Natural Revelation or Scripture Alone?
Why do people have a tendency to create a false dilemma out of so many issues? Often one side of an issue is so strongly emphasized that the other side becomes lost or is even seen as an opposing idea. Meanwhile, both sides are true and harmonize, so to reject one or the other is presenting a half-truth. This is often more deadly and dividing than a complete and total fabrication.
Let's take the role of the written Word in the life of a Christian. Some so strongly emphasize its role that they make an idol out of the Bible. They exchange a living relationship with the WORD (Christ), for "head knowledge" of the Word (scripture).
First off, this is not an attempted departure from the Reformation. Sola Scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it simply demands that all other authorities are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written word of God.
The reformers were quite right in denying Rome's assertion that that tradition was on par with scripture and an equally valid basis for doctrine. I do not argue for Prima Scriptura, I agree that scripture alone is authoritative in matters of doctrine.
However, tradition, experience, and reason all have a place in the Christian experience, as Wesley tried to articulate with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scholars may argue over what weight should be assigned to each but it is clear that a completely unbalanced view is dangerous.
The reformers rightly swung the pendulum away from Rome's heresy but is there a danger of it swinging too far? Where does Sola Scriptura end and Bibliolatry begin?
What I take issue with, is when some "teachers" seize upon the following verse and a few more like it, and in "splendid isolation" from the rest of scripture, dig a theological mass grave for themselves and their followers.
2 Timothy 3 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work...
Yes, it is absolutely true that scripture is and does all of these things, but does it say that scripture is all that is required. What about the following verse?
John 5:39-40 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
It's as true today as it was for the Pharisees of old. Salvation is not in the book itself, it's in the person the book points to, and the book is not the only means at his disposal for dealing with men. After all, he is the creator of everything around us and great life lessons can also come by existential experience, as you personally work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
I'm talking about a "living relationship", it's one thing to read scriptures and know "about" God, it's quite another to "know" God. The question is - in your daily life, in your day to day experiences, is your faith "authentic", or just theoretical?
The point I am trying to make is that our faith is dead without actions (James 2:26), no matter how much "head knowledge" we have, it is useless and dead without existential expression. Our actions play a role in the perfecting of our faith. We build character as we react to tests, trials, opportunities, challenges, and "exercise" our faith. Our faith becomes purified and "authentic" by application of the word, not by hearing the word.
Mental assent to the truth of scripture is good, but one must not stop there. One must persevere through thick and thin, and have faith that endures amid the challenges of life. There is a need for these experiences, just as there is a need for doctrine.
2 Corinthians 4:17 For our present troubles are small and won't last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever...
In this verse, is it scripture that produces the glory in us, or is it our present troubles (existential sufferings).
Romans 5:3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Is it the Word that produces the perseverance, or is it the suffering?
I could go on and on with dozens of verses that completely contradict the idea that scripture alone is the only means by which God works on men's hearts. It is absolutely authoritative in matters of doctrine, but not the only way God strives with men.
Suppose we have a rowboat with two oars. One is scripture and the other is the existential experience. By this I mean life experience such as trials, tests, challenges, overcoming, sufferings, victories, failures, etc.
Some theologians completely throw out one oar (existential experience) and can only go in circles, with a dead faith that has "head knowledge" only. No deeds, no trials, no tribulation, no tests to refine and prove its mettle.
On the other hand, a transcendentalist like Ralph Waldo Emerson makes the opposite mistake and throws out the other oar - scripture. Deprived of "special revelation" and "objective truth", he is lost on a sea of subjective thought, going in circles of the opposite direction.
In actual fact, both oars together will allow one to row swiftly on a straight course to a personal relationship with God that is tried, tested, and true. This produces "authentic" faith, which is in harmony with and guided by scripture, but also existentially expressed and proven.
Consider Romans 2 - Even someone who has no knowledge of the Word is without excuse because there is "natural revelation" and what God requires is written on men's hearts - it's "innate". The "special revelation" of the word is not the only way God reaches out to men.
Existential experience within the boundaries God has set, with the innate moral compass planted within, with the striving of his Spirit, is still limited without the authoritative guidance of the Word - that's true. It is best to have both working in unison. The Word and the merits of rationalism should not be ignored, downplayed, or rejected.
The opposite is also true. Without existential expression and internal witness, the Word does not produce a crop. As in the parable of the seed that fell on rocky soil, or shallow soil, only under certain conditions will the Word produce a crop.
Luke 8:15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop... Hmmmm... Where have we heard this word persevering before? What produces it?
It is completely right to uplift the Word but a word based faith is dead, untried, and untested, without actions to exercise and purify it within an existential framework. A "head knowledge" religion won't "cut it", there is no "authenticity" until faith is applied and tested.
On the other hand, faith that has been tried and tested in the furnace of affliction is like pure gold - it's authentic. That doesn't come by the Word alone, it comes by persevering through the sufferings and challenges born of existential experience.
Jeremiah 9:7 Therefore this is what the LORD Almighty says: "See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?
Who is speaking here? It is the LORD Almighty who is doing the refining and testing. Why didn't he just give them more of "the Word" (doctrine), why does he decide to refine and test them instead?
The fact is, they already had the Scriptures, they had theoretical, knowledge-based faith. To purge them of their sin and purify their faith, he needed to have them exercise it. Again and again, in scripture we find God plunging his people into a harsh existential setting, that would challenge their faith.
Isaiah 48:10 I have refined you, but not as silver is refined. Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering.
Some say - "If problems were what perfected us, then most Christians would have been perfected long ago and those who experienced the greatest problems would be the greatest Christians".
I could use the same logic and say that if the Word alone perfected us, God would have left us in the garden of Eden with a Bible, and we would all be perfect. He didn't, he kicked us out of Eden to learn some hard "life lessons".
Besides this "natural revelation" of existential experience, he gave us his prophets and apostles, angels, his Son, his Spirit, and the written Word. God works on multiple fronts, in various ways - not just by the written Word. Scripture is authoritative in matters of doctrine, and a source of objective truth, yet it must be applied and experienced.
Faith must be tested and purified to be of any value. It is not a hearer of the word, but a doer of the word that is right with God. One can be a Bible scholar, in fact, a professor of theology with scriptures "coming out of their ears" but not "know" God, be born of love, or have any perfection of character. There are many examples, here is just one:
Bishop Raymond John Lahey had a Bachelor of Theology, a Licentiate in Theology (L.Th.), and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) but he was still caught lying to protect the pedophile Priests in his charge and was himself caught importing child pornography of the most graphic, horrendous, and torturous kind. Something more is required than rationally apprehending the Word, one must live the Word.
In conclusion, there is a reason why God allows trials of many kinds to enter your existential reality and test your faith. There is also a reason why he disciplines us when we stray, although it can be painful. The reason is - he LOVES us and wants the best for us, but the best gift does not come easily, or by simply having the Word.
James 1:2-15 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. .. Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
For more study here is another article along these lines - http://www.globalchristians.org/articles/messiah/sufferjc.htm