A CAREFUL VIEW OF SCRIPTURE with Regard to LGBT Questions
A look at the history of how this concept of inerrancy came to be...
(Comparing it to the historic reformer’s and Nazarene position on biblical sufficiency and inerrancy.)
THE CALVINIST ORIGIN OF THE ASSERTION OF DETAILED INERRANCY
The debate over ‘inerrancy’ has been particularly strong in North America over the last few decades, sparked off in 1974 by the book written by Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, and at first it might appear that the assertion of this kind of inerrancy is commendable. However, it is necessary to understand that this assertion of the complete inerrancy of Scripture in every detail (‘inerrancy throughout’) comes out of one particular Calvinist tradition. It is part of a particular Calvinist theological method, and it cannot be understood apart from its place in the rationalism which too often characterizes that theology. The Calvinist theologians who taught at Princeton in the nineteenth and early twentieth 7 centuries, Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), inherited this assertion from previous Calvinists such as the Swiss-Italian theologian, Francis Turretin (1623-1687), and it comes directly from their Calvinist concerns. In their battle with the Roman Catholics, the Calvinist theologians of the century after John Calvin held to the authority of the Bible in order to oppose the authority of the pope and the cardinals. Their apologetic strategy prompted them to assert the authority of the Bible as a basis for faith in Christ rather than as something which was implied by faith in Christ. Their method became to establish first the truth and authority of the Bible, and then build faith in Christ on that. Intellectual persuasion and apologetics therefore came first. Some Lutherans departed from Martin Luther by taking a similar position. Accordingly many of the Reformed Confessions in the post-Reformation period began with the Article of Faith on the Bible. It was in that context that they began to assert the inerrancy of the Bible. In keeping with their deductive method in theology, they argued that since God was perfect, and since the Bible came from him, the Bible must be ‘perfect’ in the sense of being without any error in the smallest detail. It was a presupposition they brought to the Bible rather than a conclusion from the study of the biblical text itself. Not all Calvinists took this position. The Dutch and Scottish Calvinist traditions (Hermann Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, and James Orr) are different and closer to John Calvin and the Reformers. The insistence on inerrancy was particularly strong among American Calvinists, perhaps helping to explain why Fundamentalism is a predominantly American phenomenon.
The continental Reformers themselves, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and the others, made no such claim, and no such claim is made in Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. This was a new claim in the post-Reformation period. For the Reformers themselves, it was faith in Christ which led to trust in the Bible. Martin Luther first proclaimed justification by faith (sola fide) and it was only when he realized that the pope rejected this that he saw the necessity that the Church be subject to the Bible (sola scriptura). For these later theologians in the Calvinist tradition, faith in the inerrancy of the Bible became the foundation for faith in Christ. It was from this Calvinist tradition, passed on through the nineteenth-century Calvinist theologians at Princeton, that the Fundamentalists of the 1920s took their belief in the total, detailed inerrancy of Scripture. Harold Lindsell tried to hold all evangelical Christians to this particular Calvinist belief in the 1970s and seriously divided evangelical 8 Christianity, at least in the United States if not elsewhere. This whole development with its concern with detailed inerrant facts, demonstrates how much the Calvinist tradition was shaped by rationalistic modernity.
Wesleyans are truer to the original Reformation. We know that we are not brought to faith by having the inerrancy of the Bible proved to us, but that our faith in Christ is what leads us to trust his messengers, the prophets and apostles, and all who wrote the Holy Scriptures. It is not that we are committed as a denomination to the opposite view that the Scriptures are unreliable or that they are historically untrustworthy. No: we are committed to the belief that the Scriptures give us a sufficiently accurate account of God’s action in the history of Israel and particularly in the birth, life, death, and bodily resurrection of the Lord. It is rather that we do not think that highlighting the issue of detailed factual inerrancy is helpful or necessary to insisting on the full authority and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture. Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England is therefore entitled, ‘Of the Sufficiency of Holy Scripture’, and this concept of ‘sufficiency’ also appears in the title of Article Five of the Twenty-five Articles John Wesley gave to American Methodism.3
WHY THIS CALVINIST BELIEF IS THE WRONG WAY TO ASSERT THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
There are two severe disadvantages in asserting the authority of Scripture by claiming the detailed factual inerrancy of Scripture instead of its ‘sufficiency.’ First, the concept of ‘error’ is not a helpful one since it is impossible to define what constitutes an ‘error.’ The word seems to imply the need for absolute accuracy, but what degree of accuracy is appropriate? Do we insist on the kind of accuracy of modern scientific language which is foreign to all ancient literature? Are round figures acceptable? Must every narrative observe strict chronological accuracy? Are metaphors and parables disallowed? Are we going to insist that the stories Jesus told must be factually accurate? Even if we accept that the Scriptures are full of metaphor and parable and other figures of speech, are we going to decree where everyone must draw the line—what is literal fact and what is metaphor and parable, poetry and vision? The concept of ‘error’ is an absolutist word applied to something which is necessarily a matter of degree, and it is consequently a nightmare since it leads us straight into frankly silly and futile questions. That is the second point here: this misguided concept of detailed ‘inerrancy’ diverts attention to unprofitable debates about unimportant details. Was it Abiathar or Abimelech who was high priest when David ate the showbread? Were there two angels at the tomb, or was there only one? Were there several women at the tomb on Easter morning or was there only one? Did Judas hang himself or did he die some other way? There are innumerable debates on points which have no bearing on the truth of the gospel and which are a waste of time. Because we are dealing with ancient literature, we frequently do not have enough information to determine whether an apparent contradiction is truly a contradiction or not. To assert complete inerrancy therefore is to be diverted into petty and unprofitable arguments like those at Ephesus who debated ‘myths and genealogies which promote vain speculations’ and had ‘wandered away into vain discussion’ (1 Timothy 1:4-6).
What persuades us of the truth of Scripture is that when it is preached in the power of the Spirit we come face to face with the Lord. We not only know ‘that he died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Paul gives us these as the central facts of the gospel, and we believe that there is no good reason to doubt their historicity. But it is not merely a matter of being given accurate facts. It is rather that through this narrative, we come to meet and know and trust and place our faith in the Risen Lord himself. That is how the narrative of the gospel carries conviction when we evangelize—not by persuading the seeker that we can determine accurately how many angels were at the tomb. The authority of Scripture is validated by the Holy Spirit as we tell ‘the old, old story.’
We respect our brothers and sisters who love Scripture and want to defend its authority, but as Wesleyans it is our conviction that trying to do so in this Calvinist way is the wrong way to do it.
THE UNITED VIEW OF NAZARENE THEOLOGIANS
It is true that at the height of the Fundamentalist-Modernist battle in the 1920s, Nazarene leaders expressed their solidarity with the Fundamentalists. Given the alternative, a Modernist/Liberal theology in 10 which (as H. Richard Niebuhr put it), ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross,’ that is hardly surprising! But the denomination’s premier theologian, H. Orton Wiley, had a deeper understanding of the issues. 4 Wesleyans were committed to asserting the authority of the Bible against Modernism, but not in the simplistic way in which Fundamentalists tried to do it. Paul M. Bassett writes that, following in the tradition of the Wesleyan theologians, Richard Watson, W. B. Pope and John Miley, “Wiley clearly enters the lists against American theological liberalism on the one hand and against fundamentalism on the other.” 5 In his Christian Theology, he criticizes the Protestant scholastics in the century after the Reformation in that they began “to substitute the written Word for Christ the Living Word.” In the context in which he was writing, it is clear (as Paul Bassett argues) that H. Orton Wiley was also criticizing the Fundamentalists of his day who had inherited their view of the Bible’s detailed inerrancy from scholastic Calvinism.6 He goes so far as to warn against three ‘worthy monarchs’ to whom we can mistakenly give a false position in place of Christ, the Living Word: the church, the Bible, and reason. There is good reason to conclude that it was H. Orton Wiley who drafted Article IV at the 1928 General Assembly, which is good reason in itself why Article IV should not be amended.
Timothy L. Smith, in a letter to the editor of Christianity Today published on March 10, 1978 similarly maintained that Wesleyans reject both the ‘liberal’ or ‘modernist’ stance and also the narrow inerrantist view of Scripture associated with B. B. Warfield and Harold Lindsell. Timothy Smith wrote: ‘…we Wesleyans stand in an older and much broader evangelical tradition than that represented by modern neo-Calvinist scholasticism.’ In a letter to the editor of The Christian Century, he maintained that ‘the roots of the nonfundamentalist view of scriptural authority accepted by many evangelicals’ lay in the writings of the Reformers, and that the Hodge-Warfield view of inerrancy was never held by evangelical leaders such as William Booth, Adoniram J. Gordon, Dwight L. Moody, or the leaders of the National Holiness Association. He rejected the contemporary efforts of the inerrantists, Harold Lindsell and Francis Schaeffer, ‘to impose upon modern evangelicals a view of Scripture which Jesus and Paul renounced in rabbinical Judaism.’7
Similarly, Ralph Earle quotes the early Nazarene theologian A. M. Hills, that the Bible is infallible in what it tells us about God and salvation, not in detailed inerrancy:
What is the infallibility we claim for the Bible? It is infallible as regards the purpose for which it was written. It is infallible as a revelation of God’s saving love in Christ to a wicked world. It infallibly guides all honest and willing and seeking souls to Christ, to holiness, to heaven.8
Ralph Earle then goes on to defend a fellow evangelical scholar who accepted that there are errors in the Bible in rhetoric, history and science. At the same time he thought that this colleague had made more concessions than he needed to and had accepted that there were factual contradictions where the historical accounts could be harmonized by careful hermeneutics.9
J. Kenneth Grider similarly rejected detailed inerrancy. He takes note of one sentence from Wesley quoted by Harold Lindsell which seems to teach detailed inerrancy, but argues that when that sentence is taken in the context of Wesley’s whole theology, he did not teach inerrancy as part of his theological method in the way of scholastic Calvinism.
J. Kenneth Grider argues: “…Scripture itself is not interested in inerrancy. It makes a claim for inspiration, but not for inerrancy—at least, not for total inerrancy.” J. Kenneth Grider examines that claim to inspiration in 2 Timothy 3:16, and points out that according to the text it is inspiration specifically for teaching (doctrine) and practice.10
Rob L. Staples contrasts Wesleyanism with Fundamentalism, which arose in Calvinistic soil and insists on ‘epistemological inerrancy.’ Wesleyanism works differently and takes a view which he calls ‘soteriological inerrancy.’11 In another article, he begins with the saying of Martin Luther: ‘The Bible is the manger in which Christ is laid.’ Rob Staples comments:
The point of Martin Luther’s analogy is that Christ, who is the Living Word, is to be found in the Bible, which is the written Word. But the latter is an instrument directing us to the former, and thus not an end in itself.12
Paul M. Bassett argued in an article on the understanding of the Bible in the holiness movement, that its history and inner logic would lead it to conclude ‘that a call like Lindsell’s [for detailed inerrancy] is theologically and spiritually irrelevant.’ Paul Bassett continues:
Its history and inner logic would lead it to conclude that, if the term inerrancy be used, as it is, it refers to the Bible’s service as the unique creation of the Holy Spirit, intended by that Spirit to carry conviction for sin, the news of full salvation in Christ, and sure instruction in how to relate to God and neighbor in righteousness and true holiness. In these things the Bible is to be understood as wholly inerrant. Paul Bassett proceeds to rule out the more detailed inerrancy (‘inerrancy throughout’):
The movement has concluded that, since empirical or scientific exactitudes certainly are not soteriologically ultimate and are not even metaphysically ultimate, they must be accounted for in terms of something other than scientific exactitude itself…. Most holiness people would insist that all such questions must submit to the question of the ultimate purpose of Scripture itself, which is not absolutely accurate knowledge of all things in heaven and earth but soteriological sufficiency.13
H. Ray Dunning notes that some evangelicals base the Bible’s authority on its inerrancy, but concludes that ‘such rationalistic defenses are less than compelling.’14 H. Ray Dunning goes on to quote A. M. Hills, Clark H. Pinnock, Richard S. Taylor, H. Orton Wiley, and even John Calvin to support the alternative view of the Bible’s authority, that we are persuaded of it by the testimonium internum Spiritus sancti, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. This he sees as an aspect of the doctrine of prevenient grace.15
We have to conclude then that Nazarene theologians as a whole, with few if any exceptions, are totally opposed to the idea that we need to assert the complete detailed factual inerrancy of Holy Scripture in order to defend its authority. As a body, they are totally committed to its authority in matters of faith and practice, doctrine and ethics. The question of whether the Bible is totally accurate in every statement is not therefore something on which the Church needs to pronounce one way or the other in its official Articles of Faith, for it is quite irrelevant.
Two editors of the Herald of Holiness made the very good point that the present Article of Faith IV is a broad one. W. E. McCumber commented in ‘The Answer Corner’ that Article IV “does not commit us for or against total inerrancy, and, as one would expect, there are proponents of both concepts of ‘plenary inspiration’ to be found among us.” He himself concluded, ‘It is not errorless, but it will infallibly achieve its purpose when the Holy Spirit uses it to convict of sin and draw to Christ, making possible our salvation.’16 Wesley Tracy, in ‘The Question Box,’ made clear his view that the inerrancy view “has become the trademark and battle cry of rigid, right wing, Calvinist fundamentalists” and does not belong in the Wesleyan tradition. Nonetheless, he comments that Article IV is a “roomy one”: and that both the rigid fundamentalist who believes in inerrancy can assent to the article, while those “who take a less rigid view… also have elbow room.”17
That brings us to a final thought. Not only is the detailed inerrancy view at variance with Wesleyan theology, and repudiated by leading Nazarene theologians, but if Article IV were to be amended to restrict us to that particular view of Scripture, the present breadth which can comprehend both views would be replaced by this narrower fundamentalist view. Since Nazarene theologians and biblical scholars as a whole would be very strongly opposed to this narrowing of this Article of Faith, as would many leading pastors and lay people, such a move would threaten a very serious division in the denomination. The division and severe crisis and pain seen in other denominations indicate that this could have very serious results for our unity and could do serious damage to the Church of the Nazarene.
For all these reasons, the committee strongly advises that these amendments should be rejected. Nazarenes are committed by the present Article IV to the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, its final authority in all matters of Christian faith and living, in doctrine and ethics. That is all we need to say.
For a look at the entire document from the Scripture Study Committee see the file below...