Commentary: Yes it’s time – time to decide who we are and what we believe

ArnoldCommentary-01

By Bill T. Arnold*

When the Methodist movement became a denomination, our forebears adopted the Anglican Church’s Articles of Religion in nearly every respect. With regard to Scripture, we inherited the statement that the Bible “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” Going back to the sixteenth century, this was the statement of the English reformers affirming the sufficiency of Scripture for one’s salvation. By saying it this way, they were also denying that “sacred tradition” in Catholic doctrine should be taken together with Scripture, on an equal basis, as though both together formed one sacred deposit of the Word of God for the Church. While tradition was highly valued by our Anglican precursors, it was nevertheless considered secondary to Scripture.

As a branch of Anglicanism, we Methodists have never been truly at home with a concept of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) if this idea is understood as rejecting all authorities other than the Bible. But neither have we been clear about our alternative, prima scriptura (“Scripture above all/first”). This is what I think we mean when we say Wesley “believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture,” and that the other three sources for theology – tradition, reason, and experience – merely illuminate, confirm, and vivify that living core (2012 Book of Discipline, p. 80).

Scripture isn’t simply first among equals. The Bible is the active means of grace in which God reveals the living core of faith, and it therefore stands above the rest. Tradition, reason, and experience are measures of authentic Christian witness. Their authority derives from their faithfulness to the biblical message (2012 Book of Discipline, p. 81). This critical moment in our church’s history is the time to clarify these points.

Methodism grew into a social force during the nineteenth century like few others in early American history. But nineteenth-century liberalism also took root, along with a particular brand of biblical hermeneutics (the practice of interpretation). This liberal Protestantism interpreted Scripture through the lenses of contemporary human sensibilities and Idealism with its belief in an ever-upward human progression. The concept of divine inspiration was redefined. The Bible was interpreted historically so that it became a witness to God’s saving acts in the past rather than an active and living word.

Then, as nineteenth-century liberalism began to wind down like a worn out clock, the twentieth century brought Neo-Orthodoxy as the answer. There were certain attractive features in Neo-Orthodoxy, most notably a return to the idea that God is active in faithful, Christian preaching. And yet the concepts of inspiration and revelation were inadequately defined, leaving some to take portions of the Bible as sub-Christian, or even anti-Christian. Neo-orthodoxy was driven, in part, by an existential principle, the idea that the Bible contains a special history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte). The Bible reports the fact that divine revelation has occurred in the past, said neo-orthodoxy, not that the Bible is itself that revelation. Reading the Bible, therefore, brings the possibility and hope that believers will experience revelation again. From a human standpoint, reading the Bible existentially will (hopefully) lead to new revelations of God.

But then, Neo-Orthodoxy proved untenable, and by the 1960s was left behind for – wait for it – the worn-out ideals of nineteenth-century liberalism. Again.

At times in our church’s history, we have leaned into and sometimes fallen victim, to Protestant Liberalism or Neo-Orthodoxy. Both of these offered attractive features, and both have enriched our tradition in certain ways. At other times, we have been too much influenced by a Reformed or Calvinistic brand of Evangelicalism. Along the way, we failed to give attention to the rich theological resources of our grand tradition, which rooted us in a decidedly anglo-catholic Wesleyanism that once made us distinctive and effective.

Leading up to General Conference 2016 in Portland, we heard a lot from those who want to change our position on human sexuality. Especially the motto “It’s time” was used to argue that, after forty years, it’s time to change.

I agree; it’s time. But I think this moment in our history is the time for United Methodism to decide who we are and what we believe. We are beating each other up over the proper response to same-sex practices. But as we all know and is often remarked, this is only the symptom. We have a much bigger and more complex question before us: what do we think is true about the Bible? When we argue that the Bible has three categories of texts (like “buckets”), we sound Neo-Orthodox. When we argue that the Bible is a witness to revelations of the past, we reflect outmoded liberal values and reading strategies. When we use simplistic proof-texts on either side of our debates, we sound like fundamentalists.

It’s time to decide. Is the Bible the revelation of the living core of the Christian faith? Is it primary among other sources, illumined in tradition, confirmed in reason, and vivified in Christian experience?

Will we United Methodists be liberal Protestants? Will we be neo-orthodox existentialists? Reformed Evangelicals? Or better, will we be anglo-catholic Wesleyans? That last option is the sweet spot of our tradition. Rooted deep in our heritage is the conviction that scripture is primary. It holds a privileged position among other sources in the theological task. While we do not minimize the contributions of tradition, reason, and experience, we would do well to remember that these are confirming, secondary sources. They cannot be interpreted, whether singly or in combination, to contravene scripture as the primary source and criterion for doctrine. They are untrustworthy whenever they deviate from scripture, which is always trustworthy. If The United Methodist Church would follow the example of Mr. Wesley, we would all be “Bible bigots,” which would give us more direction in how to resolve our differences.

That sweet spot – the heart of anglo-catholic Wesleyanism – shouldn’t be a hard place to find. It’s where we meet and fellowship with the saints of old in two thousand years of Christian tradition.

 

BTA_GC2016*Rev. Bill T. Arnold is an Elder in the Kentucky Conference. At the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore., he served as chair of the Faith & Order Legislative Committee and was elected to a second term in the University Senate. His current appointment is to the faculty of Asbury Theological Seminary, where he serves as the Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation.

 

 

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33 Comments on "Commentary: Yes it’s time – time to decide who we are and what we believe"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Steve Harpet
Guest
I answer ‘Yes’ to all three of Bill’s questions– Is the Bible the revelation of the living core of the Christian faith? Is it primary among other sources, illumined in tradition, confirmed in reason, and vivified in Christian experience? And yet we hold different views about human sexuality. Why is this? Because the pivot is not the affirmation of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, it is the interpretation of Scripture–the pivot is hermeneutics. Until we all get honest about this, we will remain deadlocked in a straw-man argument about who is biblical and who is not. If we move… Read more »
Adam Hamilton
Guest

I completely agree, Steve. Bill, hoping we can connect in the coming year for a more in depth conversation. I appreciate you both.

Rev. David Goudie
Guest
Rev. Hamilton and Rev. Arnold, If the conversation happens, just wanted try to humbly and add a couple questions to the conversation, which might be appropriate, and I’ve personally wrestled with. 1) How did Wesley view the scriptures? A link to a site sharing some information I found helpful was http://craigladams.com/blog/what-john-wesley-actually-said-about-the-bible/ v 2) Adam, I know you’ve mentioned in your talks Paul’s view of scripture, but I also wonder your view on how did Jesus himself view scripture? Particularity when Jesus speaks about marriage in Matthew 19? And are there any scriptures that affirm a change in view on sexuality?
Paul W.
Guest

Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t your view of the “inspiration and authority of Scripture” directly affect how you interpret Scripture? It appears you are splitting hairs.

I personally have trouble understanding how those who are supposed to have studied and affirmed John Wesley’s theology can exhibit such great confusion about his clear teachings, especially regarding holiness, righteousness, and the moral law. If the real problem is that you disagree with Wesley, please have the integrity to admit and discuss it — all these semantic games help no one.

Mike Thomas
Guest

Rotarians? What problem do you have with them?
The question is not one of authority. It is about application. How should the lessons, laws, stories, parables, poems and histories of the Bible be applied to our lives today. The problem is one of selective enforcement. We decide to ignore, overlook or reinterpret some passages while vigorously enforcing others (especially when they apply to others and not to ourselves).

Mike Thomas
Guest

Perhaps a better analogy would be if they had a rule preventing people who use pseudonyms from holding leadership positions in their organization.

Phil
Guest

Well said. But, isn’t “interpretation of Scripture” the root of what divides us up into different denominations? If the answer is yes, then division is inevitable(?)

Dave Nuckols
Guest
Hi Bill, I must disagree with your assertion that we all know that disagreements over same sex marriage are merely the symptom of a larger disagreement over how we fundamentally view and trust Scripture. The disagreement over scripture predates the discussion of same sex marriage. You can categorize faithful Christians all kinds of ways by theological disposition and hermeneutical technique, and in each category, you’ll find some Christians who support and others who do not support same sex marriage. So pretending – or over generalizing a non-causative correlation – that a high view of scripture necessarily means opposition to same… Read more »
Matthew
Guest

Hi Dave,

Since I’m always eager to learn more about this topic — one that I have been studying for 13 years at this point — I was wondering if you could provide some examples of scholars who view the Holy Scriptures as authoritative who do not view same-gender sexual relations as sinful. I’ve not come across any yet and would like to read or hear their perspective.

Thanks,
– Matthew

Dave Nuckols
Guest

Hi Matthew,
Suggest starting here:
James Brownson, NT scholar for exegesis
David Gushee, for evangelical Christian ethics
Steve Harper, for a Methodist perspective (retired from Asbury)

David
Guest
Dave, I wonder then how you would reply to progressives who actually state that the scriptures do condemn the practice of homosexuality … but then directly state that they reject scripture’s authority. For I quote Form William Kent … on the United Methodist Committee to study homosexuality … “Scriptural texts in the Old and New Testament texts condemning homosexual practices are neither inspired by God nor are they of enduring Christian value.” In other words he is homest enough to admit the does condemn homosexual practice … but just rejects scripture as God’s Word. Luke Timothy Johnstone professor of Candler… Read more »
Paul W.
Guest
This list is unimpressive to anyone who is theologically conservative. Brownson is an interesting case; he was on record as holding to and defending the traditionalist view up until his son came out as gay. His book on the topic of same-sex relationships is a sad exercise in eisegesis based on selective references to historical sources and incredibly biased interpretations of the original Greek which he chose to use not because the text led him there but rather because they were necessary specifically to deconstruct the scriptural arguments that same-sex behavior is sinful. His failure to discuss or mention the… Read more »
james ballard
Guest

Look lets also be clear about what it being vilified here. No one is trying to be hateful to LBGTQ people. No one is homophobic. No one is afraid of homosexuals. We are repulsed by the sexual acts performed by homosexuals. We don’t want the “act” normalized.

redbert
Guest

#1 In various places and in various ways Scriptures COMMANDED us to love our neighbors.
#2 In various places and in various ways Scripture tells us we are ALL sinners
#3 In many places and in various ways Scripture states homosexuality is a sin.

re -read points 1 and 2

Dave Nuckols
Guest

Sorry to report this Methodist in the news this week. Yes, Rep. Rick Allen is a Methodist.
http://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/bible-verse-homosexuals-heard-house-gop-prior-vote

Phil
Guest

The verse Rick Allen cited seems pretty Equal Opportunity to me. “Back biters” should demand an apology.

Nathan Brasfield
Guest

Wonderful response, Dave. Thank you.

Paul W.
Guest

Dave, do you know and interact with any orthodox Wesleyans? They could have helped you by pointing out that your first paragraph is wrong, your second paragraph is scurrilous, and your third paragraph is nonsense from an orthodox Wesleyan perspective.

I would suggest reading Wesley for yourself in order to understand his focus on holiness and righteousness. It would correct your misunderstandings concerning how orthodox Wesleyans view the moral law.

Sandy Wylie
Guest

If we really want to stick to literal reading of the Bible, we will return to the time when Earth was the center of the universe, slavery was OK, medicine consisted of exorcising demons, etc. Any volunteers?
It’s absurd to say we don’t let our modern perspective influence our reading of the Bible. We all pick and choose how much we’re going to be guided by our current understandings of the world. Let’s be honest.

Sherrie Lynn Robertson
Guest
Sherrie Lynn Robertson
The writer misses some point. It is important to him to twice refer to “liberalism” as “outmoded.” I hope that made him feel good both times he did it. I do not think however that the philosophy of Jesus Christ is outmoded, and that is what liberalism is if the man would bother to learn a little bit about it. Moreover the argument today is not merely a liberal interpretation of scripture versus a fundamentalist one. Fundamentalism is the SELECTIVE invoking of scripture to support its agreement with the speaker’s bigotries and prejudices. It is primarily done today by American… Read more »
Trevor Warren
Guest

I agree with his suggestion that Methodists are going through an identity crisis, but I disagree with his conclusion about Wesleyan theology. He still seems to be evaluating Wesley through the academic model of theology when Wesley was, in fact, a practical theologian.

John Wesley Leek
Guest

What does that mean to you Trevor?

I’ve read much Wesley (including, though not exclusively his standard sermons which were required reading for all Methodist preachers of his time) and have studied how he set standards that have made me wonder at times if even I fit the standard of “altogether Christian” Wesley set out.

If by practical theologian you mean that he bent to fit the Era I don’t see any evidence. Of you mean something else please clarify! 🙂

Scott
Guest

Reading through all of the comments makes me understand the appeal of evangelical, non-denominational churches. They cut to the essence of the message of salvation in Jesus so that all can understand, rather than debating the number of angels on the head of a pin.

jimmie shelby
Guest
This writer wonders: Is it wrong to believe a Savior Who was born to a young virgin in long ago Israel as a result of being visited by the Holy Spirit–her Son was truly God and truly man. He walked among His “peers” and started His Earthly Ministry at about the age of 30–and continued that Ministry for about 3 years. He was betrayed by one of His followers who sold Him out for 30 pieces of silver. He was Beaten. He was Tried. He was Condemned to die on the Tree. He was Crowned with Thorns. His Side was… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
To say that scripture is primary over the other parts of the quadrilateral misses the whole point of the exercise. The problem is that scripture is rarely clear cut to the point where everyone agrees on its meaning and application. That is why we need to use our reason, experience and tradition to help understand scripture better and how best to apply it in our lives. Did Jesus really expect you to pluck your eye out of its socket or cut off your hand whenever you sin? Or was he using hyperbole to make a larger point? Does your answer… Read more »
Kevin
Guest

You better settle in for a long wait.

Paul W.
Guest

The fact that your post got down votes clearly shows that, contrary to what the revisionists claim, this is not about exegesis (determining what the text means) but rather about eisegesis (reading your biases into the text) or simple unbelief. Many have deluded themselves into believing that embracing unbelief is actually a higher form of belief. Many of the posts here, though arguing against his thesis, actually demonstrate in spades why Dr. Arnold’s question is the key question the UMC must resolve if our “unity” is to have any real meaning.

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