"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Tests of Doctrinal Faithfulness

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How are we to know that something new, or something that claims to come from prophecy, is in fact of God?  How are we to carry out the command to ‘test the spirits’? (1 John 4:1)

The Anglican concept of authority is usually likened to a 3- or 4-legged stool, where the legs are: Scripture, reason, tradition (and a later addition from John Wesley, experience).  This is sometimes incorrectly represented as having legs of equal length, which is not the traditional understanding of the test.  Rather, Scripture holds the place of prominence…and in places where Scripture is silent, we can apply reason, tradition and experience as our tests.  Of course one is unable to understand Scripture without the application of reason, and a key to understanding Scripture is the test of tradition…so the legs of the stool also can be seen to work together.

My experience is that most times an incorrect teaching is upheld (incorrect teaching = heresy) is because one of the four elements of authority has been held above all the others.  So, you may be told that something is true because the person who has experienced it finds it ‘life affirming’ or something similar, and therefore it is an authority.  That is a holding of experience above the other three – mixed in with a bit of post-modernism that permits an individual to claim a truth which should be accepted as valid by the community (which is an entirely different discussion, but I mention it here as one of the modern manifestations of misplaced authority helped along by the post-modern irrationality).

Tradition is another swear word when it comes to post-modern thinking.  For the church, tradition is an anchor that helps us to weather the storms of life today.  There are many winds that seek to blow us off course.  Tradition, looking to those who have gone long before us, helps us to stay on track.  Richard Hooker, Anglican theologian, wrote that tradition, tested and accepted through long practice, effectively becomes law for the community.

Now, I’ll also acknowledge that historically people that are now considered saints or great mystics often seemed to operate right along the border of heresy and orthodoxy.  Sometimes the most profound truths are apparent only in teachings that push out the boundaries of the church’s understanding of something.  That’s not an endorsement of heretical teaching, just a caution that we need to be attentive to God’s leading (and also aware that to the early Jewish community, some of Christ’s teachings were considered blasphemous).  You never can tell where God will work, which is why the question of discernment and testing the spirits is so critical.

What I will say is that anything that is of God will (eventually) pass the test I’ve outlined below.  If the ‘whole new thing’ that you believe is from God has the impact of fracturing the community of faith, or causing other believers to question their faith, you are on very thin ice and need to proceed cautiously.  Even if you are fully convinced that you are following something of God, if it causes other believers to leave the faith, it is not to be celebrated (cf. 1 Corinthians 8):

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Without going off on an entirely different tangent here, this teaching is one of the things that has convinced me the modern church’s drive to become acceptable to the culture is not something that is of Christ.  Paul is quite clear – even if you think you are the more mature and stronger believer, if your practice makes weaker believers question the faith you are to with hold from that practice.  If you continue (and particularly if you do so believing God is calling you to proceed) in spite of the impact on other believers, you are sinning against Christ.  Paul’s conclusion is stark: if my food habits cause other believers to stumble, I will never eat meat.

This is an important teaching when the church is wrestling with the introduction of innovation – a whole new thing.  It leads to one of the tests set out below – things that are of God will result in the building up of Christ’s body always and everywhere.  Things that are not of God will act to divide and weaken the body.  If your ‘whole new thing’ has the effect of causing the body to fracture, you need to step back and question if what you are so passionate about is really of God…or is it of something else?  (mammon)

I had been asked in the past to put together a list of ways to ‘test the spirits’.  The list below is the result, partly developed from the reference listed at the end.  In considering anything (including what your preachers tell you from the pulpit) in the church, these tests help to determine what is of God, and what is not:

1. Continuity with apostolic tradition. Is the claim being made continuous with what is apostolic in the tradition (that is, passed down from the apostles to the present day); or, is it an entirely new thing? (A test of tradition)

2. Congruence with Scripture. Is it congruent with what the Word of God in Scripture is speaking? God must be consistent with God, so something that contradicts Scripture needs to be tested further. (A test of Scripture)

3. Consistency with worship. Is it consistent with the community’s prayer and worship. Lex orandi, lex credendi, roughly, the way of prayer is the way of belief (aka, if you want to know what Anglicans believe, come and worship with us – a test of praxis)

4. Catholicity. Is it truly catholic (universal), meaning true for the church everywhere and not just in one place?

5. Consonance with experience. Is it consonant with experience; that is, does it ring true to life in faith?  Does it result in good things in the community of believers?

6. Conformity with conscience. Is it in keeping with good conscience? (A test of moral doctrine)

7. Consequence. What are the effects or consequences? What is of God will grow the body, bring believers deeper in faith, heal the broken hearted, release the captives…if it fails to do that, or does the reverse, it is probably not of God.

8. Cruciality. Is the spirit that is being advocated pertinent to, or an evasion of, what is crucial, what matters most, in the situation at hand? (Doctrine does not address things like, the colour of wallpaper; or whether we should believe in trans- or consubstantiation).

9. Coherence. Is it coherent in relation to classical modes of thought? (A test of reason)

10. Comprehensiveness. How comprehensive is the particular teaching with respect to the full range of Christian confession?

11. Prayer. Does it return from submission to God in prayer affirmed or denied?

12. Community consideration. Does it pass the test of the community?  This draws on the role of brothers and sisters in the faith in keeping us accountable.
Items 1-10 are based on “Theology as the Task of Disbelief,” Christopher Morse, Circuit Rider, July/August 1995, pp. 8-9 (c) 1995 Abingdon Press

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Written by sameo416

September 1, 2014 at 11:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] I wrote about holy discernment in a blog two years back that presented thought similar to Kreeft: https://sameo416.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/tests-of-doctrinal-faithfulness/ […]


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