Friday, October 21, 2011

Innerancy, Wesleyanism, and the Creedal Order

It seems like it has been forever since I last posted!  And it has been over a month.  It is a shame, too, because there are a couple of articles I really would like to get posted.  I suppose, though, I have been quite busy, but I will try to get back in gear!

I thought I would share a little about some of my recent reading.  Yesterday, I received the most recent volume of the Wesleyan Theological Journal (the scholarly journal published by the Wesleyan Theological Society ).  The Journal contained articles (based on the papers) read at the 2011 meeting of the Society.  As I looked through the listed articles, W. Stephen Gunter's article caught my eye.  Gunter teaches at Duke Divinity School, and his article is titled "Beyond the Bible Wars: Why Innerancy is Not the Issue for Evangelical Wesleyans."

As many may know, the issue of fundamentalism's relationship to conservative, evangelical Wesleyans is not a new issue.  Likewise, the basic idea in the article that Wesleyans approach Scripture differently than the way fundamentalists approach Scripture was not new, either.  Wesleyans look through soteriological eyes when going to Scripture, while fundamentalists, with their foundation in Reformed theology, begin by looking for propositional truths.  -  Quoting Wesley's famous "homo unius libri" paragraph*, Gunter says, "This soteriological use of the Bible as the source book for understanding the way to heaven and the life of holiness is different from the epistemological use of Scripture to verify factuality of rational propositions."

Well, as I said, the basic concept is not new, though much of the particular information was new to me.  However, the thing that really caught my eye had to do with how this understanding of faith and the Bible is demonstrated in the very ordering of Anglican and Methodist Articles of Religion/Faith when compared to the Reformed Confessions.  Gunter says:
     Unlike most other Protestant creeds (especially the Westminster Confession
     in the English context, which places Book One with its ten affirmations on
     the Bible first), the Anglican Articles affirm first the faith in the Trinity.  After
     this comes affirmation of the nature of Christ, the descent into Hell, Christ's
     resurrection, and the Holy Spirit, all prior to the first mention of the Bible. 
     And when we do get to the article on Scripture, it is not about rational
     authority per se, for it reads, "On the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for
     Salvation." . . . This is a different emphasis and nuance than can be found in
     nearly any confession or creed of early Protestantism, especially those of the
     Reformed tradition that are foundational for Fundamentalism, especially as
     they have been interpreted by many Neo-Reformed Evangelicals for the  last
     hundred years.  As Paul Bassett [yay, Dr. Bassett!] has rightly pointed out,
     "By contrast, in most of the continental confessions, especially those of the
     Reformed tradition, the article on Scripture stands first, or, even prior to that,
     a preamble asserts the priority of the authority of the Bible."  As we have
     seen, this is very much the case for many Calvinian evangelicals . . .

As this is true for the Anglican Articles, it is true also for the Methodist Articles, as well as those who, even though they have re-written their own Articles, have remained true to their Wesleyan/Methodist tradition.  For example, the Free Methodists, Wesleyans and Nazarenes have all re-written the original Methodist Articles, but all of them maintain the order of Trinity, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and then Scripture.  Further, even though The Wesleyan Church did fall into the fundamentalist position of confessing the Bible as "fully inerrant in their original manuscripts, the title of the Article does still speak of "sufficiency" and the Article, itself, does seem to still focus on essential doctrine and salvific concerns.

Interestingly, both the Free Methodists and Nazarenes avoid this fundamentalist position, while utilizing language that is familiar to fundamentalism.  The Free Methodists say (at least in their 1995 Discipline - I don't have a newer version!), "[The Bible] bears unerring witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word . . ." (emphasis mine).  Nazarenes say, "[The Holy Scriptures] . . . inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation . . ." (emphasis mine).   The language is familiar to fundamentalists, as I indicated, but the context is thoroughly Wesleyan.  The Bible bears unerring witness to Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures inerrantly reveal the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.

Again, though, the thing that I found fascinating is that the soteriological emphasis is demonstrated for Anglicans and Wesleyans in the very ordering of our creedal statements, and that is seen clearly when compared to the ordering of the Reformed creedal statements.  As Gunter says, "For Anglicans and Wesleyans . . . the authority of Scripture has a soteric rather than rationalistically defined epistemic center.  On this point, Wesleyans are more Anglo-Catholic (and early church and Eastern and Orthodox) than Puritan-Reformed!"

By the way, Gunter does consistently link Anglo-Catholics and Wesleyans throughout his article. 

Another statement made by Gunter in this article that readers of this blog may find interesting is as follows:  "In recent years, many Methodists have become enamored with Mr. Wesley's Anglican roots, especially his high-church liturgical expression, and have wanted to return to the liturgy, unfortunately quite often without taking Wesley's soteriological appropriation of Anglican theological method along with them.  In so doing, we have often left Wesley and Wesleyan Methodism behind."

I wish that Gunter had fleshed that out a bit.  I am not sure what, exactly he is talking about in the latter part of the quote.  Perhaps, though, his quote is reflective of the my own observations concerning a number of my sisters and brothers in the Order of St. Luke.  In the Order, I have observed (and I think I have mentioned it on the Wesleyan/Anglican facebook page) that many who are conservative toward Wesleyan when it comes to liturgy are, on the other hand, not very concerned about Wesleyan theology (or soteriology).  Conversely, many who seem to be concerned to be conservative toward Wesley theologically (and soteriologically) seem to be completely uninterested in Wesley's liturgical commitments.  -  Perhaps Gunter is referring to those who are concerned about Wesley's liturgical commitments but who are less interested in his theology (and soteriology).

All in all, I really enjoyed Gunter's article, and I look forward to reading more of the articles in the WTJ.
*The full quote is: "God himself has condescended to teach the way [to heaven]: for this very end he came from heaven.  He hath written it down in a book.  O give me that book!  At any price give me the book of God!  I have it.  Here is knowledge enough for me.  Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book]"


Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Inerrant vs Infallible

When I was in college (and seminary) and trying to articulate what I believe about Biblical authority, I found myself more comfortable saying that the Bible is infallible than saying that the Bible is inerrant. While some use those words completely synonymously, I saw a difference in nuance.

Infallible means literally "never failing" - the Bible does not fail or fall short of the purpose for which God sent it, namely to "make us wise for salvation by faith in Christ." Infallible has to do with the Bible perfectly fulfilling its purpose.

Inerrant, on the other hand, could be interpreted in untenable ways since it means literally "without error" so that it is then used to confirm the factuality of certain propositions - yet even beyond the issue of factual errors (or in very evident contradictions in minor details of parallel narratives [compare Paul's two conversion accounts in the Book of Acts - did his companions see the light?]) there is also the question of what constitutes an error. Mark, for example, has horrible grammar. He makes grammatical errors in his Greek. This is well known. Would it preclude the text from being "inerrant"? Technically, yes, but it seems clear to me that this is not what fundamentalists are driving at. The reason they want the Bible to be inerrant is (I believe) that they REALLY want the Bible to be reliable for guiding their lives.

But reliable and inerrant are not the same thing, and we need not claim the later (especially when it looks untenable or incoherent anyways) to uphold the former. So perhaps in gravitating toward calling the Bible "infallible" (i.e. an unfailing tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit to lead us to saving faith) and gravitating away from seeing it as "inerrant" I was actually being more Weslayan than I knew. Cool.

Todd Stepp said...

I think I like that distinction, Daniel.

Andrew said...

Would you say the real problem for those "Wesleyans" (folks in churches like COTN, etc.) not so much that they are uneducated, stupid, ignorant, hick, fundamentalist…as much as they don’t like the baggage that seems to come with the soteriological inerrancy…I’ll speak from the Nazarene perspective since that is what I am most familiar…you have Nazarene theologians who hold and teach soteriological inerrancy say and write things like: the creation account in Genesis is only a poem and not to be taken literally so we should accept evolution…since the Bible is only inerrant in matters of salvation the history portion of the Old Testament is fabricated or biased and much of it contradicts with the Jesus’ teaching of the New Testament…the Bible has many errors…homosexuality is not a sin and we should get over it, etc.
When faced with these two options soteriological inerrancy or fundamentalism they gravitate to fundamentalism…despite of all the scholarly written articles, blog post, etc. telling them Wesleyans cannot be fundamentalist…what do you think?

Todd Stepp said...

A few things:

First, I would characterize many (perhaps not all)of those folks as fundamentalists. They do embrace a Wesleyan/holiness understanding of sanctification and an Arminian understanding of security, but beyond that, they fit well within the fundamentalist camp. - Most folks tend to blend theological traditions these days, anyway (e.g. it has been said that Southern Baptists are sailing in an Arminian boat, but flying a Calvinistic flag, i.e. they are Calvinist on the one point of eternal security).

Further, they (incorrectly, I think) see fundamentalism as completely consistent with Wesleyanism. (And to say they are fundamentalists is not to say something "evil" about them, but only to say that they are NOT consistently Wesleyan.)

Second, I'm not sure what Nazarene theologians have said the kinds of things you have stated. Certainly, with evolution, there is a fairly wide held belief in THEISTIC evolution in some form.

Such theologians (from my experience) are not about saying that any particular parts of the Bible ARE in error, but that the Bible has a salvific (in the broadest sense) purpose and sufficently (or inerrantly) fulfill that purpose. Which is different than saying, where the Bible speaks of history it is automatically in error.

I'm not sure that they are about saying that the OT contradicts Jesus' teachings in the NT, either. They are very much about saying that Jesus fulfills or fills full the OT.

I'm not sure that they are about saying that the Bible has many errors, either. It is, though, that when the Bible seems to contradict itself (e.g., the stories of David & Saul, especially when Saul first knew David and the fight with Goliath), they are not as concerned as fundamentalists with making the two fit together. That is not the same thing, though, as saying that one is right the other is in error.

And I only know of one Nazarene theologian who has publically said that homosexuality is not a sin. His arguments, to my knowledge were never published, and I only became aware of them after his death. - There may be those who do believe this (I don't know who they are), but there are also those who still come down with Richard Hays' conclusion (which is consistent with the denomination's position). - The issue of homosexuality, after all, does fall within the broader scope of soteriology (faith/practice/right relatedness, etc.).

In other words, I do not think that the consistent Wesleyan position necessarily leads to the conclusions that you have suggested. Nor am I aware (beyond the creation/evolution issue) that the other "issues" you have presented are necessarily things that such theologians are saying. In other words, they are not trying to divide up the Bible to say this is inerrant, but this is errant. Rather, they are looking at the purpose of Scripture and the idea that it clearly does what God intends that it do. - I could be wrong, though.

Now, I do think that many in the fundamentalist camp do SEE all of those issues as being issues, and thus, you are essentially correct when it comes to their "choice." -

But, you know, a person can still agree with the fundamentalists on certain positions and still come from a WEsleyan perspective. I mean, we do agree, in general, about doctrines of Christ and His divinity/humanity, etc. One can be a Wesleyan and not believe that God created via an evolutionary process. But there is that underlying fear that we could slide down the liberal slope.

Maybe I have rambled myself into confussion. If so, let me know and I'll give it another shot! :0)

Andrew said...

For an example of the "errors in the Bible" check out Tom Oord's blog post

For an example of OT/NT contradiction see CS Cowles' contribution in the book Show Them No Mercy

Homosexuality is not sin has not been put in print by a Nazarene to my knowledge but we do have several Methodist theologians/pastors (many of whom I really like) who would join in agreement.

From my perspective it seems we have many Wesleyan theologians wringing their hands at the infiltration of Fundamentalism in our camp but very little that is said to address the infiltration of liberalism.

I guess it seems we have lots of theological concern for the gaurdrails on one side of the road but the other side seems pretty void of the same guard rails.