Positive statements about the usefulness of the Scriptures in instructing mankind for salvation affirm more about the Bible than a negative statement that it is without error. The Bible is not the ultimate end. Instead, it is a witness to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist pointed toward Christ, the Bible is a witness pointing toward God. A witness is not identical with that to which it attests. The Bible stands under the authority of God. By calling the Bible a witness, the emphasis is placed on God as the end, with the Bible as the means to that end. The Bible is revelatory as it points toward the will and nature of God. God is infallible and the word of God that we learn from the Bible will thus be infallible, but the two should not be confused. The Bible is our final court of appeal in this world, since it is the written document which records God’s historical revelation of his will to man, especially in Jesus Christ, but the Bible’s authority derives from God. In this context the truth claims of the Bible should be examined and accepted.
Yesterday, a question was posed in one of the UMC FB forums about inerrancy. Granted, this question was posed by a rather young, confused non-Methodist, but it sparked conversation. One of the people in the conversation brought up Bishop Willimon to his defense. Willimon is not an inerrantist.
As John Wesley began his search for a relationship with God, he began in Scripture. He said that he studied the Bible because it was “the one, the only standard of truth and the only model of pure religion” [Works, Jackson, 2:367). Toward the end of his life he could continue to claim, “My ground is the Bible. … I follow it in all things great and small” (ibid., 3:251), In speaking of a fourfold test for belief, it is clear that Wesley set Scripture above tradition, reason, and experience in terms of ultimate authority. (The quadrilateral is not equilateral.) United Methodists can therefore be said to have a “high” view of scripture. However, we cannot be accused of bibliolatry, inerrancy, literalism, or fundamentalism. Wesley could boast that he was “a man of one book.” However, he did not mean this in a naive, uninformed way. He also meant that he not only believed but attempted to live by this one book.
The quad tries to maintain this view, although many have made all of the sides equal while misunderstanding such things as “experience.” In my view, Scripture is the authority of the Church (much like the Constitution is for the United States), but Tradition, Reason and Experience are there to help us read and apply Scripture (much like case law — although Tradition produced Scripture (and legal issues produced the Constitution).
Even if the Pentateuch is not from Moses, and many Psalms attributed to David are not from David, and the second part of Isaiah is from another author than the first part, this does not detract from the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture. The inspiration is certain, but the authenticity is an open question. As a divine book the Bible is above all criticism, but as a human book it may, like all literature, be examined by historical-critical methods and standards.
I’ve seen this discussion taking place in the blogosphere (and wider social media venue) so I’ve had some time to think about it.
What would happen if the canon wasn’t closed?
That is usually the question. Some would add MLK’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail while others may wish to add something closer to the Apostles, such as GThomas or 1st Clement.
For me, I’m not sure our canon is closed, only our understanding of what the canon is. If the canon is limited to a set of books within what we call “the bible” then it is closed because of the theological necessity at one point or the other to ensure our Church is founded only upon the words of the Apostles (or, you know, their pseudonymous followers — I’m looking you, “Timothy”)
In my opinion, the “canon” includes Scripture, the Creeds, and the writings of the Church that do not contradict the previous two.1 This means even the writings of various Christians such as John Wesley. So, my canon is not necessary closed as it is open to progressive revelation based on two firm foundations.
This isn’t exactly the UCC version of “God is still speaking…” but something along the lines of John 16.13 where we are still being guided from something, along a path, to some place.
What are your thoughts?
Btw, if I were to issue a New New Testament, I would include Thomas, Barnabas, 1st and 2nd Clement, Ignatius’s letters (short form), and Diognetus. I would also include the creed from the Council of Sardica and tell the East to bite me.
“contradict” is understood as a highly nuanced term. ↩
My book on scripture’s authority, Scripture and the Authority of God, makes clear where I stand. I take the whole of scripture utterly seriously, and I regret that many who call themselves “inerrantists” manage to avoid the real challenge at its heart, that is, Jesus’ announcing that in and through his work God really was “becoming king” over the world in a whole new way. So I don’t call myself an “inerrantist” (a) because that word means what it means within a modernist rationalism, which I reject and (b) because it seems to me to have failed in delivering a full-blooded reading and living of what the Bible actually says. It may have had a limited usefulness as a label against certain types of “modernist” denial, but it buys into at least half of the rationalist worldview which was the real problem all along.