The Original Statement on Biblical AuthorityBefore I mention the current WCA statement on Scripture, it's important to note that it is not their first statement. On August 2 the WCA revised and expanded their Purpose, Goals, and Beliefs page. The fact that this needed to be done less than one month after going public calls into question how firm their beliefs really are. But what did they say initially? The statement on Scripture was very succinct.
“The Bible itself is the sole and final source of all that we believe. It is the inspired and infallible Word of God that speaks with final authority concerning truth, morality, and the proper conduct of humanity.”
As a bumper sticker, this is a great statement. As a theological position it is seriously lacking. Most importantly,
- Stating that the Bible is the sole and final source for all that we believe completely discounts every other source of human knowledge. It means that science, archaeology, etc. can shed no new additional light on our beliefs. It goes leaps and bounds further than the Bible itself does in the often misused 2 Timothy 3:16.
- The United Methodist, and Biblical, view is not that the Bible is the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1). This is not a superficial difference. Scripture points to the Word of God, which is our true final authority.
The Revised StatementTo the authors' credit, the revised statement that now appears is far superior to the original statement. It now reads:
"Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church, we affirm that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3; NRSV). We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which "is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church's primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice."
We can affirm much that is contained here.
- I do not know a United Methodist who would question the Bible as "our authority and trustworthy guide" or that it reveals "the core of the Christian faith." Indeed, the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the group of thirteen organizations working towards inclusiveness, finds their identity in Scripture and the often maligned MFSA states that their effort toward inclusion "is grounded in Scripture."
- As a centrist, I appreciate the phrasing of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture is illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience. They are not four equal but different kinds of authority. This is what I teach at the church I serve.
What is most interesting about the revised Statement on Biblical Authority is that it exists at all. Why is there a need to improve upon the statements on the Bible that are already part of our doctrinal standards? In particular, Article V of the Confession of Faith (page 71, 2012 Book of Discipline) is a beautiful statement:
"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."
This statement recognizes both the unique place and the limitation of Scripture. It recognizes that Scripture is God's word because it points to the Word of God. It reminds us that we rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment. It reminds us that we must remain humble in our views, stating that we are not to hold a belief as essential to salvation that is not articulated in Scripture. It reserves Scripture as speaking to faith and practice and not to history or science.
So why a new statement at all?
Reason for ConcernThe stated reason for a paragraph on Scripture comes in the first clause of the first sentence: "Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church..." In other words, the WCA asserts that the place of the Bible in our faith is being challenged by folks like Love Prevails and MFSA. But, as shown above, there is no serious challenge to "the unique place of the Bible in the church!" Across the theological spectrum what we are finding today is not a question of whether Scripture is authoritative, but how Scripture is authoritative. One way it could be authoritative is that we submit to every word precisely as written in today's translations. Another way it could be authoritative is that we interpret all of Scripture and our very lives through the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. The often cited 2 Timothy 3:16 which is used to state that all Scripture is "God-breathed" can be understood to refer to what we know today as the Bible or, as undoubtedly it originally was intended, restricted to the Old Testament.
So let me say this another way. If the WCA believes the issue is simply that we need to believe that Scripture is authoritative they will not solve anything. First, we could all sign off on that statement. Second, a growing number of otherwise traditional evangelicals are changing their mind about this particular understanding of how Scripture is authoritative. N.T. Wright (who is a traditionalist on human sexuality) says in his fantastic book The Last Word,
"When we take the phrase 'the authority of scripture' out of its suitcase, then, we recognize that it can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture's authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses...The question then becomes: What might we mean by the authority of God, or of Jesus? What role does scripture have within that? Where does the Spirit come into the picture? And, not least, how does this 'authority' actually work? How does it relate, if at all, to the 'authority' of leaders or office-bearers within the church?"
Wright's questions are good ones. They are different questions than the simplistic "do you believe Scripture is authoritative?" Those on the theological left will not be of one mind on the answers to Wright's questions. Neither will those on the theological right. But they are the kinds of questions that we really ought to be asking.
The issue is clearly not whether Scripture is authoritative. The question is, perhaps, how Scripture is authoritative. The only reason for the WCA to give a new statement on the Bible is if, instead of wanting us to view Scripture as the our final authority, they want a particular interpretation of Scripture to be our final authority. In the next and final part you will see an example of how this may be lived out.