Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Wesleyan view of Chicago Inerrancy Statement 1

The recent symposium on a Wesleyan hermeneutic at our church headquarters confirmed what I have said here before. The Wesleyan use of the word inerrancy is not limited to the way that word is used in other circles, like the Evangelical Theological Society, which is tied to a statement made in the late seventies called the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.

I suspect most Wesleyans have never heard of it and would be pretty unaware of those discussions that were a really big deal for a few Wesleyans at Houghton and Asbury from the 1950s to the late 70s. Bob Black argued at the recent symposium that the term itself is somewhat of a foreign body of Reformed influence in our polity (see symposium site above and where I easily found the Chicago Statement online :-). But it was vigorously and successfully pursued politically by one key individual of the day, Stephen Paine of Houghton. And of course everyone voted with him each time he brought it up. After all, whether you had a clue about what he was wrestling with in his world, who in their right mind would vote for the idea that the Bible has errors?!!

But the Wesleyan Church has mostly been focused on church growth, health, and multiplication these last 30 years rather than on ideological matters. This of course is true of broader evangelicalism as well, as Webber tracks in The Young Evangelicals. There are of course a few Wesleyan scholars who still track this debate and for whom the more narrow definitions are important. Their understanding of inerrancy is clearly one venerable Wesleyan option. But I suspect that the Calvinist Greg Beale, formerly of Calvinist Wheaton and now of Calvinist Westminster Theological Seminary, is way too late in his attempt to turn twenty-first century evangelicalism back to mid-twentieth century evangelicalism.

I thought I might take a couple posts to look at the Chicago Statement from another venerable Wesleyan perspective, one that I would argue fits better with the spirit of the Wesleyan tradition historically. I think all Wesleyans will pretty much agree with the summary points of the statement in general. The Devil is in the details and in the specifics of how this particular group of first generation neo-evangelicals understood them. In other words, we may disagree some on the way they unpacked their basic points.

As far as I can tell, there was only one Wesleyan out of the some 360 who signed the statement in 1979 (the original is kept at Dallas Theological Seminary, again, a Calvinist institution :-). That was Wilbur Dayton, who taught at Asbury at the time, I believe. By that time the Wesleyan Theological Society had already taken the term inerrancy out of its bylaws because of the kinds of details it was usually taken to imply.

Those Wesleyan Methodists in 1950 and Pilgrims in 1968 who agreed to the term "inerrant," I would argue, would have affirmed the basic sentiments as I do. But they did not get into the weeds of the concrete issues that these signatories were concerned with. Our denomination has never had those debates because they are off focus from what is central to our tradition, and our denomination has never connected its use of the term inerrancy to the Chicago Statement.

There were several comments I think are great in the Preface:

1. "We acknowledge the limitations of a document prepared in a brief, intensive conference and do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight"

2. "We offer this Statement in a spirit, not of contention, but of humility and love"

3. "We invite response to this statement from any who see reason to amend its affirmations about Scripture by the light of Scripture itself"

I appreciate the deep spiritual motivation of this preface and the kind spirit with which it was offered. Take this comment: "We gladly acknowledge that many who deny the inerrancy of Scripture do not display the consequences of this denial in the rest of their belief and behavior, and we are conscious that we who confess this doctrine often deny it in life by failing to bring our thoughts and deeds, our traditions and habits, into true subjection to the divine Word."

I think this comment gives some good insight into the thinking of this group. They were concerned about the slippery slope to faithlessness that they thought would happen if they did not take a strong stance on these particular issues. Of course the practicalities of slippery slopes are a different issue than what is actually true.

Short Statements
Here are my thoughts on the five short summary statements:

1. God inspired Holy Scripture... Holy Scripture is God's witness to Himself.

Yes, certainly. The complication is that it was God's witness to Himself so that the Thessalonians could know Him in their categories, to various settings of ancient Israel so that they could know Him in their categories, etc. I believe that the second and third generation of evangelicals have matured over time in understanding the implications of context in a way that the first generation did not fully appreciate. The greater sophistication of the TNIV over the NIV is a nice embodiment of this maturation.

In a theme I will no doubt express throughout this series, the problem with the Chicago Statement is neither its spirit nor its basic affirmations. It is that it underestimates the profundity and complexity of God's Truth. God is smarter than it accounts for, in my opinion. It is a statement of arithmetic in a glorious God-created world of calculus. It was a group of faithful white men (I spotted maybe 5 women in the 360 signatories and of course Edwin Yamauchi represented non-North Americans ;-) doing their best to keep faith in a world where things which at one time had been assumed, were being seriously undermined by the scholars of various fields.

2. The second summary says something very similar to what Asbury's statement of faith currently says. The Bible is to be believed in all that it affirms, obeyed in all that it requires, and embraced in all that it promises.

Absolutely. The point of potential disagreement is in what the Bible affirms, commands, and promises. The Chicago Statement goes on to define these things rather narrowly. In my opinion, it still has a rather simplistic understanding of meaning and context and thus continues to assume more or less that instructions to one time and place might easily transfer to all other times and places with an equal relevancy and poignancy.

Asbury decided in the 80s that it was not going to fight over the finer points of inerrancy and adopted a broad statement that, in my opinion, fits the ethos of the Wesleyan Church on this issue. In other words, Asbury's understanding of inerrancy is not tied to the Chicago Statement either. And since Asbury was the primary Wesleyan seminary up until the founding of a new seminary at IWU, its position clearly fits within the Wesleyan umbrella.

3. The Holy Spirit authenticates Scripture by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

Absolutely! Indeed, this statement sounds characteristically Wesleyan in terms of our holiness tradition. The problem of course is that the Chicago statement does not understand this statement in a characteristically Wesleyan way. The nineteenth century holiness interpreters understood the Spirit's speaking potentially to be a "more than literal," spiritual meaning the text could take on. Similarly, Wesley understood the Spirit to inspire understandings of the text for us in a way similar to how He did the original inspiration.

The Chicago Statement means nothing of this sort. In fact, all the signatories would have soundly rejected this characteristically Wesleyan hermeneutic. Here we must insist that the Pilgrims were a product of the holiness revivals where this hermeneutic dominated. And the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church returned to Methodism after the Civil War. The Wesleyan Methodist Church would have ceased to exist in the late 1800s if it had not reformulated its identity around the holiness revivals of the late 1800s, using its hermeneutic.

We have not John Wesley for our father, but Phoebe Palmer for our mother! I do have a fundamentalist/old school evangelical older brother that I love, but my personality is closer to my parents than his is (and I use the word his intentionally).

John Calvin's illumination of the reader of Scripture is not quite the same as John Wesley's inspiration of the reader of Scripture. The Chicago Statement is built on Calvin's model and does not allow for as much as Wesley's or that of the nineteenth century holiness revivalists. In the same way, the Wesleyan view of inerrancy has more room in it than the fundamentalist or old school evangelical approach does.

This is a crucial point. Clearly any spiritual interpretation God breathes through the text of Scripture is inerrant. But that's hardly what Stephen Paine was talking about or would have affirmed at Houghton in the mid-twentieth century. He was thinking historical meaning of the texts in their original contexts

4. The basic sentiment of the fourth summary statement is to affirm Scripture to be without error in its statements about God's acts in creation, the events of world history, and its own literary origins--in addition to its statements about God's saving grace.

Here we get to the crux of the matter. What exactly was God doing when He revealed the books of the Bible? Did God speak in absolute disclosure in the manner of a work of philosophy or science? Or did God sometimes speak poetically or poignantly to its original audiences? If God spoke poignantly to the original audiences, He would no doubt have spoken in the light of their assumptions, many of which would not be our assumptions today about reality.

This is the heart of the debate. Nobody would accuse the Parable of the Prodigal Son of error because it is a fictional story. Are there other places where the "genre" of biblical literature, taken broadly in a somewhat metaphorical sense, has left us with texts that surely should not be said to be in error (for they hit God's intended mark) but that work on the basis of assumptions that we would not affirm today (like the sun going round the earth or the dead being under the earth).

5. ... is basically the same as #4. "The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded."

The word "total" as they meant it is is highly problematic, for it assumes that there is such a thing as statements in human language that can be removed from human categories, can still be understood by humans who only can think in human categories, and can still be relevant and poignant to day to day life. In that sense, the Chicago Statement is just as modernist as the modernism it sought to cope with... and is ill equipped to speak to the Bible's authority in a twenty-first century context.

Next post--the specifics the 1979 signatories understood by these general statements.


Ken Schenck said...

I posted this response to a comment on the Facebook edition of this post. The comment agreed with the post but had concerns about the line above that says, "Clearly any spiritual interpretation God breathes through the text of Scripture is inerrant"

1. We deceive ourselves if we think we can ever get completely beyond our individual interpretation. We can broaden our knowledge of the options. We can learn more about context. But in the end we are not objective.

2. This is even more true when it comes to application of the text. This is a huge blind spot of the standard evangelical method. It expends tons of energy on the interpretation of the original meaning... and very little to the most crucial and complicated element of all--bridging the distance between that time and this time.

3. Something I didn't say at the conference that I wanted to has to do with the discussion of the dangers of experience playing a role in processing the meaning of Scripture. I blogged on the quote from Daniel Steele where he says that experience outweighs theory. Concerns about the role of experience in biblical appropriation in my mind are the same as your concerns.

Here's my thought. The problem we are dealing with is our uncertainty of knowing when our experience of the Spirit is truly the Spirit or when our understanding of that experience is accurate.

But despite the complications of the playing out of the truth, can there really be any question that when the Holy Spirit reveals, commands, or promises something, it is certainly and without question as true, binding, or certain as anything in Scripture?! Indeed, since such a divine speech-act is direct, it must be more directly true, binding, or certain than Scripture!

Ken Schenck said...

Another response to a comment on the Facebook edition:

"I believe the majority of participants, including the General Superintendents, were on the same page as Bob Black's paper. There were some venerable voices of 'loyal opposition' to Bob's interpretation of Wesleyan Church history and of the Wesleyan Theological Journal's interpretation of Wesley. They are Wesleyan too and I do not wish to imply otherwise.

But, yes, the dominant theological voices in evangelical circles are, as they have always been, Calvinist and Reformed. They are a cognitively oriented tradition and so their thoughts are often co-opted by evangelical Wesleyans who are more heart oriented. Here we remember that Wesley was only a "hair's breadth" from Calvin. So also Wesleyan evangelicalism understandably includes some Calvino-Wesleyans in its midst. They are Wesleyan too and I do not wish to imply otherwise.

The problem to me is when the more Calvinist leaning head begins to "infect" the Wesleyan heart.

A.M. Mallett said...

This is an interesting post. I somewhat stumbled across this thinking of the Inerrancy Statement.

Perhaps you are already aware of this group, but there is a collection of evangelical Arminians, theologian and laypersons, who have founded a society to address Arminian issue. It is called the Society of Evangelical Arminians. Perhaps you might be interested and if so, here is a link to the site.

Blessings in Christ,

A.M. Mallett