Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Epistemological Question

I began my sermon today with a family joke on the epistemological question. I had to define “epistemology” for the congregation. I will admit that any family joke for which the punch line is “OH GOD! It’s the Epistemological Question!” is a bit obscure; but what would one expect from a couple one of whom is a priest and the other of whom has her first degree in philosophy?

Still, when I look out at my church – at the Episcopal Church and at the larger Anglican Communion – I find we are wrestling with the epistemological question. I don’t find we’re being clear about that, or in some cases even honest about that. However, as far as I can tell, epistemology is a critical question for the church.

Usually, the question is assumed to be settled. The two poles in the argument don’t agree about how it’s settled; but both are clear about how they know what they know. At one end are those who look first, and usually solely, to Scripture. Some will say, “Scripture first, and other sources only as they support or illuminate Scripture.” However, there is no reflection offered about the history or forms of Scripture; and Scripture, at least as they interpret it, trumps all other sources.

At the other end are those who speak about justice as the critical theological principle. They usually speak from the authority of the traditional Three-legged Stool of Anglicanism: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. As a rule, they want to place a great deal of emphasis on Reason. They never want to deny Scripture; but they have, at the very least, a very different understanding of the primacy of Scripture as a source of authority for Christians.

Today, as I preached, I returned to today’s Gospel: ‘They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."’ (Mark 1:27, NRSV) Indeed, we are the people, we Christians, who have encountered the risen Christ and have experienced that authority. More to the point, we know not only that he has authority, but that he is authority. Jesus Christ, risen and present, is the primary authority for Christians.

In that light, Scripture is a source of authority because it is contains either the words of Jesus, stories about Jesus, or stories that point to Jesus. Scripture is the first repository of the experiences of our ancestors in the faith living before God. Is it revealed, in whole or in part? I think so; but, then, what is revelation but the experience of the faithful? And Scripture is the record of those experiences and what sense our spiritual ancestors made of them.

But, then, we don’t believe God’s presence ended with the latest writings of John the Elder. The Evangelists and New Testament Authors reported experiences of Jesus; but the community continued to experience the presence of the risen Christ. Our brothers and sisters in Christ, those Christians of earlier generations, continued to record and reflect on their own experiences of Christ and of life in Christ. As those experiences came to us we called them our Tradition. But it was not their antiquity that made them authoritative for us: it was their continued witness to the presence and activity of Christ.

And we continue to believe that Christ is present in the Spirit. When we gather for worship or take time for prayer, we do so believing that Christ is present in us as individuals and as a community. We will be aware of that presence at some times more than others; but we believe Christ is present and calling to us always. We are called to use our Reason to reflect on our experiences and on the experiences of our siblings in Christ. But Reason is not authoritative simply because we’re rational, or because the logic makes sense. Our Reason is authoritative as we hold Christ central in our reflection, as we know Christ in Scripture, in Tradition, and in contemporary experiences.

And so the answer to the question of Christian epistemology is Jesus. That is to offer an answer that is simple but not easy. There is a lot of work in looking for Christ in Scripture, in the experiences of Tradition, and in our Reasoned reflection on contemporary experiences, our own and others’. At the same time, we continue to recognize, as did those first listeners in Capernaum, the voice of on who speaks with authority – one who has authority because he is authority.

To be clear: I have a position in the epistemological struggles in the Church. I cannot look to Scripture uncritically, or see it as the sole source of authority. However, I am convicted of my own position: that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are sources of authority for Episcopalians, subject to the primacy of Jesus Christ, risen, present, and active.


Anonymous said...


Oh my goodness, this was lovely. At our SOLLI retreat this weekend, we discussed some of this. As lay leaders in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, all of us will be volunteering to work at General Covention in June, which will be held just up the road in Columbus.

We will become intimately acquainted with the Epistemological Question, I'm afraid. More intimately acquainted with it than many of us would like. I will refer my SOLLI mates to this entry. I think it is something they should all read and reflect on.

By the way, my presentation was unbelievably blessed. The other group had visited a parish in the diocese and made a very extensive report on how they did things: how they evangelized, retained, did outreach, did pastoral care, took care of their children, did Godly play, etc., etc. While they were giving their presentation, I was developing this apprehension that my presentation was going to be seen as "contemplation and prayer -- the red-headed stepchild of action." Lo and behold, they all saw it as the counterbalance to their work, and as indispensable to their experience of lay leadership. I have been invited to include a presentation of this type at every retreat for the duration of my time in the group.

It was a holy weekend. I was tempted several times to take off my shoes.

Marshall Scott said...

And you should have. I'm glad the presentation was successful, and I hope you have more times when you feel you're "on holy ground."