1. A Little History
2. The Authority of God
3. Different Kinds of Speaking
4. What God Intended 1
5. What God Intended 2
It is at this point that Wesleyans may disagree on what God's point to the original audiences was. What was the point and when was God meeting them where they were at? For example, I don't know any Wesleyans who think that the world is flat or that heaven is straight up in the sky. Some Wesleyans probably do think of hell as located in the middle of the earth, but certainly not all.
But I suspect most Wesleyans would be fine with thinking that when Paul says every knee will bow "in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10), the picture of the world he had in mind was not the point. It sounds like the picture of a "three-story" world, with skies/heavens above and the dead beneath. Since all the other literature of the time seems to have taken such imagery literally, it would be natural to think that Paul did too. In fact, Paul seems to think heaven and the sky had three layers, with God in the top layer of sky/heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2).
But these pictures of the universe were not Paul's point in these passages--or God's. Rather, these are surely examples of God speaking within the frame of reference of those to whom he first spoke. Most Wesleyans would surely be fine with saying that the structure of the universe was not what God was affirming in Philippians 2:10 but rather the fact that all humanity would eventually submit to the lordship of Christ.
We have inherited more of an issue when it comes to other passages. For example, Wesleyans would not agree on how to apply the principle above to Genesis 1. Some see the point of Genesis 1 being to tell us more or less about the science of creation (e.g., the timing, the order). Others think the point was more to contrast God and his creation with the gods and other creation stories of the day, where gods fought and chaos nearly won. Neither Wesleyan believes Genesis 1 was in error, although they might disagree on what God intended to say to Israel through it.
You have probably had someone tell you at some time, "That's not the point." A person responds in this way when you focus on a detail that distracts from what he or she is really trying to communicate. In the same way, affirming inerrancy doesn't guarantee we will all see the same point in a passage.
Let's say there is a barn with a traditional archery target on the side. One person may shoot to hit the target. But let's say that all I want to hit is the side of the barn. If I hit the side of the barn, then I have not missed the mark. Wesleyans will no doubt disagree on what God was shooting at in various passages. We all agree that he hit whatever his target was.
Some see that target as very narrow in relation to the passages that stood at the center of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. Other Wesleyans do not. The key is that both are doing their best to listen to all the passages. Arguably the worst thing would be if we were to feel pressure to twist the apparent meaning of one passage because we thought it didn't fit with another. Hopefully none of us want our idea of inerrancy to cause us to trump the text with an idea we have about the text.
When details seem to conflict, a broader sense of inerrancy can look for the inner harmony of two passages without having to harmonize all the details. This approach can allow us to listen better to each individual biblical text on its own terms. A narrower view, well-intentioned though it may be, can inadvertently lead us to alter one text so it will fit better with another in our mind.
Was the authorship of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, or Isaiah part of the point of a quote in the New Testament? Or was it only an expected frame of reference, given what everyone thought at the time? Wesleyans will disagree on this question. Some will strongly say it was very much part of the point. Others will say it is equally valid to listen to what the Old Testament texts seem to say about themselves inductively, even if they pull in a different direction from how the New Testament references them.
Another point on which Wesleyans will disagree is the extent to which God unfolded an understanding of him (and of theology in general) throughout the pages of Scripture. For some Wesleyans, fully developed Christian theology is there from the very first words of the Bible. Others will see a development of understanding within the Bible's pages, with the New Testament having a more complete understanding of theology than the Old did.
Both of these Wesleyans, however, believe that God revealed himself truthfully to each audience of the Bible within the limits he intended. They may disagree on the extent to which God met each audience within their own framework of understanding. They may disagree on when God was asserting information and when he was primarily doing other things. None of them think that the Bible erred in achieving what God intended at any point.
The strength of this approach is that it allows us to let the Bible say what it actually seems to say. Again, the potential problem with inerrancy in its fundamentalist form is that it can force a person who actually wishes to listen to a biblical text to trump the most obvious meaning of the text with an idea we have about the text. We cannot doubt that God unfailingly achieved his purposes when he inspired each book of the Bible. The real task is to wrestle together to hear appropriately what those purposes were.