Among contemporary Wesleyan scholars it is popular to claim that biblical inerrancy is incompatible with Wesleyan-Arminian theology, that inerrancy is a Calvinistic doctrine and does not fit with Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine.
Larry Shelton in a Wesleyan Theological Journal article entitled, "John Wesley's Approach to Scripture in Historical Perspective" sets forth the typical argument of Wesleyans who deny that a high view of Scripture is consistent with Wesleyanism. Shelton advises that Wesley's
statements about Scripture must be interpreted from within the context of eighteenth-century thought, and efforts to super-impose on various proof-texts the framework of twentieth-century fundamentalist epistemology must not be considered legitimate explanations of his positions on the Bible. Although he [Wesley] sometimes speaks in ways which may resemble Fundamentalism, his total context of thought is broader and more inclusive. Furthermore, the canons of biblical authority and interpretation of a rationalistic Fundamentalism had their roots in post-Reformation Protestant scholasticism, which Wesley does not seem to have known, and nineteenth century Princeton theology, which Wesley did not survive to encounter.
Shelton goes on to assert that "it is anachronistic historically to project a nineteenth-century epistemology upon an eighteenth-century evangelist whose hermeneutics were strongly influenced by Patristic and Reformation sources." He closes his reinterpretation of Wesley's position of Scripture by declaring, "it is crucial that we employ methods of historical study which allow previous historical eras to speak without having twentieth-century presuppositions read back into them."
Thus have Shelton and other modern Wesleyan scholars sought to redefine the numerous clear and unequivocal statements by Wesley and the other early leaders of the Wesleyan movement affirming the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. This makes Shelton's solemn warnings about misinterpreting Wesley through a twentieth-century epistemology all the more preposterous. He practices exactly what he warns others against. He rereads Wesley's affirmations of inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture through his own modern epistemology and lower view of Scripture.
As Wesleyanism along with the larger Church struggles to define doctrine in this post-modern era, it is important to understand the commitment of historic Wesleyanism to biblical inerrancy as well as to other core doctrines of evangelicalism. An examination of the foundational writings of early Wesleyans demonstrates that in spite of the denial of biblical inerrancy on the part of many modern Wesleyan scholars, there was consistent unwavering affirmation of inerrancy and a high view of Scripture among these founders of the Wesleyan movement. John and Charles Wesley both stoutly defended a high view of Scripture. Richard Watson, the first systematic theologian of Wesleyanism, Adam Clarke, the renowned Wesleyan commentator, and all the other leading scholars of early Wesleyanism affirmed biblical inerrancy. This two-part article will document the positions of John Wesley, Richard Watson and Adam Clarke.
John Wesley on the Inspiration of Scripture
The founder of Methodism was, by his own admission, homo unius libri, a man of one book. The well-known passage in which Wesley makes this declaration provides a poignant window into the heart and mind of this great man who had the highest regard for Scripture and who earnestly sought to hear God speak through his inspired Word.
I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, - the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: - "Lord, is it not thy word, 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?' Thou 'givest liberally, and upbraidest not.' Thou hast said; 'If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.' I am willing to do, let me know, thy will." I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, "comparing spiritual things with spiritual." I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.
At the beginning of a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 he declared that since we know God is the source of all Scripture, we know the Word therefore to be "true and right concerning all things." Wesley frequently affirmed his belief that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God" and that "We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice." He referred to Scripture as the "oracles of God." He frequently appealed to 2 Timothy 3:16 which affirms God's authorship and inspiration of scripture. In commenting on 1 Corinthians 2:13, he points out that Scripture consists of "words taught by the Holy Spirit - Such are all the words of Scripture. How high a regard ought we then to retain for them!" In commenting on Galatians 3:8, he declares, "So great is the excellency and fullness of the Scriptures, that all the things which can ever be controverted, are therein both foreseen and determined."
In his sermon on "Christian Perfection" he notes that many people object to using the words "perfect" and "perfection." But Wesley protests,
But are they not found in the oracles of God? If so, by what authority can any Messenger of God lay them aside, even though all men should be offended? Whatsoever God hath spoken, that will we speak, whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear.... We may not, therefore, lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God and not of man. But we may and ought to explain the meaning of them; that those who are sincere of heart may not err to the right hand or left, from the mark of the prize of their high calling.
Wesley set forth a brief and simple apologetic for the divine inspiration of the Bible. He proposed that there are but five possible sources of the Scriptures: "good men or angels, bad men or devils, or…God." He then systematically eliminated all the other choices except God. His conclusion is that "the Bible must be given by divine inspiration." To be sure, men were involved in the transmission of God's Word. Wesley refers to the writers of the Bible as "men divinely inspired." But still God is the Source and the ultimate Author of the Book. It was he who moved upon the "holy men of God." (2 Pet 1:21) He even spoke of these writers of prophecy as being "purely passive" as they were "carried" by the Spirit, as expressed in 2 Peter 1:19. He believed that some portions of scripture were "dictated" by the Spirit.
In his sermon on "The Means of Grace," Wesley asserts that Scripture is "the great means God has ordained for conveying his manifold grace to man" and reasoned directly from the scriptural declaration that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God" to believe "consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true." It is clear as Frank Baker has said, "Wesley was one with the Reformers in the tendency to substitute an infallible Book for an infallible Church."
Wesley stoutly affirmed his belief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures in a series of letters to a "John Smith."
I am as fully assured today as I am of the shining of the sun that the Scriptures are of God. I cannot possibly deny or doubt it now; yet I may doubt of it to-morrow; as I have heretofore a thousand times, and that after the fullest assurance preceding. Now, if this be "a demonstration that my former assurance was a mere fancy," then farewell to all revelation at once.
Wesley comments on this same matter again in a later letter to Mr. Smith. "The facts, whether asserted or denied, are still invariableI am fully convinced to-day that the Scriptures are of God as that the sun shines. And this conviction (as every good gift) cometh from the Father of lights. Yet I may doubt of it to-morrow. I may throw away the good gift of God."
In a letter to the editor of Lloyd's Evening Post Wesley protested concerning remarks which had been made on a new edition of the Koran. He rejected objections which had been made to the Mosaic creation account and to God's preference of the Jews. He responded to the suggestion that the devil could have invented the sacrificial system, to the argument that prophecy negates free will, and to the claim that "only the words of Christ Himself are the pure, original Scriptures." He went on to proclaim, "I cannot but repeat the observation, wherein experience confirms me more and more, that they who disbelieve the Bible will believe anything. They may believe Voltaire! They may believe the Shastah! They may believe a man can put himself into a quart bottle."
John Wesley on the Inerrancy of Scripture
Not only did Wesley consistently affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture, but his own clear statements confirm his belief in the full verbal inspiration and trustworthiness or inerrancy of Scriptures. In 1776 Wesley commented in his Journal on Jenyn's tract Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion by saying though it was an admirable piece, it was hard to tell whether Mr. Jenyn was a Christian, a deist, or an atheist. "If he is a Christian, he betrays his own cause by averring that "all Scripture is not given by inspiration of God, but the writers of it were sometimes left to themselves, and consequently made some mistakes." Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth."
Thus, Wesley in unequivocal terms denies any other position concerning Holy Scripture but that of inerrancy. In all his writings Wesley never once gave the slightest indication of a dichotomy between the inerrancy of scripture on "spiritual matters of faith and practice" and the errancy of historical and other "non-spiritual" matters. Rather, in the Preface to his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament Wesley sets forth his unequivocal understanding of Scripture as the inspired Word of God.
Concerning the Scriptures in general, it may be observed, the word of the living God, which directed the first patriarchs also, was in the time of Moses, committed to writing. To this were added, in several succeeding generations, the inspired writings of the other prophets. Afterward, what the Son of God preached, and the Holy Ghost spake by the apostles, the apostles and evangelists wrote.—This is what we now style the Holy Scripture: this is that word of God which remaineth for ever: of which, though heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall not pass away. The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.
An exact knowledge of the truth was accompanied in the inspired writers with an exactly regular series of arguments, a precise expression of their meaning, and a genuine vigour of suitable affections....
In the language of the sacred writings, we may observe the utmost depth, together with the utmost ease. All the elegancies of human composures sink into nothing before: God speaks not as man, but as God. His thoughts are very deep: and thence his words are of inexhaustible virtue. And the language of his messengers also is exact in the highest degree: for the words which were given them accurately answered the impression made upon their minds: and hence Luther says, "Divinity is nothing but the grammar of the language of the Holy Ghost." To understand this thoroughly, we should observe the emphasis which lies on every word; the holy affections expressed thereby, and the tempers shown by every writer.
Thus, Wesley provides a classic description of the evangelical doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration-an inspiration by God which covers every word and thought and yet allows for the individual styles of the inspired writers. Wesley's declaration that there is "no defect, no excess" in Scripture, that "an exact knowledge of the truth was accompanied in the inspired writers with . . . a precise expression of their meaning" and that "the language of his [God's] messengers also is exact in the highest degree" can hardly be reinterpreted to mean anything less than an undiluted affirmation of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.
However Wesley's view is by no means a naive, noncritical position, blind to difficulties. In his remarks on Matthew 1:1 in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, concerning possible problems in the genealogy of Jesus, Wesley affirms that the genealogies are inerrant in all they affirm, in spite of potential problems in the records.
If there were any difficulties in this genealogy, or that given by St. Luke, which could not easily be removed, they would rather affect the Jewish tables than the credit of the evangelists; for they act only as historians, setting down these genealogies as they stood in those public and allowed records. Therefore they were to take them as they found them. Nor was it needful they should correct the mistakes, if there were any. For these accounts sufficiently answer the end for which they are recited. They unquestionably prove the grand point in view, that Jesus was of the family from which the promised Seed was to come. And they had more weight with the Jews for this purpose than if alterations had been made by inspiration itself. For such alterations would have occasioned endless disputes between them and the disciples of our Lord.
Wesley was simply affirming what most modern adherents of inerrancy would say, viz., that the Bible is inerrant in what it affirms as factual, to the degree of precision intended. Paul Feinberg asserts that "Inerrancy does not demand the infallibility or inerrancy of the noninspired sources used by biblical writers." Feinberg also uses the phrase "true in everything they affirm" in referring to Scripture. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in Article XIII also denies that inerrancy is negated "by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations."
It should be noted that Wesley did not say there were definitely mistakes in the genealogy. Rather, he merely recognized the possibility of mistakes-not on the part of the inspired authors, but in the Jewish records. He did not feel that his critical knowledge at that time warranted a definite statement either way concerning genealogical problems. Wesley affirmed that Matthew and Luke were inspired as they reported the traditional genealogical tables of the Jews which may have been in error. Thus, Wesley, while recognizing problems and gaps in our understanding, affirmed the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. As he stated, "'All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,' consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true."
Wesley biographer A. Skevington Wood points out that
it is not to be assumed that he was altogether unconscious of the issues later raised in more acute form by the development of Higher Criticism. An omnivorous reader like Wesley could hardly have been unaware of these preliminary rumblings. The storm was not to break until the next century, but the Bible was already under attack. Wesley's convictions were not held in an atmosphere of undisturbed calm. His belief in the reliability of Scripture was tested by the rationalistic climate of his age.
On August 8, 1773 Wesley writes in his journal that he had reviewed a volume of theological Dissertations challenging the doctrine of eternal punishment. His response gives evidence of both his orthodoxy and his awareness of the critics of Scripture.
It would be excusable, if these menders of the Bible would offer their hypotheses modestly. But one cannot excuse them when they not only obtrude their novel scheme with the utmost confidence, but even ridicule that scriptural one which always was, and is now, held by men of the greatest learning and piety in the world. Hereby they promote the cause of infidelity more effectually than either Hume or Voltaire.
John Wesley's Use of Scripture
Wesley's use and view of the Bible in his ministry illustrate and support his high view of Scripture. He constantly referred to and exhorted his people to be "Bible-Christians." Deriders of the Holy Club called them "Bible-bigots" and "Bible-moths" who "fed upon the Bible, as moths do upon cloth." In fact he went so far as to repeatedly warn against using frivolous modern terms, but rather to use Bible terminology so far as is possible. He called himself a "bigot" to the Bible and Bible language. He was fond of referring to himself similarly in connection with the Bible. "My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small."
Wood said, "To borrow another arresting phrase from [P. T.] Forsyth, the effective preacher 'must speak from within the silent sanctuary of Scripture.' That was always Wesley's way. Those who heard him sensed immediately that here was a man who had been with God and who now came to them with His message. Only preaching of that supernatural caliber could have produced the results which Wesley saw."
He preached that "all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in searching the Scriptures." Thus hearing, reading, and meditating upon the Scriptures serve as a means of grace. Yet he condemned in strong terms the fanaticism that led some to claim that Christians should read only the Bible. He declared that anyone who does that, must, to be consistent, do away with all sermons as well.
The preaching of Christian perfection raised disputes with other schools of theology. Inevitably the charge arose that Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification was unscriptural. In his reply to such accusations he indicated his solid position that the Bible is to be our sole rule of faith and practice. "I therein build on no authority, ancient or modern, but the Scripture. If this supports any doctrine, it will stand; if not, the sooner it falls the better. Neither the doctrine in question nor any other is anything to me, unless it be the doctrine of Christ and His Apostles I search for truth, plain Bible truth."
In another letter the founder of Methodism affirmed that "The Scriptures are a complete rule of faith and practice; and they are clear in all necessary points." He especially emphasized the supremacy of the Scriptures in response to the mystics who promulgated the doctrine that the private guidance of the Spirit was more important than the rule of the Bible. He was concerned that his followers not be taken up with fanatical legalism but rather instructed them to "enjoin nothing that the Bible does not clearly enjoin. Forbid nothing that it does not clearly forbid."
Wesley's approach to interpreting Scripture was direct and uncomplicated. "The general rule of interpreting Scripture is this: the literal sense of every text is to be taken, if it be not contrary to some other texts: but in that case the obscure text is to be interpreted by those which speak more plainly." He quoted Clement of Alexandria to support his assertion that "the Scripture is the best expounder of itself." He freely admitted that not all Christians agree on the interpretation of many passages, but pointed out that this is certainly not proof that they are not true Christians. Tongue-in-cheek, he asserts that it is a proof only that we should "no more expect living men to be infallible, than to be omniscient."
One of the strongest indications of the value Wesley placed on the Bible comes in the training and demands he made on the Methodist preachers. The founder of Methodism declared that one cannot be a "good Divine" without being a "good textuary." A minister of the Word ought to "know the literal meaning of every word, verse, and chapter." He also demanded that his preachers have knowledge of the original languages of the Bible.
It is evident that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and the fountainhead of the movement which bears his name held a high view of Scripture. Wood asserts that "What Spurgeon once said of Bunyan is equally true of Wesley: his very blood is bibline." While recognizing that our understanding of it is fallible and our interpretations may differ, he held unequivocally that the Bible comes to us by the inspiration of God and is consequently infallible and inerrant. This doctrinal position was demonstrated in practical terms in his many sermons, letters, and exhortations.
Dr. McCarthy is president, International Institute for Christian Studies. These articles are edited from his paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Colorado Springs, November 2001.
-Continued in the next issue