The latest theater in the Methodist proxy war over homosexuality has involved attacks here and here on the “so-called” Wesleyan quadrilateral. It’s really painful to me to see the “so-called” adjective being added to it.To me, the quadrilateral is one of the jewels of Wesleyan theology regardless of its derivative status. I don’t see it as a method of Biblical interpretation per se, but rather open honesty about what everyone really does when they interpret the Bible using the plain meaning of the text itself, the church’s interpretive tradition, our deductive reason, and the meta-rational intuitions of our experience. The conservatives don’t like “experience” because it’s not something they can pin down and adjudicate decisively. But to drop-kick “experience” from Biblical interpretation is really to say that the Holy Spirit is not allowed to speak to us outside of the Biblical text. It’s very apropos for us to be having this conversation on the eve of Pentecost.
First of all, when we read the Bible, we bring our “experience” to it whether we acknowledge this officially or not. There is no way to evade our own unique socialization that causes us to privilege certain aspects of whatever scriptures we read over others. For example, when a group of Latin American campesinos were given the parable of the talents to look at, they thought the third servant who defied the master was the hero of the story. For those of us who have never worked for cruel masters, we presume without a second thought that the master is the protagonist and the wicked servant really is wicked. I have a traditional reading of this story, but one that would make many evangelical Christians uncomfortable, because the placement of the story before Jesus’ famous sheep and goats passage makes me think the third servant who buried the talent exemplifies the kind of Christianity that is focused on eternal self-preservation under the terror of a “harsh master” God and thus seeks the safest solution to all theological questions (like a self-interpreting Biblical text in which our personal experience doesn’t factor), which is represented in the parable by the servant returning to the master exactly what he thought was required of him.
It’s only the proclivities of modernity that make personal experience a bad thing to be transcended in an interpretive process because the illusive goal of modernity is “objectivity,” granting ourselves the magical omniscience of not having a particular vantage point. To deny the place of personal experience in interpretation does not concern the sovereignty of the text, but the sovereignty of the interpreter. We want to own God’s truth exhaustively in our mystery-free Bibles so that we can be the gatekeepers of His knowledge. We’re like the students that poet Billy Collins writes about in his “Introduction to Poetry”:
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Now the primary aspect of this whole “experience” question for me has to do with my belief in the Holy Spirit, the pneuma in the theopneustos from 2 Timothy 3:16. I don’t believe that God only breathed into the writers of the Bible; I believe that the Spirit continues to breathe into us through our daily encounters, whether it is full-on charismatic prophetic revelation or peripheral glimpses and tastes of the kingdom. If you say that no meta-rational revelation in our life experience can be allowed to influence our reading of scripture, then what you’re really saying is that the Holy Spirit is trapped in the Bible like a genie inside a lamp. Furthermore, you’re saying that we don’t really have a personal relationship with a Christ who lives and speaks today, but only a relationship with a Holy Book through which we learn about a historical figure named Jesus.
Every Christian is a mixture of spirit and flesh. There is a side of our meta-rational experience that comes from our flesh (worldly influences, idols, etc) and does indeed corrupt our ability to perceive Biblical truth rightly. But there is also a side of our meta-rational experience that is genuinely God-breathed. When we are led to Bible verses that speak directly to pressing incidents in our lives, I don’t think that’s just a coincidence (which is what I would be forced to say if I were trying to pretend that life experience does not factor in my interpretation of the Bible). Rather, the Holy Spirit deliberately breathes revelation into our life experience to make a connection between the text of our lives and the text of God’s canon.
It’s not really possible to stand outside of ourselves enough to distinguish between interpreting our lives according to the Biblical canon and interpreting the canon according to our lives. We will always be doing a little bit of the latter even if we’re genuinely trying to do only the former. Since I believe in the unique authority of scripture, I am committed to viewing my life through its lens to the degree that I can. But I also think that God’s placement of the people and circumstances of my life (i.e. my experience) has all been according to His purpose. The reason I have come to this belief is precisely through being given scriptures by God with which to understand each chapter of my life. So it’s all mixed together; my experience is always already “corrupted” by scripture.
This brings me to another dimension of the “experience” question. Christians who read the Bible regularly develop intuitions about the character of Christ from having an intimate familiarity with the stories of His life. I can have a “sense” about a social issue based on my intuitions about the character of Christ in His encounters with the woman at the well, His disciples, the centurion with the sick servant, the prostitute who washed his feet, etc, but I might not have a specific, easily demarcated “proof-text” to back up my view, which makes others presume that my scripturally-derived intuitions are no more than “personal feelings.”
Not every text in the Bible is explicitly prescriptive; we privilege the ones that are if we’ve made the choice to read the Bible as an “owner’s manual,” which is why the stories about Jesus are usually given much less weight than the explicit pastoral instructions of Paul, particularly the household codes for husband/wife, master/slave relations (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:18-25) and the vice lists (if they have to do with sexuality like 1 Cor 6:9-10 but not if they have to do with the schismatic contentiousness that is the hallmark of Protestantism like Galatians 5:19-21). Yet, if we’re going by 2 Timothy 3:16, then it’s not just explicitly prescriptive texts but “all scripture [that] is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
To access the teaching and training in righteousness of scriptures that are not immediately self-evidently prescriptive requires a longer-term meditative, experiential processing of the text that cultivates the heart of Christ in a Christian disciple even if all that disciple can articulate sounds like nothing more than “personal feelings.” So a fully faithful encounter with scripture involves processing both explicit, obvious “Thou shalt not’s” and as well as more holistic models of Christlike behavior that must be experienced in life in order to be understood. Those who denigrate the intuitive and only trust the fully perspicuous and deductive are like servants who refuse to take the risk of investing their master’s talents in ways that are not completely under their control.
Ultimately, I trust in a God who wants us to take risks in our quest to understand Him and delight in His beauty. He didn’t just leave us a book; He’s much more proactive than that. He is reaching out to us through His Holy Spirit in our everyday experiences (which we absolutely understand more clearly the more our minds are shaped by His canonical poetry). Christians who think God “is a harsh man who reaps where he doesn’t sow” (Matthew 25:24) and want to bury their talents in the safe dirt of the obviously prescriptive presume that God’s will is not something we’re supposed to contemplate and wrestle with; we’re just supposed to comb His scripture for the plain and obvious direct commands and stick to those.
Two of the best sentences in United Methodism’s 2008 Book of Discipline are on page 77: “The Christian witness, even when grounded in Scripture and mediated by tradition, is ineffectual unless understood and appropriated by the individual. To become our witness, it must make sense in terms of our own reason and experience.” Maybe by 2016, United Methodism will continue on its path of Calvinization to the degree that they’ll take those two sentences out and replace them with something like, “God doesn’t want you to understand; He just wants you to do what He says.” Or maybe the Holy Spirit will shatter the self-assurance of those who prefer the safe dirt of a static, historical “God-breath” to a living, dynamic, currently active one.