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 a long time.
Several years ago, at my denominational conference'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 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 was a part of many meaningful conversations about candidates’ views of Scripture. However, my observation was, in some instances, suggesting that a candidate took the Bible literally was code for saying the candidate took the Bible a little too seriously.
A phrase that is often used in a pejorative way to end a theological debate is to call someone a "biblical literalist." However, let me suggest that using the phrase, “they take the Bible literally,” is not the check mate some believe it is. To paraphrase a famous line in a film, “They keep using that phrase, but I do not think it means what they think it means.”
I think some who charge a person with, “taking the Bible literally,” would have us believe that those who hold such a view assume that when Jesus claims he is “the door,” we should start looking for a doorknob where his belly button is, and hinges on his side. Obviously, that is absurd, as is thinking that the mere declaration that a person embraces a literal view of the Bible magically ends all debate.
Taking the Bible Literally
To take 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. Throughout Scripture we find 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 this particular 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 views such as biblical inerrancy, for example, have never read a single book by an actual inerrantist on the subject of biblical inerrancy. Instead, 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, some 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 this view of interpreting 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 strawman arguments.
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.
More on interpreting Scripture literally...
Not all of Scripture is didactic and historical narrative. In addition to those two literary forms, there is poetry, wisdom, and apocalyptic literature, just to name a few. Bearing this in mind, the Church should beware of an unchecked “literalistic” interpretation when reading Scripture. The fact that there are many different literary forms in Scripture is important for the reader to recall as he or she seeks to understand the Bible.
Christians must always acknowledge that for all that the Bible is, the Bible is not God. If one does not move beyond the pages of Scripture to the One about whom the Scripture speaks, the reader is no closer to the relationship God desires. Mere knowledge of and reverence for the Bible should not be equated with intimacy with and love for God himself.
However, for those who use broad and undefined phrases like “literalistic interpretation,” it seems the hope is that the charge of "literalism" will end the debate. And yet, often in such discussions there is no clear definition of what is meant by “literalism,” only vague examples. Thus, this attack appears to be merely the assault on a strawman. However, there is much that can be said in defense of a proper understanding of the literal interpretation of Scripture. In The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article XVIII makes clear what is meant by the “literal interpretation” of Scripture. It defines as follows,
“We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.”
In other words, says R.C. Sproul, “to interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.” This understanding of interpreting Scripture is not a recent invention. Indeed, the Reformers accented it. Yet, critics of a “literalistic” interpretation of Scripture seldom respond to this. Instead, they attack what must be considered a poor caricature of “fundamentalist” biblical hermeneutics. Thus, if they would seriously consider what has been written about biblical interpretation by inerrantists, they would be obliged to at least think more deeply about their charges.
It also appears to be assumed that because of the human contribution to the authorship of Scripture, the Bible is therefore culturally conditioned, time-bound, limited, and prone to error. In fact, one author attempts to make the case that Scripture, though inspired, is still human and therefore prone to these limitations and errors. One might first ask what he means by “inspiration.” A common response to an inerrantist on this question is to charge him with a mechanical or dictation view of inspiration. Yet, though that charge is asserted, it is never proven. In fact, there is little effort exhibited to even define terms such as “rigid biblical literalism.” Author Maynard explicitly suggests that anyone who interprets the Bible literally must therefore be categorized as someone who believes the Bible was dictated by God. This is an unfortunate, even irresponsible, conclusion. I would agree with B.B. Warfield that “it ought to be unnecessary to protect again against the habit of representing the advocates of verbal inspiration as teaching that the mode of inspiration was by dictation.” The fact is, with very few exceptions, there is no instance where a form of the dictation theory even appears in evangelical literature. If it exists today, it certainly is a minority report. Once again, the respected standard for the doctrine of inerrancy, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, succinctly and explicitly states the relationship between Scripture and the human authors. It says in Article VIII,
“We affirm that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared. We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.”
Furthermore, it is a false assumption to assert a priori that the humanness of Scripture therefore makes it a fallible and erroneous document. The Chicago Statement again makes clear that “with the aid of the divine inspiration and the superintendence of the Holy Spirit giving of sacred Scripture, the writings of the Bible are free from the normal tendencies and propensities of fallen men to distort the truth.” If God did not communicate to humanity through human language, how else would we know him? Jerry Walls suggests that “the United Methodist Church must decide whether or not it believes God has revealed himself to us. If we believe he has, there is no evading the further claim that we know the essential truth God intended to reveal. …Indeed, if we do not know the essential content of God’s revelation, then the very claim that God has revealed himself is undermined.” God created humans as creatures with the capacity to communicate through human language. Is it an outlandish idea to suppose that God could also communicate to his creation without error using that same language? John Calvin writes,
“…Who, even of slight intelligence, does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus, such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as to accommodate the knowledge of his to our capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.”
Thus, God was able to communicate or ‘lisp’ to humanity through the use of human language. Moreover, in saying that Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, must one assume he was errant by virtue of his humanity? To speak of Scripture being inspired by God, yet limited and prone to error because of its human authorship is an inconsistent notion.
Finally, criticisms against a "literal interpretation" of Scripture seem to suggest that because Scripture was written at a certain time, by certain people, in a certain situation, its authority is not absolute, nor can it transcend the centuries to our day. Addressing this view of biblical interpretation, United Methodist scholar, Victor Furnish says,
“[Scripture] …documents how our mothers and fathers in faith sought to discern and do what love required within the particularities of their various times, places, and circumstances. It is therefore not surprising that the specific laws and moral counsels of the Bible are diverse, often in tension with one another, sometimes even contradictory.”
Furnish further elaborates his understanding of biblical interpretation and moral application by suggesting that a “proper biblical interpretation” explains that the ancient thinkers, which includes those who wrote the books of the Bible, were limited in their understanding concerning ethical issues. Moreover, as people living in a particular historical, geographical, and cultural context, these biblical writers merely reflected the “times” in which they lived.
The obvious response to this is to assert that if Scripture is not understood to be the self-revealed, transcendent Word of God, then it becomes little more than the musings of an ancient people who attempted to make sense out of their world based on the limited amount of wisdom and knowledge at their disposal. Even if it is granted that God is revealed in these writings, the most this position can assert is that Scripture is a fallible instruction guide giving us a glimpse into what these ancient writers believed to be case about God. Greg Bahnsen asks,
“…Will Scripture be the Christian’s normative guide or must it yield that position of authority over ethics to modern scholarship, personal experience, natural reason, new mystical insights, public opinion, or some other standard?”
For an ethic to be meaningful it must be normative. Otherwise, it does nothing but describe what is in fact occurring. It should be obvious that there is nothing inherently binding in one human telling another human how to behave. There is nothing normative nor transcendent in an autonomous human ethic. History has shown how this type of ethical system quickly denigrates into moral relativism.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.