The Authority of the Holy Scriptures:
Reflections from the United Methodist Perspective
By: Rev. Gregory S. Neal
What constitutes the paramount authority for the church of Jesus Christ? By what standard and in whose teachings are Christians to live their lives, base their faith, and ground their hope? This is, without a doubt, a fundamental question for- the Christian church.
The question of scriptural authority relative to human experiences, traditions, and reason is alive and well in most Christian communities today. It is a question peculiar to the twentieth century western mind, which seeks authority in sources other than the revealed word. It is a problem which was posed by the enlightenment, fueled by biblical criticism, and exacerbated by speculative latitudinarianism.
Some denominations have decided to address the problem of authority by ignoring it. Instead of coming to terms with biblical criticism and what it reveals about scripture, some Christians prefer to make fiat proclamations as to the literal inerrancy of the Bible. Others have addressed the question by turning to biblical criticism and systematic theology in an attempt to come to grips with the nature of the Bible and the doctrines of the faith relative to the needs of the Church in the twentieth century. This is, in part, what The United Methodist Church has done in the formulation of the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral."
Regardless of how one views the "quadrilateral," and opinions vary widely, it cannot be doubted that its formulation has launched something of a crisis in Wesleyan theology. The church needed to reinterpret its vast theological heritage so that a world, which didn't share its presuppositions, could understand and be addressed by that heritage. It did so by developing a conceptual grid for biblical, theological, and ethical interpretation which included the historical traditions, experiential insights, and rational perspectives which span the gap between the biblical and the western world. The problem with the quadrilateral is not in its intention, but in its ambiguity toward the authority of the Scriptures. Is Scripture to be understood as the primary authority for Christian theological discourse, or may tradition, experience, and reason serve as well? Both positions, and a spectrum of perspectives spanning the two, have been proposed. Because of this functional deformation, the "quadrilateral" has been rejected by many as being destructive to the authority of the Scriptures. The purpose in this paper is not to defend the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral," for it needs no defense when understood correctly. Rather, my purpose is to assert that the Holy Scriptures must be recognized and affirmed as our primary authority if the church's theological discourse is going to be, to any degree, "Christian."
The question of authority, its source and scope, is not new to the church of Jesus Christ. During the time of the Apostles the authority was, unquestionably, with "The Twelve" and, like St. Paul, with those whom the risen Christ had commissioned. They comprised the "living witness" which could attest to the truth of the Gospel message. Following their death, however , the source of authority shifted from the individuals to the oral traditions themselves and, finally, to the many Acts, Gospels, and Letters which the apostles were believed to have written. These written sources were distributed throughout the Churches of the late first and early second century. With time, however, these writings --beginning with the letters of St. Paul -- were collected into a "Canon" of Scripture, the "New Testament," which, along with the Jewish Scriptures, eventually became the primary authority for the church in matters of faith and practice.
The composition of the Canon was not easily, nor quickly, fixed. It developed in relation to the events and movements of the day, most importantly Gnosticism and Marcionite Christianity. Both groups used the sacred writings of the church, but in ways which gave the rest of the church great difficulty. Indeed, Marcionite Christianity even had its own Canon of scripture, comprised of an edited edition of the Gospel of St. Luke and a collection of St. Paul's letters. The appeal of this Canon, and of the collected writings used by the gnostics, was powerful. The use to which Marcionite Christians put Paul's letters, however, went far beyond the bounds of acceptable interpretation. To correct the situation, the early "catholic" Church compiled a Canon which included not only the writings of St. Paul, but also the catholic epistles, the four Gospels, and, after much haggling, even an Apocalypse. These writings, when understood together, functioned as the primary authority for the Church.
Irenaeus was the first to establish that, in addition to the Canon of Holy Scripture, a creed and an apostolic episcopacy were required for the Church to be considered "Orthodox." The creed represented the theological debate on the the apostolic tradition as it had developed in the post-apostolic era. Indeed, in many respects the creed can be understood as a "shorthand" form of theological interpretation on the Gospel. The apostolic faith, as expressed in the Scriptures and the creed, needed an apostolic episcopacy to ensure it's proper transmission, and thus the authority of the bishop -- which developed from the authority of the original apostles -- was established as a safeguard for the faith. Both served, in many respects, as "tools" which ensured that the Holy Scriptures would be "rightly" interpreted; in essence they, with scripture, were early catholic Christianity's "Trilateral." The authority of the Holy Word was beyond dispute, but that Word and that authority did not speak for itself -- it required interpretation.
That the Holy Scriptures were to be the authority for the Christian community was finally, and firmly, established by St. Athanasius in his thirty-ninth festal letter of 367 AD. Following his list of the New Testament writings, a list which is constituently identical to the contents of the New Testament as it survives to this day, he writes:
"In these alone is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as good news." Here we find an affirmation of the particularity of the Holy Scriptures for the faith of the church. The church will find the Gospel message in the Scriptures which are the "springs of salvation, " and not in any other source . The creed may help in interpretation, and the Bishop may aid in the "true" communication of the gospel message, but they are -- to borrow a word from the modern debate -- contextualized relative to the living community. The Scriptures, therefore, are the church's final authority.
These are the "springs of salvation," so that one who is thirsty may be satisfied with the oracles which are in them. In these a lone is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as good news. Let no one add to these or take anything from them. (Bruce: pp. 209)
This is the position of the majority of the Christian church from the earliest centuries of the first millennium on through today. It is the heritage of the churches which come out of the Protestant reformation, as well as of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. This is traditional "Orthodoxy;" it looks to the Holy Scriptures to be exactly that: the Holy Word of God. Unfortunately, in this modern age it is not a position which is free from assault.
THE MODERN DILEMMA
The two groups which are traditionally (most often) accused of challenging the authority of the Scriptures are the liberal biblical critics and what I have termed the "social libertarians." They are sometimes linked together by person and methodology, but their fundamental reasons for challenging Scriptural authority often differ. Since issues of sexual freedom are in the forefront today, and for various other reasons, I will address the social libertarians first.
Social libertarians, whom some might also call "moral latitudinarians," can be understood as choosing either to ignore or to reinterpret the Scriptures so as to suit certain stated (or, sometimes, unstated) agenda. While still maintaining that the Scriptures are, in some way, important for the community of the faith, oftentimes they are not willing to assign the biblical text the status of primary (or even secondary) authority. Rather than seating authority within the Canon, they tend locate it within a dynamic mix of individual experience and ethical principle. Essentially, this is what Dale Martin has done when he states that the Bible should not be taken as an authority for Christian life and that, in its place, the "superior" arbiter of "radical love" should be substituted. The problem with the Scriptures is that they are trapped in their original context -- as trapped as modern people are in their contexts. Since both scripture and modern culture are contextualized apart, they are almost totally incapable of addressing each other. In other words, the Scriptures are found to be irrelevant to most of the issues which face the twentieth century world. The alternative, posed by Martin and others, is that of turning to an ethical principle of Jesus which has been established through historical/literary-critical means: "radical love." "Radical love" is to be applied, instead of the particulars of the Scriptures, to chart the proper course of action for the church relative to the problems and issues with which it is faced. (Friday Lecture Series: Dale Martin and Richard Hayes: November 15, 1990 , York Chapel, Duke Divinity School)
An alternative to this radical approach has been posed by John Shelby Spong, Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Spong questions the authority of the Scriptures on similar grounds as does Martin but, nevertheless, still wants to locate a kind of authority within them. They are important, but no more so that the needs and the vision of the living community. His argument revolves around the concept of apostolicity as a grounds for authority, and the lack thereof relative to most of the New Testament.
While less radical than Martin's, Bishop Spong's view is not any more affirming of the authority of the Scriptures. Quite the contrary, Bishop Spong seats the authority of the Scriptures within the covenant community which both wrote and canonized them. If the community is the seat of the authority, then the community is not bound to the letter of the Scriptural text. In other words, if the text doesn't speak to the community in a way which allows the community to do as its needs incline, it is the prerogative of the community to rewrite the Scriptures, reinterpret the Scriptures, or, even, ignore the Scriptures. One paragraph from Spong's book Living in Sin? should suffice to illustrate the radical power of the community over the identity and relevance of the Scriptures:
Is the authority of the Scripture in the person of the author or in the community that assigns authority to its sacred story? Early Christians assumed the former. That is why they claimed apostolic authorship for post-apostolic works. Since we know these books not to be apostolic, their argument will not suffice today. If the authority is in the community, then the right to change, revise, and render inoperative various parts of the Scripture must also be vested in the community. (Spong: Living in Sin?, p. 107)
The saving grace (such as there is) in Spong's statement is that he believes that there is, indeed, a spirit behind the letter of the Holy word --i n some respects, that there is a "Canon within a canon" present in the Scriptures, and that all one must do is carefully search it out so that the Bible may remain relevant to the problems and issues which face the living church. This is an affirmation of authority, but it is authority contextualized by the needs of the current community, and not an authority which finds its source in the event which founded and began that community. Because of this Spong's position, like Martin's, should be understood as challenging the authority Scripture.
If the Bible has nothing more than the letter of literalism to offer to our understanding of human sexuality today, then I must say that I stand ready to reject the Bible in favor of something that is more human, more humane, more life giving, and, dare I say, more godlike. I do believe, however, that there is a spirit beneath the letter that brings the Bible forward in time with integrity . . . . Without it the Bible will not be for our times a source of life or a guide in the area of sexual ethics. (Spong: p. 133)
Biblical criticism and, more specifically the historical-critical method is usually charged with being destructive to the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This charge tends to be brought by those who lean towards a more literal, or inerrant, understanding of the Scriptures, but it is not unknown among those who simply hold to a more conservative understanding of inspiration. Indeed, during recent years it has become not uncommon to hear criticism coming from within the academic community itself. Even among some of the best known and well respected "High Powered Scholars," there is a growing sense of unease with the way in which the Historical-Critical method has been championed as the be-all/end-all of biblical interpretation. We shall look at a few affirming positions, as well as at a few detractors, before drawing our conclusions.
The clearest, and most affirming definition of the historical-critical method in print today might very well be Dr. James Efird's insightful statement on the subject in his book How to Interpret The Bible:
The nature of this method for interpreting the scriptures is, itself, the question. As a tool of the academic community, it is free from the controls of ecclesiastical authorities--indeed, it must be free from direct control if it is to work at all. As Edgar Krentz said in his handbook on This Historical Critical Method,
The historical-critical method is the keystone of modern academic study of the Bible. This approach subjects the biblical materials to the same kinds of searching analysis applied with the same method and vigor which are used on any other document of the past. The task of this endeavor is to discover as best one can the "who, what, where, when, and why?" of these ancient writings. (Who wrote what? where? when? why? to whom?) The obvious strength of such an approach rests in its emphasis on uncovering and discovering the original setting and original meaning of these documents. (Efird,10)
Biblical scholarship has been carried out for the sake of scholarship and not, as has been argued by some, for a faithful interpretation of the Bible. Much of the critical scholarship has developed, as Dr. Efird has recognized, without an adequate understanding of the Scriptures as the "products of a faith community for a faith community" (Efird, 11). Being free from the controls of official ecclesial bodies is not the question here; being accountable to (or at least cognizant of) the community's tradition, calling, and vision is the question, and it needs to be addressed. According to Efird and Krentz, the identity of the biblical books must be taken into account, before any real historical-critical exegesis can be done. After all, these writings were the products of the community of the faith and for the community of the faith. This identity, and the consequences of any interpretation, is at the heart of the growing discomfort over the unbridled use of historical-criticism.
The introduction of historical criticism constituted "the most serious test that the church has had to face through nineteen centuries" about the nature of authority. The method tends to freedom from authority and criticism of tradition. It treats biblical material in a different manner than theological thought had done for centuries, and in the process questions the validity of theological method. In the past the study of the Bible had been carried on in the church or in university faculties that prepared men for ordination. Today such study is more and more being done in university department of religion that are in no way related to the church. (Krentz, 4)
Of course, disaffection with the historical-critical method is not limited to those in the biblical-interpretive fields. Indeed, the greater body of criticism can be found coming from those who have only a passing familiarity with the methodology. This is true, even of certain members of various theological faculties today. Among the most respected of these detractors is David Steinmetz, whose reputation as a Church Historian and an authority in Reformation Theology, is beyond reproach. He, however, stands in stark opposition to the historical-critical method as the only dominant form of biblical interpretation in the church. His scathing remarks on biblical criticism are found in his article, "The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis," in which he outlines the critical program, as it was begun by Benjamin Jowett, and then proceeds to tear it apart. Jowett states:
Still, if a proper understanding of the Scriptures as the church's book is maintained, then the historical-critical tools are, according to both Krentz and Efird, the best available for uncovering the original meaning of the texts in their contexts. And this very search, according to Efird, appears to be the one absolutely essential element in proper biblical interpretation" (Efird: 13).
Put another way, since there is only one meaning in the biblical texts, all other forms of Scriptural interpretation are to be rejected as inadequate. Steinmetz resoundingly rejects this exclusive understanding of scriptural interpretation, opting for the pre-critical "fourfold sense of Scripture" as the superior hermeneutical device.
Scripture has one meaning -- the meaning which it had in the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it. (Steinmetz: Memory and Mission, p. 143)
In addition to the literal sense of the text, there were three other senses which could be used to determine the meaning of any text. The allegorical sense pointed towards what the church should believe; the tropological sense highlighted what individuals should do; the analogical sense directed one towards the future hope of the church. All three worked in tandem with the literal sense, and would only be resorted to if the literal sense resulted in non-sense.
Medieval theologians defended the proposition, so alien to modern biblical studies, that the meaning of Scripture in the mind of the prophet who first uttered it is only one of its possible meanings and may not, in certain circumstances, even be its primary or most important meaning. (Steinmetz- 143)
It should be noted that Steinmetz does not totally reject the historical-critical method of interpretation. Even when stating, quite clearly, that the single-minded approach is "wrong," he still agrees that the text's original meaning is, nevertheless, at least one of the possible meanings.
Hence, it is in the dynamic interrelationship between the biblical text and the community of faith that the other senses of the text find their authorization. The problem with this multiple-sense understanding of Scripture is that the application of the text is, consequently, guided and determined by the contextual situation of the community receiving the Word. This is not, necessarily, an inappropriate situation, In the case of the church, it is the living community of the faithful, in continuity with the community which originated both itself and the biblical text, that is the controlling factor.
The text is not all letter, as Jowett and others maintained. . . The original text as spoken and heard limits a field of possible meanings. Those possible meanings are not dragged by the hair, willy-nilly, into the text, but belong to the life of the Bible in the encounter between author and reader as they belong to the life of any act of the human imagination. (Steinmetz: 162).
This reality cannot be avoided; it is, in fact, part of the problem of both authority and application. But the difficulty in making the transition between the text and the hearing-community can be better mediated if the historical-critical work is done first, and the original meaning, within its context, is established.
Even Steinmetz, with his harsh outlook on biblical-critical methodology, does not look upon the historical-critical approach as challenging the fundamental authority of the Scriptures. At its worst, the historical-critical method might undervalue the nature of the Scriptures as it limits the full field of meanings to be found within the Scriptures, but at least the historical-critical method addresses the text.
If historians like Steinmetz, and respected biblical scholars like Krentz and Efird, can find reasons to modify certain aspects of the historical-critical method, then those in the ultra-conservative and literalist camps wish to do away with biblical criticism all-together. Their view is not uncommon among the laity of most denominations, and even clergy are being converted to their near-to-total rejection of the historical-critical tools. Their argument is an old one, and is best typified by J. Gresham Machen. They view the historical-critical method as simply a means of placing human "programs" ahead of the Scriptural "program," which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Machen's polemic against the "search for the historical Jesus" is an excellent instance of the conservative mistrust of critical methodology, which is viewed as establishing non-scriptural authorities for the Christian faith.
According to Machen, God was the author of the whole of scripture, and only the literal meaning of the text is the correct one. No interpretation, therefore, is truly needed: the text means what it says.
The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus. Even if he did so, indeed, he would still be impoverishingly greatly his knowledge of God and the way of salvation. The words of Jesus, spoken during His earthly ministry, could hardly contain all that we need to know about God and about the way of salvation . . . . The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas . . . . But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central "life-purpose" is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church . . . . The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life-purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus -- isolated and misinterpreted -- which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus' recorded teaching has been made. (Machen: pp. 26-28)
In my opinion, Scriptural Inerrantists make up a third challenge to the authority of the Holy Scriptures. By setting up a book as the WORD of God, they deny the reality of the authority of the very same Scripture. There is only one Word of God: Christ Jesus, the divine Logos. Scriptural Inerrantists are not worshiping God, but a book: the Bible.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES
In what are we to ground the authority of the Holy Scriptures? The literal inerrancy of each word of the Bible? A few selected teachings of Jesus, which make up a kind of liberal version of the "Canon within a Canon?" The living community of the faith? If the church of Jesus Christ is going to be faithful to its heritage, as well as to the current situation, it is first going to have to make a decision as to how to ground its own authority. Each of the three suggested locations have something of an appeal to them, but in their entirety each fails to provide an adequate solution to the problem.
The first one makes life easy -- at least on the surface. The Bible is the "Inerrant Word of God," leaving no ambiguity, no need for doubt, and no room for debate or alternative interpretation. Everything one needs to know in order to live a Christian life is written, in black-and-white, on the pages of the Bible. The Bible is the first and last arbiter, the sole source for ethical discourse, and the final authority on all subjects from philosophy and history to science and cosmology. The Bible is literally true, both in spirit and, most especially, in word. Biblical inerrancy, however, ignores the greater body of evidence that the Bible is not literally inerrant but, rather, is a collection of documents written by people in living communion with each other, as well as with the God of Jesus Christ.
The second possibility is attractive because it calls us to look at the life of Christ in a way which makes it, and his teachings, normative for the Christian community. Operative here is an in-depth "search for the historical Jesus," in which the Biblical account is sifted so as to determine the particulars of the historical life and teachings of the Rabbi from Nazareth. His teachings, and his way of life, are then systematized so that they might serve as a norm for constructing an ethic for Christian life. This forces the church to take what the Scriptures say seriously, and even if its teachings are, on the whole, rejected, at least some reference to the early church's reflection on Christ has been made. The problem here is that, quite often what is determined to be "authentic" of the historical Jesus is then lifted up as all that is needed. The reflection of the early church on the sayings of Jesus, and on the original disciples theological interpretation of these sayings, is very often totally disregarded. Authority is not, therefore, seated in the early Christian community but, rather, in the modern critical community's rational ability to determine what is true and what is theological accretion.
The third possibility is appealing because it provides much latitude for belief and practice. Individual experience is the final arbiter of what is to be the Christian stance on an issue. Reference to the Bible and the churches tradition may be made, but if it conflicts with the experiential truth of the living community it must be rejected in favor of the more relevant witness of life. This is, of course, faulty at the very point of its inception: who is to say that the current community's needs, thoughts, and goals are more appropriate than those of the community which first experienced Christ--indeed, the very community which served as the basis upon which the New Testament was written and eventually compiled?
The question of authority is not an easy one, nor should the location of authority be understood as definable within neat boundaries. Quite the contrary, what I propose is that a dynamic interrelationship between the original community of the faithful and the living community of the faithful be established which would allow for both authority and its interpretation to be carried out within the locus of the Holy Scriptures.
The early church remembered Jesus. During the time of St. Paul there were many Christians who could remember both the pre-crucifixion Jesus and the risen Lord, and this situation lingered for many decades. This experience of the church -- an experience of God, breaking in on time -- was what formed the church. Indeed, this experience of God in Christ resulted in such a powerful and enduring change in the lives of the early Christians that its memory could not be wiped away by time or oppression. It resonated on, in their preaching and teaching, living and dying, to the second and third generations and, eventually, on to today. But, by the end of the second generation most of what is now within the New Testament had been written. In these writings we find a mixture of the oral tradition, the theological reflection, and the historical situation of the early church. This is the record of those who either knew Jesus, or were in close temporal contact with those who did. This is their account of both the event which created them and their reaction to that event. As such, the scriptures are the creation of the community as well as of the event itself. And it is this situation: this event, this community, and their experience, which is the basis for the authority of the Scriptures.
Bishop Spong, oddly enough, is correct when he locates the authority of the Holy Scriptures within the covenant community which both wrote and canonized them. He is wrong, however, when he then assumes that the current church has the same rights and privileges over the documents of the New Testament as had the early church. His error lies in the fact that the living church, today, is not the first century church -- it does not have the same inherent authority when it comes to establishing the content of scripture as did the early church, for the early church's authority is seated in their particular experience of God in Jesus Christ. There is no way that the living church can experience the Christ event in the same fashion, and to the same degree, as did the early church. And it is their experience of, and participation in, the "Christ event" which serves as the seat of authority in the early church. They had the responsibility of communicating and reflecting upon that event, and the content of the New Testament is the result, but they were no more at liberty to reject the event than is the current church.
It is often disappointing to discover that one's own theories and interpretations, which have been painstakingly fashioned over years, are not new. This is the situation in which this author has found himself since reading the late John Knox's Criticism and Faith. In it, professor Knox basically lays out the entire argument as formulated above in a few succinct sentences:
This understanding does not deny the ongoing experience of Christ in the living church; quite the contrary, it affirms the concept, but in doing so it also provides some much-needed controls on the nature of those on-going experiences. Essentially, any modern experience of Christ must be consistent with the biblical witness, which is our only sure point of contact with the known, historical event which brought the church into being.
The authority for the Christian, then, is the authority of the event, for our knowledge of which in its initial impact we are dependent upon the experience of the primitive community which it called into being. But we are put in direct touch with this experience only in and through the documents which that community produced .... [The Bible] is less than the Church because it grew out of the life of the Church and has meaning only within the context which that life still provides . . . . it is greater than the Church because it brings us the only record we have of the event through which the community was brought into being and therefore provides the only means for its constant renewal. This is the ground for the Bible's authority. And it is a ground undeniable, empirically verified, which no literary or historical criticism can shake...(Knox, p. 63)
The problem with the positions articulated by both Spong and Martin is that they deny the Scriptures the very normative identity which allows them to communicate the early church's experience today. In these cases, the on-going experience of life is so powerful that it overrides, or absorbs, the Scriptures, making them the servant of the living community's needs and programs.
This second danger is the trap into which fall the ultra-conservatives, inerrantist, and especially the KJV-Only supporter. They shift their focus away from the event and to the document(s) which convey the event to us. The Bible goes from "containing" the Word of God to being the literal, "Preserved, Inerrant Word of God."
When the church thus neglects or rejects the Bible, it separates itself from the historical event which brought it into being and must always be the historical source and norm of its reality as the church. But, on the other hand, when it sets up the Bible as being itself this source and norm, it separates itself from the event equally effectively, although in a different way. In both cases the event is ignored or obscured. (Knox, p. 64-65)
The best way to avoid both pitfalls, it seems to me, is to uncover the original meaning of that event for the original community. And, to do this, the most effective tool available to the church is the historical critical method.
THE POSITION OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH:
Near the front of the 1988 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, within a list of the "Basic Christian Affirmations," can be found the following statement: "We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith...." (p. 43) This position is based upon and maintained by the two Articles in the two Confessions of Faith to be found in the Doctrinal Standards of The United Methodist Church.
The Articles of Religion, given to the Methodist Episcopal Church by its founder, the Reverend Fr. John Wesley, state the "official" position of the Church on the subject of the Authority of the scriptures.
The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which united with the Methodist Church in 1964 to form The United Methodist Church, provides a parallel statement on the nature of the scriptures.
ARTICLE V.--OF THE SUFFICIENCY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES FOR SALVATION: The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church . . . . (Book of Discipline, 1988, pp. 61-62)
In these two articles of faith, each taken from the two main theological streams which form the current UMC, we can see that United Methodists state that they believe in and look to the Holy Scriptures as being authoritative for Christian life, faith, and practice. This is a fundamental point which must be understood before we can proceed any further. It is the official position of the United Methodist Church that the scriptures are the primary authority; and we know they are primary because it is clearly stated that anything not contained within them cannot be required for salvation. This status is given to no other source of authority in the Church; only Scripture can be claimed to be mandatory for the faith, and as such it must be understood as primary.
ARTICLE IV.--THE HOLY BIBLE: 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. (ibid., p. 69)
Why, then, the argument over the position of the Holy Scriptures in the theological discourse of The United Methodist Church? Why has the "Quadrilateral" been understood to say that Scripture is not primary and that, indeed, tradition, experience, and reason may serve a primary role? In the 1984 Book of Discipline, in the section which gives guidelines on how theological dialogue is to be carried out, there is, indeed, a tenuous affirmation of the primacy of Scripture, but what the Discipline giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other:
This "guideline" for the task of theological reflection runs the risk of placing scripture in a subordinate position. If we are to understand that theological issues can come to the fore through the fields of scripture, tradition, experience, and/or reason, then we have no problem. If, however, we are stating that tradition, experience, or reason may serve as our authority in reaching theological conclusions, then what we have is a mess. This problem was recognized and, in the 1988 Book of Discipline, major changes were made to the formulation of the "Quadrilateral" and how it was to be used. No longer is there any ambiguity on the nature of scripture, or in the way the other three parts of the "Quadrilateral" were to be employed.
There is a primacy that goes with Scripture, as the constitutive witness to biblical wellsprings of our faith. In practice, however, theological reflection may find its point of departure in tradition, "experience," or rational analysis. What matters most is that all four guidelines be brought to bear upon every doctrinal consideration. Insights arising from serious study of the Scriptures and tradition enrich contemporary experience of existence. Imaginative and critical thought enables us to understand better the Bible and our common Christian history. (Book of Discipline, 1984, p. 81)
It is important to note that Scripture is "primary," that tradition is authoritative only to the degree in which it is "faithful" to the biblical witness, and that experience and reason are the "lived" aspect of Scripture and tradition; experience is not detached from the Holy Scriptures, but must be directly related to them. In its essence,
Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God "so far as it is necessary for our salvation." Therefore, our theological task, in both its critical and constructive aspects, focuses on disciplined study of the Bible . . . . tradition provides both a source and a measure of authentic Christian witness, though its authority derives from its faithfulness to the biblical message. The Christian witness, even when grounded in Scripture and mediated by tradition, is ineffectual unless understood and appropriated by the individual. To become our witness, it must make sense in terms of our own reason and experience. (Book of Discipline, 1938, pp. 80-81)
Hence, the problem is, at least in part, solved. How we are to interpret the scriptures is still left open for debate, but the fact that they must be dealt with is without question. Thomas Langford's commentary on the 1988 Theological Guidelines is worth quoting here:
Scripture, as the constitutive witness to the wellsprings of our faith, occupies a place of primary authority among these [the other three] theological sources. (ibid,)
And this is where The United Methodist Church officially stands on the subject of the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This does not mean, however, that all theologians and biblical scholars pay any (or much) attention to this position.
To affirm the primacy of Scripture is significant, for such an affirmation makes the use and interpretation of Scripture our basic responsibility. Such primacy is expressed in the church's worship and ministry. This affirmation means that however Scripture is interpreted it must be in terms of its uniquely basic position in the quadrilateral andin ways which maintain its base position in ordering life and in theological activity. (Langford: Doctrine and Theology in the United Methodist Church, pp. 235-236)
Victor Paul Furnish is clear in his affirmation that the Bible is the "necessary starting place for the church's reflection on its faith and witness. . . "(Understanding Homosexuality in the Bible's Cultural Particularity" [Circuit Rider, Dec 1991.-Jan 1992]). He then proceeds to demonstrate that, in the case of homosexuality, the Scriptures really say nothing of any practical relevance to today's situation.
Hence, since these are proven to be true, and since the Scriptures view homosexual activities as a matter of choice and not orientation, the negative biblical references to homosexual activities must therefore be disregarded. This is an over-simplification of Furnish's argument, but it is fundamentally true to his position. If Scripture had viewed sexual activities as matters of orientation, then its positions would be relevant, but since it does not understand sexual practice in that manner, "they cannot teach us exactly what we need to know and do in our day" (ibid).
One needs to realize that the ancient world had no conception of either "heterosexuality" or "homosexuality" as distinct orientations. A person's sexual practices were presumed to be chosen ad hoc, freely and deliberately. There was not the slightest notion that sexuality might be constitutional, or that social or psychological factors might play a role in shaping one's sexual identity. (ibid)
A couple of remarks, if I may: firstly, Furnish appears to be disregarding Scripture, opting for a primacy in science and experience and not in the biblical witness. Secondly, does not the current debate address the practice of homosexual acts, and not the question of homosexual orientation? The debate has, at least thus far, focused on the ordination of practicing homosexuals, not on the ordination of non-practicing homosexuals (who are still theoretically ordainable in The United Methodist Church). The current question is, therefore, not orientation but practice. Furnish's address to question of homosexual orientation, rather than to homosexual practice, misses the point.
All of this being said, we are finally left to ask the following question: does the Scriptural witness against Homosexual practice reflect an absolute standard for the Church today, or are we free to discard it along with so many of the other standards and regulations to be found in the Old and New Testaments? Does the experience of the early church touch upon this issue, or is this issue reflective of the early church's culturally conditioned bias? These questions relate directly to the question of the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and they are issues that need to be settled before The United Methodist Church can move on. It is my opinion that we should set these regulations aside. As we have turned away from bigotry regarding women in ministry, so-also we should turn away from judging people based upon whom they love and, instead, focus upon the one who loves us — Jesus Christ.
The authority for the Holy Scriptures is located in the community which first experienced God, breaking into history in Jesus Christ. More specifically, it is the experience of that event in which the authority of the Scriptures grounded. The early community didn't just report the event, however; they experienced the event, it changed their lives, and the New Testament Scriptures chronicle both the event and the change, and how the changed community then looked back upon the event itself. What we have in the New Testament is a series of layered meanings, all of which must be retrieved before any real interpretation can take place.
The first stage in exegesis, therefore, is that of determining what the texts originally meant to the community that both wrote and received them. Contrary to popular literary theory, the texts did have a meaning at the time of the authorship , and they certainly did not loose that identity when they were exported from their original language and culture. Still, it is difficult to get through the layers of modernity and so the historical critical method is extremely helpful in establishing what was originally meant.
The Book of Discipline 1984 Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1984.
The Book of Discipline 1988 Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1988.
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1988.
Efird, James M. How to Interpret The Bible. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984.
Furnish, Victor Paul "Understanding Homosexuality in the Bible's Cultural Particularity." To be published in: Circuit Rider. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, December/January 1991/92, pp. unknown)
Knox, John Criticism and Faith. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952.
Knox, John The Early Church and the Coming Great Church. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.
Krentz, Edgar The Historical-Critical Method. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Langford, Thomas A. (ed) Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.
Machen, J. Gresham Christianity and Liberalism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1923/1977.
Martin, Dale and Hayes, Richard. Friday Lecture Series, November 15, 1990 , York Chapel, Duke Divinity School.
Spong, John Shelby Living in Sin? San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.
Steinmetz, David C. "The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis." Memory and Mission. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988.
Tyson, Joseph B. The New Testament and Early Christianity. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1984.
© 1991 Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.