Nazarenes, Calvinists, and the Authority of Scripture

Bill Evans head shot

One of my former students who is now in seminary (thanks Josh!) alerted me to an intriguing blog post by Nazarene theologian Thomas Jay Oord entitled “Nazarenes Reject Strict Inerrancy.”  Over the years I’ve had a number of very good friends who were members of the Church of the Nazarene, one of the historic Wesleyan holiness denominations, and I’ve admired their commitment to the transformed life (though I would frame the doctrine of sanctification somewhat differently) and to the evangelistic mission of the church.  In addition, I’ve blogged from time to time about the doctrine of Scripture (e.g., here and here and here and here and here), so this development was of considerable interest to me.

Of course, it is also good for Reformed Christians to be aware of what is going on elsewhere in the Evangelical world, especially when developments in other churches are framed over against “Calvinism,” as is the case in this instance.

Oord describes a recent attempt to modify the denomination’s official statement on the authority of Scripture from “inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation” to “inerrant throughout, and the supreme authority on everything the Scriptures teach.”  A study committee recommended that no such change be made, and this recommendation was accepted by the 28th quadrennial General Assembly that met earlier this year.

On the basis of the committee report Oord develops a distinction between “soteriological inerrancy” and “absolute inerrancy” or “detailed inerrancy.”  The former affirms the full authority of the saving message of the Bible, while the latter, Oord claims, asserts the “complete detailed factual literal accuracy of every part of Scripture.”

Of particular interest to this writer was Oord’s contention in a subsection entitled “Nazarenes, not Calvinists” (and developed more extensively in the committee report) which attributes the “absolute inerrancy” position to a “particular Calvinist tradition.”  Upon closer examination of the report, this particular tradition turns out to be the Old Princeton Seminary of Hodge and Warfield, and Oord and the committee report take considerable pains to distance their “Wesleyan” point of view from this “Calvinism.”

How shall we evaluate this?  We should note, first of all, that Oord presents some legitimate concerns that should be factored into a high view of Scripture that claims the label “evangelical.”  For example, interpretation does matter, and some inerrantists have tended naively to conflate issues of authority and interpretation.   Second, there is the question of how one defines an “error” in Scripture.  It certainly is the case that some inerrantists have expected to find in Scripture an unrealistic level of precision (what John Murray memorably termed “pedantic precision”).  Here we may recall Harold Lindsell’s tortured attempt in his The Battle for the Bible (1976) to reconcile the passion-week accounts in the Gospels by asserting that Peter must have denied Christ six times rather than three!  Finally, there is the purpose for which Scripture was written.  The Bible is intended to infallibly tell us what we need to know about the grand sequence of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, rather than to provide us with a detailed textbook of history or science.

But, it seems to this outside observer, there are also some troubling problems here.  First, this distinction between “soteriological inerrancy” and “absolute inerrancy” will almost inevitably have the practical effect of setting up a soteriological canon-within-a-canon.  While the intention here may be to prevent people from asking impertinent questions of the biblical text, the result will be the bracketing of matters deemed non-soteriological as non-authoritative.  But on what basis are such judgments to be made?  Would it not be better to say that Scripture is fully authoritative in all that it teaches, and then allow the legitimate and faithful interpretive process to sort out what precisely is being taught?

Second, this reduction of the authority of Scripture to matters deemed “soteriological” does not square comfortably with what Jesus himself and the Apostles taught.   Here we recall Jesus’ reference to the very wording of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34-35, along with his accompanying statement that “scripture cannot be broken.”  Here also we recall Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  All this suggests a doctrine of Scripture as comprehensively authoritative in all that it teaches rather than a soteriological reductionism of the sort that Oord advocates.

Third, the “great tradition” of the church has been loath to ascribe errors to Scripture when it is properly understood and interpreted.  Here we recall the words of St. Augustine in his “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean” (XI.5): “If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”  Again, this suggests a view of scriptural authority as comprehensive.

Finally, I do know a bit about the history of Calvinism, and it is pretty clear to me that, in blaming wooden and rationalistic views of inerrancy on Old Princeton, Oord and the report he cites have not gotten the relevant historical theology right.  If inattention to the importance of interpretation and to the human dimension of Scripture is a hallmark of a faulty view of inerrancy, then the charge simply doesn’t stick with respect to Warfield and Old Princeton.  Warfield and his colleagues readily conceded that the biblical writers could use the limited conventional and phenomenological language and ideas of their day in order to teach infallible divine truth.  Witness this extended passage from the well-known 1881 article on “Inspiration” by B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge:

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scripture, any more than their authors, are omniscient.  The information they convey is in the form of human thought, and limited on all sides.  They were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or human history as such.  They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology.  They are written in human languages, whose words, inflection, constructions, and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error.  The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.   Nevertheless, the historical faith of the church has always been that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained in their natural and intended sense.  There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed.

It is precisely for these reasons that the Old Princeton theologians were such careful interpreters of the Bible and why, for example, they did not obsess over issues such as literal six-day creationism.  Their hermeneutic was sophisticated enough to deal with such matters in a productive fashion.

To be sure, there are many contemporary evangelicals and even some Reformed thinkers who do evince inadequate views of inerrancy. The common denominator here seems to be a tendency to minimize the human dimension of Scripture so as to exalt the divine, and, by extension, to depreciate the importance of interpretation in light of the human historical, cultural, and religious context.  For example, one such individual recently wrote:

Doesn’t the Reformed doctrine of inspiration hold that the omnicompetent Spirit, who searches the unfathomable depths of God’s omniscience (1 Cor 2:10), is the determinative agent who has issued the written text of Scripture down to its very words? And as the “Spirit of truth” (John 16:30), did He not guide the biblical writers into all truth—indeed, could He do any other thing—barring any speck of error that might have otherwise intruded into the text of holy Scripture on account of the writers’ biases, confusion, ignorance, weaknesses, and, yes, exposure to faulty cosmologies? As I see it, Christians are obligated to receive the cosmology of Genesis in every detail as the inviolable truth that trumps any competing scientific claim and rebukes every pagan worldview because, as the Divines put it, it is the Word of God.

If such thinking did not emanate from Old Princeton, where did it come from?  A decade ago my good friend Ken Stewart at Covenant College wrote an important article in which he identified the nineteenth-century Swiss theologian Louis Gaussen’s book Theopneustia (French: 1840; ET: 1841, and frequently reprinted since) as a key influence in the rise of fundamentalist views Scripture and inspiration.  According to Stewart, Gaussen presented a view of inspiration that was “monergistic” (focused entirely upon divine agency), “oracular” (in that the mode of prophetic inspiration was the norm for all of Scripture),  “deductive” (rather than inductively focusing on the phenomena of Scripture itself), and “tending to rationalism” (in that Gaussen placed great stress on being able to solve alleged Bible “difficulties”).   Though, as George Marsden and others have demonstrated, the nineteenth and twentieth-century rise of popular fundamentalist views of Scripture is a complex issue, Stewart has undoubtedly identified a key influence in their development.