Along with the Jesus, the Apostles, the early catholic fathers, the Protestant reformers, and countless orthodox Christians throughout history, including John Wesley the founder of the Methodist tradition to which I belong, I believe that the Bible is the word of the living God inspired by the Holy Spirit that truthfully bears witness to God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ. I believe that the holy scriptures, as found in the Old and the New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation (Book of Discipline of the UMC, 2012, p. 64) and that they convey the message of salvation with veracity and reliability. Although the written works were inspired by the Holy Spirit they were written by human authors in terms of their own contemporary cultural and linguistic understanding. As the clearest and most voluminous attestation to the redemptive work of the Triune God and the clearest witness to the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, I also believe that the Bible is the primary source of authority for the Church (p. 81). This, however, a bit paradoxically perhaps, is only in a secondary sense as a truthful and reliable guide to God’s description and assessment of the sinful human condition in a fallen world and the Divine solution for this problem. God is obviously the ultimate source of authority (Wright, 2005, p. 23; see also Foster, 2005, 197). The Bible, however, is the primary instrument that God uses as the source and ultimate determinative rule of faith and practice. Without question, it is of utmost importance in the life of the Church. Below, I will give a brief and partial sketch of the stream of tradition in which I firmly stand with regards to the above beliefs and the ways in which we can appropriate and understand the Bible in order to know ourselves and the God who created us.
Belief in the inspiration and authority of scripture is older than the Christian Bible itself. When tested in the wilderness Jesus himself referred to scripture as the guide for what and what not to do in response to Satan’s temptations (Matt 4 & Luke 4). We also see the authority of scripture as a criterion of faith and practice in Jesus’ disputes with some of his opponents. In one such case regarding a dispute over whether there is a resurrection of the dead, Jesus insisted his opponents erred because of insufficient knowledge of the scriptures and the power of God (see Matt 22:23-32 and Luke 20:27-39). Yet even within those stories we see that it is not a simple matter of easy, straightforward rule keeping or proof-texting. The Devil himself uses scripture as a tool for his own purposes. Thus, it is evident that superficial knowledge of scripture is insufficient and potentially very dangerous, demonic even. Understanding scripture within its immediate and remote contexts and within the overarching narrative of the entire Bible is vitally important. With regards to the law and the prophets, Jesus, according to Matthew, believed that it was his God-given mission to fulfill them. For instance he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18 NRSV and hereafter ). He goes on to warn sternly against breaking even the least commandment or leading others to do so (v. 19). Likewise, Luke similarly portrays Jesus as having the highest regard for the written word (see Luke 16:17). Indeed, after Jesus’ resurrection one of the most significant things that he does in Luke’s account is to open the disciples minds to understand the scriptures – the law, the psalms, and the prophets – which he claimed were about him, and had to be fulfilled (Luke 24:44-47, see also John 5:39). Only after he expounded to them the entirety of the scriptures were the two disciples on their way to Emmaus able to recognize him in the breaking of bread. This should serve as a warning for those who, like Marcion, would like to dismiss certain sections of scripture in favor of others. To do so would leave one unable to recognize Jesus for who he really is, and thus more susceptible to dangerous idolatries. Acts shows the abiding importance of this theme in the ministry of Paul of Tarsus whom Luke depicts as “from the scriptures, explaining and proving” the authenticity of Jesus’ as the Messiah (Acts 17:2-3). A few verses later Luke commends the Beroeans not only for their receptivity to the gospel but also because they “examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Thus, we see the vital role that scripture played right from the very beginning of the Christian faith as the criterion for authenticity. We also see that the illumination of Christ himself is required to properly understand scripture.
Saint Paul, in his own writings, which (some at least) were apparently considered sacred scripture along with the Old Testament by at least one other New Testament author (see 2 Peter 3:15-16), likewise indicates that Christ’s death and resurrection happened “in accordance with the scriptures” (I Cor 15:3-4). That phrase appears to be a part of a very early creedal confession, and Paul there indicates that this was part of a tradition that was passed down to him. Moreover, echoing Jesus words as conveyed by Matthew and Luke, Paul, in a sublimely paradoxical way, indicates that faith in Christ does not “overthrow the law,” but upholds it (Rom 3:31), and that through Jesus and the empowerment of the Spirit “the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom 8:4). Examples of this are dispersed throughout the New Testament, in too many places to enumerate here, whenever the authors cite Old Testament commandments as an authority for present tense Christian behavior, comfort, and hope (see Rom 15:4). For instance, Paul himself does this quite explicitly when he cites the story of Israel’s idolatry and sexual immorality in the wilderness after the exodus as a warning for the Corinthians to whom he was writing (1 Cor 10:1-22). (See also 1 Peter 1:13-16).
Scripture was clearly vitally important for the earliest Christians. Hence 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” This is a very explicit and beautiful summary statement of a truth that we see expressed or implied in many other ways throughout the Bible. Although it was acknowledged that the scriptures where the work of human authors, early Christians, nevertheless, insisted that they were indeed the word of the living God inspired in the hearts of human authors who were “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Yet they also acknowledged that diligent study (1 Tim 2:15) and guidance, both divine (i.e. Eph 1:17-19) and human (see Acts 8:26-40 and Acts 18:24-28) are required to properly understand scripture and to avoid self-deception and the pitfalls of false doctrine that leads to false beliefs and practices (see 2 Tim 2:14-4:5).
The catholic church fathers, at a time when most, if not all, of the documents that we call the New Testament were considered sacred scripture along with the Old Testament, abided in this high regard for scripture as the source and criterion for proper faith and practice. Saint Irenaeus in the second century in contending with those whom he said were “boasting that they [were] correctors of the apostles” claimed that the scriptures, here specifically referring to those handed down by the apostles, were handed down by them “to be the foundation and pillar of our faith” (Irenaeus, p. 128). He insisted against his opponents, of whom he says “when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying they are not correct, or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them …” (p. 128), that the scriptures are a true and authoritative word with regards to the genuine content of the Christian faith. Tertullian likewise regarded scripture as the supreme criterion for faith and practice, although not the only one when it regarded matters not clearly dealt with therein (Tertullian, p. 137). Origen considered the scriptures to be divine (Origen, p. 138), but also recognized the need for and indeed the difficulty of proper interpretation (p. 140), as did many other early church fathers. Saint Augustine insisted that the will of God is to be found in the scriptures (p. 154), but provided guidance for using what he called “the rule of faith” defined as clear passages of scripture as a guide for navigating through the acknowledged ambiguities of certain passages (p. 155). In the conclusion of his work, “On the Incarnation”, wherein he, like Paul before him, reasoned and proved from the scriptures with Jews, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, Saint Athanasius implores his reader to prove the truth of what he has written “by study of the Scriptures”, which, he says, “were written and inspired by God” (Athanasius, p. 95). Later he also says that in order to understand scripture rightly “there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue” (p. 96).
With regards to the scope of biblical inspiration, according to Church Historian J.N.D Kelly (1978), “it goes without saying that the fathers envisaged the whole of the Bible as inspired” (p. 61). Moreover, this also consequently led to the general view among them that it was also without error and nothing therein, not even a “jot or title” according to Origen or a “syllable, accent, or point” according to Jerome, is superfluous ( both as cited in Kelly, p. 61-62).
The Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, shared this high view of scripture. For Luther and Calvin Holy Scripture, the Old and New Testament cannon accepted by Protestants to this day (Luther’s doubts regarding the epistle of James aside) was the final arbiter of truth with regards to Christian faith and practice. Consequently, decisions of church councils and other creeds and traditions, were valid only insofar as they were in harmony with the Bible. Both also claimed to be more faithful to the early fathers than their Roman Catholic counterparts and they believed them to be reliable, albeit not infallible, guides to Biblical interpretation (Steinmetz 2002, p. 95).
The founder of the Methodist movement, the tradition in which I stand, John Wesley, also stood as firmly, and arguably more so than anyone before him, in the tradition of a very high view of the Bible. He was certainly influenced by Luther and, albeit to a lesser extent, Calvin, especially as it pertained to predestination. Chiefly through the Moravians, however, he was also widely influenced by the Pietist movement that sought to restore a religion of the heart to a Protestantism that had become, to the Pietists, too concerned about correct doctrine at the expense of spiritual and moral fervency (Tappert, 1964, p. 24). Wesley was also very much influenced by the early catholic fathers of both the East and West (Maddox, 1994, p 23).
To read John Wesley’s sermons is a good way to test one’s ability to recognize Bible verses and match them to their respective book, chapter and verse. In his sermons, and other writings for that matter, Wesley prolifically quotes or alludes to scripture, often without explicit reference, to formulate his arguments. At times it seems that every other sentence is a direct quote or definite allusion to scripture. Even a cursory reading of Wesley’s sermons reveal that he clearly believed scripture to be the guiding rule for the entirety of a person’s life, thoughts, emotional/attitudinal dispositions (what he referred to as tempers), words, and behavior. In fact, according to Wesley scholar, Randy Maddox (1994), John Wesley believed that Christians should adopt the very language of scripture as much as possible in all their conversations (p. 37). This accounts for the stark way that the language of the Bible was so intimately and intricately interwoven into his own speaking and writing.
In addition to the prolifically profuse way that Wesley quoted and alluded to the Bible, which in itself reveals his incredibly high regard for it, he also made it explicitly and crystal clear that for him the Bible was true in the highest sense of the term. In one sermon, where he was actually referring to the true propositions that even demons acknowledge, but that still do not make a person a genuine disciple of Christ, Wesley says, referring to the demons, “They, trembling, believe, both that Jesus is the Christ and that all Scripture, having been given by inspiration of God, is as true as God is true” (Wesley, vol. 1, p. 213).
Although Wesley certainly grew in his understanding of the subtleties and nuances of the Bible, he never wavered from his belief in the inspiration and the consequent veracity of it. In a 1728 sermon, “On Corrupting the Word of God”, where he warns about the dangers, to both preachers and hearers, of preachers downplaying or twisting scripture “to reconcile it to the taste of the hearers” (Wesley, vol. 3, p. 471) and avoiding expounding upon those parts that speak against “fashionable” (p. 472) vices, he insists that the Bible is “unquestionably true” (p. 472), and, echoing some of the fathers, “that there is nothing superfluous in it, relating either to faith or practice” (p. 472). In 1790, over sixty years later, against skeptic philosophers such as David Hume and “enlightened” clergyman of his own day who insisted on the inherent good nature of humanity, Wesley maintained the Biblical indictments against the sinful and totally corrupt nature of humans that he had expounded upon decades before (Wesley, vol. 3, p. 335-343). In that 1790 sermon, “The Deceitfulness of Man’s Heart”, expounding upon Jeremiah 17:9,which says, “The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it? (KJV), Wesley unequivocally declares that this verse is God’s very own account of the nature of humankind (vol 3, p. 337). Moreover, Wesley clearly juxtaposes the revelation of God in the Bible with what those he was arguing against valued so highly, “natural reason,” which he saw, without the healing balm of the gospel and guiding light of the Bible, as merely “a blind leader of the blind” (Wesley, vol. 1, p. 209).
Clearly, for John Wesley, the Bible was the inspired word of God and the only infallible guide for faith and practice. Hence his prayer “Let me be a man of one book” (Wesley, vol.1, p. 3), that is the Bible. Nonetheless, like those before him he was also well aware of the difficulty of interpretation regarding which he commended prayer for illumination and, echoing Saint Augustine, allowing scripture to illumine scripture (p. 3). Like the fathers before him who contended against the likes of Marcion and Gnostics who sought to pit the Old against the New Testament, Wesley undoubtedly believed in the unity and harmony of the entire Bible. The New and the Old Testaments were mutually illuminating to him, as were the Gospels and the Epistles and other New Testament books. With regards to interpretation and application, Wesley also relied upon reason, tradition, and experience as tools of understanding and confirming the teaching of Scripture. In no way, however, were any of these other three sources considered to be able to disprove the Bible or undermine its authority. In fact, in one place Wesley equated the moral law revealed in scripture with “supreme and unchangeable reason.” In this case reason would be virtually equivalent with, certainly not something completely separate from the word of God, which, referring again to the moral law, he considered to be “a copy of the eternal mind, a transcript of the divine nature” (Wesley, vol. 1, p. 439). According to Maddox (1994), in another sense the more mature Wesley came to view reason as sort of a mental processor and organizer of experiential input (p. 40). Thus, under no circumstances would he have considered reason as something that could contradict and trump the Bible. Nevertheless, again he was well aware that the Bible was not just a repository of simple rules that needed no diligent study, particularly of the original languages and historical context. In other, words he was not a “naïve biblicist” (Maddox, 1994, p. 38) or a fundamentalist in the popular modern pejorative sense of the term. Tradition for Wesley referred to the creeds, articles of religion, and the writings of, especially, the early church fathers, but, again, only as guides to proper biblical interpretation. In no way could tradition trump the authority of the Bible. As for experience, he meant experiences that confirmed the truths found in the Bible. In agreement with Maddox (1994), I see Wesley’s method as being more of “a unilateral rule of Scripture within a trilateral hermeneutic of reason, tradition, and experience” rather than a “quadrilateral of theological authorities” (p. 46), the later potentially and misleadingly implying equal authority among the four.
I stand firmly within the stream of this tradition of a very high view of the Bible as the inspired and therefore true, even error free, word of the living God that serves as the source, guide, and criterion for Christian faith and practice. To me it seems quite clear that this view is as significant and important for orthodox Christianity as any other doctrine, even the Trinity, especially since scripture itself is the source for those doctrines. I believe firmly with John Wesley, and others in the Pietist tradition as well, that the Bible should also be the former and shaper of all of our thoughts, tempers, and actions. Nevertheless, I also agree that proper interpretation requires all diligence fully empowered and engulfed in Divine illumination through the Holy Spirit and prayer and through holiness of heart and life, beginning with an abiding and profound sense of humility before a holy God and a repentant knowledge of one’s own sinfulness and proneness to self-deception. Therefore, one should also recognize the need to read and study the Bible with the guidance of the living saints, as the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) and Apollos (Acts 19) humbly realized. One should also look to the guidance of those who though being dead yet speak (Heb 11:4) such as the early church fathers and mothers, and others throughout church history like the reformers, Wesley, and Phoebe Palmer, as well as more contemporary writers living and dead. A preacher and teacher of the word must not only labor diligently to rightly understand the word, but also must pray fervently for courage to proclaim and teach all of it and not to fearfully or selfishly conform it to the sensibilities of this world that may be hostile to it.
Although I have a very high view of the Bible, even being without error, I do not mean that it is inerrant in some of the ways that term is often understood. I believe it is true in the highest sense, but not in every possible sense of the word. I understand that the Bible is written in many different literary genres, including parables and allegories and other types of stories that were never meant to be taken literally. However, I do believe that the symbolic and figurative language was meant to and does point to concrete and/or abstract referents. The beast in Revelation, for example, symbolizes the evil and oppressive Roman Empire and the ways of evil empire in general that are contrary to the kingdom of God. At the metaphorical/symbolic/literary level, especially if taken in a wooden literal sense either by conservatives trying to defend the Bible’s authority or by liberals trying to undermine it, it can be impossibly perplexing, if not downright contradictory. Yet when interpreted according to the actual referents the apparent contradictions disappear, although deep paradoxes and tensions may remain. Subsequently, I also recognize the need to recognize the paradoxes of scripture that point to a reality infinitely beyond our human comprehension and the need to resist the tendency to try to hastily reconcile tensions, which only leads to a distortion of the message of scripture anyway.
Additionally, I do not believe that the historical narratives were written as verbatim transcripts of what actually happened and what was actually said in an exact way, but stylized literary accounts of historical events replete with subtle symbolism. As such they should not be impugned for not doing something that they were never intended to do, nor forced into a wooden literal paradigm. The Bible is not just a simple book that simply tells us what we ought to do, but at its heart the Bible is a collection literature that is part of the grand narrative of God, creation, and fallen human beings in need of redemption within it. It reveals a dynamic relationship that Richard Foster (2005) describes as the “divine invitation: ‘I am with you – will you be with me?’” (p. 44). In it we see how God often makes temporal concessions or allows negative consequences, temporal judgments, that are less than his perfect will because of the hardness of human hearts (see 1 Sam 8; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 13:34; 2 Peter 3:9 for starters). Thus, one must recognize that not everything the Bible records or even allows through certain commandments does it necessarily condone, endorse, or hold up as the ultimate good (i.e. war, capital punishment, slavery, polygamy, divorce, patriarchy, etc.). The purpose of scripture is not just to reveal the heart and character of God, but also to reveal the sin and wickedness of the human heart in a fallen world. In fact this is what Paul says was the purpose of Torah, to clearly expose sin (Romans 7:13). Therefore it just won’t do to dismiss certain portions of scripture as not truly revealing the heart and character of God as some are wont to do. Much of the Bible was written to reveal the depravity of the human race who continues to insist on their own way and the true God who warns against it before often allowing humanity to have its own way. That God allows evil and its consequences in a fallen world doesn’t mean that God wills it in the ultimate sense. The Bible tells the story of the redemption into which we are called, wherein God is working to lift us up out of the mire of sin and corruption and turn us from the corrupt courses of this age into the straight and narrow way of His perfect will that leads to the new creation that was inaugurated with the resurrection of Jesus (see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope). In other words, much of the Bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive or proscriptive. We must remember that most of the descriptions are not of a perfect world but of a fallen world of free human agents that stands in need of redemption. Paul says the law was given to reveal sin, and that it does. Christ being the end (aim or goal) of the law (Rom 10:4) reveals the wickedness of a fallen world that would rather kill God than live with him. In the same place, on Calvary, it also reveals the heart and character of God who would rather die for humanity than live without them.
So much more could be said, but the point is that the Bible conveys an overarching narrative of redemption that has very definite upward trajectories into which we are called to live in holiness of heart and life in response to God’s love in Christ. N.T. Wright (1992) describes this using the analogy of a five act play, in which we are called to be characters in the final act. The first four acts of the play determine for us in an authoritative way how we should “act” in the final one if we are to be true to the script and its Author. Although some improvisation is required, there are definite restrictions that should guide us. We will not have to do all the same things that were required of “actors” before us, but there should necessarily be much that will be in continuity with what came before (p. 140-141), lest we find ourselves “acting” in a completely different play inspired by an altogether different playwright! However, we should never mistake the script (i.e. the scriptures) with the Author of it, lest we find ourselves worshipping a leather-bound idol of paper and ink. Although the Bible is authoritative, it is so only in a secondary sense as it reliably and truthfully points us to the heart and will of its Divine Author, the Ultimate Authority, which is exercised in the Church primarily through the Bible (Wright, 2005, p. 23). As Geoffrey Wainwright (1980) suggests, the Bible as an actual printed book functions sort of like the elements of the Eucharist, as an outward sign of an inward and invisible grace (p. 149). This grace might be described, as by Richard Foster (2005), as the zoe life of God to which scripture is a reliable guide, but should never be mistaken to be that zoe life itself (p. 197). Yet we must be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that all the inspired word of God is supposed to do is reveal the heart and character of God. Although it does do that, especially in its depiction of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, much of its purpose is to reveal the sinfulness of the human heart and to describe the ethical miasma and moral confusion of idolatry and its corresponding wickedness in a fallen world. The stories and descriptions of the later, as ugly as they may be, are no less inspired than the former. Although the word “of” God is definitely a word about God, we must never forget that it is also a word from God to us and about us, our rebellious condition and our fallen world. Thank God, it’s also a word about the world to come, the new heaven and new earth, and how we can be a vital part of it by “playing our part.”
Therefore, the Bible is of immense and lasting importance for the Church. As incomplete as it may be, which is to be expected of a book that tells a story, a true story, that still awaits completion, it is still the most powerful microscope to see the underlying sinfulness of the human heart, a fact that we often cosmetically cover up through self-deceit and false teaching. The Bible is also the spectacles that give us the clearest vision of our Lord and how to “act” as his followers until the day when we no longer walk by faith but see him “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Until then as a preacher and teacher of the word I will endeavor, by the grace of God, to proclaim it and teach it with my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and labor to equip others to do the same. I will teach it with passion and enthusiasm and by God’s grace labor to be so shaped by it in “spirit, soul and body” (1 Thess 5:23) so as to be a living “letter of Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor 3:3). I will endeavor to make my church very at home with the word and the word at home with us. As the seventeenth century Pietist, Philip Jacob Spener (1964) said, “The more at home the Word of God is among us, the more we shall bring about faith and its fruits” (p. 87). I will endeavor to teach it in a way that not only informs but also transforms (Foster, 2005, p. 4-6) people in spirit, soul, and body so they know how to “act” in this, our part of God’s play so as to be blameless (1 Thess 5:23) when the plays main actor comes back on stage to complete the story with an ending that is nothing less than a glorious new beginning. “World without end. Amen” (Eph 3:21).
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