Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
September 25th, 2014 by Joel Watts

Willimon – “We cannot be accused of bibliolatry, inerrancy, literalism, or fundamentalism”

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).


Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).


11 Responses to “Willimon – “We cannot be accused of bibliolatry, inerrancy, literalism, or fundamentalism””
  1. Know More Than I Should says

    “My ground is the Bible. … I follow it in all things great and small”

    Does this mean that Wesley:

    never wore “clothes made of more than one fabric”?
    never cut his hair or shaved?
    “Kill[ed] anyone [he met who had] a different religion”?
    stoned to death recalcitrant sons of parishioners?
    checked to see if male church members had all their private parts before each worship service?

    The point of the above is that most Christians – Wesley included – have some mental version of what is commonly known as a Jefferson’s Bible – essentially a collection of the sayings of Jesus rather than the miracles surrounding his life. That is, rather than “follow it in all things great and small,” they usually exclude certain portions that the believe to either irrelevant or, more commonly, inconvenient.

    Of course, what Christians tend to exclude or include in their working Bible says more about them than it does about the Bible!

    • I *think that for Wesley, following Scripture in all things is more about the “containeth all things necessary to salvation” rather than a legalistic how-to guide.

      • Know More Than I Should says

        You’re probably right. Otherwise, Methodism would have gone over the proverbial edge as did some more legalistic species of Christianity.

        At the same time, since Milton brought up The Constitution of the United States, it is worth pointing out that not all interpretations of that document were created equal.

        Some believe in a literal interpretation of The Constitution. Others try to divine the spirit of the authors. While the former run into difficulties associated with changes the meaning of words and accepted logic of the day, the latter tend to produce curious outcomes.

        For example, 19th century judicial activism on the Supreme Court used The Constitution to:

        A. facilitated the rather idiotic notion the corporations have the same rights as natural persons.

        B. devised the insidious doctrine of “separate but equal” in public accommodations.

        C. created “liberty of contract” – allowing for the perpetuation of wage slavery among the working class and eventually fostered the rise of labor unions.

        More liberal late 20th century judicial activism is famous for:

        A. enshrining gender and racial equality.

        B. creating the notion of privacy.

        C. legalizing abortion.

        The current brand of conservative judicial activism on the Supreme Court has, thus far, managed to:

        A. turn corporations into de facto deities.

        B. limit access to abortions.

        Much the same analysis pertains to interpretation of scripture.

        Many fundamentalists quote Paul more than they do Jesus. Likewise, they tend to ignore that Jesus was a radical. Jesus didn’t want equality; he wanted a reversal of the status quo in which the rich became poor or wound up in hell!

        Meanwhile, those of more liberal persuasions in theology tend to ignore that Jesus advocated moral rectitude. Beneath his Bohemian lifestyle, Jesus was a staunch moralist forbidding men to discard their wives merely because they got tired of them.

  2. I don’t mind being accused of being a fundamentalist or believing in inerrancy depending on the definition of terms. If you are talking about the basic tenets of the faith by which Fundamentalists claimed to follow in the early 20th century, then I am a fundamentalist. And as long as believing in inerrancy does not reduce the hermeneutics you practice to literalism, then I believe in inerrancy.

  3. Milton Almeida says

    ” 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).”
    A few things about the above quote, which I believe to be Joel’s: First, it shows wisdom. Yes, reason and experience can aid us in applying scripture when the reasoning and experiencing are not injected in the Scriptures (I am henceforth shifting to using the term Scripture from Bible), but drawn from it. Unfortunately reason and experience are being labeled as “progress” in both counts: The American Constitution and Scriptures.
    I love the “containeth all things necessary to salvation” as opposed to legalistic, temporary, how-to-guide! New Testament students from Sunday School to their doctorate in the issue of Scriptures know the difference between “shadow and substance” and the replacement of a symbolic set of mandates to the final materialization of the things which they symbolized. I am dressed in the righteousness of Christ and that is my coat of a single fabric…
    The issue of inerrancy, as long as we are confined to time and do not “know as we are known” must be restricted to matters of faith. Otherwise we will forever have an endless and, allow me, irrelevant, discussions about that which the Bible is not rather than the important observance of that which the Bible is. If God wanted to reveal everything about history and science He would have, but then again, what would be the need for faith? Earthly fathers don’t tell his children all they know as their children grow up, rather they teach them things pertaining to living; and some of their children turn out pretty good…
    My “untrained” opinion only!

  4. “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””
    Since it says “toward the end of his life”…
    Maybe he had a sense of humor. Like “the meek shall inherit the earth”, as in grave.
    My ground (Sheol) is the bible.

  5. Milton Almeida says

    Sorry for the grammatical errors of concordance above… Not my standard…

  6. I will stand with the New Testament here which claims that ALL Scripture (which for Paul would have certainly included the Old Testament and much of the New) is inspired by God, and with Peter, who wrote that ” But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Pet 1:20-21). I take those statements literally because I believe Paul and Peter meant them literally. For me, that means tht the original autographs were innerrant, while our translations inevitably fall short.

    • Know More Than I Should says

      Are original texts of Paul’s or Peter’s writings on these matters available for inspection?

      To believe something is usually much easier than proving it.

    • Gene, I don’t disagree about inspiration – but look at the difference between spoke and wrote. One is the event, the other is the record of the event transformed.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: