Four Resources in the Study of the Revealed God

Thomas Oden [taken from his work Classic Christianity]

rev567Christian Scripture, Christian tradition, Christian reasoning, and Christian experience all exist in response to God’s historical revelation in Israel and Jesus Christ.

The sources of the study of God are in this way seen in a sequence that moves from originative event (Christ the Revealer of God the Father) as proclaimed by the community, to the record of the earliest proclamation (written word), to the traditioning—or “passing along,” paradosis, transmission—of that word intergenerationally through time (tradition), which elicits personal and social awareness and experience of the salvation event (experience), which then becomes the basis of the reflection required to think consistently about the meaning of the salvation event (reason)—each layer depending on the previous one (Clement of Alex., Strom. 6.10; Augustine, Chr. Doctr. 4.21; Tho. Aq., SCG 1.9; Calvin, Inst. 1.6, 7; 3.20; Hooker, Laws of Eccl. Polity 3.8).

The oral tradition of apostolic preaching preceded the written tradition of New Testament Scripture. That is the proper sense in which it is rightly said that the tradition of preaching stands chronologically prior to Scripture. The unwritten oral apostolic tradition was a preached word, a teaching of the living church prior to the writing down of New Testament Scripture. Apostolic preaching itself is a product of oral tradition, taken, like a still photo of a moving picture, and frozen at one crucial point, so that the original oral witness to revelation could be transmitted to subsequent generations. But after the first generation of witnesses, the church viewed the transmission of tradition from the vantage point that assumes Scripture as already having been written and ever thereafter funding and enabling new embodiments of the same apostolic teaching (Conf. of Dositheus, CC: 485–516; Heidelberg Catech. COC 3; Tavard, Holy Church, Holy Writ).

Paul was referring to the apostolic tradition he had received and passed on when he wrote: “Stand firm, then brothers, and hold fast to the traditions which you have learned from us by word or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). “By word” refers to the preached word, whereas “by letter” refers to epistles and gospel narratives (Basil, On the Spirit 29.71). Until Mark, Paul, John, and others began to write their Gospels and letters, there existed much lively preaching and oral tradition, but as yet only minimal written tradition in addition to Hebrew scripture (Chrysostom, Catech. Lect. 5.12). The written apostolic tradition emerged only when the oral tradition was in danger of losing some of its immediacy and authority through the impending deaths of the eyewitnesses. The writing down of that witness made the revelation more exact and transmissible to subsequent generations through a continuous succession of ministries of preaching and teaching.

Scripture Funds Tradition, Reason, and Experience

A constant equilibrium of these four interdependent resources is required in order to receive and reflect upon revelation: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. All four are grounded in, responsive to, and springing out of historical revelation. Revelation remains the precondition of all four basic sources of the study of God. Revelation is that from which the whole subject matter proceeds. There could be no Christian study of God without God’s own initiative to become reliably known (Gen. 35:7; Ps. 98:2; Isa. 65:1; Rom. 1:18; 16:25, 26; Rev. 1:1, Origen, Ag. Celsus 3.61).

Scripture: The Written Word.

Divinely inspired Scripture is the chief source and norm of Christian theology. Why is a written word required, if God is revealed in history? Because the written word preserves and triggers memory.

After the resurrection and before the writing down of the New Testament documents, many in the primitive Christian community expected the historical process to be concluded quickly (Mark 13:32–37). They assumed that an end time was eminent. But as history surprisingly continued, this community slowly began to realize that it needed to write down its message as historical experience continued to be extended for an indefinite (though limited) duration. If emerging generations were to be addressed with this invaluable message, this would require writing down the history of Jesus the Revealer, and of the first generation of witnesses to him (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1–5; John 21:23–25; Chrysostom, Hom. on John 88.2). After the death of the original eyewitnesses, Scripture is the primary written access of believers to the history of revelation (Chrysostom, Hom. on Acts 1). Tradition is simply the history of the exegesis of Scripture. The process of passing along the tradition must occur ever again in each new historical circumstance (Quinisext Synod, canon 19).

The New Testament contains these writings that survived—documents that ultimately went through a complex intergenerational process of being transmitted, read in public worship, studied avidly, interpreted through preaching, analyzed, and finally in due time authorized as being ecumenically received credible witnesses to this revealing Word (Gregory of Nyssa, Answer to Eunomius, 2). Already the Hebrew Bible was viewed by Christians as divinely inspired Holy Writ. To these documents were added the New Testament—those narratives and letters authorized to be read aloud in Christian congregational worship all over the known world. The New Testament became formally canonized as Holy Writ (Athanasius, Festal Letters). It was valued among Christians as highly as the books of law, prophets, and wisdom, which it fulfilled and explained. The New Testament included letters, instructional documents, and accounts of Jesus’ ministry, written in the first century.

The prime criterion for authorization was authenticity of apostolic authorship. This canonization process was accomplished by a living, growing, human historical community, by the consenting church in ecumenical concurrence, utilizing the best historical information available to it (Tertullian, Prescript. Ag. Her. 15–44; Apost. Const., “Eccl. Canons,” 85; Councils of Alexandria, Carthage, Hippo). It took several centuries for this process of consensual formation to develop into an accepted canon of apostolic tradition. By the fourth century virtually all dioceses of Christian believers had basically agreed upon those documents that were universally accepted as apostolic tradition (Synod of Laodicea, canon LIX). Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions have all agreed on the central premise that Scripture is the primary source and guideline for Christian teaching, although differences emerged on the status of the deutro-canonical Apocrypha (“hidden” writings included in the Greek Septuagint). Both Testaments are received by the church as sacred writing (Council of Rome, SCD 84), as depositum of faith inspired by God the Spirit (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, SCD 1951), to be guarded and handed down by the church and interpreted in the light of the consensus of the ancient ecumenical teachers (SCD 786) and the sense of the church, according to sound principles (Pius X, Lamentabili, SCD 2001).

The Bible, composed of two sets of testimonies or covenants (Old and New), is the deposit of the sufficient and adequate witness to God’s self-disclosure. Other valued sources of the study of God—tradition, reasoning, and experience—remain essentially dependent upon and responsive to Scripture, since they must appeal to Scripture for the very events, interpretations, and data they are remembering, upon which they reflect, and out of which their experience becomes transformed. Scripture remains the central source of the memories, symbol systems, hopes, teachings, metaphors, and paradigms by which the community originally came into being and has continually refreshed and renewed itself (African Code, canon 24). Christianity differs from Judaism primarily in that it is not still looking for that fundamental messianic event to disclose the meaning of history. It remembers that event as having occurred in the ministry of Jesus, whose living presence is received and experienced in Holy Communion and the preached Word (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho; R. Niebuhr, NDM 1.1).

Each Scripture text is best received, understood and interpreted in the light of its relation to the Bible as a whole. All texts are open to be illuminated by both scholarly historical inquiry and by reverential personal insight under the guidance of the Spirit (Origen, Hom. on Numbers, 27; Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter). The Spirit’s witness does not completely cease with the canonization of Scripture, but continues by providing a guiding light for the benefit of consensus formation and personal experience. New events emerge in the ongoing historical processes that are to be understood in the light of the word made known in Scripture. Yet no fundamentally new or different knowledge is required for the saving knowledge of God than that which is revealed in Scripture (Council of Rome, SCD 84: 33, 34; Westminster Conf. 1.1–10).

Tradition: The Word Remembered

The teaching office given to the church requires transmission of the history of the events of God’s self-disclosure to subsequent generations without distortion. This multi-generation task of accurate transmission in all its oral and written forms is called tradition—the passing along (paradosis or transmission) of apostolic teaching from parents to children, generation to generation.

The proper use of tradition, as Jews and Christians have lived it out concretely, is a vital social reality. Its task is to receive and transmit the history of revelation. The task has sometimes been wrongly conceived or implemented, so as to convey archaic traditionalism or rigid formulas or in-group biases that do not adequately convey the vitality of the sacred writings. Tradition invites not only written and spoken words. It wants to be danced, sung, feasted upon, and celebrated, as in a Bar Mitzvah or wedding. Tradition is shared in a social process through seasonal celebrations and the recollection of mighty events (Quinisext Synod 66).

Christians have a complex history of their own. In each new developing historical situation, believers have come to discover, reformulate, and restate in their own language the unchanging revealed Word. These ever-new formulations of each new period of the tradition’s reflection about revelation continue to live out of Scripture. Each one is new, since historical experience is ever new (Gelasius, Decretal, SCD 164–166).

Fruitful experiences of previous Christian communities are awaiting fresh assimilation into the apostolate by contemporary believing communities. Contemporary believers stand, not at the beginning of history, but amid it, and not as isolated individuals but with a community of prayer and song and story that has stored a mass of data about the lively experiences of an actual risk-taking historical community (Apost. Const., Eccl. Canons). Only the narrowest individualism would imagine that every believer must begin from nothing, as if no others had ever had any experience of God.

Classic writers have one distinct advantage over modern sources: they have already been thoroughly tested, questioned, probed, analyzed, and utilized in different historical situations. Modern interpretation does well to build upon that extensive examination. The gospel has been expressed with greater fullness and clarity in some centuries than in others. Some brilliant insights into scriptural truth have had to await “their century” for a hearing.

Theology builds progressively upon previous generations of the study of God, using stores of wisdom both old and new (Matt. 13:52; Augustine, Sermon 74.5). Rediscovered insights into Scripture and tradition keep coming to the attention of the church at unexpected times (Cyril of Alexandria, Fragment 172, Reuss, MKGK 209). Each age has the possibility of contributing something to the storehouse for subsequent ages that will study God, yet that fact does not imply that the received faith itself is being substantively changed from generation to generation (Simplicius, The Unchangeableness of Chr. Doctrine, SCD 160).

The Word Experienced

The Spirit speaking through the Scripture awakens in us the awareness of God’s revelation in history, allowing us to recollect and participate in attested events that bestow meaning on the whole of history. The vast range of experiences, metaphors, symbols, and recollections of a historical community become accessible to later generations. We are invited to correlate our personal experience with the social and historical continuum of the faithful (Deut. 6:20–25).

It is misleading to pit tradition against experience, since tradition is precisely the continuing memory of this vast arena of social and historical experiencing. There is a profound affinity between the community’s tradition and our personal experience: one is historical-social-ecclesial and the other is personal-individuated-unique, yet both are forms of embodiment of life in Christ. What was once someone else’s experience becomes a part of my own experience. Christian teaching seeks to enable this community’s experience to become personally validated and authenticated as my own (Wesley, WJW 1: 470; 5:128; 8:1; Buber, The Hasidic Masters; Herberg, Faith Enacted in History).

If a corporately remembered experience is to become personally appropriated, it must be or become congruent with one’s own concrete experience, with what one is feeling. The integration of the tradition into one’s own feeling process most powerfully occurs in worship. Christian teaching does not simply reflect on corporate memory as an abstract or distant datum, but, rather, seeks to integrate social memory congruently within one’s own feelings (Basil, On the Spirit 28).

Experience is to the individual as tradition is to the historical church. Both are enlivened by the Spirit. Experience seeks to enable the personal appropriation of God’s mercy in actual, interpersonal relationships. Faith becomes personal trust appropriated in a disciplined and responsive way of life, sharing the love and mercy of God with whomever possible (Clement of Alex., Strom. 2.2).

Any truth that does not connect with personal experience is likely to remain opaque to the single individual, no matter how clear it may be to all others. A truth that has not become a truth for me (Kierkegaard, Concl. Unsci. Post.) is not likely to bear up through crises. The personal side of theology is effective when daily life is providing experiential evidences of the reliability of faith’s witness. This does not imply, however, that personal experience may unilaterally judge and dismiss Scripture and tradition. Scripture and tradition are received, understood, and validated through personal experience, but not arbitrated or censored by it. Rather Scripture and tradition amid the living, worshiping community are the means by which and context in which one’s personal experiences are evaluated (1 John 4:4; 1 Cor. 4:3, 4; James 3:1; Tertullian, Prescript. Ag. Her. 33; Oecumenius, Comm. on James, 1:19).

Reason: The Word Made Intelligible

The fourth bulwark of the quadrilateral stronghold is reason. Willingness to apply critical reasoning to all that has been asserted is required in order to avoid self-contradiction, to take appropriate account of scientific and historical knowledge, and to see the truth as a whole and not as disparate parts (Ambrose, Duties 1.24–28). The study of God is a cohesive, rational task of thinking out of revelation. Faith does not cease being active as it undertakes the process of rigorous thinking. One need not disavow the gifts of intellect in giving thought to their Giver (John Cassian, Conferences, First and Second Conferences of Abbot Moses).

Right use of reason resists the overextension of the claim of reason. Reason must not imagine itself as either omnicompetent or incompetent. The Christian tradition does not characteristically view reason as autonomous, as if completely separable from other relational, historical, and social modes of knowing the truth. Reason, rather, seeks to provide for religious discernment some appropriate tests of cogency and internal consistency (Theophilus, To Autolycus 1.3–2.4; Athenagoras, Plea for Christians 12–18). Reason explains, guards, and defends revealed truth (Qui pluribus, SCD 1635), and faith should not be thought of as contrary to right reason (Syllabus of Errors, SCD 1706).

The Christian study of God is, as Anselm taught, a faith that is seeking to understand itself (fides quaerens intellectum), a faith that is in search of its own intrinsic intelligibility in a way that respects mystery and knows its own limits. Christian teaching lives out of a community of faith that does not hesitate to ask serious questions about itself (Anselm, Proslog. 1). The knowledge we have of God is always a knowledge prone to potential distortions twisted by our own self-assertiveness, sin, evasions, and constricted vision.

We have limited competency to see even ourselves honestly, much less the whole of history. Nevertheless, the study of God proceeds with the powerful resources of Scripture as enlivened by the power of the Spirit, with candid admission of the recalcitrant egocentricity of the one seeking to know (Clement of Alex., Strom. 2.10–19). The study of God requires intellectual effort, historical imagination, empathic energy, and participation in a vital community of prayer (Augustine, Answer to Skeptics).

As the Word becomes proclaimed and heard, we appropriate it amid changing cultural experiences, reflect upon it by reason, and personally rediscover it in our own experience. The study of God best proceeds with the fitting equilibrium of these resources.

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