The United Methodist Church holds that Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason are sources and norms for belief and practice, but that the Bible is primary among them. What is your understanding of this theological position of the church?
In traditional Wesleyan thinking, scripture must be the central source of theology and all of the other three means listed above are secondary. Yet, that can create an interesting dilemma. Do we use scripture to interpret our experiences and to put hedges around our tradition and to limit our reasoning, or are each of the three ways of interpreting and using said scripture. I think that one of the challenges presented by both postmodernity and the emergent movement is that we are in all cases limited by our human finitude. We simply cannot go back and use scripture in a vacuum. We always interpret it through a lens, through a glass dimly. Our historical understandings of events are culturally flavored. And scientific advances have also challenged tried and true scriptural understandings, leaving us to ask whether we read passages in scripture as absolute truth or as humanity’s best understanding of events, at the time, as inspired by God.
I think the best way of defining our norms and practices is to hold all four of these sources as important and yet also realize that even grounded in all four of these, we might not have the full picture. Our practices and our beliefs might still need to grow and change as we grow in our faithfulness towards the God of all creation. One of the gifts that postmodernity brings is the idea of the intersubjective – that which we hold as a community in common. It allows us to discern together what the best practices are for us right now as we attempt to be faithful, and yet also leaves open the possibility that another truth, a better practice, a more precise or expansive norm may exist.
In effect, that is what we do through conferencing. We leave open the possibility that the Holy Spirit still has places to move us. We share our stories and allow ourselves to be formed by others. We read the bible through new eyes when we hear it read at General Conference in the voice of a brother from India or a sister from Africa. We can communally gain a more holistic picture of God than our own subjective experiences and methods of reasoning and traditions and even versions of the scriptures permit.