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The need for Biblical inerrancy

It’s time for Methodists to recover John Wesley’s view of Scripture


Engraving of John Wesley by J. Thomson Wikimedia Commons

The need for Biblical inerrancy
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Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church (UMC) voted to lift its ban on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” This decision was preceded by the exodus of thousands of conservative members and congregations, many of whom joined the newly formed Global Methodist Church (GMC). As these conservatives recognize, the debate that has divided the UMC is only superficially about sexuality and gender. This divide is fundamentally about the authority of the Bible.

As a former member of the UMC, I am both saddened by the collapse of this historic institution and encouraged by the released and reinvigorated congregations that are emerging from the rubble. This is a crucial moment in the history of Methodism, and as we move forward, we need to think carefully about our doctrine of Scripture.

John Wesley affirmed Biblical inerrancy. In other words, Wesley believed that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches. Many contemporary Wesleyans, however, are uncomfortable with this doctrine. The progressives in the UMC of course reject inerrancy, but even many of the conservatives in the GMC are hesitant to affirm that the Bible is without error.

This reluctance is unwarranted. Here are five reasons why Methodists should enthusiastically embrace inerrancy.

First, inerrancy is a historic Christian doctrine. It is not the invention of modern fundamentalists, as critics sometimes allege. In the following letter to Jerome, penned in 405 AD, Augustine articulates a robust and nuanced doctrine of inerrancy:

I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. (Letters 82.3)

While Augustine is recognized as the greatest theologian of the ancient Church, Thomas Aquinas is recognized as the greatest theologian of medieval centuries. In the introduction to his Summa Theologica, Aquinas quotes Augustine in affirming, “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them” (1.8).

While critics of inerrancy often associate the doctrine with a naïve and uninformed fundamentalism, many of today’s most formidable evangelical scholars are inerrantists.

Second, inerrancy is a Wesleyan doctrine. As noted above, Wesley clearly affirmed inerrancy. In 1763, a bishop named William Warburton penned a treatise in which he suggested that the Bible contains no “considerable error” but may contain “trifling errors in circumstances of small importance.” Wesley disagreed. “Nay,” he retorted, “Will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture shake the authority of the whole?”

Third, inerrancy is a global doctrine. In 1974, a conference of around 2,300 evangelical leaders from 150 countries produced the Lausanne Covenant, which church historian Tony Lane describes as “the most representative and authoritative statement of Evangelical belief in modern times.” This statement maintains that the Bible is “without error in all that it affirms.” A subsequent conference in 2010 was described as “the most representative gathering of Christian leaders in the 2,000-year history of the Christian movement.” This conference, which was attended by around 4,200 evangelical leaders from almost 200 countries, produced the Cape Town Commitment, a statement that reaffirms the Lausanne Covenant and describes the Bible as “true and trustworthy in all it affirms.”

Fourth, inerrancy is a nuanced doctrine. Inerrantists are not necessarily literalists. Inerrantists affirm that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches. However, as carefully articulated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, determining what the Bible teaches requires interpretation, and interpretation requires sensitivity to genre and literary conventions. Thus, while critics of inerrancy often associate the doctrine with a naïve and uninformed fundamentalism, many of today’s most formidable evangelical scholars are inerrantists. William Lane Craig, for example, describes inerrancy as “a presupposition of my work as a philosopher.”

Finally, inerrancy is an important doctrine. As noted above, Welsey believed that denying inerrancy would “shake the authority” of Scripture. The same concern was expressed hundreds of years earlier by Augustine:

It seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books. ... The authority of the Divine Scriptures becomes unsettled (so that every one may believe what he wishes, and reject what he does not wish) if this be once admitted, that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us, could in their writings state some things which were not true. (Letters 28.3, 5)

One need not commit the “slippery slope” fallacy to observe that the moral chaos in the UMC is precisely the outcome that both Augustine and Wesley predicted would follow a denial of biblical inerrancy.


Murray Vasser

Murray Vasser is assistant professor of New Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary.


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