Contrasting Views of Scripture
By Thomas Lambrecht
The essence of the conflict currently roiling The United Methodist Church is a disagreement over the teaching and authority of Scripture. This disagreement is manifested in the church’s attitude toward same-sex romantic relationships. But the reason that traditionalists are unwilling to compromise on the historic teaching of the church on the definition of marriage and the proper sphere of human sexual expression is that such a compromise seems to us to violate the clear teaching of Scripture. In the progressive view, either Scripture does not mean what it says about these issues, or there is another authority that is higher than Scripture for what Christians should believe and how we should live.
A recent blog post on the progressive United Methodist site, UM Insight (edited by Cynthia Astle), featured a ten-point summary of a progressive view of Scripture. Written by Ashley Anderson, otherwise unidentified in the article, the summary outlines a series of “revelations” in response to her “reading the sacred scriptures of the world’s religions,” as well as “conversations with people who belonged to other faiths.” The points she pens apply to all the various sacred writings of the world’s religions, including Christian Scripture.
All progressives may not share Ashley’s perspective on Scripture. But I have heard and read similar ideas often enough that I believe there is a common viewpoint held by many progressives that aligns with Ashley’s summary. The virtue of Ashley’s summary is that it puts the points in a very clear and succinct way that enables us to contrast this particular progressive view with the traditional understanding of Scripture held by the church through most of its history.
What is Scripture?
The summary begins, “All religious scriptures are the words of humans about God, not God’s words to humans. They were written by humans no holier than you or I” [sic].
This poses the basic question, “Is the Bible the self-revelation of God (God’s Word) or simply a record of what people thought were their experiences with God?” If it is the latter, then the Bible carries only the weight of authority we might give to the advice of a good friend. It certainly would not bear the weight of forming the basis for a whole religious and theological system, let alone being a reliable guide as to how to live and have a relationship with the living God.
The EUB Confession of Faith, one of our doctrinal standards, says this about the 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.”
Most traditionalists believe the Bible not only reveals the Word of God, but it is the Word of God. Some would go so far as to say the Bible is without error in all that it teaches. Others would allow for inconsequential errors in things like numbers or limited historical data. All would agree that the Bible is the infallible guide to the way of human salvation, including who God is and how we can relate to him in a personal way.
Some traditionalists would say that every word of the Bible was dictated by God. Certainly, there are large chunks of Scripture that purport to quote God’s exact words, including in the law of Moses and in many of the prophets. The Gospels purport to record the words of Jesus. These sections undoubtedly are the exact words of God/Jesus. Many traditionalists would say that the rest of Scripture, while not directly dictated by God, was inspired by God, so that the human authors, working out of their own culture and experience, conveyed the truth from God in the language and idioms they were familiar with.
The key verse traditionalists point to is 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” The early church designated which books are considered part of the Bible. All these 66 books are inspired by God. While their authors may not be perfectly holy, they were used by God as instruments to convey his truth to the world. (And some of them were very holy and righteous people!)
Is the Bible authoritative for how we are to live?
Ashley Anderson’s progressive summary says, “Not all the advice given in scriptures is worth following and not all the rules given in them are worth obeying.”
The UM Confession of Faith says, “[The Bible] is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” It goes on to say, “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.”
Does that mean that every word or command of Scripture is to be obeyed now in our time in the Christian church? No. The real question is, how are we to know which parts of the Bible still apply to us today?
The UM Articles of Religion, which are also part of our doctrinal standards, says, “Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”
The church distinguishes between ceremonies and rites of worship commanded in the Old Testament, civil precepts that governed the nation of Israel, and moral teachings and commandments. The death and resurrection of Jesus made the Old Testament sacrificial system unnecessary. And the church is not a government, so it need not follow the rules laid out for how the national government of Israel was supposed to function in the Old Testament. Jesus himself abrogated the rules about kosher foods (Mark 7:19). Therefore, the church no longer follows the ceremonial, civil, or food laws of the Old Testament. Even so, however, these laws often contain principles that can be instructive for Christians, and we should not just ignore them.
The church does acknowledge the continuing authority of the moral commandments, those teachings that lay out the “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior,” as the Oxford dictionary puts it. The laws about marriage and human sexuality unquestionably fall into this category.
The point is that individuals are not equipped to go through the Bible and pick and choose which “advice” or “rules” apply to us. The church has established guidelines about which types of teachings are still applicable, and there is a long tradition of how these teachings are to be applied in our lives. Coming to a conclusion about whether a certain teaching is still applicable today is a determination made by the church as a whole, informed by biblical scholarship and theological reasoning. And it has to be rooted in the various categories listed above. The Ten Commandments are still in force!
Is the Bible to be trusted?
Anderson’s progressive summary states, “People who claim to have been chosen by God to give final and definitive messages to humanity should not be trusted, especially with children.” Leaving aside the snarky humor in that point, I guess that leaves Jesus out of the equation.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” And, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6, 9). Jesus was pretty clear that he was sent by God the Father to reveal him to humanity. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. … The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God” (Hebrews 1:1-3). As Paul put it from the ancient Christian hymn, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.”
The essence of the Christian faith is that Jesus is the way to the Father (not just one way among many). He teaches and embodies the truth about God and about humanity. He gives us life in the here and now, as well as throughout eternity.
How do we know these things? How do we know what Jesus said? In those hackneyed words, because “the Bible tells me so.” If we do not trust the Bible, there is no way we can trust Jesus. We have no way of reliably knowing Jesus outside the written words of Scripture. The good news is that the Bible has been proven true time after time. Whether it is an archaeological confirmation of some recorded historical detail, or the wisdom of finding salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the Scriptures are trustworthy.
Ultimately, to not trust the Bible is to instead trust our own wisdom and understanding. It is we who would determine what we believe from the Bible and what we would reject. It is we who would decide what we think God is like, who Jesus is, and how we can please God (if we think we even need to do that!). It becomes the religion of me, instead of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ that has been proclaimed and lived for 2,000 years and has transformed countless lives and changed the course of human history. In the end, it is to put ourselves in the place of God, making our understanding of God match our own image. Surely, that is the ultimate idolatry.
The progressive tendency to downplay the reliability and authority of the Bible and elevate human wisdom and experience (“follow the science!”) has proven to be a blind alley throughout human history. The contrasting perceptions of Scripture are the real issue at stake in our Methodist separation. This is why most traditionalists believe we are dealing with bedrock issues of faith, not simple disagreements about peripheral issues. It is why it was found necessary to separate from United Methodism, despite the cost and the conflict, and to begin the Global Methodist Church founded explicitly on the foundation of an infallible, trustworthy Bible and a consensual tradition of its interpretation throughout church history.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.