If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with mainline Protestants over the years, it’s that we’re really good at identifying what we don’t believe about scripture. Basically, the claim I have heard over and over again is that we don’t read it the way “fundamentalists” read it. Okay…. Fair enough. That, however, is a very uninteresting statement. It’s much rarer, and more difficult, to describe positively and specifically how we think scripture functions.
To be fair, some people have tried to do this. N. T. Wright, Marcus Borg, and Adam Hamilton, for example, haveall offered positive proposals about the inspiration and authority of scripture. There is an excellent book by Christopher Bryan on the subject called, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today. (Please note: by referring to “positive proposals,” I’m not saying that I necessarily think they are right, but that such proposals involve affirmations, rather than simply negations.)
Wright and Bryan, both Anglicans, will take more traditionalist positions on the Bible, though without affirming plenary, verbal inspiration. They will be popular among moderate evangelicals, conservative mainliners, and Anglicans. Borg’s proposals have been extremely influential in mainline congregations. In a nutshell, he sets up the assumptions of modernity as normative criteria by which to evaluate whether or not a particular claim is veridical. (See Fred Schmidt’s critique here.) Hamilton argues that the inspiration of scripture is the same in nature and degree as the inspiration of people today. The authority of scripture lies in two claims: (1) it was written closer to the events described, and (2) it reflects the normative decisions of the early church regarding the set of books that would be useful for Christian teaching.
In the United Methodist Church, our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith affirm the sufficiency and truthfulness of scripture for teaching what is necessary for salvation. In case you’re interested, I blogged about these passages from our doctrinal standards here.
For John Wesley, the Bible’s function was soteriological. It taught us about how we could achieve salvation. Wesley was at times drawn to what we would today call inerrancy or infallibility, though such affirmations depended upon his reading scripture through a particular theological framework, the “general tenor” of scripture. (See Scott Jones’s book, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture. I’d also recommend a book that Joel Green and I edited, Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture.)
In addition to these positions, there are some mainline Protestants who have embraced doctrines such as plenary, verbal inspiration. In the absence of sufficient positive proposals from within their own traditions, they have taken on doctrines of scripture from traditions that they see as more stable, rooted, and dynamic.
All this is to say, there are some options for thinking through positive descriptions of the nature and function of scripture, but the denominations themselves don’t seem to have offered many clear proposals about what scripture is, what it does, or how we should approach it. Perhaps I’m simply misinformed about other traditions, but in The United Methodist Church we are at sea on this issue.
As a point of departure for further conversation, let me offer a few affirmations, based on our doctrinal standards, which might help folks articulate what we believe about the Bible:
1. Scripture is the primary source of divine revelation in our tradition. Other claims to divine revelation should be tested against scripture.
2. Everything we need to know to receive salvation is in the Bible.
3. The Bible is the true guide for Christian faith and practice.
4. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand and apply scripture to our lives.
5. Christian tradition, such as is found in the creeds, helps to interpret scripture for teaching the historic faith of the church.
6. Reason and the experience help us to understand scripture, but on matters of salvation, and matters of faith and practice related to salvation, they should not contradict scripture.
What do you think? Are these basic claims about the Bible the beginning of a workable doctrine of scripture?