Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wesleyans and Inerrancy 1

A Little History
Most of us do not have the luxury (or the difficulties) of living in a place where there is only one church to join.  Even if we are raised up in a particular church, at some point we are the ones who decide to stay and make it our own.

No church or denomination is perfect.  Few of us these days would even think to suggest that our church is the one that has everything right.  As a teenager, I used to marvel at how amazing it was that I happened to be born into the small group that just happened to have precisely the right ideas and practices. But I've long since joined the majority who realize that any church is a work in progress. The true church of God cannot be directly equated with any one visible denomination.

People of course don't just choose a denomination for its ideas.  Some do, the minority who are thinking oriented, philosopher types.  But most people these days choose a church for the experience they have there.  They choose it for the fellowship. They choose it for the way it makes them feel once or twice a week.

And most people don't choose a denomination at all.  They choose a local church. In the current climate, many people don't even like the idea of a denomination. They don't want some "government" far away telling their local church what to do or think.

All of us are prone to miss a good deal of the historical influences on us.  After a few years of college and seminary, I started to talk in terms of the Wesleyan "tradition." I remember a conversation I had once with a family member about some things we believed in the "Wesleyan tradition." Eventually, the family member was frustrated enough to stop me--"Stop talking about the Wesleyan tradition. We just read the Bible and do what it says."

Indeed, I used to think that way.  Imagine my surprise one day to find out that the preaching I grew up with about entire sanctification had a lot to do with a woman who lived in the 1800s named Phoebe Palmer, someone I'd never even heard of.  Imagine my surprise to know that John Wesley himself didn't preach entire sanctification the way I heard it growing up.  That doesn't necessarily mean my grandfather was wrong to preach it the way he did.  It does probably mean he had no idea why he thought the Bible meant what he thought it meant.

The non-denominational church on the corner may think it is just following the Bible. But tell me its positions on doctrine and practice, and I will tell you the historical traditions from which it has drunk.

The Wesleyan affirmation of inerrancy, like its other doctrines, like the doctrines of all churches, has a history.  The word was added to the doctrine of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1955 after a push from Stephen Paine, then president of Houghton College. When the Wesleyan Church was created in 1968, the term was retained by the other groups joining with the Wesleyan Methodists. After all, who in their right mind would want to argue for biblical errancy?!

The term "inerrancy" largely arose in the 1880s in Presbyterian circles in reaction to developments both in science and biblical studies.  In the 1920s, a series of books called The Fundamentals attempted to respond to perceived challenges from the modern age.  It was the "fundamentalist-modernist" controversy.  It was the age of the Scope's Trial.

While it is pretty clear what position any Wesleyan of the time would have taken on such issues, these debates were not very significant for Wesleyans then.  It was not their battle. Wesleyans of the 1800s were actually on the opposite side of Presbyterians like B. B. Warfield and his ancestors on most issues. For example, he was deeply opposed to the revivalism of the Wesleyan movement and the way its preachers heard the Spirit in the Bible.

When Wesleyan scholars like Paine jumped on the evangelical bandwagon in the early 1950s, a stream of biblical scholarship developed in the church that was far less open to the Spirit speaking directly and out-of-context to you as an individual Christian. In that sense, the introduction of inerrancy to our core beliefs represented some new dynamics in our history. Even then, it would be hard to say that the Wesleyan Church has spent much time talking about the issue or even defining what inerrancy might mean to us.

Inerrancy was a very divisive issue in other circles in the 70s.  Some groups, like Fuller Theological Seminary, distanced themselves from the word, preferring to say that the Bible was "infallible" in matters of faith and doctrine. [1] You could argue that the reason the Wesleyans and the Free Methodists never merged was because some Wesleyan leaders thought they were more in the infallible camp, even though they changed the wording of their articles to "without error" for us at the time.

In retrospect, I am grateful that when I was at Asbury Theological Seminary in the 80s, then President David McKenna refused to let this issue divide its faculty and students. The wording of Asbury's statement is carefully worded: The Bible is "without error in all that it affirms."  This wording thus gives its Bible scholars the freedom to listen to the Bible to determine what it affirms.

At the turn of the millennium, the Wesleyan Church was probably somewhat ambivalent toward such issues.  Robert Webber's 2002 book, The Younger Evangelicals, described a younger generation of Christians who were largely disillusioned with such debates. [2] After all, you could argue that fighting over this issue never has brought anyone closer to God.  Nor has such fighting ever really helped the church accomplish the mission of God. It has more likely driven people away from a church they perceive to squabble over ideas rather than do any real good in the world.

As Wesleyan leaders and scholars of the late twentieth century wanted to distance the church from fundamentalism, many might privately have told you that they weren't entirely comfortable with the word. But it wasn't really an issue. Wesleyans certainly didn't go around saying the Bible had errors, and the church at large was far more interested in church growth than in rankling over doctrine.

However, the events of 9-11 had an immense impact on America.  If there was already resistance to "post-modernism," our sense of threat as a nation went into overdrive after the twin towers fell.  We became reactionary, and the church went into a militant mode.  "War makes for strange bedfellows," and the Wesleyan tradition--always heart focused when it is at its best--often finds its head easily manipulated by other traditions.

It is important when to pick an issue up.  The issue of inerrancy, for so long dormant in the Wesleyan Church, is one we haven't needed to address.  As I've already said repeatedly, it's not like we have any Wesleyans going around trying to push the idea that the Bible is errant.  But it is also possible, in a time when some of our bedfellows are beginning to talk about it again more (e.g., the Southern Baptists), that we could mindlessly absorb their categories.

There are important Wesleyan dimensions to any issue like this one.  For example, we are not a tradition that is primarily oriented around affirming things.  We are a revivalist, somewhat pietist tradition that is primarily interested in heart change.  We are not a tradition that thinks the important thing is being able to say the words on the card, and that it doesn't matter what you do after that.

We have also historically been a tradition that, like the Pentecostals, is open to hearing God speak to us directly through the words of the Bible whether we are reading it in context or not.  As I've already mentioned, the American theologians who started the inerrancy movement hated this way of using Scripture.  Factors like these suggest that, whatever Wesleyans mean by the term inerrancy, it may not be exactly the same as what those in our broader culture do.

What would be worse is if some element in our broader culture made inerrancy an issue for us and we did not benefit from the struggles they had in other circles over such things.  Some very sophisticated understandings of inerrancy came out of the previous fights, ones that I believe might suit the Wesleyan Church very well.  What a pity it would be if at some point in our future the Wesleyan Church would tear itself apart because it wasn't prepared!  And what an opportunity I sense now to present an understanding that could possibly keep us from ever having such fights.

In the following pages, I would like to suggest a framework for understanding inerrancy in the Wesleyan Church.  I want to suggest a framework that, like the statement Asbury has, is positive and leaves room for us to let the Bible say what it says. [3] Such a framework might prevent us from getting sidetracked from the mission of the church at some point in the future about an issue whose history we may not even know.

To define inerrancy, I want to begin where the debate of the 70s largely ended in evangelical circles.  In 1986, a young Kevin Vanhoozer put forward a brilliant framework within which to discuss the authority of Scripture. [4] Mind you, the participants in the book I am referencing were not Wesleyan.  I am not wanting in any way to suggest that we simply absorb their categories. I am simply wanting to use Vanhoozer's way of framing the issue as a starting point.

God's word does things.  And it never fails to accomplish what God sets it out to do (Isa. 55:11).  The Bible, as God's word, is thus infallible.  It unfailingly does whatever God wants it to do.  Sometimes, what God wants to do through Scripture is to affirm or assert certain truths.  When God affirms something in Scripture, his affirmation will certainly be without error.  The Bible is thus inerrant in all that it affirms, in all that God affirms through it... [5]

[1] Harold Lindsell's, The Battle for the Bible, was largely a response to the Fuller issue.

[2] The Younger Evangelicals

[3] Interestingly, since Asbury was the primary seminary the denomination approved for so many decades, Asbury's broad definition of inerrancy has, by default, been ours.

[4] In Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), 49-104.

[5] Vanhoozer especially sets out this framework on p. 95.


Dick Norton said...

Oh, Ken! Here we go again! Trying to build an infallible truth on an errant book. No "How Firm a Foundation" for us. Our foundation is going to be squishy. Your last paragraph is telling. "Sometimes" God wants to affirm certain truths. Which times are those? Are the "times" I decide better than the "times" you decide? Oh, I know, you'll counter that it's not up to me or you. It's the concensus of the whole church that decides. But sometimes that concensus is wrong, too! How do we know whether the things you say in your last paragraph are right? After all, they are based on Isaiah 55:11. Maybe God didn't say those words at all! Maybe it was just some interloper who attached his thoughts to the writings of the eighth century B.C. prophet, and so the interloper gave us bad data! Ken, your whole theology of inspiration and authority is based on a very weak starting point. I pray that you will be able to see that eventually. Your "thorn in the flesh" -- Dick Norton

Ken Schenck said...

I think you're misreading what I mean by the word "sometimes.". I'm NOT saying sometimes the Bible is true and sometimes not. I'm saying sometimes the Bible does one thing and sometimes it does another.

Phil Carder said...

Dr. Schenck, I find all this very helpful as I have been sorting through this issue for myself recently in preparation for my DBMD meeting this week. I've always been more drawn to Asbury's definition which you have stated.

I'm wondering... Can you tell me when the phrase "in the original manuscripts" came into the present Article? and if possible, the historical situation surrounding that move?

I wrestle with this especially in terms of OT source criticism, particularly the various fragmentary traditions we can find in the Pentateuch. Which "original manuscript" is to be considered inerrant when the book you're dealing with is a composite document from a variety of earlier traditions? And what of the parts of the "original manuscript" that did not make it into the canonical final form? And simply the fact that the original manuscripts are no longer extant seems to make this point moot to anyone not interested in textual criticism.

Dave Schreiner said...

...a framework that is positive and leaves room for us to let the Bible do what it says..."


klavrack said...

Dick--It seems to me that your reaction to Ken's essay isn't based on its merits so much as its impact on our theology and our fear of uncertainty. "Once you open that box, how do you know where to stop?" Well, maybe we DON'T know. Jesus' disciples' doubts weren't simply due to blockheadedness--he was intentionally coy and ambiguous in many Gospel passages. The fact that we'd like a flawless Scripture to remove any theological squishiness doesn't mean that God gave us such a thing. Perhaps direct access to infallible truth isn't a luxury given to us, nor one that would be wise to entrust to our sinful and arrogant hands.

klavrack said...

What often strikes me is that if we believe the NT to be what it claims to be--no more, no less, how do we take such books as the pastoral epistles to be God's direct, inerrant verbiage? They don't claim to be. They claim to be the best doctrine and advice that early church leaders could give to their flocks and understudies. I believe that these men would have been appalled to have infallibility ascribed to themselves or their letters. Yet, we do just that because of our compulsion to base our theology on infallible premises. We have an infallible Creator, and Jesus is His Word. Beyond that, I think we should be cautious. And yes, I'm well aware that such a point of view probably confirms Dick's fears.