The blogosphere exploded last week after the primarily anonymous “Gang of 80” announced through Good News their desire to split The United Methodist Church. In my opinion, anyone who thinks this attempt to separate is “good news” has never been through a church split or divorce, but they feel that an interpretative issue is irreconcilable.
Infallibility and Inerrancy
One paragraph of their press release leaped off the page:
It is a crisis regarding the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures, where some believe that, rightly understood, the Bible is the infallible word of God, and where others believe that significant parts of the Scriptures do not provide an accurate understanding of God’s heart and mind and may be discarded as uninspired and in error. [bold type mine]
Tom Lambrecht posted on the Good News site his understanding of what “infallibility” means. His post should be read. He reminds us that “infallibility” was a word used by John Wesley and that these words may be found in our Confession of Faith:
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation (Confession of Faith, Article IV).
And while I appreciate his clarification, it is my contention that one cannot today separate “infallibility” from “inerrancy.” The two are inextricably entangled.
I wish to speak about that here.
I may be the only United Methodist clergy person who can speak with accuracy to the challenges–and the reliefs–of living in an inerrant/infallible world. I earned a Master of Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. Here is the doctrinal statement. DTS and Asbury Seminary, a non-United Methodist Seminary but whose theology permeates the “Gang of 80,” are nearly twin sisters doctrinally.
I rarely speak of this educational experience, having earned a D-Min at Perkins School of Theology about ten years later. Nonetheless, it was formative in my life and left me quite well-educated biblically. Among other things, I gained significant fluency in reading both biblical Greek and Hebrew and acquired much skill in the art of textual criticism and exegesis.
I know intimately the inerrant/infallible world.
Late last week, I saw this article in the New York Times about the crisis at Bryan College, a well-known Evangelical school. Keep in mind that the Good News movement self-defines as Evangelical. The crisis is about the necessity of affirming an historical Adam and Eve for students and faculty.
Now, Bryan College is a doctrinally-driven school. Here is their statement of belief–and all faculty must reaffirm this each year. Included in that statement is this description of the Scriptures: that the holy Bible, composed of the Old and New Testaments, is of final and supreme authority in faith and life, and, being inspired by God, is inerrant in the original writings;
Below is the generally accepted definition of inerrancy. This comes from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and this is what is used to define inerrancy by pretty well all of Evangelicalism, i.e., those who see themselves as orthodox in belief. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Seminary and a spokesperson for the Good News/evangelical portion of the UMC, has self-defined himself and those who agree with him as “orthodox” while those who do not agree fully are now labeled “heterodox. A strong in-group/out-group line is characteristic of the Evangelical/infallible/inerrant world of biblical scholarship.
A Short Statement
1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.
2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms: obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
This “short statement” is then amplified by multiple “We affirm and we deny articles. The last one reads this way:
WE AFFIRM that a confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ.
The Challenges and the Reliefs
First the reliefs of living in an infallible/inerrant world:
Hard decisions are made by the exegetical experts: enormous trust is placed in Evangelical scholars and the decisions made by them that concern the belief structure. Church members for the most part are not expected to think for themselves theologically, but to receive from the pastor(s) the parameters of what they must believe in order to be saved.
Again, there are strong in-group/out-group boundaries, leading to greater cohesiveness in the “in-group” corral. That cohesiveness promotes a sense of safety, of likemindedness, of willingness to expend oneself to the cause of enlarging the group who are “in,” because the “in-ness” is necessary for salvation.
Hell is very real and is reserved for those who do not believe rightly. Being in means an assurance that one is heavenly bound.
Salvation is very much an individual decision, and must be entered into with intentionality and full intellectual assent. As such, children may not be baptized–they do not have the necessary knowledge to make that kind of decision. They are often “dedicated” with the hope that they, too, will be saved someday. This belief structure mandates careful teaching of children and youth and is a big part of the growing home-school movement. There is much theological safety here.
There is little room for dissent. This is why, when the original “Gang of 60” came out with their statement, I wrote the post, “The Inquisition Cometh,” for which I took a lot of heat. But I’ve been there. And I know what happens.
Because a textual only reading of Scripture (not one modified by cultural factors and a wider theological view) does effectively eliminate women from positions of spiritual authority, female clergy, particularly those serving in Senior Pastor roles and with sacramental authority, are anathema. Please note: as far as anyone knows, the current (mostly anonymous) “Gang of 80” has no female clergy among the adherents.
The inerrant/infallible world tends strongly to Republican voting patterns. Those who vote for Democrats are viewed with considerable suspicion.
Ambiguity has little or no place here. Students are taught and often indoctrinated into a world of clean and textually defended theology. They are told that church members should hear messages based on absolutes and absolutes only.
Sexual/gender divisions are rigid and enforced. Women have special “roles” that are distinct from the roles that men enter into. The fact that some people are born intersexed (with ambiguous genitalia–i.e., they cannot be pronounced “boy or girl” by external examination at birth) is simply ignored. Homosexuality is always a choice, and always evil.
Young earth cosmology dominates. Those who are comfortable with melding insights from science with biblical truths are often accused of not really believing the Bible. This is the world of Ken Hamm and his Creationism Museum.
Again, decisions are already made–it is the job of the church to mold themselves into that pre-determined shape. It is a safe and clean world.
Hermeneutical Choice or Hermeneutical Demand?
I eventually found the infallible/inerrant world to be promoting incredibly dangerous and destructive theology, both personally and for society in general. I wrote this post on why I left evangelicalism, should readers want to know more.
When I began to enter into the world of United Methodism, I discovered, as one close friend put it, that I was a Wesleyan long before I ever read John Wesley. I learned of a grace-infused world that could actually embrace the wide tent that includes both George Bush AND Hilary Clinton. I discovered and engaged in radically life-transforming ministry here.
Personally, I still think there is room both for the traditionalist (or the “orthodox”) and the progressives (or the “heterodox”). But there is room ONLY if the understanding of Scripture as infallible/inerrant is properly surfaced and acknowledged as a hermeneutical choice, not a hermeneutical demand.
The “orthodox” are going to have to explain how they can permit female clergy (extremely clear in the NT that this should not be the case) with culturally conditioned readings and not acknowledge same-sex monogamous partnerships by applying similar culturally conditioned readings.
If we must operate by only one hermeneutical viewpoint, then there will be winners and losers. In that case, only one side can win: the inerrant/infallible ones. Because that camp can’t admit to alternative views or interpretations. And then the Inquisition really does come.
Then this powerful, mysterious, often-crazy and equally as often-transformative United Methodist Church will splinter, not split.