The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Community: Tradition, scripture and reason

Heartfelt - Tradition, scripture & reasonThe Christian community, then, was a community called into being by God in Christ Jesus, and in early Christian theology it was called the Body of Christ, or the Body of the Anointed One. As such, the community developed ways of talking about itself and its relationship with God (also known as “theology”); first, in worship and prayer; second, in terms of the conduct and quality of its common life; and third, in the content of its proclamation to the world – the gospel or “good news” of salvation in Jesus the Anointed One. It was this experience of itself as a community of faith that generated what is now known as Christian scripture, or the “New Testament.” Note well: Christian scripture arose out of the community’s experience of the living and active Word of God borne by the Holy Spirit; and that the community was not formed around written documents prescribing the community’s beliefs. Note, too, that the community developed not just one way of talking about itself and its relationship with God. Christian scripture is as theologically diverse as any collection of writings can be. Perhaps we can draw from this that not only is there not just one way to talk about God, so there isn’t just one way to be a Christian.

A note on terminology: In our time, “Christian scripture” is a more accurate term than “New Testament,” because we understand that, for many people and for good reason, the so-called “Old Testament” has not been superseded or replaced in any way. We regard Jews as sisters and brothers in relationship with the God of Abraham, Sarah and all the rest. Neither is “Old Testament” an accurate term and for the same reason. “Jewish scripture” is more descriptive and more accurate as a matter of fact and history.

Scripture, then, is authoritative for the Christian community, not because it tells us how to live but because bears the stamp of Christians’ earliest reflections on the experience of being church – the Body of Christ gathered in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Scripture points to and may indicate a path toward the truth of God in Christ, but it does not coerce our understanding of that truth, and it does not preclude our understanding being somewhat different from preceding generations of Christians. Christians are called to hear the living and active Word as it is mediated through scripture into our own time and place; otherwise, Christian scripture is no more than ancient writings that, in large part, have nothing whatever to do with the contemporary experience of faith.

Contemporary faith is also informed by church tradition, of which scripture is a significant part – but not the only part. Much of what the church does in worship, for example, comes to us from long-established practice and custom that has evolved over time into a contemporary expression of ancient norms. There is nothing in Christian scripture, for example, about the church’s traditional order of worship and liturgical customs. There is nothing about the sign of the cross or any of a number of ancient customs that Christians have practiced for centuries. There is nothing about chalices, patens, fair linen, gospel processions and litanies, but we do know from documents other than first-century scripture that these have been customary in Christian worship almost from the beginning, and that they have been regarded always as legitimate developments from the early church. This is a hotly contested point in Christian history, as some movements have sought to remove anything from Christian spiritual practice that is not found in first-century scripture; and the truth is, there is very little in Christian scripture about these things. If the Bible is your literal “proof-text” for how to worship, then there’s little to justify any Christian worship customs at all. It’s all in how any given congregation interprets Christian scripture. In Anglican tradition, the silence of scripture doesn’t mean we throw out the custom, because we are informed in our understanding of contemporary Christianity not only by scripture but also by tradition – again, of which scripture is a significant but not the only part.

Contemporary faith is also informed by reason, the use of our God-given rational minds to understand, appreciate and interpret the world in which we live. Reason is not the only way we’re called to understand the world, because clearly we are called as well to understand it in myriad other ways – through art, for example, and certainly by faith in that which we believe created all things. By reason we examine our faith, but also by faith do we examine our reason, because our experience tells us that, at the heart of all things, there is a mystery that is inexhaustible by either reason or faith; and that, we believe, is God. It is unreasonable to expect that we can explain God by reason; and it is unfaithful to expect that we can explain God by faith. Our reason can not comprehend God because we simply are not aware of all there is; and faith is not about explaining anything – and there is nothing “blind” about it. Faith is quite simply the willingness to let one’s self be loved by God. The “life of faith” follows from that one decision. The question is, “Will I let God love me, and if so, how? The Christian answer among the many answers human religion has proposed through the ages is, “By accepting Jesus Christ as my savior and Lord.”

That acceptance bears a lot of unpacking, and we’ll certainly discuss it at length later in this course. For now, though, let’s just say that faith and reason ask different questions about the world we live in, and that neither fully comprehends the meaning of it all. The community of faith is always obliged to let reason be a tool for understanding but not the sole criterion by which truth is understood. Faith is not a tool for understanding but the underlying relationship with God that sets the context for reasonable discussion. Faith listens lovingly and hears the story of God in Christ, believes the story as it is told and appropriates the story’s meaning for life here and now, especially as the story leads one into worship, prayer and active ministry in the world. Very often, faith and reason form a tension within which we must live with uncertainty, ambiguity and, perhaps, even ambivalence about what we believe. Theologically, it’s as though God prefers that there be no compelling proofs of God’s existence, because that forecloses our freedom to deny it – but also, if we choose, to accept God’s unconditional love that heals our brokenness and empowers us to make this world better.

In Anglican tradition, tradition, scripture and reason form the basis of theological method as the fundamental process by which we examine contemporary questions of faith. How are we informed by church tradition? How are we informed by scripture? How are we informed by reason? There is a kind of Trinitarian dynamic in this three-way conversation, and matters are not always resolved but establish a creative tension within which we can, perhaps “agree to disagree” but still be together as a fellowship of faith to worship, pray and work for the spread of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

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