John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Three Lens of Christian Authority

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

The Anglican understanding of authority in faith, church and life is traditionally described as a “three-legged” stool made up of Scripture, Tradition and Reason/Experience. We say that we recognize the benefits of each element, with some members in our diversity leaning toward particular legs more than others, yet we all affirm Scripture as the final and base source of authority.

We say that those members of our community who emphasize Tradition are known as Anglo-Catholics. Those who focus on Reason and Experience are Progressives. And the Evangelical branch emphasizes Scripture first.

For a time, this explanation was satisfactory for me. It was refreshing to see these different influences named and acknowledged for the first time in my faith. Yet, something bothered me, and this discomfort continued to grow as I studied and reflected through the discernment process I am now in.

Finally, I realized that this analogy does not adequately describe what I saw in the real-life church experiences around me, nor did it make sense from a carpentry perspective. Stools do not function as three-legged devices if only one leg is considered the primary support, and neither do the members of each emphasis group treat Scripture with equal weight – at least not as the other groups would recognize it.

I have come to think that maybe the three “legs” are better expressed as “lenses”. As each group approaches sources of authority, they do so through a worldview that uniquely aligns every element of their source material. Let’s look briefly at each group to see how that might play out.

The Traditionalist Lens

The community within our communion who most emphasize tradition are known as “Anglo-Catholics”. They share a love for tradition with our Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic friends. We might consider it the oldest leg on the stool.

For a Traditionalist, Scripture is the foundation of authority, but it is so *as* the core of Tradition. From whence does Tradition come? From Scripture of course! The Holy Bible is the foundation upon which all of Tradition is built. The Church has added to that foundation through the centuries in our writings, practices and decisions.

Therefore the Traditionalist has no need to say that Scripture stands above Tradition, because Scripture is innately integrated into Tradition. Likewise, both Reason and Experience are seen through Tradition as we read the Fathers of the faith wrestling with logic and life to understand and apply Scripture.

For the Traditionalist, Tradition is not a favorite Leg of authority subservient to Scripture, but the Lens through which both Scripture and Reason are delivered to us.

 The Scriptural Lens

The Evangelical emphasis inspired by “Sola Scriptura” descends to us from the Protestant Reformation. Our range of understanding in the Episcopal Church stops short of a Fundamentalist’s attempt to deny any other sources of authority, yet there is a strong emphasis on the centrality of the Bible in church and personal practice. 

A balanced Scripturalist recognizes both the value of and the inability to avoid the elements of Tradition and Reason in how we read, learn and apply the Bible. Yet in the more Biblicist community I was raised in, too often what should have been seen as a particular interpretation which came primarily from Tradition or Reason and Experience was seen as simple Scripture.

When a Scripturalist encounters arguments that they recognize are from Tradition or Reason, they are quick to compare these insights back to the source text in the Bible. They may also conflate the three sources in such an integrated whole that they have difficulty in recognizing that a particular teaching more Traditionalist or Experience-sourced than a simple reading of the Bible itself.

For the Scripturalist, the Bible is not the primary leg of authority supplemented by Tradition and Reason, but the Lens through which we view both Tradition and Reason.

The Experientialist Lens

Those who emphasize Experience are often in the Progressive or Emergent group, which is where I find myself these days. This Lens most resonates with a postmodern world, and we may consider the strongest forms of this leg the most recent broadly-recognized form of understanding authority in the church today.

An Experientialist understands the Bible to be the recording of people who encountered God in the past, and whose experiences continue to guide us today (in both positive and negative ways). Our understandings of inspiration and authority of Scripture are often as strong and deep as the other groups, but we see these through a very different lens.

Wikipedia has this to say about the idea of Experience as authority:

The interrogation of experience has a long tradition in continental philosophy. Experience plays an important role in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. The German term Erfahrung, often translated into English as "experience", has a slightly different implication, connoting the coherency of life's experiences.

Certain religious traditions (such as types of Buddhism, Surat Shabd Yoga, mysticism and Pentecostalism) and educational paradigms with, for example, the conditioning of military recruit-training (also known as "boot camps"), stress the experiential nature of human epistemology. This stands in contrast to alternatives: traditions of dogma, logic or reasoning.

Since we see the Bible as a recording of Experience, it should be obvious that it's easy for us to see Tradition in very much the same light. The written part of Tradition is an extension of recorded experience continuing through the millennia, and the rituals and practices are ways that we can join into those ancient experiences.

For the Experientialist, Reason/Experience is not the favored leg under Scripture, but the lens through which we understand all of Scripture, Tradition and current Experience.

Lenses, not Legs

So that's the general idea. This has helped me understand my perspective on Christian authority better, to reconcile some tensions within myself, and also to relate more empathetically with those using other lenses.

I'm still playing around with the idea, but so far I like it.