Friday, March 16, 2012

What Is Your Theological Trump Card?


Earlier this week, I had a long, deep conversation with a friend who describes himself as a “Lutheran agnostic.” He is a very smart individual, a rigorous skeptic, brought up as a Lutheran and unconvinced concerning the existence of God. Reason is, for him, the deciding factor in matters of theology.

The following day, I was witness to (and participant in) a conversation among my pastoral peers concerning the question “Who is welcome at Holy Communion?” The discussion, as often happens in matters theological, became a little heated. One individual, arguing from tradition, asserted that only the Baptized ought to commune. Another person, leaning on experience, was unwilling to put that restriction on admission to the Sacrament.

John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist movement, was no slouch as a theologian. In his thinking about God, Wesley considered four factors: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In the twentieth century, these four factors came to be called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

It seems to me that different denominations of Christians tend to privilege one aspect of the Quadrilateral over the others. That is, they make one factor their theological trump card. Fundamentalists, for example, make Scripture their highest authority. For Charismatic Christians, their experience of the Holy Spirit takes precedence. This doesn’t mean that Fundamentalists ignore experience or that Charismatics pay no heed to Scripture. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

I think it works the same way among individuals as it does among denominations. My Lutheran agnostic friend makes reason the court of final appeal. In the question of admission to Holy Communion, one of my colleagues relies on the authority of tradition while another leans upon experience. This doesn’t mean that any of them disregards the other factors of the Quadrilateral, only that one factor carries greater weight for them.

I suppose that the different factors might be weighted differently depending on the situation. In questions of admission to Communion, tradition might carry the day for a person, while in ethical reflections reason, or Scripture, might be given place of precedence.

At any rate, it is interesting to me, and perhaps informative, maybe even useful in theological discussion, to consider which of Wesley’s four factors an individual relies upon most heavily. And of course, it’s only fair to be open about my own theological trump card....

My experience of God’s reality is the starting point for my theological reflection. If I had no experience of God, I would probably be an atheist, or at least an agnostic. The Bible is the source and norm of doctrine, and the Church’s tradition is subject to Scripture. But, for me, reason is the trump card. In the end I cannot accept any understanding of experience, tradition, or Scripture that violates reason.

How about you? What is your theological trump card?

I wanted a picture of John Wesley playing cards to illustrate this post, but a Google search turned up nothing useful. That's not surprising, since Wesley was a holiness kind of guy. I settled for George Romney's handsome portrait of Wesley, which I snagged from wiki.


  1. For this particular issue, I would have to say experience is the trump card. I, and I'm sure many others, know the experience of not being included - and even purposely excluded. It is hurtful and the scars last a long time. As a pastor, I 1) will not exclude anyone from God's table - because it is GOD'S table - not mine. Christ has invited them to HIS table - not my house, 2) sharing bread and wine may very well be the Holy Spirit at work in that person, and that sense of community may be what that individual needs at that point in time - 3) it is GOD'S table not mine, 4) If Jesus was willing to eat and drink with 'those people', who are to to do differently?? Oh - and did I say it is GOD'S table!!!

  2. Interestingly, you could make the case for open Communion--or against it--from Scripture and reason, too. It would be harder to build a case for open Communion from tradition.

    I guess what interests me here is not the conclusions we reach so much as how we reach them.

  3. I think I would have to go with reason too. At some point, it has to make sense to me. But then, not EVERYTHING and not all the time. There are some things - like the Trinity - that I accept as something I can't really understand, but I do because the existence of God and the revelation of his Truth in the Bible DO make sense to me.

    But as I think of it, when I encounter a teaching or idea about God that doesn't make sense to me I just naturally have to wrestle with it until it does. And I think that is okay. God created an ordered world that DOES make sense - it isn't a nonsensical world where you crack open an egg for breakfast one morning and a Ferrari pops out... though that might be okay! The world makes sense, and God gave us the gift of reason to comprehend it.

    Take the whole question of salvation. It doesn't make sense to me that a God who loves each ONE of his children so passionately, so deeply that He gave His life to save us - that He would then condemn that one so dearly loved to an eternity of torture on a theological technicality.

    Or even that He would create a world, and then introduce into it a being to deceive the vast majority of His children into turning their backs on Him - and then condemn them all to an eternity of torture for it. Or that this deceiver just popped in, unexpectedly, and is beyond His control.

    That doesn't make sense to me.

    And so I don't believe that's really what is going on - though the Bible and tradition might seem to say otherwise. I say SEEM to say otherwise.

    ...and I would have loved to have seen Wesley sitting at the table with those dogs playing poker!

  4. The Doctrine of the Trinity was thought up by people whose theological trump card was reason. They applied philosophical categories to the witness of Scripture which says there is one God, and their experience of that one God in the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I think the explanation of the Trinity made more sense when such philosophical categories "person" and "essence" were better known. Now, of course, the doctrine is our tradition.

    The nature of God is a mystery, not to be solved but to be contemplated in awe. Such mysteries cannot be fully apprehended by reason, but neither do they violate reason.