Why Wesleyans Can Safely Believe in Biblical Inerrancy

Jerry Bimber

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2014. Volume 32.

Dec., 2014

The September/October 2012 issue of Holiness Today included an article by Dr. Al Truesdale entitled "Why Wesleyans Aren't Fundamentalists." After a brief discussion of fundamentalism arising from the reaction of conservative Protestantism against the challenges of modernism in the late 1800's and early 1900's, Dr. Truesdale focuses his argument. He says the great difference between Wesleyans and Fundamentalists is their differing views of Scripture. To be more precise, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a fundamentalist doctrine of recent origin, and unworthy for any Wesleyan to believe.

Since Dr. Truesdale's working definition of fundamentalism includes a heavy dose of Calvinism, then let me quickly say that I agree with Dr. Truesdale that Wesleyans are not fundamentalists in the Calvinistic sense. But his article raises some important questions: Is inerrancy a recent and wholly fundamentalist (Calvinistic) doctrine? Is it true that inerrancy is unworthy of Wesleyanism? It seems that Dr. Truesdale has answered those questions affirmatively because throughout his article the concepts of inerrancy and fundamentalism are used interchangeably. The assumption of his argument seems to be that Fundamentalists are inerrantists, and since Wesleyans are not Fundamentalists, we should not be inerrantists.

The belief that inerrancy is a doctrine arising from the fundamentalist/modernist controversies culminating in the 1920's is simply wrong. It is a fiction that we tell ourselves, and alas, no evidence is allowed to count against it. Yet, a fair reading of history gives clear evidence that belief in the inspired and infallible Word of God is the main historical tradition of the church. From the Church Fathers, to the Reformers, and yes, even to John Wesley and the theologians of early Methodism, the belief in an infallible Scripture was foundational to their Christian witness.

Biblical inerrancy was the position of the church catholic from the earliest centuries up to and including Vatican II. Augustine of Hippo, in a letter (A.D. 394 or 395) to Jerome noted, "It seems to me that the most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false." Far from being a recent fundamentalist doctrine, inerrancy was settled Roman Catholic doctrine. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII released his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, in which he stated, "But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred."

As the Reformers broke with Rome, they did so over issues of authority and interpretation, but not over the infallible character of the Bible. In 1518, Johannes Eck entered into a dispute with Erasmus, denying the possibility that a biblical writer could err by even one word! Historian Richard Muller points out that, "catholic teaching before the Reformation assumed the infallibility of Scripture, as did the Reformers the Protestant orthodox did not invent the concept."

But what of Wesley and the early Methodists? John Wesley, famously, was the "Man of One Book." But was his Bible infallible only for matters of faith and practice? In his response to a Mr. Jenyn's article, The Internal Evidence of the Christian Faith, Wesley writes, "If he is a Christian, he betrays his own cause by averring that 'all Scripture is not given by inspiration of God, but the writers of it were sometimes left to themselves, and consequently made some mistakes." Because the Scriptures are of divine origin, for Wesley, they could not be false in any way. The theologians of Methodism: Richard Watson, Thomas Ralston, Samuel Wakefield, Miner Raymond, William Burt Pope, Thomas O. Summers, and Randolph Sinks Foster, all joined Wesley in the affirmation of biblical inerrancy.

Early Nazarenes strongly affirmed inerrancy as a reading of early editions of the Herald of Holiness will show. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) was signed by nine Wesleyans, among them Nazarene theologian Dr. Ralph Earle, and Holiness leader, Dr. Dennis Kinlaw.

If Nazarenes choose the view that the Bible's inerrancy is limited to matters of faith and practice, we will not be aided by history. We must "bite the theological bullet" and sever ourselves from the Church's historic position. But if so, we should hear the import of what we do in the words of Stephen Sykes, an admitted theological liberal, who says, "For many Protestant Christians the most momentous step of theological liberalism is taken when they deny the traditionally accepted belief in the inerrancy of Scripture."

The limited inerrantists protect their belief by offering quite spiritual sounding reasons. So, Truesdale points out that revelation for fundamentalists is a matter of information about God, and for Wesleyans, revelation is God himself. The battle is between cold knowledge and warm hearts. But this is a confusion. There is no revelation of God that is not also informative. God reveals himself in words and concepts. He made us to receive such information. When Dr. Truesdale argues that in the case of Wesleyans, "knowing the truth is primarily a matter of knowing God," he is right. But he confuses truth with the end to which that truth is given. There is no war between God and the truth about God.

Wesley believed in the quickening power of the Holy Spirit and that apart from that work, we will remain deadened to revelation. But the work of the Spirit does not make the Bible any more true, nor is the Bible any less true in the Spirit's absence. The illumination of the Spirit does nothing to the character of the Scriptures. The Spirit heightens the understanding of fallen men and women. We cannot recognize the truth of even an inerrant Scripture unless the Spirit quickens our understanding.

The word inerrant is a stumbling block to many because they cannot or will not believe that any text with any human input can be infallible. For a text to be inerrant it must simply be truthful or without error. My grocery list can be inerrant if I copy it correctly from my wife's instructions. A phone book can theoretically be inerrant. And the Scriptures are inerrant because the Spirit of God superintended the writing. 2 Peter 1:21 reminds us that, "men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." That was apostolic belief, the belief of the men who had been with Jesus. A trustworthy, infallible Word is the Spirit's gift to the world.

What of the charge that inerrantists read the Bible in a hyper-literal fashion and have no concern for interpretational nuance, such as recognition of the different genres of Scripture? Such a charge is misplaced. Consider the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics which was released in 1983. Article XIII reads as follows: "WE AFFIRM that awareness of the literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis, and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study."

What is the theological justification for believing that the Bible is inerrant? A safe way is to start with Jesus. What did Jesus believe? The gospels tell us that Jesus believed in a real Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, Jonah swallowed by a fish, and that Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt. His appeal to ultimate biblical authority was with the words, "It stands written," and he argued for resurrection on the basis of the tense of one word (Mark 12: 26-27). He knew of his approaching death, of Peter's triple denial, and he knew what was in the hearts of men. His knowledge extended to counter-factuals, or what would have happened in the past had certain circumstances been different. If Tyre and Sidon had seen the works that Jesus did in Chorazin and Bethsaida, they would have repented! Jesus only did what he received permission from the Father to do, and one of his tasks was to speak of the Scriptures and assure us that they cannot be broken. He reminds us that "until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matt. 5: 17-18). Belief in an inerrant Scripture begins with belief in an infallible Jesus.

But isn't this debate merely theological "inside baseball?" After all, we all love Jesus, don't we? There is great importance to this debate. An inerrant Scripture bounds our interpretation. All of our spiritual experiences are to be tested by the word of God. The local pastor of the Church of Christ is a far more spiritual man than me, and he proves it by affixing a rainbow to his church sign. The Spirit has shown him that God approves of homosexuality, homosexual marriage, and the ordination of homosexuals. The Scriptures are just wrong in their prohibition of such behavior, because after all, homosexuality is a matter of science, both behavioral and genetic. And everyone knows that the Bible is not intended as a science textbook. A glaring problem with identifying as infallible only what is necessary for salvation is that what is necessary for salvation can shrink away to almost nothing.

Nazarene laity and clergy alike have good reasons to believe in an inerrant Bible. It was the historic position of the ancient Church, the Reformers, Wesley, the early Methodists, and many early Nazarenes. It is the position most closely associated with Jesus. It is the position of many Wesleyans now. Some of our academics disagree. So, in articles in Holiness Today and in papers at our theological conferences, in talks from pulpits and prayers from professors, we are warned against fundamentalism. But whatever the demerits of fundamentalism (and there are many), it is a mistake to confuse it with inerrancy. I agree with Dr. Truesdale that Nazarenes should not embrace fundamentalism. But there is good reason for Nazarenes to hold to inerrancy. Indeed, many of us already do.

Editorial Note: After Holiness Today ran the article by Truesdale, Jerry contacted the editor and received permission to write a rebuttal. He heard nothing after it was submitted. In a later conversation with the editor, although the editor admitted that the Truesdale article was somewhat lacking and that he personally was in substantial agreement with the rebuttal article, to publish the rebuttal might prove too divisive. Essentially, the discussion has been declared closed. This all sounds very familiar to me.

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