THIS WE BELIEVE
WEEK TWO: “SOLA SCRIPTURA”
Intro: “The Bible is true. The Bible is true for me. The truth of this Bible should change the way I believe and behave.”
Last week I began a series entitled, “This We Believe, Essential Christian Doctrine from a Wesleyan Perspective.” We began the discussion where I think it should all begin: with Jesus. The declarative basis of our faith is this: JESUS IS LORD!
Today, I want to offer a second fundamental belief that I’ve stated many times and one we declare nearly every Sunday: THE BIBLE IS TRUE. But today, I want to share WHY we believe in the authority of Scripture and do so from a Wesleyan or Methodist point of view.
Let me reiterate what I’ve said several times: We are here to proclaim who and what we are FOR…NOT what we are against. I may have to compare and contrast other opinions within our denomination, but that is only to affirm our beliefs and the trajectory I believe God is leading us as a church.
I want to credit the authors of two recently publish books for some of the historical materials and some of the insights regarding the distinction between a Wesleyan high view of Scripture and those of other voices within our denomination. The first book is titled, “Are We Really Better Together?” by Rob Renfroe of Good News and Walter Fenton of Wesleyan Covenant Association. The second book is a collection of writings by the Wesleyan Covenant Association entitled, “A Firm Foundation.” Pastor Chris Ritter of Geneseo Illinois is the contributor with his chapter, “Faithfully Engaging the Scriptures.”
As a kid, have you ever said, “I swear on a stack of bibles.” Why do we do that? Because instinctively we know that if we are required to put our hands on one Bible in a court of Law to tell the truth, then swearing on a whole stack was even better! Never mind the part of the Bible that speaks against swearing pledges in the first place!
Even our presidents, when being sworn into office, do not promise to defend the constitution by placing their hands on the constitution. They do it with a Bible because even in our weak, shallow, secular world, there is still some appreciation for the Bible as one of societies last great vestiges of truth and honor.
But for the church, the Bible is much more. It is the church’s book that we read, study, love, proclaim, wrestle with and TRY to live our lives around. The Bible is our measuring stick. Ritter says that yardsticks are made of wood and not elastic.
The Bible is therefore complete. Closed. We don’t add to it and we don’t take away from it. The Bible tells us who we are, why we are here, where we come from, and where we are headed.
The Bible is not just a book ABOUT God, it is FROM God. It is our Creator’s intentional and gracious self-revelation, a divine autobiography. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit was deeply involved in the varied processes that brought the Scriptures to us.
But it didn’t drop out of the heavens in a leather binder. It was written by humans spanning thousands of years and thousands of miles. Each writer was as human as you and me. He was both a saint AND a sinner, like you and me. Many different authors may have written the words in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, and many others helped to develop this collection of 66 books into what we call the Canon of Scripture, but God was the grand architect behind it all.
The Bible is about a sinful people being pursued by a holy God. It is a place where we meet Jesus. How does John’s Gospel open? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” To the Pharisees, Jesus said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (John 5:39-40). The Bible is a faithful walk with Jesus.
The psalmist prayed this declarative statement of truth: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (119:105).
1 Peter 1:23 claims that we “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’”
Hebrews 4:12-13 reminds us that, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
To John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the Bible was of utmost importance. And the main subject of the Bible was NOT science, literature, or history, but SALVATION. Listen to this famous quote:
“I want to know one thing—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the Book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me behomo unius libri [A man of one book]. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.”
That is NOT to say that he didn’t read anything else. It was often said that Wesley carried a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In addition, Wesley read widely and required his ministers to read many other books.
By homo unius libri, according to Wesleyan historian, Randy Maddox, Wesley meant he regards no book comparatively but the Bible. Scripture is the first book of importance, but not the only important book. And when it comes to the question of biblical errors, some will quote Wesley’s letter to William Law, “If there be one falsehood in the Bible,” writes Wesley, “there may be a thousand; neither can proceed from the God of truth.”
Wesley acknowledged that the meaning of certain Scriptures are not always readily apparent. His approach was simple, yet effective:
He prayed for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit before reading Scripture. He trusted that God WANTED to speak His truths.
When passages were particularly difficult to understand, Wesley would search for parallel passages to help interpret the passage in question. This is commonly called the canonical approach to interpretation.
He then would consult the wisdom and guidance of trusted Christian ancestors, believing God will use their interpretation to enlighten his own understanding.
Finally, Wesley believed that we need to read the Bible “in conference” with others. Some people are simply more mature, and we can benefit from their insights if we listen in community. Meeting in groups to study the Bible is important for forming people and helping to identify the Bible’s central purposes. This is why we’re often promoting Life Groups (small groups, Bible studies, etc.).
For Wesley, the Bible was the pathway to God, the way of salvation. For that reason, it was worthy of his trust and the trust of others. And for most of the first 150 of American Methodism, Wesley’s high regard for Scripture profoundly shaped the way nearly all Methodists read the Bible. Because of the great move of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Bible reading, believing, and practicing Methodists, Scriptural holiness was being spread across a new nation.
But the rise of increasingly college-educated, seminary-trained clergy in the late 1800s, other ways of reading the Bible began to influence the church. We don’t have enough time to unpack this; suffice it to say that because of the era of Modernism and the Age of Enlightenment, a humanistic form of historical-criticism began to overshadow the Wesleyan approach of Spirit-led, textual-criticism.
When the merger of 1968 formed The United Methodist Church, another approach of biblical interpretation took shape, championed by a leading theologian named Bishop Albert Outler. It was called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” and was intended to help systemize Wesley’s practical approach. Basically, a person could use Scripture, church Tradition, Reason, and Experience to understand God’s work in the world and our lives.
Unfortunately, the denomination took Outler’s Quadrilateral idea to mean that all four approaches to understanding God’s will for our lives were equally valid and should therefore be equally weighted. They also took it to mean that Experience was about one’s broad, personal experiences of life rather than the vivifying experience of the Holy Spirit working in one’s life.
That was not Outler’s intention. He always believed—like Wesley—that Scripture informed the church’s traditions, human reasoning, and our experiences with the Holy Spirit. He and other Wesleyan theologians tried to fix the error, but it was too late. Now that liberal factions within Methodism had this newfound freedom of interpretation based on reason, tradition, and experience on equal footing, it was only a matter of time before clergy and seminary professors were teaching that we can use our human experiences to justify avoiding certain precepts of God’s Word.
Many pastors and bishops have abandoned the belief that God is authoritative. In 1995, progressive pastor, Rev. Tom Griffith stated, “Although the creeds of our denomination pay lip service to the idea that scripture is “authoritative” and “sufficient for faith and practice,” many of us have moved far beyond that notion in our own theological thinking…We are only deceiving ourselves—and lying to our evangelical brothers and sisters—when we deny the shift we have made…
We have moved far beyond the idea that the Bible is exclusively normative and literally authoritative for our faith. To my thinking, that is good!”
More recently, Adam Hamilton , a leader in the centrist movement and lead pastor of the largest UM church in North America, offered an approach to biblical interpretation that may do more harm that Outler’s Quadrilateral.
In his book, Making Sense of the Bible, Hamilton suggests an interpretive strategy to help Christians discern God’s will that includes three buckets in which we can categorize passages of Scripture. I quote Hamilton:
“There are passages of scripture—I would suggest the vast majority—that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, for instance, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” There are other passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, including much of the ritual law of the Old Testament. And there are passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like those related to slavery.”
Assuming we accepted Hamilton’s approach, Renfroe and Fenton have a few questions:
Who is the final arbiter of what passages go into which buckets?
What are the criteria for determining which verses, chapters, and books go where?
What comes of those parts of the Bible tossed into Buckets #2 and #3?
Ritter calls this sort of sifting and sorting “biblical revisionism” and I agree. Any time the ethics and values of the Bible don’t line up with our ideals or worldview, we can toss those in Buckets 2 or 3! Biblical revisionism, I believe, is what some in our denominational leadership have done to promote a non-biblical view of human sexuality and marriage and may be an underlying reason we are in mess we are in as a denomination.
We covered a lot of tumultuous and perhaps confusing ground this morning. So, let me boil it down to one basic question. It’s a question that the serpent asked Eve when coercing her to disobey God by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Did God really say?” It’s either ALL true and authoritative or NONE of it is true and authoritative.
I believe we are a Bible-believing-and-practicing-group of Christ followers in the Wesleyan tradition. I believe we are people of one book…Sola Sciptura. And I believe that the struggles we are experiencing will strengthen the Church of Jesus Christ across our land. There are signs that the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of Wesleyan Christians, recovering a commitment to the Scripture as God’s holy, inspired, and life-changing Word. Reclaiming the authority and centrality of Scripture goes hand in hand with resurgence in prayer, evangelism, and service in the power of the Holy Spirit!
I believe God REALLY did say…I believe the Bible is true…the Bible is true for me…and the truth of God’s Word should change the way I believe and I behave. AMEN.