Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 3: Sources of Religious Knowledge

Throughout the course of human history, many have attempted to create meaning and search for truths. With this came the need to establish the sources of religious knowledge and authority. The earliest religions were based on oral traditions as history, culture, and worldview was passed from generation to generation. In these stories lay the source and authority for the peoples' understanding.

Of course, people had their own experiences of the transcendent, and in every culture some were blessed with special insight. Known by many names and described in many ways, these were the ones said to communicate directly with the Divine mystery, through whom revelation came. This revelation, along with the traditions of the ancestors, shaped a particular understanding of the world.

In time some oral traditions were collected in written scriptures. The earliest known, the Vedas of Hinduism, have been dated to between 1700 and 1100 BCE. As written texts took their place alongside the traditions of stories and practices and the revelations of seers and prophets, they, too, became authoritative.

By the Middle Ages, the Christian Church had laid a foundation for infallible theological authority consisting of scripture, sacred church tradition, and the authority of bishops as succeeding in direct line from the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. The Protestant Reformation, calling for the reform of what it saw as the Church's digression from true Christianity, raised the call of sola scriptura. Sola Scriptura (by scripture alone) placed the Bible above all other forms of Christian religious authority. This doctrine did not remove all other sources of religious knowledge; rather it held that the Bible was the only infallible source, and that all else must be subordinate to, and tested against, the Bible.

Many who lived and worked in the church, as well as some who were persecuted as heretics, held that other forms of religious knowledge were possible and necessary. Michael Servetus, Faustus Socinus, and Francis David were just a few from our tradition who held that reason and personal experience of transcendent mystery must be a part of shaping any theological position.

In the 18th century, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, organized a view of religious authority which has become known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Quadrilateral contains scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, but not all four carry equal weight. For Wesley, scripture was always the primary source of authority, and the others were secondary means of knowledge that one used to interpret and embody the truth of scripture.

As Unitarians and Universalists moved toward a wider religious understanding they expressed those understandings in different ways. In the mid-19th century the Transcendentalists of New England placed supreme importance on the individual's personal transcendent experience of God, unmediated by church or priesthood. For many Transcendentalists this direct experience was evident in the glories of nature. Perhaps the supreme example is Henry David Thoreau who wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

One of the Transcendentalists, Theodore Parker, in his 1841 address Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity went so far as to challenge the authority of the Bible and the words of Jesus, avowing that their authority lay not in the fact that they were scripture but rather in that they reflected eternal religious truths.

In an 1885 sermon, Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke captured the feeling of the time with his "Five Points of the New Theology." Modeled on the five points of Calvinism, Clarke laid the basis of the Unitarian covenant in:

  • The Fatherhood of God
  • The Brotherhood of Man
  • The Leadership of Jesus
  • Salvation by Character
  • The Progress of Mankind, Onward and Upward Forever.

William Channing Gannett's Statement of Faith, "Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us," written in 1887 with the aim of quelling a raging theological dispute in the Western Unitarian Conference, unequivocally stated that "We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief."

After the 1961 consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, member congregations of the new Unitarian Universalist Association as well as individual Unitarian Universalists debated the source of religious authority, resulting in the source statement found in The Principles and Sources section of the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws. The statement, passed in1961 and amended in 1985, set forth the sources in which our living tradition finds meaning and truth.