Inerrancy And The Wesleyan Tradition
June 11, 2009
Over the past few years, I have been spiritually troubled by an increasingly popular implication that not “all scripture is breathed by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). I have come to an understanding of the inerrancy of God’s Word, in all matters, as essential to the faith. Though there are those who do not see the point in explaining the original autograph manuscripts which we have not seen, yet out of reverence for the sovereign knowledge of the Author, I believe it is essential we defend them.
Though I consider its message of salvation and holiness as the purpose for which this book was “breathed by God,” I do not undermine its Author’s ability to communicate to mankind a message free from errors in history, geography, science, or any other subjects. There is no doubt that the Bible is a book of God’s redemptive plan. However, we cannot ignore the fact that this redemptive plan involves a history, a place in which it unfolds, and, often, science plays a role. To bring in to question any of these “other topics” will undoubtedly affect the central message, as it is inextricably linked. It must all be a part of the affirmation, “All scripture is breathed by God.”
In simple terms, I will attempt to bring understanding to all that I have stated thus far. On the side of a packet of bottled water, I noted the slogan “pure, refreshing and invigorating.” There is no doubt that one who drinks bottled water does so that he may be refreshed. Furthermore, that person would expect the water to be pure. This is the purpose of bottled water.
However, here is a question many have not considered, “Is the bottle clean?” Let us consider the history, the geography and science of the bottle. Imagine if the manufacturers of bottled water added in small print under their slogan, this following remark:
We are not concerned with the scientific composition of the bottle itself. Furthermore, we are unsure of the historical facts regarding the handling of this bottle, and may have been misinformed as to its origin. Nevertheless, we ensure you its contents are pure.
Immediately, the consumer would suspect that the water is no longer pure, because the bottle was subject to contamination. Though he or she may have picked up the bottle only because they merely wished to be refreshed, an awareness of potential error in the science, history and geography of the bottle, has caused the very content to come under question.
As the pure bottled water is the source of refreshment to the consumer, the living water is the source of life to those who believe. Jesus the Word stated, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10b). In a nutshell, this is the message of salvation and entire sanctification that has been held so dear by Wesleyans over the past two and a half centuries. However, this message has been encased in “time and space.” It was stated at a certain time in history and in a certain place. Furthermore, it establishes Jesus as the great Life Giver, the one who breathed life into man at the beginning of time (Gen 2:7; Col 1:16-17). This life that Jesus offers in John’s gospel is essentially spiritual, but in Genesis he was involved in the creation of physical life. Therefore, science is also involved.
If an absolute standard of inerrancy is not held, and only the message of salvation and holiness is considered valid, then this will lead to a corruption of the message itself. As a contaminated bottle will serve to corrupt its contents, so will a contaminated history, geography or science corrupt the message for the hearer of the Word. To question the historicity of a statement or the place in which a statement is made will only lead to the inevitable doubt of the validity of the statement itself. Which court would accept a statement as truth in which the witness is vulnerable to making errors in recollection of events and places? Would not the ruling be “insufficient evidence”? Yet the Bible is regarded by its Author as “sufficient” in all matters. “All scripture is breathed by God.”
This is the traditional belief of Wesleyans throughout the centuries. In a sermon entitled, “On Charity,” John Wesley states, “We know, ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,’ and is therefore true and right concerning all things.” It is quite clear that Wesley understood that “all scripture” meant “all things” in the Word. However, were these “things” so connected that an error in history, geography or science would affect the central message? When reviewing a tract entitled, “Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion,” by Soame Jenyns which undermined inerrancy, Wesley wrote in his Journal for 24 July 1776:
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.” Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.
It is evident in this statement that Wesley believed that the admittance of “any mistakes” would affect the very “truth” that God wishes to reveal. Therefore, I am sure that John Wesley would ascribe to my analogy of bottled water.
Secondly, we must review those prominent theologians in a movement to trace the consistency of its doctrine. Adam Clarke concurred with Wesley’s view on inerrancy. He stated: “Men may err, but the Scriptures cannot; for it is the Word of God himself, who can neither mistake, deceive, nor be deceived.”
Richard Watson, the first systematic theologian of Methodism, stated that the authority of scripture “secures the Scriptures from all error both as to the subjects spoken and the manner of expressing them.”
However, the great debate of inerrancy never began to take its toll until the last century. It began in the early 1900s and culminated in the 1970s when “historical skeptics” attacked the Word of God as unreliable in matters of science and history. As a response, some Wesleyans have fled from the bastion of inerrancy in all matters, to the wilderness of what they would call “soteriological inerrancy.” This is to say that they have created a doctrine contrary to the truths held by the fathers of the Wesleyan movement.
However, just what is this new view on inerrancy? Rob L. Staples, a proponent of soteriological inerrancy, wrote, “For Wesleyanism, the basic theological question is: ‘What must I do to be saved?'” Therefore, he surmises, that “Wesleyans” need only be concerned about inerrancy as regards the message of salvation. Staples even goes so far as to quote John Wesley for support: “I want to know one thing, the way to heaven ‘how to land safe on that happy shore.'”
Although Staples’ motives may be pure, there are two areas of immediate concern. First, the door has been left open for error in “other things” in scripture that Wesley himself considered inextricably linked to the message itself. Though the “way to heaven” is the pure water of the Word, one cannot avoid the fact that this message is linked with the bottle of “time and space.” To do so, would be to commit an intellectual suicide. Secondly, it is a sweeping statement of little historical merit to use the term “Wesleyans.” As we have seen, both the founder and its early theologians would disagree that this movement would support such a theological stance.
Furthermore, Dr. Staples stated, “We in the Wesleyan tradition have avoided the divisiveness some denominations have suffered whenever the “inerrancy” issue has reared its ugly head” [Words of Faith, p. 21].
Once again, there is a contradiction here. “Soteriological inerrancy” is a divisive theology that has crept into Wesleyan denominations. H. Ray Dunning, wrote concerning the Nazarene statement of faith concerning “The Holy Scriptures,”
While some Nazarenes interpret this to imply full authority in the broadest sense… other Nazarene sources allow a more restricted interpretation, defining it as extending to the whole canon; in terms of the content of scripture, to the soteriological aspects of the Bible, that is, it holds that the way of salvation set forth in Scripture is completely reliable and dependable [Grace, Faith, and Holiness, p. 72].
In other words, we have those that hold to the Wesleyan belief that “all scripture is breathed by God” and those that would settle for less: pure water in a potentially dirty bottle.
This leaves only one question to be asked: If doubt as to the total inerrancy of God’s Word does not have its roots in the Wesleyan tradition, from where did this understanding originate? I believe we find this theology in the Garden of Eden. It is the original temptation. Eve had wandered too close to “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” For her waywardness, she would suffer temptation at the hands of the serpent. Instead of the inspired Word, she now will be tempted to settle for something less – the inspired snake of the evil one. He states his doctrine of doubt, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'” (Gen 3:1).
Notice, the serpent does not make a direct statement, such as “God did not say . . . .” He simply implies that it may not be true when he questions the validity of God’s statement. This is what I call “the power of suggestion.”
If the evangelist of soteriological inerrancy proclaims that only the message need be true, has he not wandered too closely to the tree? He may argue at this point that the question of the serpent need not be historical or that the creation account is allegorical. However, if he listens carefully to his “own understanding” he will find that he has not trusted God’s Word, but echoed the voice of the evil one (see Prov 3:5-8). After all, to deny the validity of history is to bring into question the message. In other words, if there was neither “time” nor “space” when God spoke those words, then the next question to ask is: “Did he really speak them?”
In the garden, the Word of God was doubted and the rest is history. Adam and Eve were cast into a wilderness because they bought into the lie. They had traded the pure waters of Eden, for the murky waters of the wilderness. If we begin to doubt the pure water of the Word and all that is inextricably linked, we will end up drinking the contaminated waters in the wilderness of doubt. One doctrine after another will fall. Furthermore, we will put ourselves in a very dangerous position before the Author and Judge, Jesus Christ. A. W. Tozer proclaimed:
Let a man question the inspiration of the Scriptures and a curious, even monstrous, inversion takes place: thereafter he judges the Word instead of letting the Word judge him; he determines what the Word should teach instead of permitting it to determine what he should believe; he edits, amends, strikes out, adds at his pleasure; but always he sits above the Word and makes it amenable to him instead of kneeling before God and becoming amenable to the Word.
Once any detail in the Word is doubted, then the doubter has permitted himself to judge that which will judge him. He begins to pick and choose what is true, and that what is false. He has attempted to set his throne higher than the Almighty: The One who has promised, “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot (the smallest letters in the Hebrew alphabet) or one tittle (accents and diacritical points) will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Luke 4:36). It is then that the door is opened and in creeps heresy.
At the outset of his book, The Story of God, Michael Lodahl, professor of theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, writes
In many ways, it’s the same way anyone’s story gets told – except that this is a very old story, told over a considerable length of time with many tellers, twists, and complications, and with a rather unobtrusive main Character (God) who seems not to be overly concerned that we get the Story “just right” in every detail [p. 16].
Notice in the last sentence the word “seems” is used. The use of this verb does not create a direct statement. If he had used the verb “is” and the statement was straightforward in nature – “God is not concerned that we get the Story right,” then there would probably be an outcry. But here we have the power of suggestion: “God seems not to be overly concerned that we get the Story “just right.” And, as I have already stated, suggestion is more enticing. In other words, he gives you enough to begin to doubt. The door of doubt is open and now we as readers are invited to become the judge of the Word. You pick and choose what “details” are right.
As we are led into the wilderness of this book, the water itself begins to become contaminated; not just the “Story,” but the message itself. In his search for an answer to God’s judgment of water at the time of Noah, we are given a heretical “implication” by Lodahl: “There is an unavoidable implication in the story of the Flood, however, that it is that God was learning through experience about human beings of His own making.”
After this remark, Lodahl attempts to soften the blow: “This does not square with traditional notions of divine omniscience, but this need not be overly bothersome” [p. 97]. For those who still drink of the water of the Word from the Garden of Sound Doctrine, it must be bothersome! After all, Lodahl has just attempted to diminish the omniscient God of scripture. Instead of a God who is all-knowing, Lodahl has given us the option of another god, in our image, who is “learning through experiences” – a humanistic god. That is a breach of the sovereignty of the Almighty! Furthermore, it is evidence that when one begins to doubt total inerrancy and sits in judgment, the message becomes contaminated. I will stand with the disciples who stated to my God: “Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You” (John 16:30).
Nazarene Ordained Pastor