THEOLOGICAL UNCERTAINTY
A critique of Ray Dunning's systematic theology
Dr. Vic Reasoner

H. Ray Dunning is the professor of theology at Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville. He was commissioned to produce a systematic theology in the Wesleyan tradition that is true to the doctrinal standards of the Church of the Nazarene. In 1988 he produced the 671 page theology entitled Grace, Faith, and Holiness with the approval of the Board of General Superintendents of the Church of the Nazarene. Since the Fundamental Wesleyan Society is vitally interested in the propagation of the Wesleyan message, we cannot afford to ignore such major theological statements as this. The title itself is a concise statement of the Wesleyan order of theology. Before we ever exercise saving faith in Christ, the preliminary or prevenient grace of God is at work drawing us to Christ. Upon exercising faith in Christ as our Savior, the result of genuine salvation is to be made like Christ and to begin a life of holiness.

Dunning's presentation of the Wesleyan message, however, is uneven. The persistent reader, who plods along, will be rewarded at regular intervals with insight, but Dunning's style is difficult and tedious. At times it is difficult to ascertain exactly what he is trying to say and often he goes the long way around the barn to get it said. Without attempting to judge his motives, it appears that he has sacrificed readability and clarity at the altar of academic respectability. Truth need not be this complicated.

Before launching into Dunning's work, he opens with a note to the reader that the first two sections are for the student of technical theology and those with a more general interest may skip 160 pages. In that laborious introduction Dunning attempts to grapple with the major twentieth century theologians. I have no fault to find with him for being aware of contemporary theology, but it appears he has been unduly influenced by them.

Dunning argues that what is critical is a proper hermeneutic, not a certain theory of inspiration. However, our doctrine of biblical authority is determined by our view of inspiration and our method of interpretation will also be governed by our view of inspiration. If Dunning is to build a theological system that first considers scriptural teaching, among other sources, he needs a scripture which is reliable enough to build upon. It is politically incorrect among Nazarene theologians today to accept the Bible as inerrantly inspired by God. Therefore, Dunning argues for the theological accuracy of the Scriptures. Thus the Scriptures may not be accurate historically; they may contain errors, but theological truth can be extrapolated from them. We can draw general conclusions which are accurate in matters of salvation from material which may or may not be specifically reliable.

Dunning is honest enough to quote John Wesley's reflection, "Now if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there is one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth." However, he is not Wesleyan enough to embrace it.

Wesley wrote a letter to the Bishop of Gloucester in response to the Bishop's tract "On the Office and Operations of the Holy Spirit." In it the Bishop claimed that the Holy Spirit so directed the writers that "no considerable error should fall from them." Wesley objected to this language by writing, "Nay, will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture, shake the authority of the whole?"

Jesus taught that even the smallest letter of the words of Scripture could not become corrupted (Matt 5:18). Dunning denies that the words of Scripture are verbally inspired, but he wants to build a theology upon the thoughts conveyed by those words. Dunning wants to say that it is the writers, and not their writings, which are inspired, but he is logical enough to admit that, "Since thoughts are of necessity conceptualized in terms of language, or words, there is a real sense in which one may speak in this context of verbal inspiration."

After having made that important concession, however, in the next paragraph Dunning warns that "the dictation theory leads almost inevitably to the allegorical method of interpretation and ultimately to the loss of meaning altogether." This conclusion is without foundation. While many conservative scholars believe the very words of Scripture were inerrantly inspired by the Holy Spirit, most of them would not describe the process of inspiration as "dictation" because it does not sufficiently recognize the human element. However, Dunning only allows two alternatives, his "dynamic theory" and their "dictation theory." Those who hold to the more conservative view usually also argue for a more literal hermeneutic, not the allegorical method. Furthermore, it is the liberal higher critic, forever tinkering with the sacred text, who ultimately arrives at the loss of meaning.

I find it ironic that Dunning calls for expository sermons, sermons derived from the Scripture and not personal opinion or experience, as the most appropriate type of preaching. However, expositional preaching is built upon the conviction that God's Word is infallible and inerrant. John MacArthur considers expository preaching as a mandate of biblical inerrancy and decries the drift toward experience-centered, pragmatic, topical preaching. Typically it has been Calvinists, not the nominal Wesleyans of today, who are known for their expositional preaching.

Harold Lindsell wrote in 1979 that the Church of the Nazarene had been deeply infiltrated by an errancy view of the Bible which was not the original position of the church. He warned, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. The Church of the Nazarene should make plain which of the two incompatible viewpoints represents the church and its people." Apparently the church has made its choice in this officially sanctioned statement of Nazarene doctrine

H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith, and Holiness (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1988), 671 pp.


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