What Wesleyans Mean by “Inerrant”

 

The Wesleyan Church has a number of reasons to celebrate its theological identity beyond its Wesleyan theology in general.  For example, Wesleyans have never fought over which way you should baptize.  You can immerse, sprinkle, pour, baptize an infant, baptize an adult, or even not baptize at all in a few cases.  We were opposed to slavery when most other Christian groups were riding the fence, and many other preachers were members of the KKK. We were in favor of women voting and taking all roles in ministry a hundred years before secular feminism and long before it was the “in” thing to teach in American society—or even in broader Methodism!

 

On many issues, the typical Wesleyan looks a lot like conservative (even fundamentalist) believers in other churches.  But there are some very significant differences in our attitudes on these same issues.  For example, it is true that most of our churches only practice adult baptism by immersion.  So imagine the surprise of some visitors in our midst to find out that we can also practice infant baptism if someone in our congregations desires it.  Similarly, most Wesleyans do take the standard fundamentalist positions on political issues.  But you will also find that our Methodist roots peek out here and there, leading some Wesleyans also to emphasize social justice over the issues on which fundamentalists tend to focus.  Unlike many other denominations to which we are superficially similar, The Wesleyan Church is more generous in the spirit of its orthodoxy.

 

The Wesleyan Church’s attitude toward inerrancy stands in a similar vein.  Certainly we have within our number individuals who have joined us from fundamentalist denominations with very specific understandings of this term.  It would be easy to assume that we mean exactly the same thing that the Southern Baptists or the renowned “Chicago statement” means by the word.  But as with other issues, our historic flavor is quite different from churches where this term has been very divisive.

 

The main difference between The Wesleyan Church and so many other fundamentalist denominations is the “flavor” of our spirit.  In our history we have rankled mostly over how to live, things we used to call “standards.”  Should women wear jewelry?  Should you have a job on Sunday?  At the same time, we have rarely rankled over the same ideas that have been hot issues for other groups.  The biggest idea that we have rankled over is holiness, a topic scarcely noticed by most other traditions.

 

In reality, Wesleyans have neither the flavor of fundamentalism nor even broader evangelicalism.  Rather, we are historically a revivalist tradition.  Revivalism is an approach to Christianity that is far more interested in a person’s spirit than their positions.  We did not join the battles of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900’s.  Those were the battles from which the term inerrancy arose. Churches like the Southern Baptists or the Missionary Church have a very specific understanding of inerrancy that has come from these debates.  For them, the word evokes debates over whether the Bible contradicts itself on matters of history and science.

 

Wesleyans have never had these debates.  It is insightful to trace the history of the word inerrancy in the two parent denominations from which we come.  One of these parent groups, the Pilgrim Holiness Church, did not have this word in their faith statements.  The other group, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, had only introduced the term into its statement in the 1950’s, mostly at the urging of a man by the name of Stephen Paine.  He was a scholar from Houghton College in New York who was tracking the fundamentalist-modernist issues.

 

As they came to the merging conference, the Pilgrims had not been tracking the fundamentalist debate over inerrancy.  They were far more interested in faith statements on the end times.  Here is another issue where restraint won out.  The Wesleyan Church does not have a specific position on how the end times will take place.  Again, most Wesleyans are pre-millennial and believe in a seven year tribulation.  But within the limits of basic Christian orthodoxy, all positions on the end times are allowed. 

 

When it came to inerrancy, the Pilgrims certainly did not want to vote in favor of error in the Bible!  So they voted with the Wesleyan Methodists for the word to be in the new Discipline as a vote of confidence in the inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of the Bible.  But we have never defined what inerrancy might specifically entail on the issues that gave the term birth.  It is for us a very broad affirmation that God never makes mistakes and God inspired the whole Bible.

 

The vast majority of Bible teachers in the Wesleyan Church think this generality is a good thing.  In retrospect, history has helped us to see certain aspects of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early twentieth century with greater clarity than the participants in it did at the time.  For example, in the process of opposing certain modernist positions, fundamentalists inadvertently adopted the same modernist categories as their opponents.  They defined errors in terms of modernist definitions of science and history, when the Bible was not written for modernists.  It was an anachronistic standard by which to define errors.  Thankfully, our lack of engagement with these controversies largely kept us immune to this side effect at the same time that we had full confidence in the Bible.

 

Harold Lindsell, author of The Battle for the Bible, has inadvertently given us some great examples of this side effect while in fact defending a fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy.  At one point he tries to harmonize the various gospel accounts of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  In the end, to get all the denials of the gospels in, he suggests that maybe Peter denied Jesus six times—three before the cock crowed once and three before it crowed the second time.

 

This is ingenious, but notice that Lindsell’s suggestion does not actually match any of the gospels.  Fundamentalists regularly end up making up their own, strange versions of the Bible’s meaning in an attempt to fit things together.  The problem for Wesleyans is that Lindsell has created a fifth gospel that is none of the four that are actually inspired.  His intentions are wonderful, but his effort and end product misguided.  His “high view” of inerrancy ironically leads him to disrespect what the Bible actually says, to change all the gospels to something that fits with his idea.  The fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy tends to pay more attention to the letter than to the spirit of the text.

 

A Wesleyan would not usually worry about working out inerrancy in this kind of detail.  Peter denied Jesus three times.  Perhaps there is some way of fitting the specific denials together.  But the point of the incidence was not about the exact way in which the denials took place.  It was the fact that Peter denied him three times.

 

Asbury Theological Seminary, which is one of the preferred seminaries of The Wesleyan Church, has a helpful statement on inerrancy: the Bible is “without error in all that it affirms.”  The important question is thus, “What was God affirming when He inspired this particular passage?”  For example, was the point of Philippians 2:10 that the earth is flat and that there are beings under and above the earth: “that at the name of Jesus every knee might bow—of those in the skies and on the earth and under the earth”?

 

No, this was not the point Paul was affirming in this passage.  The way he pictures the world here is the way Jews in Paul’s day pictured the world.  The point God was making was not cosmology, but the fact that every living being that exists will bow before Christ.  We should not be surprised or disappointed in any way that God revealed this truth in terms that Paul and the Philippians readily understood.  To do otherwise is to assume that God had to reveal on my terms, even though He spoke this word originally to them.  Rather, we celebrate that God is a God who speaks, not above our heads, but in terms we can understand.

 

The fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy uses the lens of our modern debates over science and history to interpret truth that God revealed in the categories of its ancient audiences.  Rather than tell the modernists of the early twentieth century that they were applying the wrong standard to the Bible—an anachronistic one—fundamentalists of the day tried to read modern categories into the biblical text.  These were concerns that did not even exist at the time the books of the Bible were written.  

 

Meanwhile, our Wesleyan forebears were still reading the Bible in a “spiritual” way.  This is the way that most Christians throughout the centuries have read Scripture and, indeed, is the way the New Testament authors read the Old Testament.  Without even realizing it, they did not pay much attention to the differences between the biblical world and ours.  They were interested in the spiritual message God intended the words to have for us.  They were not focused on fitting stories together or making sure the words of the Bible could be defended in the light of modern scientific theories.

 

The distinction between the original revelation to the ancient audiences and how God wants us to hear Him speaking to us through Scripture today is an important distinction when defining what inerrancy might mean.  The original meaning of the Bible is rarely exactly the same as the way we read the Bible today, for we do not view the world the way the original audiences did.  If the words were in our categories today, they would not have made sense in the categories back then.  And since the Bible literally tells us these books were first written to them, we should expect the biblical categories to reflect those of ancient times more than they reflect ours.  The fundamentalist approach to inerrancy thus tries inadvertently to have a meaning that fits equally well within both ancient and modern categories.

 

The idea that the Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms captures the Wesleyan sense of inerrancy well.  Certainly God’s word could never be in error.  The challenge is in determining what the Bible affirms rather than in acknowledging its inerrancy.  Certainly when God’s Spirit truly reveals something to an individual through the words of Scripture, this affirmation will be without error.  And anything that God has authentically revealed to the Church, to a specific church group or specific individuals, is an affirmation without error.

 

The situation is a little more involved when it comes to the original meanings of the Bible’s words.  Wesleyans view all the books of the Bible as individual instances of inspired, inerrant revelation.  The points that God was making in each case were without error for each particular context within a scope appropriate for their times and situations.  The more we understand these moments of revelation in historical context, we realize that these moments are in a flow of revelation.  God’s message in Deuteronomy freely allowed for divorce and polygamy.  There was no error made for that context. But Deuteronomy does not give us the final word on these subjects.  We must thus understand inerrancy in terms of the place of each book in the flow of salvation history.

 

Further, much of the instruction of the Bible addressed specific situations and contexts.  The passage of 1 Corinthians 11 on women’s head coverings is so foreign to our contemporary context that even scholars can scarcely reach a consensus on exactly what Paul meant.  And greeting the brothers with a holy kiss just would not come across the same way in our churches as it did in ancient Thessalonica.  We must therefore understand inerrancy also in terms of the specific contexts and situations that each book originally addressed.

 

God is a God who takes on the flesh of those to whom He speaks.  He did it as Jesus; He did it in the original meaning of the Bible.  Each book of the Bible in its original meaning is an instance of God meeting a particular group of people with just what they needed, meeting them where they were in their contexts and understandings, stooping to their weakness to move them in the right direction.

 

Wesleyans welcome all those who feel drawn to us and find in our congregations a kindred spirit.  But you may also find some Wesleyan flavors that surprise you from time to time.  A Baptist will feel very comfortable worshipping with us most of the time.  But occasionally it shows through that our roots are revivalist rather than fundamentalist.  We use some of the same words as fundamentalist groups.  But they do not always have the same connotations they do in other traditions. The end result often looks similar, but it is a different spirit that is much more generous on matters like these.  As John Wesley once said, “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”