Scripture and Tradition

John Wesley was himself one of those people who said “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” (Journal, July 24, 1776).

Wesley lived before ‘higher criticism’ became a major force in theology, but the beginnings of it were present even in his era.  As the above quotation shows, he rejected the notion that the written record of God’s revelation could have a single error in it. 

While I acknowledge that there are some difficult passages on a factual, concrete level, I acknowledge with Wesley and the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline that “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” (Para. 104, Article V of the Articles of Religion).

As the only things necessary for salvation are found in the Bible, I cannot dismiss lightly anything within the Bible as being ‘unnecessary’ for salvation, or contrary to the will of God, whose will was to reveal himself fully in the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to leave a written record of his self-revelation in the pages of the Bible.

Some would argue that the Old Testament contains parts which never reflected the will of God. On one level, this is true—the Bible does not always endorse what it reports (think David and Bathsheba, Saul’s suicide or Tamar prostituting herself to Judah in Genesis 38)—but when we look at imperatives found in such places as Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Leviticus or the Epistles, we must assume that Scripture endorses the command. Where Scripture speaks with authority, God endorses as well as reports, for Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) and is itself the written record of God’s self-revelation.

Some who would argue the above position would further argue that Jesus himself as depicted in the Gospels was the interpretive lens by which the rest of the Bible had to be filtered. Those parts not aligning with a particular picture of Jesus as found in the Gospels are to be subsequently discarded as ‘never having reflected the will of God.’

In the early Church, Christians dealt with a heresy called Marcionism which posited that the god of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament; the church’s response was that they were one and the same (it carries over into the United Methodist Church as Article VI of our Articles of Religion), and that the Old Testament was not contrary in any sense to the New Testament.

There is a danger of approaching Marcionism in our teaching when we say that Jesus is the interpretive lens through which we see the Old Testament (and non-Gospel New Testament texts). On the one hand, Jesus said, “You have heard it said…but I say to you;” but on the other, he said, “Think not that I have come to overthrow the law, but to fulfill it.” In other words, using Jesus as an interpretive lens should not lead us to discount areas of Scripture as contrary to God’s will, but rather that we should seek to understand the ways in which Scripture shows God’s will.

Is there room for a theological liberal in an orthodox United Methodist Church?  After all, Wesley’s standard sermons include his sermon “The Catholic Spirit,” which encouraged Methodists to be willing to extend the hand of fellowship even toward those who disagree with them about some nonessential point.

I think the answer to the question largely depends on what manner of liberal we are talking about. British Methodist W.E. Sangster, a personal hero of the faith, was described as a “mild liberal,” after all–and is still a figure beloved in the Holiness movement,

But Sangster’s liberalism was not the liberalism that denied orthodox doctrine on the atonement, original sin or even the bible’s inspiration. His liberalism consisted of accepting textual criticism such as the theory that the book of Isaiah was written by three people, and thus divided into three parts. He still accepted that it was inspired by God.

His main concern in life was with evangelism and pointing people to holy living by the example of saints of all communions (Wesley and David Brainerd held as much a place in his mind as any Roman Catholic saint, such as “God’s Idiot,” St. Jean Vianney, or St. Francis de Sales).

That’s a far cry from the sort of theological liberalism the RMN crowd advocates in pushing for polyamory and alternative lifestyles, or the sort of theological liberalism that accepts dubious science over against the witness of the Bible, or the sort of theological liberalism that is more concerned with politically-correct social sins than it is with the pervasive personal sins that the Bible warns separate us from God.

What place is there for theological liberals in a United Methodist Church that proudly proclaims its doctrines? For one thing, it cannot be to bully when their desired change does not come. If anything, the proper place for theological liberals, as with anyone, is to sit at the Church’s feet and be taught.