Saturday, June 06, 2009

Symposium: History of "Inerrancy" in Wesleyan Church

Another great paper by Bob Black Friday afternoon. In it, he argued that the word inerrancy entered into Wesleyan Methodist vocabulary primarily by way of Stephen Paine of Houghton but that it was really a Reformed beef. John Wesley did not trouble with, for example, varying numbers of soldiers in the biblical record. Similarly, even Reformed Princetonians like Hodge did not trouble over such things either, despite using the word inerrant.

Basically, inerrancy in its current form is largely a by-product of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies and was part of the Reformed reaction to modernism as it was then formulated. Notable Nazarenes and others of the time did not really participate in that debate, which was largely a Reformed phenomenon.

Black concluded that the term inerrancy and its twentieth century baggage are largely a foreign body in the Wesleyan Church's polity.

There was disagreement, of course, largely from Gary Cockerill of Wesley Biblical Seminary. He is of course the Wesleyan who is currently most involved in the Evangelical Theological Society. My sense is that he would probably not represent the majority of those present, although he is a strong voice.

Such arguments get into the historical weeds pretty quickly. Is it fair to say that Wesley believed in inerrancy when he lived more than a hundred years before the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy? Would not the Pilgrims and other holiness groups not have affirmed inerrancy just as wholeheartedly if they had had someone in their midst like Stephen Paine for whom the term was important, who had pushed it? They might have. After all, who would vote for errancy?

In my opinion, however, there is a crucial paradigm difference between assuming all the details of the Bible to be precise and orienting one's use of the Bible around defending them, to where they are the things you focus on. Secondly, as Steve Lennox's paper showed, the nineteenth century holiness authors were focused on spiritual meanings in the text. This approach obviously is not oriented at all around establishing the historical harmony of biblical parts and so forth.

Regardless of the historical weeds, it is simply the case that a body like the one gathered Friday has Wesleyans in good standing who run the gamut of interpretations of inerrancy. I doubt very seriously that anyone will mount a campaign to remove the word from our polity. But by the very existence of diversity of interpretation of it, it de facto must be interpreted in a broader way than the Chicago Statement for Wesleyans.

Regardless of what the word "inerrancy" has meant or meant to Stephen Paine, it is de facto the case that for Wesleyans today, the term is broad enough to allow 1) for those like Gary who have a strict and twentieth century understanding of the word and 2) for the more ambiguous position of Asbury Seminary that the Bible is "inerrant in all it affirms."

What does it affirm? That is a matter for debate and discussion and in fact could be as broad as what other denominations mean by "infallible in matters of faith and practice." "It" also might be taken to focus on the whole, rather than the minutia, thus allowing for some sense of progressive revelation and/or diversity of position on particular issues. In effect, the word "inerrancy" de facto does not have the specific content for Wesleyans it has for other groups, including ETS.

I might add in closing that to focus on "affirming" even misses the fact that much of the Bible may have meant to do other things than affirm truth. When the psalmist expresses hope that others would bash Babylonian babies against a rock (137), the function is surely something different than "affirming."

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