By Layton Friesen
Have you heard of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”? That’s a fancy phrase for how John Wesley thought the Bible, reason, experience and tradition should be ordered. In your search for truth, how would you rank those four?
Today we are in the midst of an “experience boom” where everyone wants their own personal experience of life to determine what, for them, is truth. There are those who react against this “experience boom” by saying personal experience is an unreliable guide to truth. I have heard the analogy used of a train: Scripture is the engine, reason and tradition need to follow the engine, and the (useless) caboose rattling along at the back is our own personal feelings about the matter.
Can I suggest a different way of looking at our feelings? First, our emotions can be trained. A large part of child-rearing is training children to respond emotionally to things in the right way. If I see someone being bullied I should respond with anger and compassion. If I stand before the Grand Canyon it is only right that I am moved to awe and wonder. A mature, healthy person is someone who responds emotionally in ways that match reality, that are fitting.
Second, as Christians, one central way we are trained to have appropriate, fitting emotions is by studying the Bible to learn what appropriate emotional responses are. How should I feel toward God? Toward sin? Toward the poor? Toward creation? For example, we learn the right emotional response to injustice by entering emotionally into the anger of God unleashed through the prophets.
But here it gets interesting. When our emotions are trained by the Bible, they don’t need to be the useless caboose anymore. Bible-shaped emotions lead us into more genuine engagement with the Bible. The Bible forms us to respond emotionally in ways that are appropriate to God, and then we read the Bible better. I cannot have too much emotion when reading the Bible, when those emotions have been trained by the Bible.
In order to really hold Scripture in its highest place of honor, I need to develop the full emotional ability to love what it loves, and hate what it hates. Once our experience is trained in this way, we can truly know the Bible in a deeper, more transformative way. In order to truly honour Scripture I need more experience, not less, when this experience has been shaped by the Bible.
Interestingly, recent neuroscience has shown that people who have no emotions because of a brain injury have no rationality either. Apparently, unless we are moved by our feelings to think rightly, we tend to think nonsense.
So, we need more feelings, not less! You cannot have too much emotion when these feelings have been stoked, disciplined and shaped by the Bible.