Knowing the Way – scripture, experience, learning, tradition and the Holy Spirit

In the discussion on my previous post, Nate has questioned my approach to authority and christian belief. I do not believe the Bible is inerrant, and I said that most christians accept other sources of knowledge also: “reason and evidence, church teaching and tradition, and the Holy Spirit”.

And so he asked: “Why does the New Testament speak so much about false teachers, if it’s perfectly fine to get your beliefs from private revelation?” and “How can there be such a thing as “truth” when each person’s version is just as good as someone else’s?”, and then saw problems “if I took my own random thoughts and feelings as revelation from the supreme creator of the universe”.

These are fair questions, and I think another blog post is better than a long comment to answer them. It also gives me the opportunity to set out how I believe we know truths about God. I hope other readers are interested too, and will also comment.

The quest for certainty

Most of us like to be as sure as possible that what we believe is in fact true. But we all have to learn to live with uncertainty in virtually all areas of life. Believing the Bible is inerrant doesn’t provide certainty on all matters. For example, some matters are not discussed in the Bible,and some matters are the subject of different interpretations, even among those who regard it as inerrant.

So I regard it as fundamental that christians seek as much certainty as they can, but don’t expect it on all matters.

How do we know things?

Epistemology is the philosophy of how we know what we know. And it is a fundamental tenet of epistemology that different things are known in different ways, and it is important to use the appropriate means to determine what is true on any matter.

I suggested several different ways that a christian may come to decide if something is true, and there are actually others I didn’t mention:

  1. scripture
  2. direct revelation
  3. personal experience
  4. the teachings or traditions of the church
  5. authoritative learning (science, history, etc)
  6. the guidance of the Holy Spirit (more subtle than #2)

It is clear to most christians that all or most of these are legitimate in some circumstances. Paul’s Damascus road conversion was not (for him) based on scripture but a personal revelation, and became part of his personal experience. Many people have conversion experiences that involve a miraculous healing, a vision or some divine guidance, and that is their personal experience.

Again, even those who believe the Bible is inerrant have to rely on some of these. We only have the scriptures we read today in English because scholars have determined what is the most likely original text from among a number of variants, and other scholars have learnt language and culture so that they can make an appropriate translation that reflects the original words and carries the original meaning. And when it comes to interpretation of difficult passages, an expert knowledge of language and culture, and often of the traditions and doctrines of a person’s church, will guide one’s understanding.

I believe, as we will see, that different aspects of christian faith will be most appropriately determined by different ones of these approaches – and that this is scriptural.

Another gospel?

Nate references Galations 1:6-9, which warns of accepting another gospel. But what does Paul mean by “gospel” (or “good news”)?

Well he tells us this in other places. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul defines the gospel, and it includes Jesus “died for our sins” and the resurrection. Jesus defined his good news slightly differently in Mark 1:15 as the coming of the kingdom of God in him and the need for repentance.

The New Testament contains other outlines of the good news, but I think most christians would accept something like this as a summary::

  1. Jesus, the “son of God”, lived and taught about the kingdom of God.
  2. He died to deal with human sin (how that happens is very much up for debate!).
  3. Jesus was resurrected and so conquered death.
  4. We need to change our thinking, turn away from behaviours that displease God, and seek forgiveness.
  5. Our new way of life should include loving God, loving neighbour, and even loving our enemies.

These things are generally believed by most christians – in fact they are almost a definition of what it means to be a christian. But it is interesting that they are also very clearly taught in the New Testament, and pretty much supported by secular historians.

The objective facts about Jesus life, teachings and death are confirmed by secular historians. The two more “faith” or subjective matters (Jesus as divine and his resurrection) cannot be confirmed or otherwise by historical analysis, but historians can tell us that Jesus’ disciples believed from very early on that Jesus had been resurrected, and that he was very early on worshiped alongside God.

So these core beliefs are not matters of “random thoughts” as Nate fears, but are solidly based in both scripture and secular history.

And I accept all those teachings as true.

Less certain matters

I can think of several types of teachings in the Bible that are not so clear and central.

1. Different interpretations

There are the facts, but there are always different interpretations, and people always argue over them, whether it is science, politics, football or religion. With the Bible ….

  • Christians may agree about the main facts but disagree about the details (e.g. different understandings of the return of Jesus to earth).
  • Or the teaching is clear but they may disagree about whether it applies in our situations today (e.g. Jesus’ teachings about non-violence, and christians in army service).
  • There can be fundamental disagreements about whether to interpret the Bible literally or more flexibly (e.g. Genesis vs evolution).

These disagreements are sometimes unimportant, but other times they are regrettable. But the important thing for our discussion here is that a “strong” view of the Bible doesn’t do away with the problem, in fact I think it exacerbates it – those who hold to inerrancy tend to hold all their views more definitely and allow less flexibility to others, and so tend to argue more about finer detail. At least, that is my experience.

But despite our differences, mainstream christianity seems to get along OK over two millennia. Sometimes we are far too slow to recognise new and better understandings, but mostly we get there in the end. I think there are reasons it is like this, and better ways to address the issue – we’ll come to them in a moment.

2. Principles not rules

There are many matters on which the New Testament gives us principles and examples that are not intended to be hard and fast rules. The same Paul who warned against “a different gospel” also said that:

  • We serve God not according to a written set of rules, but guided by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6). Note that he uses as his example in the latter case nothing less than one of the Ten Commandments!
  • We can legitimately hold different views on moral issues. Paul gives several examples, some of them significant issues in his day – the eating of meat that had been offered to pagan idols (1 Corinthians 10:23-30), and the keeping of rules about Sabbath days and “unclean” foods (Romans 14:1-23). But he says quite definitely (Romans 14:13): “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.”
  • Therefore, Paul’s conclusion on even important matters of behaviour is that we are free to decide (1 Corinthians 10:23), we should leave the judgment to God (Romans 14:4) and it is not rules but faith that will decide, for whatever is not done in faith is wrong (Romans 14:23) and all should be done to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).

So it is clear to me that the New Testament isn’t nearly as prescriptive as many people think.

And I think there is a good reason for this. I think, after a lot of consideration, that God isn’t interested in blind conformity. He wants to create “little gods”, people made in his image, with freedom, moral values, reason, love and consciousness. He could get conformity better with robots, but people made in his image need to mature and grow spiritually and morally, just as we grow as children if our parents and teachers lead us well.

3. Beyond our understanding

There are some important matters that are simply beyond our understanding, and we simply don’t need to know. The classic case here is, I think, the Trinity. This doctrine isn’t explicitly taught in the Bible, it can only be inferred. I accept it, but I don’t kid myself that I fully understand it.

No-one who takes the idea of God seriously could think that we could possibly come anywhere near understanding him. Most of what we know about him is probably by analogy – i.e. as close to the truth as we can understand. So it is really no surprise that the Bible only gives hints at this doctrine. It isn’t vitally important that we know it – I believe the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are both important, but I don’t think the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity (one being, three persons, one essence, etc) is critical for us to follow Jesus.

The matter under discussion – how God deals with people who haven’t had opportunity to hear about Jesus – is, I suggest, in a similar category. It isn’t important that we know this, for we are not in that category. But the Bible gives us hints, and they are enough for me.

Finding our way through

So I conclude that we cannot know everything, we don’t need to know everything, and we have been given enough to make the choices we need to make – to allow scripture and history to guide us on our core beliefs, and to be more flexible about other matters.

Don’t neglect the Holy Spirit!

A key fact, which many christians as well as critics can forget, is that christians believe we have been “given” the Spirit of God. Again, I don’t pretend to fully understand how this works, but it is clearly taught in scripture. Each believer has the help of the Holy Spirit in following Jesus in our lives and – crucially for this discussion – in guiding us to truth.

The Spirit is God, which means he is above the Bible, not lesser!

This merits a longer discussion than I can give now (but will post on soon), but we are told that the Holy Spirit will guide us into truth (John 16:13), so we can even know God’s will for us (Romans 12:2). We see examples of the Spirit guiding the believers in Acts (e.g. Acts 11:1-18, 13:1-3, 16:6-10). But we do, I believe, need to ask (James 1:5, Matthew 7:7-8).

So far from being “random thoughts”, if we pray, and take the precautions that the Bible gives us, we can have faith that God guides us (not just me, but his whole church) through his Spirit into true understandings – not infallibly, but steadily over time.

Using what God has given us

So there are different tools for different tasks. And just as we need to be wise in everyday life, and use the most appropriate means to arrive at decisions, so it is as christians.

I suggest we should always start with what the scriptures say and expert knowledge about what it means – what would this or that passage have said to the people of the day, what do the words actually mean and how do experts understand them? We must read more than one viewpoint.

Then we must pray, consider, wait if necessary, and see if we receive guidance, and see how the Spirit is working and leading the body of believers as a whole. Our own experience and thoughts (if we are allowing God to transform our thinking) will help us.

The scriptures will guide us, but these other processes help us interpret the scriptures. We won’t get everything right. But we know the core and for the rest, God is wanting to see us mature in our faith and understanding, not dictate to us.

I think this is a logical, scriptural and honest way to approach christian teaching, and it has worked for me for many years.

How about you?

Photo: Pexels

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  1. Well, I’ve been working on a comment for a while, but it’s getting too long. I’m going to make a post-reponse on my blog just to make it more readable. But I’ll be sure to pingback and comment here when it’s ready. Here was my first paragraph, though, as I think you should see it now:
    Thanks for writing this, unkleE. It’s helping me get a better understanding of where you’re coming from. I have some questions, but I don’t mean them as accusations — this is just me processing these ideas, since they’re very different from the way I’ve always viewed Christianity, the Bible, authority, etc.

  2. Thanks Nate. I don’t expect you to agree with me on this -our starting positions are currently too far apart for that, but I’m hoping you and others will see that there is a wide range of christian viewpoints on authority and knowledge. Mine is probably a little more “liberal” than most Protestants, though maybe not more so than most Catholics and Orthodox, but isn’t all that way out.
    I look forward to your new post. I certainly won’t be seeing your comments as accusations.

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