The United Methodist View of Scripture
What is the United Methodist view of Scripture? Is there an official view? I know what the Discipline says, but how much latitude do we allow, one way or the other, before we say a particular view is out-of-bounds? Those are some of the questions we as a denomination have been wrestling with for quite a while now.
Several years ago, at my denomination’s Annual Conference, I heard a phrase (used by two different people) that got my attention. The phrase was, “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.”
“Seriously, but not literally.” What does that even mean? Does that strike you as a slight of hand? What does it mean to take the Bible literally?
As a former member of the theology team of the Board of Ordained Ministry in my conference, I have been a part of many meaningful conversations about a candidate’s view of Scripture. However, my observation is, in some instances, suggesting a candidate takes the Bible literally is shorthand for saying the candidate takes the Bible a little too seriously.
Taking the Bible Literally
Yet, from everything I’ve read on the subject, taking the Bible literally means, quite simply, reading the Bible according to the literature-style in which it was written. We know there are many kinds of literature in the Bible. There is gospel, epistle, poetry, apocalyptic, wisdom, historical narrative, hymns, etc. They are not all to be read in the very same way. That would be folly. Furthermore, I have yet to read someone who holds a high view of Scripture who believes the Bible should be read in such a way.
Many of the folks I’ve talked to who hold a certain disdain for the notion of biblical inerrancy, for example, have never read a single book by an inerrantist on the subject of inerrancy. Instead, it seems many critics of inerrancy are often reacting to the very worst caricatures that have been built into conference folklore over the years. And frankly, who would want any of those caricatures to come to life and serve a local church in our conference? Not me!
Your Stigma Against My Dogma
I’m not saying concerns about inerrancy (or, at least, folks who hold that view) are completely unjustified. I am saying few people in United Methodist circles have read much on the subject and thus have the worst possible view of it. That doesn’t strike me as very open-minded, something on which we United Methodists pride ourselves.
I would like to see an end to the negative stereotypes of folks who hold a high view of Scripture. I would like to hold a high view of Scripture without being accused of bibliolatry (the view that the Bible, and not God, is being worshiped).
Let me be clear: I’m not defending any and every bad interpretation that has come along in the name of Scriptural authority. Both sides of the debate have clearly misused and even abused the Bible. What I am for is a holy and reasonable discussion, free of character assassinations and straw men (or straw persons, if you prefer).
Let’s Actually Take the Bible Seriously
Let’s roll up our sleeves together and do the hard and responsible work of rightly interpreting the Bible, all the while, maintaining a grateful, joyful, and humble attitude toward the Bible’s inspiration, authority, and sufficiency in our lives. We won’t always agree, but we can still disagree with integrity. Text management (i.e., “I like this verse, so it’s authoritative for me; I don’t like that one, so it’s not.”) is not the reasonable, mature, wise, or godly way to go about it.
Our denomination will not thrive without truly taking the Bible seriously.
What are some ways you as an individual Christian can begin learning how to take the Bible seriously and literally? What are some ways a denomination can agree on the Bible’s authority and still disagree on various interpretations, with integrity? What are some ways a denomination (or individual Christian) should not interpret Scripture?
Grace and Truth,
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