By Tyler McKenzie
In his book Blue Parakeet, Bible professor Scot McKnight explains that every semester he gives the students in his Jesus class a test. Part one has 24 questions inquiring what they think Jesus is like. Here are four examples:
Is Jesus moody?
Is Jesus talkative?
Does Jesus think marriage is old-fashioned and should be done away with?
Does Jesus prefer to go his own way rather than act by the rules?
This set of questions is followed by another that asks the students what they think they are like. Here’s the catch. Both parts are the same questions, just tweaked a bit. McKnight says that every semester the results are the same. When they compare their answers from both parts, the traits people attribute to Jesus are the traits they attribute to themselves.
I’m reminded of the French philosopher Voltaire’s words, “If God has made us in his image, we have returned the favor.” I see this played out often within the church. People form Jesus in their image to justify their preferred sins or pet doctrines. This serves to give divine approval to artificial truth. This is the opposite of spiritual formation. When we become more like Jesus, that’s spiritual formation. When we make Jesus become more like us, that’s spiritual deformation.
THE WESLEYAN QUADRILATERAL
This trend within the church is indicative of a larger cultural shift in how Westerners arrive at truth. I call it “The Ascendance of Lived Experience.” The idea is that our lived experience (our individual feelings and inner desires) is the starting point for determining what is true. You can probably anticipate what makes this problematic. If we aren’t careful, we end up with a bunch of competing tastes rather than objective truth.
That said, while lived experience may not determine truth, it is important to acknowledge that it plays a key role in contextualizing truth. The Wesleyans help here. They use an interpretive lens for discerning God’s will called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It suggests there are four considerations we must honor when arriving at the truth and its appropriate application: lived experience, reason, church tradition, and Scripture.
In our cultural moment, trust in Scripture and respect for church tradition are low. So, we tend to journey toward truth in the following sequence:
1. We start with our lived experience or the lived experience of our friends. This is deeply personal and therefore powerful.
2. Then we reason based on that.
3. Then we unflatteringly critique church tradition based on our lived experience.
4. Finally, we take our lived experience and read it into Scripture.
Basically, we bring church tradition under the authority of our reason (which is egotistical), and we bring Scripture under the authority of our lived experience (which is downright heretical). What the church customarily has done is the opposite:
1. We start with Scripture.
2. Then we read that in conversation with church tradition, the great saints who have come before us.
3. Based on this, we then reason our way to a God-honoring application of truth.
4. Lastly, we bring our lived experience under the authority of the truth.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral serves to bring lived experience under an authority (God) and a community (the historic church) that is far bigger, wiser, older, multicultural, and weathered than us.
FROM AUTHORITY TO AUTHENTICITY
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor sums this up when he suggests we’ve moved from an “Age of Authority” to an “Age of Authenticity.” While basically every culture before us has stressed the importance of negotiating your personal feelings and inner desires in a way that works for the common good of your community, the modern West suggests you first look inward to discover the authentic you, and then turn outward to demand that your community affirms who you are. Truth doesn’t come from the outside in, it flows from the inside out.
This creates incredible friction with orthodox Christianity because we are not an inside-out faith. We’ve always said our identity is found in Christ, our purpose is found in the designs of our Creator, and our moral code is found in our sacred texts. We submit to these external authorities, experience inner transformation, and then express this resurrected self as worship and testimony. Authenticity is not a fruit of the Spirit. Tellingly, after listing the Spirit’s fruit, Paul wrote, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24, New Revised Standard Version).
If we take a long look in the mirror, what we sometimes call “authenticity” is nothing more than conformity to what the formational forces of our world are telling us. Through aggressive quasi-religious political tribes and inescapable digital inputs, we are being evangelized relentlessly with alternative gospels—in classes at school, in shows on Netflix, in 24/7 breaking news, in articles online, in influencer posts on Instagram, in celebrity commencement speeches, and in throwaway comments from coworkers. You can’t pump your gas without a TV screen proclaiming what you really need to be happy. You can’t watch sports without being told what to think about justice.
Recently, my wife came home with a bag of clothes from Old Navy and the message on the bag said, “Bod Equality.” This idea sounds good, but it is worth noticing that Old Navy is no longer just in the business of selling clearance shirts. Their bag is telling shoppers how they think human worth ought to be measured.
HOW WE OUGHT TO ARRIVE AT TRUTH
I would like to offer a few guiding questions that will help us arrive at God’s truth. None of these is all-sufficient on their own, but together they can be a sound filter. A few years ago in Uganda, a missionary explained to me how biosand filters work. They push impure water through layers of schmutzdecke, fine sand, coarse sand, and then gravel. It is important for the dirty water to pass through each layer to remove the impurities and produce something pure. These questions can serve a similar purpose.
What Does Scripture Say?
We should begin our search for truth here. I could offer a litany of arguments for why Scripture is trustworthy. Space is limited, however, so I’ll leave it at this: I trust Scripture because Jesus did. As followers of Jesus, we trust his moral imagination, stunning intellect, genuine compassion, divine nature, eternal perspective, piercing commands, wise applications, and countercultural vision. We find his teachings to be the most compelling version of truth the world has ever offered.
I’m confused why so many people love Jesus but not the Bible. How does that work? Jesus had a high view of Scripture. He endorsed the Old Testament, his life is recorded in the Gospels, and he commissioned those who wrote the New Testament. In many ways, Jesus is the One who set the Bible apart. It is inconsistent to say, “Jesus, I believe you were Immanuel, an unrivaled teacher of truth, a worker of miracles, the securer of cosmic justice, and the victor over evil and death. But I’m not sure you inspire a set of writings for your followers.”
A word of caution here. We need to hold our interpretations of Scripture with humility. There is no perfect Bible reader out there. We should not confuse our fallible interpretations of the Bible with God’s inspired Word. It is possible to live into your beliefs with confidence while simultaneously holding them with humility. N.T. Wright wrote, “I used to tell my students that at least 20 percent of what I was telling them was wrong, but I didn’t know which 20 percent it was.” If Wright is getting 20 percent wrong, I’m off on at least 50 percent.
Does It Align with Orthodoxy?
In Jude 3, he calls Christianity “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (New American Standard Bible, 1995). Scripture had yet to be compiled into the 66-book library we know today, but his point is clear. No new revelation, no new cultural fad, no new-age theology, no “prophetic” end times sermon, no quasi-religious political movement can change the truth of what we believe. Our great God does not need enlightened Bible readers to help him improve Scripture. He’s good.
Today, orthodoxy is the word used for the faith once and for all passed down. It means “right belief” or “right teaching.” In Acts, what we call orthodox faith was called “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22) by the earliest Christians. Orthodoxy is Jesus’ Way passed down to today. By this definition, the Restoration Movement is an orthodox movement. We believe a body of teachings were validated by Jesus, inspired by the Spirit, and passed down in Scripture. Orthodoxy is more than the ancient creeds. The creeds were a response to heresy. The Way is the comprehensive vision of Jesus for the church.
What Does the Global and Historic Church Have to Say?
This is one of our greatest untapped resources. There is wisdom to be found in the great saints who worked out our faith in eras after the New Testament and in contexts other than the United States. Restoring the New Testament doesn’t mean ignoring all the Christians who lived after it. Billions have done life before us and applied the faith to almost every issue we are facing now. This means we don’t have to relearn these lessons all over. We don’t have to make the same mistakes. If we will bring a teachable spirit to the study of historic and global Christianity, we can avoid much pain and discover ways our faith has stood the test of time.
Does the Author Have Expertise?
In a social media age, everyone with an internet connection has a voice. Expertise matters. Let us not be an anti-intellectual movement. In a political system built on equality, we’ve come to believe that since everyone has an equal right to an opinion, everyone’s opinion is equally valid.
Reflecting on this, missiologist Ed Stetzer wrote, “Armed with no experience and some sketchy information culled from the corners of the internet, more and more individuals are brash, confident, demanding, and frequently dead wrong. This predictably produces conflict and outrage in a world in which self-reflection is a sign of weakness and confidence is truth-making.”
Will This Form Me to Become More Like Jesus?
Sometimes a good Scripture wrongly applied can produce a bad result. We must strive to discern how any given truth claim or application will form us.
• What is this telling me will make me happy? Will it? For how long?
• Who is this highlighting as a role model or villain?
• Is this cultivating rage or hate toward others?
• Is this focusing my attention on things largely out of my control?
• Is this inducing anxiety or fear?
• Does this make me a better spouse? Parent? Friend? Neighbor? Citizen?
• Does this make me more like Jesus?
This last question is essential. If spiritual formation is becoming more like Jesus, then Scripture leveraged toward any other end is wrongly applied.
My son is 7 years old. We have a devotion time every morning where we study the Bible. One of his flash cards has the word Truth on it. This is the definition we have memorized: “Truth is the way things are according to God’s Word, God’s world, and Jesus.” In theological terms, this definition aims to teach him that truth is found in God’s special revelation, general revelation, and ultimate revelation—Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life. Many mornings before I drop him off to school, we close our time by saying, “Jesus’ way is the best way. So, his way is our way.” Amen. Let it be true of us.