist tradition (with much of American society more broadly) is confused about the place of scripture in Christian debate (much less, broader American debate). I blame this confusion on Martin Luther, not that he participated directly in it. Luther proclaimed the doctrine of “sola scriptura” (scripture alone). Of course, he didn’t mean “alone” literally (this is ironic given that many later became literalists as an outcome of this doctrine!). Literally, scripture alone is a privation – an absence. Words without a known author or audience, without rules of grammar and syntax, are merely collections of scribbles on a page. Thus, scripture which is literally alone cannot be scripture. Luther was aware of this. Indeed, beyond this, he required additional resources for the correct interpretation of the scripture, namely the witness of the Holy Spirit. But, let us lay that note to the side for a moment…
My own tradition, United Methodism, has never drunk of the pseudo-Lutheran Kool-Aid. At least officially we have not. One can find lots of United Methodists who are closet (or not-so closet) fundamentalists (meaning that they are in the WRONG TRADITION, fundamentalism is a Calvinist movement). These pseudo-Methodists work as if the Bible speaks ex nihilo, independent of any other structure of human knowing (epistemology). These are only pseudo-Methodists. Unfortunately, we went through a long period where our denominational traditions watered themselves down rather than celebrating what they found central to their own identities. As such, many people ended up not knowing to what tradition they properly belonged.
So here is the deal: United Methodists are not “sola scriptura” Christians. The United Methodist Church recognizes the authority of Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition: the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is “so-called” because Wesley neither discovered, nor formally articulated this scheme. One can find Anglicans and Roman Catholics who are quick to use it as their own tradition’s approach. This is not entirely wrongheaded. Unlike the Lutherans, Baptists, and Calvinists, the Methodist tradition is wise enough to have allied itself with the traditional church in avoiding scriptural foundationalism. Unfortunately, in the midst of the imitative fervor for epistemic foundationalism the function of the four “sources:” for theology have often been confused. So called progressives have played experience against scripture while so called conservatives have asserted that “scripture” is primary while other sources are somehow secondary. Both are rejecting the wisdom that their tradition offers.
So, let me clarify the most fruitful understanding of the “authorities” recognized in United Methodism. They are not four different authorities. Rather, combined, they constitute a rejection of any reductive, foundationalist approach to Christian knowing. Words (the substance of scripture) do not make sense apart from experience, reason, and tradition. We are taught words. No one knows quite how. As Wittgenstein noted, even pointing is a kind of language, so we must learn some language before we having things pointed out to us … but I digress. In any case, without experience and tradition, we would not know words, much less be able to make sense of them in sentences. Further, the “making sense of” sentences inevitably involves human reason: the ability to abstract ideas and fit them together. Words, after all, stand for ideas or relations between ideas, otherwise we would not be able to make sense of them apart from the particulars of “this cat” and “that mat” as they appear in front of me (and not you).
So here is the deal. We never read the scripture apart from our own experiences, reason, or traditions. Nor do we read the tradition independent of scripture, experience, and reason. These are not normative claims. They are descriptive claims. In other words, if you think you read the scripture as a sui generis document, independent of your own experience, or reason as you have come to grasp it, or the tradition as you have wrestled with it, you are wrong. You may not have drawn on any of these well, self-reflectively, or self-critically, but you have drawn upon them. If you think you are reading independent of these other “sources,” The United Methodist tradition does not recognize what you are doing as somehow supremely authoritative. It recognizes what you are doing as reductive and wrongheaded.
Our studies of the Christian tradition (or, Lord help me) our EXPERIENCES of studying the Christian tradition, contribute to any reading of scripture that we undertake. So, our reading of scripture aids us in understanding the tradition. Our experiences of life in the present do not exist independent of our immersion in scripture and tradition. Nor does our experience of reading the scripture exist uninfluenced by our immersion in present experience. The hermeneutic circle is never halved.
The reading of scripture may, indeed I suspect it does, require more than The United Methodist tradition has articulated in its Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. It probably requires reading in the context of an ongoing present Christian community, and reading in the light of the witness of the Holy Spirit (unless this is already subsumed under Experience more broadly). But, whatever more may be required, the reading of scripture never requires less than is articulated in the context of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In this, I am entirely in agreement with my own United Methodist tradition.