Christians have long discussed and debated the best way to approach the Bible. In my own tradition, United Methodism, there is considerable ongoing debate about how best to interpret Scripture. I often hear claims that seem to have no relationship to our stated positions as a church. The debate, moreover, tends to devolve into whether or not we believe the Bible is inerrant. The United Methodist Church does not have an inerrancy statement, but we do have a high view of Scripture (officially, at least). In what follows I will look at some of the statements from our official documents on the nature and function of Scripture.
The Articles of Religion
United Methodists have four doctrinal standards: the Methodist Articles of Religion, the EUB Confession of Faith, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, and Wesley’s sermons. I’ll start, then, with the Articles of Religion.
Article V is titled, “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.” I won’t quote the whole thing, but just the section that deals with Scripture’s function:
The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament of whose authority was never any doubt in the church.
So, first of all, everything we need to know to be saved is in Scripture. If we can’t find something in Scripture, or prove something clearly from Scripture, we cannot require that people believe it, nor should we tell them that it is necessary for salvation. Note the use of the word “canonical” in the last sentence quoted here. “Canon” is a Greek word that means “rule” or “measuring rod.” It conveys the idea that Scripture norms our belief and practice as Christians.
The Confession of Faith
Now let’s look at the statement of Scripture in the Article IV of the Confession of Faith, simply titled, “The Holy Bible.”
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.
If I’m being honest, I think this is a much more interesting and useful statement than we find in the Methodist Articles. (Good job, EUB’s!) It begins by clarifying that both Testaments are essential to the revelation of the Word of God. And let’s not overlook that important little word, “reveals.” Scripture is divine revelation. It teaches us things about God and the Christian life that we can’t know otherwise. It is a form of divine communication. Scripture, moreover, reveals the “Word of God.” This is probably a reference to John 1:1, which describes the divine Word, the logos, God’s creative power, God’s reason and order, which became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Scripture reveals to us something of the mind of God and teaches us about the enfleshment of this divine, creative power in Jesus Christ.
All this is given to us for our salvation, and nothing is required for salvation apart from the divine revelation given to us in Scripture.
We are to receive Scripture through the Holy Spirit. This may happen in any number of settings—in private prayer, in worship, through Spirit-guided preaching, in the liturgy of Holy Communion, in song, and in many other ways. We need the Holy Spirit to be our teacher, to keep us faithful in our reading, and to implant the teachings of Scripture in our hearts.
Scripture is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Thus we cannot make faithful decisions about our beliefs and our actions apart from Scripture. It is a rule against which we may test our beliefs and actions, and it is a guide that teaches us how to live in keeping with God’s righteous will.
Like the statement on Scripture in the Articles of Religion, this statement specifies that we cannot claim as essential to faith or salvation anything that we cannot establish through Scripture.
Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament
So as far as specific doctrinal statements go, that’s what we have. We also, however, affirm two more doctrinal standards: Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament and his sermons. In his Explanatory Notes, Wesley writes,
“The Scripture, therefore, of the Old and New Testaments is a most solid and precious system of divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom which they who are able to taste prefer to all writings of men, however wise or learned, or holy” (9).
Let’s look at a few notable features of this statement. First of all, Scripture is a “system of divine truth.” I think what we might understand from this is that Wesley believed that Scripture formed a coherent whole through which we could receive the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. The purpose of Scripture, for Wesley, was to lead us into salvation. That meant not just going to heaven, but the ongoing process of becoming holier, more Christlike people.
Wesley also insists on the importance of the entire Bible. “Every part thereof is worthy of God; all together are one entire body.” In other words, we have to take the parts of the Bible that we don’t like along with those we love. The pieces fit together. Scripture helps us to interpret Scripture. It’s not the case that every isolated passage constitutes a command that we must obey in order to fulfill the requirements of Christian life. It’s that the Bible, as a whole, gives us a vision of salvation, of what the good life looks like and how we may honor God. There is neither defect nor excess in Scripture because we receive its various parts as a whole, and as a whole it teaches us what the Christian life is.
For Christians, there is no book that compares to the Bible in importance. There are many wonderful books in the world, but none can stand alongside this sacred revelation of divine truth.
Now, as for Wesley’s sermons…. This is a vast topic, and I’ll only be able to make a few cursory remarks in this post. A few features of the sermons, however, stand out as particularly important. In the preface to the first volume of Wesley’s Sermons, he writes,
I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book]”.
Here Wesley specifies that Scripture’s primary function is to lead us into salvation, and because of that, the Bible is important beyond all measure. It’s significance is eternal. By saying he was a “man of one book,” Wesley didn’t mean that he read only the Bible. In fact, he specifically repudiated that notion. He simply meant that the Bible’s message of salvation lifted it to a place of incomparable importance among other books (see Randy L. Maddox, “John Wesley—A ‘Man of One Book’,” in Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture, eds. Joel B. Green and David F. Watson, Baylor, 2012).
As one would expect, Wesley’s sermons are shot through with Scripture. In line after line, he immerses his hearers (today, readers) with the words of the sacred text. His purpose in preaching seems only to vivify the sacred text, to plant the seeds of salvation gleaned from Scripture so that they might grow to their fullness in the hearts of believers. Wesley was quite concerned, moreover, that the Methodist preachers preach in the same way. He insisted on clear biblical teaching as a hallmark of the people called Methodists.
Our Theological Task
One more thing is worth noting, and that is the statement on Scripture in the section of the Discipline called “Our Theological Task.” I won’t quote the whole thing in this post, though if you would like to read it, you can find it here. I do want to note seven important claims that this statement makes about Scripture:
- It specifies that Scripture is “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.”
- With Wesley, it affirms that Scripture forms and nourishes our faith.
- It specifically refers to Scripture as “canon”—a rule for the life of the church.
- It notes that we “properly read Scripture within the believing community informed by the tradition of that community.” (More on that shortly).
- Also like Wesley, it insists that we “interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole.”
- It affirms scholarly inquiry and personal insight “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
- It clarifies that “the Bible serves both as a source of our faith and as the basic criterion by which the truth and fidelity of any interpretation of faith is measured.”
What these points basically add up to is a doctrine of prima Scriptura—the primacy of Scripture. We read the Bible—the whole Bible—as sacred text, and yet we do so within the context of our past and present community of faith. Unlike the continental Protestant Reformers who insisted upon the principle of sola Scriptura–Scripture alone–the Anglican theologians who developed the “Via Media” understood that our interpretations of Scripture are guided by the widely accepted traditions of the Church catholic. Scripture was primary, but it functioned best in concert with other theological resources. Wesley seems to have adopted this perspective, which has made its way into the present day in the doctrine of The United Methodist Church. There is much more that could be said about the ideas of sola Scriptura and prima Scriptura, and I acknowledge that there are very smart people who will take issue with my assertions here. Nevertheless, I continue to think this is the best way to frame the difference between the Anglican/Methodist way of viewing Scripture and the understanding of Scripture among continental Protestants.
Okay… that’s enough for one blog post! In fact, that’s probably too much for one blog post, but if you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably a Methonerd anyway. Perhaps a deeper dive will be forthcoming. Let me know what you think!