Do (Wesleyan) Arminians Believe in Inerrancy?
(Note: this article is excerpted by permission from The Importance of Inerrancy by Vic Reasoner, Evansville, IN: Fundamental Wesleyan Publishers, 2013.)
What Has Happened in Modern Wesleyan Theology?
There has been a major shift within the Wesleyan Theological Society concerning its position on inerrancy. In the first issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal, Kenneth Geiger, former president of the National holiness Association, wrote that the inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture was the official position of the National Holiness Association and “quite uniformly the view of Wesleyan-Arminians everywhere.”
In its first four journals, the doctrinal position of the Wesleyan Theological Society stated that the Old and New Testaments were inerrant in the originals. This statement no longer appeared after 1969. However at least nine Wesleyan scholars signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy on January 1, 1979: Allan Coppedge, Wilbur T. Dayton, Ralph Earle, Eldon R. Fuhrman, Dennis F. Kinlaw, Daryl McCarthy, James Earl Massey, A. Skevington Wood, and Laurence W. Wood. [Emphasis added by editor]
The last Wesleyan Theological Journal article in support of biblical inerrancy appeared in 1981. In 1984, Kenneth Gilder expressed the hope that as the Wesleyan Theological Society began its next twenty years that it would do its homework and not accept the agenda of Calvinistic evangelicalism. Since then the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has been labeled as anachronistic to Wesley’s day, Calvinistic, and a fundamentalist doctrine.
It is anachronistic to claim that John Wesley would or would not have been in agreement with the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. However, Wesley did declare, “Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.” While the use of the actual term “inerrant” has been more recent, it corresponds to the traditional term “infallible.” Wesley taught, “‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God'(consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true).
But it is also anachronistic to claim that Wesley would have adopted the biblical criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had he been living now. For example, Joel Green states, “To read the Bible as Wesleyans is not to adopt a precritical stance with respect to the nature and interpretation of Scripture.” Green goes on to suggest that Wesley would have embraced many developments in biblical criticsm. But this is just his assumption. Diane Leclerc wrote that “reading the Bible as a Wesleyan does not imply certain understanding about biblical inspiration and the Bible’s authority.” Thus, we are given permission to reject Wesley’s view of inspiration and authority, while still claiming to be Wesleyan.
In the Fall 2011 issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal, Stephen Gunter declared that inerrancy is not the issue for evangelical Wesleyans. Instead he argues for soteriological sufficiency, that the Scripture is sufficient for our salvation. Yet many evangelical Wesleyans are unwilling to abandon the doctrine of full inerrancy and are concerned about the direction of Wesleyan theology.
Is Inerrancy Exclusively a Calvinistic Doctrine?
In our evaluation of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, we must move beyond simply labeling it as a Calvinistic doctrine. To employ the technique of guilt by association is a logical fallacy. Throughout its history the Wesleyan Theological Society has dialogued with process theology and open theism, pentecostal/charismatic theology, postmodernism, Eastern orthodoxy, feminism, and Marxism — just to name a few of their ecumenical dialogues. In every instance they have attempted to objectively discuss areas of compatibility and incompatibility. But they have inconsistently rejected the doctrine of biblical inerrancy by simply labeling it as “Calvinistic.” Shouldn’t these issues be evaluated on their own merit and not be rejected because of guilt by association? In order to be consistent, must we also reject the doctrines of the Trinity or the virgin birth simply because Calvinists affirm these doctrines?
Wesley himself declared that his theology was but a hairbreadth from Calvinism, and Oden documents that Wesley built on a strong Calvinistic heritage.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” A conservative Wesleyan may have more in common with a conservative Calvinist than he does with neo-orthodoxy, process theology, or the higher criticism of liberalism.
While it was old Princeton Calvinists like B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge who developed a more detailed doctrine of inerrancy, they did so in reaction to the liberal attacks on Scripture which were beginning to come from within the church. Prior to this era, attacks upon the integrity of Scripture had come from outside the church. Yet the Calvinist Cornelius Van Til characterized the Princeton “common sense” apologetic as “Arminian” since it was based on evidentialism and rationalism and not presuppositionalism. Thus, Van Til dismissed former Princeton Calvinist faculty members by utilizing this same guilt-by-association technique. Any serious discussion of doctrine must move beyond pejorative labels.
Do Wesleyans Uphold Biblical Fundamentals?
The term “fundamental” refers to basic, rudimentary, foundational, or cardinal principles. Any listing of primary Wesleyan doctrines could be referred to as “fundamental” Wesleyan doctrines. However, Wesley wrote that in his day the term fundamental was an ambiguous word and that there had been many warm disputes about the number of “fundamentals.” Yet he also referred to justification by faith as a “fundamental doctrine of the gospel”….Wesley, of course, is not our final authority. He explained in “The Character of a Methodist” (1742),
We believe, indeed, that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;” and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and the sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish Church. We believe Christ to be the Eternal, Supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we “think and let think.” So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no “distinguishing marks” of a Methodist.
Here Wesley distinguishes between fundamental Christian doctrines and secondary opinions. We may disagree with Wesley on secondary issues and still be within the Wesleyan tradition. However, it is not Wesleyan to undercut the authority of Scripture.
There was nothing unique to Wesley about his hermeneutic. He utilized Reformation hermeneutics— the grammatical-historical approach. Leclerc describes Wesley’s approach as inductive, yet she states her conclusions before ever approaching scripture. Basically, we arc to accept Wesley’s order of salvation and so when we read the Bible we read those presuppositions into the text. Yet Calvinists read the same scripture with their own presuppositions and arrive at very different conclusions. There can be no objective proof whether either approach is right because we have already stripped the Bible of its final authority.
Yet she is critical of Wesley’s views on biblical authority and is sure that we should reject biblical inerrancy. We are assured that Wesley would have adopted the biblical criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had he been living now. Therefore, we are given permission to reject Wesley’s view of inspiration and authority, but we must read the Bible with Wesley’s analogy of faith — yet realizing he may not be right!
We would be better served to reject this subjective, so-called “Wesleyan hermeneutic” and instead return to Wesley’s objective view of Scripture. The real battle is whether we should utilize a grammatical-historical hermeneutic or a critical-historical hermeneutic which utilizes destructive higher criticism. This “hermeneutic first” approach is analogous to modem schools of journalism which stress advocacy rather than objectivity. If God’s Word is forever settled in heaven (Psalm 119:89), it serves no useful purpose to undermine its full authority here on earth.
Writing in 2011 the Board of General Superintendents of the Wesleyan Church said,
Wesleyans, however, hold steadfastly and unapologetically to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as God’s inspired, infallible, inerrant, and supremely authoritative guide for Christian faith and conduct. We regard God’s revealed truth as absolute (that is, it is valid in all times and places); the canonical revelation as complete (in other words, not open to addition by “new revelations” or subtraction by modern revisionist interpreters); and historic Christian faith and practice as wiser counsel than opinion polls or majority votes (although tradition is not in and of itself authoritative and is always subject to correction by the Word of God).
However, contemporary theologians within the Wesleyan tradition have claimed that this position is not truly Wesleyan.
The Protestant Reformation declared Scripture alone to be our final authority. Martin Luther said, “A layman who has Scripture is more than Pope or council without it.” Another time Luther objected,
I asked for Scriptures and you offer me the Fathers. I ask for the sun and he shows me his lanterns. I ask “Where is your Scripture proof’ and he cited the Fathers. With all due respect to the Fathers I prefer the authority of the Scriptures.
When he was asked to recant before the Diet of Worms he replied,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do nothing else.
These modern attacks upon the authority of God’s Word take the Bible from the hands of the common man. Who decides which parts of Scripture are trustworthy?
The doctrine of complete inerrancy is vital because the sola scriptura principle, that Scripture is our final authority, cannot be maintained without it. Anyone who declares there are mistakes in the Scripture is setting himself or herself up as an authority above Scripture.
- Footnote 114: Geiger, “The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of Holiness,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 1:1 (Spring 1966) 43. Much earlier Henry C. Sheldon concluded that American Methodist [sic. Methodism?] began with a high view of inspiration which affirmed inerrancy (“Changes in Theology Among American Methodists,” The American Journal of Theology 10 (1906) 32.↑
- Fn 115 Geisler and Roach, Defending Inerrancy, 346-348. All except Earle and Skevington Wood have been published in the Wesleyan Theological Journal.↑
- Fn 116: Daryl McCarthy, “Early Wesleyan Views of Scripture,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 16:2 (Fall 1981) 95-105. In 1998 Oden described a great gulf between the Evangelical Theological Society and the Wesleyan Theological Society (“The Real Reformers are Traditionalists,” Christianity Today 42:2 (9 February 1998) 46].↑
- Fn 117: Grider, “Wesleyanism and the Inerrancy Issue,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 19:2 (Fall 1984) 60.↑
- Fn 118: Wesley, Journal, 24 July, 1776.↑
- Fn 119: Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” Sermon # 16, 3. 8.↑
- Fn 120: Green, “Is There a Contemporary Wesleyan Hermeneutic?” in Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways, Barry L. Callen and Richard P. Thompson, eds. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2004), 125.↑
- Fn 121: Leclerc, Discovering Christian Holiness (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2010), 37. Dr. Leclerc is a professor at Northwest Nazarene University.↑
- Fn 122: Gunter, “Beyond the Bible Wars: Why Inerrancy is not the Issue for Evangelical Wesleyans,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 46:2 (Fall 2011) 56-69. Dr. Gunter is a professor at Duke Divinity School.↑
- FN 123: Wesley, Letter to John Newton, 24 May 1765; Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 148-164. Wesley. however, rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of double predestination.↑
- Fn 124: Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955), 264-265; 279. Van Til also made this accusation directly at Warfield in Van Til, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture (Philadelphia: den Dulk Foundation, 1967), 57.↑
- Fn 125: Wesley, “On the Trinity,” Sermon #55, §2.↑
- Fn 126: Wesley, -The Lord Our Righteousness,” Sermon #20. § 5.↑
- Fn114: Wesley, BE Works, 9:33-34.↑
- Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2010), 33-49. Ironically, the foreword is written by Rob L Staples.↑
- Fn146: Pastoral Letter on Homosexuality,” Board of General Superintendents of the Wesleyan Church (May 2011) 6.↑