Although improvements to our Seminary curriculum have inevitably resulted in some shuffling, Week 14 of each semester has often been the week where MDIV students take all the research they have done throughout the semester and written a position paper on a pastoral issue, bringing Bible, theology, and church history to bear on the topic.
The task of speaking to the issues of our contexts is both amazingly simple and immensely complex. For the prophet, it is amazingly simple. God gives you a word and you share it. Amos had no theological education. He was a businessman doing some business when he got the word from God. Oh that it was always that simple!
Many more of us are not prophets. We just think we are. We stand up in the pulpit or on Facebook and present our words from the Lord. But all we need to is bring in a sociologist or historian to show that many of us are just riding the waves of our subcultures. What we say can be almost predictable, like we were a lab rat in the experiment of history.
The skill of the Integration Paper is to develop the ability to listen to God even when it doesn’t fit with my preconceived notions about what the Bible means or about what common sense is. Here, the Bible does not always give us a straight line to the answers. Often the books of the Bible weren’t even asking the same questions to which we want answers. If the Holy Spirit does not zap us with a word, listening to the Bible often means that we are getting an indirect word, rather than a straightforward one.
Theology and Christian history are full of help, as Christians both smarter and more spiritual than me have already wrestled with similar problems to mine. When the questions are almost entirely new because of scientific developments–stem cell research, keeping alive individuals with a flat EEG, sex changes–we dare not simply ask these questions alone. The community of faith–the bigger the better–is the surest way to hear God in uncharted waters.
While the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does not come from Wesley, and while Wesley clearly gave Scripture the upper hand in all respects, God speaks to us through all of these avenues. Scripture is the starting point–how did God reveal himself to the people of God in its founding moments, especially through Christ, the pure Word of God, God become flesh? God has unfolded both the significance of Christ and the seminal revelations of the word throughout Christian history. We can learn much about how to apply Scripture through Christian tradition.
We all inevitably filter the Bible–and everything–through reason and experience. We have to think to interpret the Bible. We filter our reading through our experiences. We may as well own up to this fact. The experience that counts the most is the experience of the community of faith, experiences of the Holy Spirit. There are rules to reason, truths that God has implanted in the universe. The heavens declare the glory of God.
You don’t have to know how the car works to drive it. The rule of faith and the law of love give us stars to steer by. Is my choice loving? A pastor should be the local expert on how the car runs, but the Spirit is a good driver whether we have it all right or not. Most of all, we don’t want to be a back seat driver when the Spirit is doing just fine.