February 5, 2011

John Wesley & the Trustworthiness of Scripture

Here's a gem from John Wesley on the trustworthiness (dare I say, inerrancy) of scripture:
I read Mr. Jenyns's admired tract, on the "Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion." He is undoubtedly a fine writer; but whether he is a Christian, Deist, or Atheist, I cannot tell. If he is a Christian, he betrays his own cause by averring, that "all Scripture is not given by inspiration of God; but the writers of it were sometimes left to themselves, and consequently made some mistakes." Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth (Journal: July 24, 1776, emphasis added).
Two observations are noteworthy. First, Wesley takes the character of God to be the basis for his doctrine of scripture. If God is true and scripture is God's word, then scripture must be true as well. Second, for Wesley, if a Christian denies the trustworthiness of scripture by suggesting it contains error, it is a betrayal of his own cause. My guess is that many Methodist and Wesleyan types wouldn't be too comfortable with their founder on this one.

Do you think Wesley's attitude is characteristic of the various Wesleyan and Methodist groups that claim him as their founder? Is belief in the inerrancy of scripture essential to classical Wesleyan Methodism?


Jason B. Hood said...


It's potent stuff and a great find. So often personal opinion is treated as more infallible than Scripture...

Larry said...

I think this would explain, in part, why Wesley sprinkled his sermons with numerous Scriptural phrases. He actually used them as part of his sermon text. Scripture reflects the character of God. It is reliable only as far as God is reliable.

I think it further explains why he insisted that his Standard sermons, as well as his Notes on the New Testament were to be considered as doctrinal standards. How far we (UMs) have wandered from our doctrinal roots.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi guys, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Larry, I think your right. I have been struck just this last week as I read through some of Wesley's sermons just how much scripture is appears in the text of the sermon. We might say Wesley's sermons are scripture saturated.


Holly said...

One of the primary problems with this notion of "inerrancy" is the reality that the English language changes over time. Words acquire history and nuance with their use and misuse. During the last 150 years or so, he word "inerrant" has been used to support the silencing of women in the church, and to promote creationism as a science.

For me this is a personal issue. When I move into a new community and look for a new church to attend, I begin looking at various church websites. I have noticed that churches that include the word "inerrant" in their statement of beliefs do not have women in positions of authority listed on the church staff or even in authoritative volunteer positions (such as elder boards). Women's spiritual gifts and graces are not acknowledged in these churches; and as a retired United Methodist clergywoman MY voice and experience would not be considered valuable in such a community.

Perhaps the use of the term "inerrant" has even more serious ramifications when it concerns the issue of creation vs science. The Scopes trial of the early 20th century casts a long shadow over modern thinking. As a public school teacher I had students who could not believe what they were learning in their high school science classes because their religion taught them that the Bible's presentation of the creation of the world is the only valid "inerrant" truth. I see this same mentality in current political views that deny the reality of climate change. The notion of the "inerrant" word of God may be leading us to the destruction of life on earth as crackpots ignore science and passively do nothing to prevent destructive climate change.

The word "inerrant" may indeed have an appropriate place in historical reflection. However, for contemporary theologians and pastors, it would be advisable to use alternative, more accurate language to clarify the primacy, authority, and truth of Holy Scripture.