Wesleyans, Evangelicals & Liberals

In a recent Christianity Today interview with Ken Collins, a professor of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, we read the following:

[CT] But isn’t this a question of who the dialogue partner is? For the champions of inerrancy, certainly the dialogue partners were modernist theologians who were undermining the authority of Scripture. But at the same time within their own community, do they not expect the Word to speak sacramentally, just as Wesleyans do?

[KC] That’s an important insight. German higher criticism hasn’t been the dialogue partner for the Wesleyan community in the same way it has been for the Reformed community.

We have different paradigms, but I think we get to the same place.

I think I understand what Collins is getting at, but this is not a good way to put it. First, the reason the “Wesleyan community” hasn’t had “German higher criticism” as a dialogue partner in the same way as the Reformed community is that for the most part the Wesleyans – at least as far as United Methodists go, have simply capitulated, retreating into pietism, moralism, institutionalism, or atheism. Though I’d like to avoid a theory of inerrancy based on foundationalist epistemology, I’d also like to avoid the exuberant errancy of so much of the old Methodist approach to scripture.

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5 Responses to Wesleyans, Evangelicals & Liberals

  1. Guy says:

    I think that the category of errancy/inerrancy is an inadequate one for understanding the authority of Scripture, partly because it produces the problems of fundamentalism on the one hand and liberalism on the other. The problem of fundamentalism and the “old Methodist approach” is rooted in the same place–accepting this category as legitimate for understanding scriptural inspiration, and then basing its valuation of “authority” on whether on not it is “inerrant” or “errant.” Either we find a way of contorting the biblical text into a modernistic understanding of being without error (the “without error in the original manuscripts” is a convenient cop out and completely unuseful approach), or we formulate ways to explain the “errors” we find there–such as “it has errors in it because it was written by people and people are imperfect.” The category sets up Scriptural authority to rise and fall on a category of modernity which may be anachronistic in understanding Scripture.

    It also seems (from experience) that when the above conversation gets hot and heavy, the central issue is lost, namely the nature of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This a problem with the wider evangelical world–the errancy/inerrancy category as a litmus test for belief in biblical authority, while ignoring or dismisses as illegitimate other ways of understanding the Scripture’s authority.

  2. Guy says:

    Having just read the article, I’d like to add that it seemed as though interviewer David Neff was trying to shoe-horn Wesleyanism into the Reformed tradition, especially in the area of holiness and Scripture. I would have liked to see Collins do a better job of showing the distinctiveness and drawing the contrast than he did.

  3. Richard H says:

    When people ask me about inerrancy I tell them I have neither a theory of inerrancy nor a theory of errancy. The question of inerrancy, then, seems to be one of those that should not be asked, because the question itself is wrong.

    I also agree with you, Guy, on the uselessness of deferring inerrancy to the original manuscripts. We never argue over the meaning or interpretation of the original manuscripts – we can’t since we don’t have them and never will. What the appeal does is show the weakness of one’s approach to the current (actual) text.

  4. Richard H says:

    I wasn’t impressed with Collin’s handling of the questions either.It’s tough for Wesleyans to win when going head to head with pugnacious evangelicals. First, we have to apologize for the decidedly non-evangelical cast of so much of our recent tradition. Second, we have to overcome the assumptions that Evangelicalism is best defined by Calvinism and rooted in modern epistemology as theologized by Warfield and the Princeton School.

    Collin’s take that the liberals have dropped out of the picture as dialog partners (the Other) for Evangelicals ignores the United Methodist (and mainline) ecclesial reality, already assuming the centrality of a non-Wesleyan picture of what Evangelicalism is.

    We evangelical Wesleyans are often caught in the middle. Our evangelical conversation partners suspect we’re going the route of Bishop Spong, Crossan & Borg. Our Wesleyan partners not only fail to differentiate varieties of evangelicals (accusing us of surrendering to Calvinism), but see it as the same as fundamentalism, lumping us with Falwell & fred Phelps.

    My guess is that the best strategy in the short term (a few years? A generation?) would be to ignore the label questions and hit certain strategic issues (Christology, Ecclesiology, etc.).

  5. Guy says:

    I try to move past the question of errancy/inerrancy with folks too. I try to build a bridge to conservatives who are testing me to know if I’m conservative on biblical authority by starting with a firm stance on authority before moving into how that is understood and worked out. It seems that the issue of inspiration and authority are inseparable for some–“if you don’t believe in ‘x’ formulation for inspiration, then you cannot believe in biblical authority.” With more liberal folks, I try to build a bridge by starting with a rejection of the “inerrancy” language of the fundamentalists, but then move into belief in authority.

    Incidentally, for me the question of errancy/inerrancy is out of order precisely because it isn’t conservative in the least to force it upon the Scriptures as a legitimate category for understanding inspiration and authority. I think that this formulation leads some “conservatives” to “liberal” ways of handling Scripture at times.

    And, yes, Collins seemed so eager to find agreement or favor with Calvinist evangelicals that he ignored in his responses the very real differences, especially in terms of holiness. I seriously doubt I’ll hear the same theology and application in a sermon on holiness from J.I. Packer as I will from Dennis Kinlaw, for instance.

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