One of the critiques of the statement last week from the leading pastors and theologians group calling for conversation around the possibility of amicable separation, involved the claim that orthodox, evangelical, and traditionalist United Methodists believe in the “infallibility” of Scripture. The statement includes this description of one aspect of our current crisis:
It is a crisis regarding the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures, where some believe that, rightly understood, the Bible is the infallible word of God, and where others believe that significant parts of the Scriptures do not provide an accurate understanding of God’s heart and mind and may be discarded as uninspired and in error.
The criticism has been made that United Methodists have never believed in the infallibility of Scripture, and that the word is too undefined to be helpful in this discussion. I would like to address this criticism, not on behalf of the group of leading pastors and theologians, but on behalf of the evangelical movement within United Methodism, of which Good News has been a leading participant for many years.
First, it is important to note that John Wesley himself used the word “infallible” to describe the Scriptures. In his sermon on “The Means of Grace,” Wesley says, “The same truth (namely, that this is the great means God has ordained for conveying his manifold grace to man) is delivered, in the fullest manner that can be conceived, in the words which immediately follow: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God;’ consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true; ‘and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness;’ to the end ‘that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)” (emphasis added). So it is false to say that Methodists have never believed in the infallibility of Scripture.
But what does “infallible” mean when applied to the Bible? The dictionary definition of “infallible” in a theological sense is: “incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals” (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary). So the emphasis of the word infallible is that the Bible can be trusted to tell the truth when it comes to the doctrinal or moral teachings of the Christian Church.
Some who believe in the infallibility of the Bible are also inerrantists, believing that the Scripture is without error in all it teaches or affirms. (This would include the historical information contained in Scripture, as well as other matters not related to doctrine or morals.) Others who believe in the infallibility of the Bible would restrict their understanding that the Bible is without error to only the doctrinal or moral matters that it addresses, and would thus not be true inerrantists.
What we mean when we say that the Bible is the infallible word of God is no more or less than what our doctrinal standards affirm about Scripture.
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 (Articles of Religion, Article V).
Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral (Articles of Religion, Article VI).
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 (Confession of Faith, Article IV).
In other words, the Bible is our supreme authority for faith and practice, doctrine and morals. We are not entitled as Christians to set aside or ignore the teachings of Scripture.
The group’s statement qualifies the infallibility of the Bible with the phrase “rightly understood.” So the discussion on the theological and moral teaching of the church turns on the “right” understanding of Scripture. This is where tradition, reason, and experience step in to help us rightly understand the Bible. These can help us to correctly interpret the Bible’s teachings. They are servants of the word, however, not judges of it. It is not acceptable to override the teaching of Scripture based on human reason or personal experience, for example.
The presenting issue of the current crisis is the church’s teachings about homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage. Many of the approaches to using Scripture to justify same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior arise out of a desire to accommodate people’s personal experience of homosexuality (either their own or that of a loved one). Although these approaches must be fairly considered, one must guard against the possibility that one’s personal experience is skewing one’s interpretation of Scripture. (That is why tradition can be such a helpful anchor, since it encompasses the Church’s teachings across the centuries and in many different cultures, guarding against interpretations that are too closely bound to a particular culture or experience.)
Others who support same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior simply believe that the Bible is wrong about this issue, based on recent “findings” of science. While it is important to take the results of scientific study into account, one must guard against the tendency to reject Scriptural teaching as “pre-scientific” and therefore inferior to modern understandings. After all, science deals with “what is,” not with “what ought to be.” It is descriptive, not prescribing what is morally right or wrong.
If the Bible is the infallible word of God, it is God’s self-revelation to us. As such, it ought to inform our personal experience, not the other way around. It ought to inform our human reasoning and our scientific understanding, not the other way around.
The Bible is not God, and those who believe in its infallibility do not worship the Bible. But the Bible is God’s most objective and detailed way of communicating with us, God’s people. Its infallibility means we can trust the Bible to truly communicate to us what God wants us to believe and how God wants us to live. To ignore or disobey the teachings of Scripture is to contradict its infallibility, which puts us on a completely different theological path altogether. What do you think?