In a post yesterday, Daniel Silliman quoted historian Molly Worthen arguing that biblical “inerrancy” became an entrenched position among evangelical Christians only when it seemed necessary to shore up beliefs that were under attack by theological modernists. Prior to that, evangelicals held a variety of views on the inspiration of the Bible.
He specifically mentions the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s emphasis on the “sufficiency” of Scripture:
[S]ome theologians of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, including important figures in the early history of the Church of the Nazarene, rejected inerrancy. The ultimate revelation of God, they wrote, was not the Bible. The ultimate revelation was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible was to be thought of not as an authority but as a guide to the revelation of Christ.
It’s “sufficiency,” rather than inerrancy, was emphasized.
This remains the official position of the United Methodist Church, which of course also traces its roots back to Wesley. The Methodist Articles of Religion, which were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England’s 39 Articles and are shared by a number of churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, include this statement on the “Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”:
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.
While this says that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, it does not say that everything contained in the Bible is necessary for salvation. This at least opens the door for a non-inerrantist understanding of biblical authority.
It’s probably not wise to try to hang too much on this statement, since the origin of the 39 Articles was in Reformation-era disputes, not contemporary questions about biblical inspiration. The question for them was more about where ultimate doctrinal authority was to be found.
Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that inerrancy is not the only–or even historically the most common–way of understanding the Bible’s authority.
On paper I’m still an ELCA Lutheran, but I’ve been attending a United Methodist congregation for the last couple of years, so this news from the ELCA’s recent church-wide assembly is of interest to me. A resolution was passed during the assembly to initiate a process looking at the church’s practices of administering communion, particularly with regard to the unbaptized. This seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the fact that while the ELCA’s official position is that only baptized Christians should partake of communion, other churches with which it is in full communion practice “open communion.” That is, anyone who is so moved is invited to partake of the sacrament, whether or not they’re a baptized Christian.
This is, in fact, the practice of the United Methodist Church, with which the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The UMC’s official rationale for practicing open communion (a.k.a. communion without baptism) is this:
The table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation. The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love, as the invitation to the table says.
The United Methodist Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive” (page 29). This statement means that in practice there are few, if any, circumstances in which a United Methodist pastor would refuse to serve the elements of Holy Communion to a person who comes forward to receive.
By Water and the Spirit affirms: “Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”
I’ve worried before that the practice of open communion can sometimes be more “about the appearance of inclusion for inclusion’s sake than about inviting people to partake of the Eucharist understood specifically as the sacrament of Christ’s presence.” But understood along the lines described here, I think it can be a faithful practice.* As a practical matter, apart from a pro forma statement in the bulletin, even churches that don’t officially practice open communion are unlikely to turn anyone away from the table (I find it almost unimaginable that this would occur in an ELCA church). In my view, the main emphasis should be on the sacrament as the sign of Christ’s presence, love, and grace, and the invitation should be for people to respond to it as such.
UPDATE: I should clarify that the UMC certainly doesn’t intend for communion without baptism to be the norm. The statement on baptism referred to above says this immediately after the quoted section:
Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.
And the church’s statement on communion adds this:
Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways. Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.
Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.
This seems to me to strike a good balance.
*I’ve also become more comfortable with the idea of open communion after reading Charles Hefling’s recent essay, which draws on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” as well as this paper from Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann, written 30 years ago.
Methodist and other churches remember today as the anniversary of John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience.” Richard Hall at Connexions provides some of the background here. Essentially, Wesley reported having a vivid experience of assurance in his own salvation when hearing a reading from Luther’s Preface to Romans. While this has sometimes been described as Wesley’s “conversion experience,” it seems that later Methodist lore may have invested it with more significance than it warrants. Wesley was undoubtedly a very sincere Christian virtually his entire life, and had been preaching justification by faith for some time prior to this experience.
As Stephen Tomkins relates it in his very accessible biography, Wesley experienced several turning points in his faith and ministry: when he started the “Holy Club” at Oxford (which became the nucleus of the Methodist movement), when he encountered the pietistic German Moravians during his mission trip to America, at the meeting at Aldersgate Street, and when he began his field preaching, among others. Tomkins traces a life-long dialectic between Wesley’s emphasis on God’s free grace and on the need for personal holiness. As Tomkins puts it, “He had an evangelical horror of trying to satisfy God by good works, but an even greater horror of trying to satisfy God without good works” (p. 196). When he felt that one pole of the dialectic was in danger of being over-emphasized, he often swung back toward the other. For example, the classic evangelical experience represented by Aldersgate and Wesley’s preaching on justification by faith has to be viewed side-by-side with the teaching on “Christian perfection,” arguably his signature doctrine.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately–partly inspired by my recent reading of Schleiermacher and my re-reading of Paul Tillich–about how the way we “model” God affects our understanding of the Christian life.
As is well known, Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being” or “being-itself.” These, he said, were the only non-literal terms applicable to God. Everything else, including personal categories, were symbols that do not apply literally to God.
Along similar lines, philosopher of religion Wesley Wildman has in several essays distinguished between what he calls “determinate entity” theism and “ground-of-being” theism. The former pictures God as an entity–usually personal in nature–with a definite character. The latter tends to portray God in more impersonal, mystical terms–as the non-anthropomorphic ontological “ground” or “abyss” that gives rise to the empirical world. Each way of thinking about God has its problems, but Wildman opts for ground-of-being theism.
The Christian tradition has always included both approaches. Wildman argues that the high medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was in fact an attempt to articulate a personalistic theism within a mystical, neo-Platonic ground-of-being conceptual scheme. (He is skeptical that Thomas actually succeeded, calling this synthesis “paradoxical.”)
This isn’t just a theoretical issue; it has profound effects on how we understand the religious life. To paint with a somewhat broad brush, personalistic “determinate entity” theism tends to characterize the religious life in relational and moral terms. Salvation is being brought into a correct or restored relationship with God (for Christians this happens through the mediation of Christ), and expresses itself in concrete, public actions to serve the well-being of the neighbor. By contrast, “ground-of-being” theism sees the relationship to the divine in more impersonal, mystical terms–and emphasizes a more inward, contemplative approach to the religious life. (To oversimplify greatly, these can be understood as broadly “protestant” and “catholic” approaches.)
As I’ve said before, my general religious orientation is toward the personalistic, relational approach. This is in part because it seems more consistent with religious practice as I understand it. It’s very difficult for me to understand how one is supposed to pray to or receive a moral demand from “the ground of being,” for example. I’ve also been influenced here by John Wesley’s insistence that Christian holiness is social holiness–a journey outward into the world of the neighbor’s need, not an inward journey to the depths of the self.
But as Wildman notes, ground-of-being theism avoids certain problems that plague more personal understandings–such as the problem of evil. And “ground-of-being” metaphors help highlight the need to avoid excessive anthropomorphism in our thinking about God–which can exacerbate our tendency to create god in our own image. So are these necessarily exclusive ways of understanding God, or can they complement one another?
I sympathize with the spirit of this post at Patheos by David Henson–it is weird and creepy to talk about the infant Jesus as having been “born to die”–suggesting perhaps that a child sacrifice would’ve done the job of saving the world just as well. More seriously, it’s just bad theology to separate Christ’s death from his life. This has been a recurring problem in popular Christian piety and even among theologians who should know better.
That said, Henson veers a bit too far in the other direction when he writes that “it wasn’t his death and crucifixion that set things right in the world. Rather it was his incarnated life that shows us what a world set right might look like.” I’d argue that the writers of the New Testament certainly thought that Jesus’ death (along with his resurrection) were acts by which God went about setting things right in the world. Without the cross and resurrection we seem stuck with the old liberal Jesus who’s primarily a good role model. (Or as Paul would say, if Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins!)
I haven’t blogged much about my switching from attending a Lutheran church to a Methodist one, but one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Wesleyan theology is that it tries to maintain equal emphases on Jesus’ death and his life, and on our justification and sanctification. Wesley had a very “Lutheran” doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, but he insisted that the acceptance and forgiveness we receive through Jesus’ cross and resurrection laid the foundation for continuous growth in love of God and neighbor. According to Theodore Runyon, the keynote of Wesley’s theology is the restoration of the image of God in humanity, which allows us to reflect back to the world the love which God has shown us. From this perspective, to downplay the life and teachings of Jesus or his cross and resurrection would be to settle for half a gospel.
Theodore Runyon is a theologian, now retired, from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Among other things, he’s published a book on John Wesley’s theology (which I blogged about a bit a while back) as well as several articles on Wesley.
In his book Exploring the Range of Theology, which collects articles he’s written over several decades, Runyon uses Wesley to retrieve the idea of “religious experience.” For much 20th-century theology, particularly that which was influenced by Barth, religious experience was disdained. This was largely because of the fear that it would lead to spiritual flights of fancy and subjectivism. After all, since everyone’s experience is different, how do you evaluate its validity?
Runyon argues that, while Barth et al. may have been justified in their distrust of experience, particularly in light of the “German Christians” who supported the Nazi regime in Hitler’s Germany, they may have gone overboard in disparaging it. Following Wesley, he maintains that a religion without an experiential aspect will eventually dry up–neither right doctrine (orthodoxy) nor right practice (orthopraxy) are enough to sustain it. We also need “right feeling”–or what he calls “orthopathy.”
Wesley, he points out, strongly affirmed the importance of actually experiencing the assurance of God’s love and of being empowered by the Holy Spirit to do good works and grow in love for one’s neighbor. Neither a rote orthodoxy nor a determined adherence to the moral law, he believed, could generate a such a living faith. And it was the birthright of every Christian to tangibly experience the Holy Spirit in her life.
However, Wesley was no subjectivist and at many points had to defend the early Methodist movement against charges of “enthusiasm.” Religious truth isn’t produced by the feelings or experiences of the self. Rather, those feelings are the testimony of the Holy Spirit acting in response to the proclaimed Word, which, in good Lutheran fashion, Wesley insisted comes from outside the self. Wesley was an empiricist in the Lockean tradition, and he believed that everything we know comes from without. But he was also a bit of a Platonist in that he thought that human beings had “spiritual senses” that allowed them to perceive spiritual realities. But because of the Fall, these senses were dormant and had to be “activated” by God’s gracious activity. When we respond to the preaching of God’s love in Christ, the Spirit is that power within us that allows us to assent to it and which sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts. It is a personal, experiential response to a reality outside the self. “Genuine experience of God is therefore not my experience alone, it is the experience of the Other into whose life I am taken by grace” (Runyon, “Orthopathy: Wesleyan Criteria for Religious Experience”).
Runyon also discusses other criteria that Wesley used to test religious experience. These experiences should transform us–Wesley believed, with Luther, that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, but he also believed with the Catholic and Eastern traditions that it is to be imparted to us. They should have a social effect–the goal of Christianity is not to create holy solitaries; the Gospel should propel us to share the God’s love and minister to the needs of others. They should be reasonable, measured by the norms of the Bible and the experience of the believing community. They should be sacramental in that the feelings associated with religious experience convey, or point to, a reality beyond themselves rather than being made into ends-in-themselves.And finally, they should be teleological–that is, they put us on a path toward the goal of the Christian life, or what Wesley called “Christian perfection.”
These criteria, Runyon concludes, “assist in evaluating the legitimacy of claims to religious experience, while at the same time recognizing the importance of the experiential dimension for genuine faith and discipleship.” Borrowing from Kant, we might say that faith and discipleship without experience is empty, but experience without faith and discipleship is blind.