Inerrancy: Not Our Debate

Inerrancy: Not Our Debate

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Don’t you hate it when someone who knows little about a sport tries to engage in conversation about it and then uses terms from another sport? Like this: “The football game is in the third inning.” Of course, baseball uses innings, not football.

That is exactly how I feel as a minister in the Church of the Nazarene when someone talks to me about the authority of Scripture and uses the language of inerrancy. That word and the system of thought built around it come from another theological tradition that does not interact well with our understanding of Scripture. Truth be told, Nazarenes “do not have a dog in this fight” as my grandfather used to say.

The authority of the Bible

The issue of inerrancy is a very important matter that is widely misunderstood among both Nazarenes and those who engage with us. It goes far beyond a simple definition that can then be applied to our perspective. Inerrancy doctrines are foreign to our view of Scripture and its authority. Briefly stated, inerrancy dogma claims Scripture is free from error of any kind regarding every fact and statement made in the Bible. This includes matters of biology, geology, physics, mathematics, history, and cosmology.

Those who promote inerrancy discussions employ a form of rationalism especially popular more than a century ago by Princeton theologians Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and B. B. Warfield (1851-1921). This rationalism helped fuel the fundamentalist movement that heavily impacted not only American Calvinism but several other traditions as well. Their line of logic regarding the inerrancy of Scripture went something like this: God is perfect; God gave us the Bible. Therefore, the Bible too must be perfect and correct in every detail.

The entire question of inerrancy as presented in this system of thought is an incorrect perspective from which to discuss the authority of the Bible and its connection to readers. As Wesleyans, we agree with John Wesley that we are “a people of the Book.”

  • We believe that the revelation of God to humanity comes first in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and second in the Scripture that tells us the story of Christ.
  • We believe that Scripture is God’s inspired Word to humanity, accurately revealing to us everything necessary for knowing God in a personal way and living in vital relationship with Him.

The entire biblical account from Genesis to Revelation is the story of God on a mission to find and bring back lost humanity to himself. We believe the Old Testament is as much a part of the story of Jesus Christ and his self-giving, ever-seeking love as is the New Testament.

We Wesleyans believe in the authority of the Old and New Testaments to tell us everything we need to know about God to be forgiven of our sins in Christ, born again, justified, and adopted into the family of God. Further, we believe that the Bible tells us everything we need to know to live a lifestyle following our conversion that is pleasing in God’s sight. The Bible accomplishes God’s purpose for it; that is, to invite us into relationship with our heavenly Father and instruct us in daily living.

John Wesley remained a member of the Church of England throughout his life and ministry. He followed the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563) of the Church of England. We find two articles in this document which shed light on this matter. Anglican article 6 states that the Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation” and that nothing in addition to Scripture’s clear statements about salvation is required of believers. Article 7 says the Old Testament holds value for us. It is filled with God’s promises and moral guidance. This is the background for the Church of the Nazarene’s Article of Faith IV:

IV. The Holy Scriptures

4. We believe in the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, by which we understand the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation, so that whatever is not contained therein is not to be enjoined as an article of faith.
(Luke 24:44-47; John 10:35; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:20-21)

The Bible accomplishes its purpose

The use of the word “inerrantly” in this article of faith does not imply adoption of the inerrancy system of thought. Rather, it simply means that the Bible accomplishes its purpose in revealing God’s will and way for our eternal salvation. Nothing more needs to be said to complete God’s self-revelation to humanity. Note that the background for our Article of Faith IV predates the inerrancy discussion by nearly 350 years.

Two former editors of the Herald of Holiness (now Holiness Today) have spoken into this issue. W. E. McCumber commented that Article IV “does not commit us for or against total inerrancy, and, as one would expect, there are proponents of both concepts of ‘plenary inspiration’ to be found among us.” He concluded, “It is not errorless, but it will infallibly achieve its purpose when the Holy Spirit uses it to convict of sin and draw to Christ, making possible our salvation." [i] Wesley Tracy agreed with this assessment when he said the inerrancy view “has become the trademark and battle cry of rigid, right wing, Calvinist fundamentalists” and does not belong in the our tradition. [ii]

John Wesley and most of the Wesleyan tradition take a different approach on evidences of the authority of Scripture. Rather than concentrating on the inerrancy of the text language, Wesleyans prefer to look at the lives of believers living in the community of faith. The transformation of their lives into the likeness of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit poured out extravagantly by God’s grace witnesses to the inspiration and authority of the Bible. As New Testament scholar Richard Hays says of Paul’s claim “the true meaning of Scripture is made manifest in the transformed lives of the community of faith." [iii] 

This is the reason the Church of the Nazarene has as its mission statement “to make Christlike disciples in the nations.” The statement speaks not only of our work in God’s mission but also of the transforming power of the gospel message to save and sanctify us by faith. God continues to work in our lives daily to transform us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).

The comprehensive story of God

So, we choose not to involve ourselves in never-ending religious discussions about the definition of words like “error” or “mistake,” using one word or phrase to formulate an entire scientific theory, or attempting to reconcile the number of troops sent into a particular battle. We focus, rather, on the comprehensive story of God as presented in the Bible for the purpose of our reconciliation with our heavenly Father. We find these religious discussions pointless because of the hundreds of translations and versions of the Bible which come from the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.

It is impossible to verify claims about original texts that we do not have. Further, it is very difficult to build a theological platform about specific words or phrases when those language constructions are translations of ancient texts. As we know, the English language has changed radically in the last 500 years. Dozens of translations in English have been produced simply to keep up with the constant change in the English language itself. This is true of numerous global languages.

Therefore, we Wesleyans choose to focus our attention on a vital topic. We talk about the authority of Scripture coming from the work of the Holy Spirit. He brings us the revelation of God through the Bible’s original inspiration, collection, translation, and preservation for all time. God’s Holy Spirit accurately reveals to us the story of God for the salvation of all of humanity. In so doing, His Spirit inerrantly accomplishes His goal for Scripture.

For learning more, see “Scripture, Theology of” by Gregory S. Clapper  (pages 486-488) and “Scripture, Wesleyan Approach to” by Kent Brower (pages 488-489) in Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2013).

1. W. E. McCumber, Herald of Holiness, March 15, 1985, 31.

2. Wesley Tracy, Herald of Holiness, January 1992, 33.

3. Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), xiii.

Frank M. Moore serves as general editor for the Church of the Nazarene and Holiness Today editor-in-chief.