The Problem of Authority

Dr. W. Noble King
All Rights Reserved


Prior to the Reformation the problem of authority in social or religious matters was not a matter of rational concern.  In the practical area of the exercise of authority there was often a struggle between competing groups, but the principle of external authority was universally accepted.  With the coming of the Reformation, which was in reality a revolt against authority, the problem of both social and religious authority became paramount, and is not yet resolved.  The problem of authority was the legacy of Medieval Christianity to later ages.1   John Dewey, in discussing the problem of authority, made the following observation:  "The last four centuries have displayed an ever-increasing revolt against authority, first in the forms in which it was manifested, and then against the principle itself."2 

In the area of religion the problem of authority is particularly acute.  James Martineau, writing in the year 1890, stated that the idea of religion of necessity involves some concept of authority.3   P.T. Forsyth, in another classic of the same period, writes:  "The question of authority, in its religious form, is the first and last issue of life…as soon as the problem of authority lifts its head, all others fall to the rear."4

In contemporary theological thought the problem of authority is the Great Divide between conflicting and contradictory systems of thought.  J.I. Packer, in a recent book, makes the following statement regarding authority:  "The deepest cleavages in Christendom are doctrinal; and the deepest doctrinal cleavages are those which result from disagreement about authority."5 

This paper attempts to discuss the problem of authority in religion from several widely divergent, but highly influential points of view.  First the problem of authority as held by the Roman Catholic Church is presented.  Then the problem of authority as held by "liberal theology" is discussed.  The Wesleyan concept of authority is presented as representative of the conservative, evangelical branch of the Church.



The concept of authority in the Roman Catholic church begins with a broad base exalting human reason and ends finally in a narrow apex exalting the Church.  In Catholic theology truth has two areas of content, the natural area and the supernatural area.  Natural truth refers to all that may be known by man through the use of natural reason, including a knowledge of the existence of God.  The teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the place of reason in apprehending truth is clearly stated by the Vatican Council:  "…the Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be certainly known by the natural light of reason by means of created things."6 

In addition to a knowledge of the existence of God, human reason is able to enlighten man regarding many of his duties to his Creator, such as the duties of worship, of love, of thanksgiving, of his duties to himself and to his fellowman.  These truths which man is able to discover by the normal use of natural powers are called truths of the natural order.  However, there are other truths directly related to man's salvation which are called Supernatural truths.  Supernatural truth is received only by the self-disclosure, or the revelation of God, to man.  According to Catholic theology, the revelation which God made to His chosen people was a gradual one.  Speaking to them "at sundry times," God accommodated His message to the degree of culture and the level of spiritual achievement of His hearers.  Beginning with the Patriarchs, the Revelation was progressively given until it became full-orbed in Jesus Christ.  The spiritual truths of the millennia-spanning revelation embody the contents of Supernatural truth.

     I.  Sacred Scripture and Unwritten Tradition.  The official position of the Catholic Church regarding the contents of Divine, Supernatural revelation was stated by the Council of Trent, which convened from 1545-63.  The Council of Trent decreed that the revealed truths of faith and morals are contained "…in written books and in unwritten traditions that the apostles received from Christ himself or that were handed on…from the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit."7 

          A.  Sacred Scripture.  In Catholic thinking the books of the Old and New Testaments are regarded as sacred.  The books of the Sacred Scripture are sacred, not merely because they are free from error, nor because they contain divine truth, but because they are the work of God himself.  "These books of the Old and New Testaments are to be received as sacred and canonical, because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author, and have been delivered as such to the Church herself."8 

In contrast to the Protestant Bible of sixty-six books the Catholic Scriptures contains seventy-two books, and is officially named the Vulgate.  Four ecumenical church councils have officially sanctioned the canonicity of the seventy-two books of the Vulgate, namely the Council of Rome in the year 382; the Council of Florence, 1438-45; the Council of Trent, 1545-63; and the Vatican Council, 1869-70.

According to the sanction of the various church councils the list of books regarded as sacred are as follows.  The Old Testament:  the five books of Moses, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings (I and II Samuel, I and II Kings), two of Paralipomenon (I and II Chronicles), first and second Essras (Ezra and Nehemiah), Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles (Song of Solomon), Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch; the twelve minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obbediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachai; two books of Maccabees.  The New Testament list of canonical books is similar to present day Protestant versions.

It is obligatory that all Catholics accept as sacred the books of the Scripture, for in 1809 the following encyclical was released:  "If anyone does not admit as sacred and canonical the complete books of Sacred Scripture with all their parts, as the holy Council of Trent enumerated them, or denies that they were divinely inspired:  let him be anathema."9

Individual members of the Catholic Church are allowed to read and to keep only those translations of the Holy Bible which are issued with annotations and with the approval of the pope or of a bishop.10 

     II.  Tradition.  While the Bible is regarded as the word of God, it is not the sole authority in the Catholic Church.  Tradition is equally authoritative.  The truths of divine revelation which have not been written down in the pages of Holy Scriptures, but have been transmitted by word of mouth, are called Tradition.11   Divine Tradition differs from human tradition, the Catholic claims, not only because it is of divine origin, but also in that it is divinely guaranteed against corruption and alteration.12   It is noteworthy that the Council of Trent, convening in 1535, in the midst of the religious upheaval called the Reformation, strongly affirmed the position of Tradition in religious matters.  The reasons for affirming the authority of Tradition are frankly stated by Catholic writers.  The following is a typical statement:  "The Reformers had maintained that a personal interpretation of Sacred Scriptures was a sufficient rule of faith, and they had denied the canonicity of certain books of the Old Testament.  To refute these errors the council affirms that tradition is a source of evangelical truth that is as worthy of respect as the inspired writings themselves."13

To the Catholic mind there is little need to demonstrate that oral tradition is a source of divine revelation.  It is claimed that Christ instituted a visible society of spiritual rulers to whom He gave power to teach infallibly.  And the command was to teach and to preach by word of mouth, not by writing.  In harmony with the command of Christ to teach and to preach, the accounts of the early apostolic ministry indicate that it was by oral instruction that the revealed word of God was chiefly propagated according to Catholic belief.

In Catholic thinking all non-Biblical teachings have an authoritative source in Tradition:  "It is by Tradition that we know that our Lord instituted seven sacraments.  It is by Tradition that we know that there is a Purgatory.  Tradition comes down to us from the time of the apostles.  Every doctrine that has always been believed by the universal church comes to us from the apostles.  If, therefore, there is any doctrine of the church that we do not find in the Holy Scripture, we shall find it in the stream of Tradition."14  Divine Tradition is thus authoritative and infallible.

     III.  The Teaching Authority of the Church.  The Sacred Scriptures and Tradition are the twin sources of dogma for the Catholic Church.  However, along with these two sources of positive theology there stands the teaching authority of the Church which is stated as follows:  "The authentic interpretation of this deposit of faith has been entrusted by our divine Redeemer, not to the individual members of the faithful, nor even to theologians, but solely to the teaching authority of the Church.  Apart from this infallible guide to the meaning of salvation, no sound theology can be developed."15 

In essence, then, the problem of authority is solved in Catholic theology by positing authority in the Church.  The Church is the matrix through which both Scriptures and Tradition flow.  Since it is accepted that the divine revelation is transmitted to the Church from Christ through the apostles, then the only acceptable guide to divine truth is the authoritative pronouncement of the Church.  The whole constitution of the church is completely aristocratic and not democratic, her authority coming from above from Christ, and not from below, from the community.16   It would appear that in theory the principle of authority to Catholics arises from the sacred, revelatory nature of Scripture and Tradition.  In practice it seems that ultimate authority is institutionalized in the visible Church.



The beginning of liberalism in the Church can probably be traced to the Reformation.  According to Jean Reville, writing in 1903, liberal theology has undergone at least three distinct stages since the Reformation.17   The first expression of Liberal Protestantism came into being in the form of Rationalism, when the principle of freedom of inquiry inherent in Protestantism became conscious of its own power.  At first Rationalistic Protestants attempted to demonstrate that the teachings of the Bible were always in agreement with the requirements of reason.  Thus the first and most decisive step had been taken.  The authority of reason, even in the domain of religion, was admitted.  All else was to follow of necessity.  When the authority of reason was admitted, the result could not long remain in doubt.18 

The second stage of development toward a liberal theology was the rise of the Protestant scholastic era.  In this era, Christian scholars attempted to discriminate between the element of legend, or traditional corruption in the Gospels, and the element of actual history.  The teachings of Jesus were interpreted in harmony with the outward forms and in agreement with the scientific notions of the times.

The third stage of develpoment toward a liberal theology involved a shift from theology as such to religion as experience and as ethical living.  The Gospel became the moral life in word and in deed, piety in action, and attitude of the heart and conscience, the communication of a spirit penetrating the soul like a leaven and acting as an agent of the spiritual life, to cleanse, to strengthen, and to raise it towards the heights of Divine Life and the moral ideal.

A final level in the development of liberal theological thought could be labeled the scientific and philosophical stage.  For reconstruction of the older orthordox thought and the application of the Gospel to society, of necessity, involved at least some presuppositions.  In this period, liberal thought endeavored to adjust its thinking to the claims of science and the demands of contemporary scholarship.

Liberalism is not confined to any particular denomination or ecclesiastical group.  It is a spirit of inquiry and investigation which transcends denominational boundaries.  Liberal Prostestantism is Protestantism opposed to authority, to intellectual servitude in any shape, and to any obligatory creeds.19  Its main thesis is stated as follows:

The first of the principles, and one which may be considered fundamental, is that religion does not consist in an acceptance of a body of metaphysical dogmas or doctrines, but in a religious attitude of the soul, manifested in a corresponding life."20   Liberalism rejects the ultimate authority of both the Bible and Tradition.  Reason and experience, with greater regard for reason, replace revelation as the ultimate authority on religion.  In describing contemporary liberalism (1942) Arthur Bushman McGiffert makes the following generalization:  "…liberalism is not confined to specific theological parties.  It exhibits all sorts of combinations.  But the common denominator of all liberals is a doctrine of human nature that emphasizes human ability, freedom, dignity, and worth; and a doctrine of religious knowledge, running the gamut from mysticism to scientific method, which stresses the human factor in the process of revelation."21 

To discuss the problem of authority from the liberal point of view involves a seeming contradiction, since the essence of liberalism is the rejection of authority.  However, when it is noted that the authority of reason and experience rather than Scripture and Tradition are the springboard for liberal beliefs, then it is possible to formulate at least a feasible concept of authority.  In this discussion liberalism is somewhat arbitrarily divided into three classes, for the purpose of more clearly interpreting the general concept of authority in liberal thought.  The first group may be called social liberalism, and is represented primarily by liberal pulpiteers.  Of the many influential preachers espousing the cause of liberal Christianity two are selected as the embodiment of liberal thought in action.  These two are Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick.  The second group of liberal thinkers could be labeled the scientific liberals, those whose main emphasis was the harmony of religion with the new scientism of the twentieth century.  Such men as Lyman Abbott, William Newton Clarke, and D.C. Macintosh represent scientific liberalism.  A third aspect of the liberal movement might be called philosophical liberalism, and is represented by Gordon P. Bowne, Nels Ferre, and Paul Tillich.  These three groups, or classes within liberalism are not mutually exclusive, but represent merely different facets of the attempt to reconstruct theology.

     I.  Social Liberalism.  The older orthodoxy and strongly traditional religious groups were too often excessively "other worldly" to some thinkers.  The liberals of the early twentieth century attempted to fill the gap caused by the apparent social unconcern of the orthodox groups by boldly rejecting traditional beliefs and methods in favor of a society-centered Gospel. Two men, Walter Rauschenbusch and Henry Emerson Fosdick are the great apostles of social-religious concern in the first half of the twentieth century.

          A.  Walter Rauschenbusch.  Ernest T. Thompson, in his book Changing Emphasis in American Preaching states that among the myriad voices raised in advocacy and exposition of the Social Gospel, the clearest and most compelling was undoubtedly Walter Rauschenbusch.22   Reinhold Niebuhr writes that Rauschenbusch was not only the real founder of social Christianity in this country, but also its most brilliant and generally satisfying exponent to the present day.23 

After serving as the pastor of a Baptist Church in the West End of New York City, 1886-1891, in an area adjoining the infamous Hell's Kitchen area, Rauschenbusch was convinced that the traditional approach to religion was inadequate.  He writes:  "The whole scheme of religion which tradition has handed down to us was not devised for such ends as we now have on hand and is inadequate for them.  We need a new foundation for Christian thought."24

In attempting to establish a new foundation for Christianity, Rauschenbusch regarded salvation, not as an individual, but as a social process.  To him it was futile to speak of individual conversion, without a corresponding conversion of society.  For individual spirituality is all too frequently overwhelmed and choked by the un-Christian nature of society.  Social Christianity, in contrast to individual piety, is a distinct type of personal religion which expands the personal element into every phase of society, resulting in a keener recognition of sin, and in more durable powers of growth, which would be essential if Christianity was to retain power to attract men to it. 

In Social Christianity there is "surprisingly little dogma and speculative theology, and a tremendous quantity of holy will and scientific good sense" says Rauschenbusch.25   In fact, dogma and beliefs as such are considered a hindrance to the application of the principles of Christ to society.  However, Rauschenbusch is more critical of the authority of the Church than of dogma.  He felt that the Church tended to become rigid and static at given levels of cultural life.  He remarks:  "It is venerable with age and it venerates its own venerability.  It carries a great body of traditional thought to which it claims divine wisdom and authority.  Consequently it has kept up fossil customs for a thousand years."26 

To Rauschenbusch the Kingdom of God, a state of dedicated living, is the first and most essential dogma of the Christian faith.  In the concept of the Kingdom of God one finds the basis for divine authority.  For, as Rauschenbusch puts it, "…no man is a Christian in the full sense of the original discipleship until he has made the Kingdom of God the controlling purpose in his life."27   In his rejection of traditional Christianity, Rauschenbusch was motivated more by the social inadequacy of the old-time religion than by its beliefs.  However, traditional dogma was also rejected because it was sterile in the area of intellectual progress.

          B.  Harry Emerson Fosdick.  Fosdick had rejected the traditional pattern of theological thought as early as his sophomore year at Colgate University.  But it was not until he preached what was intended to be a conciliatory sermon entitled "Shall The Fundamentalists Win?"  that he became publicly associated with the cause of liberal thought.  In the sermon Fosdick had candidly stated his liberal views on some points as follows:  "…the virgin birth no longer accepted as historic fact, the literal inerrancy of the Scriptures incredible, the second coming of Christ from the skies an outmoded phrasing of hope."28   The storm of protest from the fundamentalists in the wake of the sermon led to Fosdick's resignation from the First Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He was called "Modernism's Moses" and was known as the "high priest" of Modernism for decades.

While Fosdick accepted the tenets of liberal thought, his interests were primarily pastoral and practical.  Hence he solved the problem of authority not so much by academic dispute as by positive declaration of the new Gospel.  His approach may be summed up in these words:  "Christianity is primarily something to be done.  It is not first of all a furnished set of propositions to be accepted; it is first of all an unfinished task to be completed.  It is a way of thinking about life and living life to be wrought out personally and socially on earth."29   Fosdick, like Rauschenbusch, made the ultimate authority in religion the reaction of the individual to the demands of life.

     II.  Scientific Liberalism.  In contrast to social liberalism, scientific liberalism was primarily concerned with the academic, with the attempt to restate Christianity in symbols and ideas in harmony with the scientific spirit which had become more and more dominant in the United States since the Civil War.

One of the earliest of the scientific liberals was the renowned Lyman Abbott.  He was particularly influenced by the doctrine of evolution and endeavored to explain the rise of man and of religion in evolutionary concepts.  In attempting to make the transition from traditional to scientific theology Abbott felt that he was not basically changing religion, but rather refurbishing religion with an up-to-date wardrobe.  He writes:  "So there is a new theology, though not a new religion.  God, sin, repentance, forgiveness, love, remain essentially unchanged, but the definitions of God, sin, etc., are changed from generation to generation."30 

In attempting to redefine the contents of religion Abbott frankly accepts the evolutionary hypothesis.  His authority for this shift in authority is simple:  "I believe absolutely all biologists are evolutionists.  They have proved themselves careful, painstaking, assiduous students of life.  I assume the correctness of their conclusion."31   Thus Abbott rejected orthodox beliefs because of the unanimous testimony of specialists in the area of biology.  Working out from this evolutionary framework Abbott proceeded to define and describe sin, revelation, redemption, and all important religious concepts in the light of evolutionary authority.

Another example of the liberal tendency to reconstruct religion on scientific principle is Henry Nelson Wieman.  Where such men as Abbott attempted to interpret old truth in the new wine-skins of evolutionary concepts, Wieman attempted to apply the method of science to the verification of all religious truth.  In the application of scientific methodology to religious truth Wieman stated:  "We believe metaphysical knowledge is quite within the bounds of human attainment, providing one does not mean by metaphysical the transcendental.  But all such knowledge must be attained through the experimental operations of concrete living."32 

Wieman suggests that there have been three great means of infallibility reaching truth that have been set up by different people at different times.  One of these has been religious authority, while another has been philosophy, often called "reason."  The third and latest to assume the role as an infallible source of truth is science.  Wieman does not accept science itself as authoritative.  He does accept the methodology of science, experimentation, as the ultimate source of religious authority, for he writes:  "Truth, then, consists of concepts put into the form of beliefs that can be verified by way of experimental operations."33   In discussing religion as a life-changing agency Wieman rejects traditional concepts of the nature of such a religion, by stating:  "The answer must be found by empirical inquiry into what actually does bring about such a change."34 

The formation of a complete theology based on the empirical method was attempted by D.C. Macintosh in his book, Theology As An Empirical Science.  According to Macintosh:  "Empirical theology, like the physical sciences, would be a science descriptive not of experience, but of an object known through experience."35  A more comprehensive explaining of his system is given in the following statement of Macintosh:  "As the laws of the physical, mental, and social sciences are general or universal statements as to what matter or physical energy, or living substance, or mind, whether of individuals or social groups, can be depended upon for, under certain conditions, so whatever discoverable laws of empirical theology there may be will be general or universal statements of what in human experience God can be depended upon for, under certain conditions."36 

By founding theology upon the laws deduced from human experience the theologian will be able to both predict the adjustment of man to God and provide adequate conditions for such an adjustment.  In a scientific way it will be possible, according to Macintosh, to structure a theological theory, covering such points as the moral and metaphysical attributes of God, the relation of God to individual men, to the events of human history, and to the realm of nature.  Such a theology, it was claimed, would be the only bona fide "new theology,"  destined to replace all rivals for that title.37   The faith of Macintosh in his scientific theology was expressed in these words:  "To the undogmatic experience-religion of the present, it will be, with the help of modern science and the principles of induction, what the theology of Thomas Aquinas was to the extern-authority of the Middle Ages with the aid of the Aristotelian logic and philosophy."38 

     III.  Philosophical Liberalism.  The philosophical liberal, unlike the scientific liberal, is primarily concerned with metaphysics.  Since it is impossible to apply the scientific method to metaphysical problems, the philosophical theologian uses rationality as the method of arriving at truth.  Among the great liberal thinkers in the development of philosophical theology in the United States are such men as Borden P. Bowne, Edgar S. Brightman, Charles Hartshorne, and the contemporary giant, Paul Tillich.

In Tillich's thinking modern Protestantism is characterized by the lack of formal authority and the quest for a material principle.39   The lack of a formal authority does not imply, to Tillich, the lack of an awareness of the problem of authority.  The struggle is about an accepted, valid authority.  He comments:  "None of the struggling groups denies authority, but each of them denies the authority of the other group."40 

In expressing his own views Tillich dogmatically rejects any established authority when he states:  "There is something in the Christian message which is opposed to established authority.  There is something in the Christian experience which revolts against subjection to even the greatest and holiest experiences of the past.41 

Tillich states that an ultimate answer to the problem of authority cannot be given.  Neither can man circumscribe the place where God gives authority to man.  Reflecting his existential philosophy Tillich writes:  "It (authority) cannot be legally defined.  It cannot be put into fences of doctrines and rituals.  It is here, and you do not know where it comes from.  You cannot derive it.  You must be grasped by it.  You must participate in its power.  This is the reason why the question of authority can never get an ultimate answer."42 

But for the practical purposes of systematic theology some norm must be found by which to explain the content of religious authority.  The norm suggested by Tillich is that of rationality.  In the light of rationality the contents of theology as found in the Bible, in history, and in experience are evaluated and systematized.  Tillich suggests that rationality is essential to theology for three reasons.  Semantic rationality is necessary to clarify meanings in relation to their various connotations.  Logical rationality is essential for the organization and expression of meaningful discourse.  The third principle determining the rational character of systematic theology is the principle of methodological rationality.

The principle of methodological rationality implies that systematic theology follows a method.  The method used by Tillich is the method of correlation.  The method of correlation is explained as follows:  "The method of correlation explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence.  The analysis of the situation and the development of the questions constitute a philosophical task.  The answers to the situation cannot be inferred from the question, for the answers are spoken to humanity from without."43 

By the method of correlation Tillich seeks to avoid the error of static, objective truth regarded as "…the sum of revealed truths which have fallen into the human situation like strange bodies from a strange world."44   He also claims to avoid the error of regarding truth as naturalistic or humanistic.  Thus to Tillich authority has two facets, the philosophical and the theological.  Both facets, however, are judged by the new being, Christ, as apprehended by human reason.

In discussing the problem of authority from the liberal point of view three phases of liberalism have been presented.  The social liberal places ultimate authority in the pragmatic results produced in life.  The scientific liberals apply the methods and principles of science to theology.  The philosophical liberal introduced philosophy as an essential ally in the task of ascertaining the nature of authority.  Each point of view is true to the liberal spirit of rejecting fixed authority, Biblical or traditional.  In place of a static authority, the liberal posits ultimate religious authority in human experience or in man's rational powers.



John Wesley was not a systematic theologian, and did not formulate a formally structured pattern of doctrinal concepts.  Rather he was a religious genus who worked out a practical system of religious authority based on Biblical, historical, and pragmatic ideas.  In Wesley's teachings the Bible is always primary and ultimately authoritative.  However, the Bible was always interpreted in the light of human experience.  In addition to the Bible and experience, reason was incorporated into Wesley's concept of authority.

     I.  The Bible.  After his famous Aldersgate experience Wesley's preaching became a source of agitation and aggravation.  Wesley believed his teachings to have Biblical foundation and validity, for he said:  "If I am a heretic, I am become such by reading the Bible."45   As the heat of controversy increased he gave his reason for a Bible-based authority in these words:  "I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air.  I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God:…I want to know one thing,…the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.  God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven.  He hath written it down in a book.  O give me that book!  At any price, give me the book of God!  I have it:  Here is knowledge enough for me.  Let me be homo unius libri."46 

To Wesley there were four grand and powerful arguments which strongly induce the belief that the Bible must be from God, namely, miracles, prophecies, the goodness of the doctrine, and the moral character of the penmen.47   All the miracles flow from divine power; all the prophecies, from divine understanding; the goodness of the doctrine, from divine goodness; and the moral character of the penmen, from divine holiness.  Wesley, an instructor in Logic at Oxford in earlier life, proposed a logical argument to prove the divine inspiration of Scripture.  His argument is as follows:  "The Bible must be the invention either of good men or of angels, bad men or devils, or of God.
 1)  It could not be the invention of good men or angels; for they neither would nor could make a book, and tell lies all the time they were writing it, saying "Thus saith the Lord," when it was their own invention.
 2)  It could not be the invention of bad men or devils; for they would not make a book which commands all duty, forbids all sin, and condemns their souls to hell to all eternity.
 3)  Therefore, I draw this conclusion, that the Bible must be given by divine inspiration."48   Wesley's logic was not infallible here, since it is a rule of logic that a conclusion cannot be drawn from negative premises.  But Wesley would not have changed a great deal, even if the logical fallacy had been indicated, for he said:  "My ground is the Bible; yea, I am a Bible-bigot.  I follow it in all things, both great and small."49   To Wesley the Bible was indeed the pilgrim's guide, as indicated by the following statement:  "He esteems nothing good, but what is here enjoined; he accounts nothing evil but what is here forbidden, either in terms, or by undemable inference.  Whatever the Scripture neither forbids nor enjoins, either directly or by plain consequence, he believes to be of an indifferent nature; this being the whole and sole outward rule whereby his conscience is to be directed in all things."50

II.  Experience.  While the Bible is the keystone of the triumphal arch of religious authority, it is by no means the sole support of Wesley's teachings.  Supporting the keystone of Biblical revelation was the subjective truth of vital experience.  Wesley was not a strict literalist, or Bibliolater, in the sense of some present day Fundamentalists.  His Notes on the New Testament indicate a freedom in Scriptural interpretation which is totally lacking in "literalism."  Wesley brought severe Scriptural tests to bear upon all religious experiences.  Any failure to recognize the idea of the Bible as a book of experiences will result in a misunderstanding of Wesley.  As one writer has stated it:  "It is not, therefore, a question of either Scripture or experience.  Rather, it is a fact of vital interaction between the two."51

A typical phrase found in Wesley's writings is:  "All experience, as well as Scripture, show…"52  Any Christian teaching was to be empirically verified, that is, in experience.  It was because of the testimony of experience that Wesley changed his idea that people claiming the experience of perfection could not be tempted.  Experience also forced Wesley to change his idea that people who professed to be "sanctified" could not lose the experience.  Regarding the authority of experience Wesley said:  "What Christianity promised is accomplished in my soul.  And Christianity, considered as inward principle, is the completion of all those promises…and this I conceive to be the strongest evidence of the truth of Christianity.  I do not undervalue traditional evidence.  Let it have its place and its due honor.  It is highly serviceable in its kind and in its degree.  And yet I cannot set it on a level with this."53 

     III.  Reason.  Much has been said about Wesley's disparagement of reason.  Matthew Arnold called Wesley a third-rate mind and Casserby more recently has called him an irrationalist.  Many with an anti-intellectual bent have used, or misused Wesley, to justify a "cult of ignorance" in spiritual matters.  It is true that Wesley opposed the arid rationalism of Deism, as well as the sterile scholasticism of Formalism.  But Wesley had a high respect for reason and insisted on a scholarly interpretation of religious truths.  The Oxford logician writes in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection:  "Try all things by the written word…you are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture;…and so you are, if you despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning; everyone of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.  I advise you never to use wisdom, reason, or knowledge, by way of reproach."54 

In a sarcastic letter to Dr. Rutherford, who had criticized the Methodists as antagonistic to reason Wesley writes:  "It is a fundamental principle with us that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion."55   Wesley's concern was for reason in its proper perspective.  His antagonism was against reason exalted or misused.  He writes:  "…my concern is for the overturning of all the prejudices of corrupt reason…that blind leader of the blind, so idolized by the world, natural reason."56 

Wesley would employ reason as far as he felt it would go.  At the same time, he insisted that reason was utterly incapable of giving either faith, or hope, or love.  Thus it could not, in Wesley's thinking, produce either real virtue or permanent happiness.

In Wesley's approach to religious authority the Bible occupied the supreme position.  But at the right hand of the Bible stands Christian experience as a balance and as a standard of interpretation.  Reason was given an essential, but a subsidiary position.

1 F.M. Powicke, The Legacy of the Middle Ages  (London:  Oxford University Press, 1926), p.  23. 
2 John Dewey, Problems of Men  (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1946), p.  93
3 James Martineau, The Seat of Authority in Religion  (London:  Longmans, Green, and Company, 1890), p.  1.
4 P.T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority in Religion In Relation To Certainty, Sanctity, and Society  (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1906), p.  1.
5 J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1958), p.  44.
6 George D. Smith, The Teaching of the Catholic Church  (London:  Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1947), p.  3.
7 A Catholic Catechism  (New York:  Herder and Herder, 1957), p.  17.
8 Smith, Op.  Cit., p.  30.
9 John F. Clarkson, ed., The Church Teaches  (St. Louis:  B. Herder Book Company, 1955), p.  48.
10 The Holy Bible  (Chicago:  The Catholic Press, n.d.), p.  xi.
11 Richard Clark, ed., The Catechism Explained  (New York:  Benzigen Brothers, 1899), p.  84.
12 Smith, Op.  Cit., p.  29.
13 Clark, Op.  Cit., p.  85.
14 Ibid.
15 Clarkson, Op.  Cit., p.  87.
16 Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism  (New York:  Image Books, 1954), p.  20.
17 Jean Reville,  Liberal Christianity  (New York:  G.P. Putnams, 1903).
18 Ibid., p.  22.
19 Ibid., p.  4.
20 Ibid.
21 David E. Roberts and Henry P. Van Deusen, ed., Liberal Theology  (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942), pp.  119-120.
22 Ernest T. Thompson, Changing Emphasis in American Preaching  (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1943), p.  183.
23 Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics  (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1938).
24 Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order  (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1913), p.  42.
25 Ibid., p.  118.
26 Ibid., p.  34.
27 Ibid., p.  49.
28 Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1956), p.  146.
29 Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Secret of Victorious Living (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1934), p.  50.
30 Lymon Abbott, The Theology of An Evolutionist (New York:  Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1897), p.  3.
31 Ibid., p.  7.
32 Henry Nelson Wieman, The Wrestle of Religion With Truth (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1928), p.  15.
33 Ibid., p.  22.
34 Henry Nelson Wieman, The Call To Commitment (Carbondale, Illinois:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1958), p.  16.
35 Douglas C. Macintosh, Theology As An Empirical Science (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1919), p.  26.
36 Ibid., p.  41.
37 Ibid., p.  45.
38 Ibid.
39 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1951), Vol.  I, p.  49.
40 Paul Tillich, The New Being (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), p.  85.
41 Ibid., p.  87.
42 Ibid., p.  88.
43 Ibid., p.  60.
44 Ibid.
45 John Wesley, Letters, ed.  by John Telford (London:  The Epworth Press, 1931), Vol.  IV, p.  216.
46 John Wesley, Sermons, (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing Co., 1957), Vol.  5, Preface.
47 John Wesley, Works:  "A Clear and Concise Demonstration of the Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures" (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing Co., 1957), Vol.  XI, pp.  478-479.
48 Ibid.
49 John Wesley, Journal, (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing Co., 1957), Vol.  5.  P.  169.
50 Wesley, Sermons, Vol.  6, p.  225.
51 R. Benjamin Garrison, "Vital Interaction:  Scripture and Experience," Religion and Life, XXV (Autumn, 1857), p.  563.
52 Wesley, Sermons, Vol.  II, p.  236.
53 Wesley, Letters, Vol.  II, pp.  383-384.
54 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
55 Wesley, Letters, Vol.  V, p.  364.
56 Wesley, Sermons, Vol.  I, pp.  149-152.
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