Nazarenes Reject Strict Inerrancy
Recently, the Church of the Nazarene reexamined its view of the Bible. A study committee recommended that the denomination retain its current doctrine of scripture and reject strict inerrancy.
The Church of the Nazarene is only a little more than 100 years old. Its theological roots are in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. And it has long held the Bible in high regard.
But at the 27th general assembly, a resolution was brought forward to change the denomination’s view on scripture. The resolution sought to remove the phrase “inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation,” and replace it with the phrase, “inerrant throughout, and the supreme authority on everything the Scriptures teach.”
This resolution was one reason why I directed a conference at Northwest Nazarene University called “The Bible Tells Me So” in 2011. From that important conference, my colleague in biblical scholarship, Richard Thompson, and I published a book of important essays from leading biblical scholars and theologians. Several essays in the book deal with the inerrancy issue.
A study committee was commissioned at the 27th general assembly. Biblical scholar, Tom King, chaired the committee, biblical scholar, Alex Varughese, served as secretary, and ten others served. The committee’s report and recommendation were made public this summer at the 28th assembly. I want to walk through what I consider the report’s central and most important statements.
Opposed to Absolute Inerrancy
The report begins by dealing with the proposed change by talking about the strength of the denomination’s current view of the Bible. It emphasizes that the Bible is inspired by God.
The heart of the argument comes in the second strength mentioned, namely the phrase that the Holy Scriptures “inerrantly reveal the will of God in all things necessary to our salvation.” The committee notes that this phrase is “distinct from absolute ‘inerrancy’ in every factual detail.”
I especially appreciated the committee’s insistence that interpretation matters. We are not infallible in our interpretation of the Bible, they say. And while some Christians think that they are merely stating what the Bible says, this is naïve. “We interpret Scripture,” they write, “guided by the traditions of the Church, in the light of our experience as the people of God, and using sanctified reason.”
The committee argues that “the Bible is not to be treated as an almanac or a magic book or a text book of history or science.” But “God’s action in the history of Israel and supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ was ‘necessary to our salvation.’”
The scripture study committee concludes this section by saying “The committee therefore believes that it is not only unnecessary, but that it would be untrue to the Wesleyan tradition, incompatible with Wesleyan theology, and unwarranted by the Scriptures themselves to add any assertion that the Scriptures are ‘inerrant throughout…’” They add that “to assert the complete detailed factual literal accuracy of every part of Scripture (‘inerrant throughout’) raises more problems that it solve and diverts people into unnecessary, distracting, and futile disputes.”
Nazarenes, not Calvinists
In the remainder of their report, the committee says there are important differences between strict/absolute inerrancy and the Nazarene view of soteriological inerrancy. “We are committed to the belief that the Scriptures give us a sufficiently accurate account of God’s action in the history of Israel and particularly in the birth, life, death, and bodily resurrection of the Lord,” says the committee. But “we do not think that highlighting the issue of detailed factual inerrancy is helpful or necessary to insisting on the full authority and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture.”
The Church of the Nazarene views scripture differently from other Evangelical groups. The committee has especially in mind the difference between Nazarenes and a particular Calvinist tradition. “This assertion of the complete inerrancy of Scripture in every detail (‘inerrancy throughout’) comes out of one particular Calvinist tradition,” they write. (Not all Calvinists are strict inerrantists.)
The committee notes two “severe” disadvantages in claiming the detailed factual inerrancy of scripture instead of its sufficiency. First, the concept of ‘error’ is not helpful, because it is impossible to define what constitutes an error. “The concept of ‘error’ is an absolutist word applied to something which is necessarily a matter of degree, and it is consequently a nightmare since it leads us straight into frankly silly and futile questions.”
Second, the misguided concept of absolute or detailed inerrancy diverts attention to unprofitable debates about unimportant details. “Because we are dealing with ancient literature, we frequently do not have enough information to determine whether an apparent contradiction is truly a contradiction or not.”
In the final section, the committee quotes many notable Church of the Nazarene scholars. Virtually all are opposed to the idea that the Bible is “inerrant throughout.” From this, the committee concludes, “Nazarene theologians as a whole, with few if any exceptions, are totally opposed to the idea that we need to assert the complete detailed factual inerrancy of Holy Scripture in order to defend its authority.”
After noting that changing the current view from soteriological inerrancy to absolute inerrancy would go against the denominations Wesleyan heritage and against its leading theologians and scholars, the committee says that the proposed change would result in a “narrower fundamentalist view.” And this would create “very serious division in the denomination.”
When I concluded my reading of this report, I felt a deep sense of gratitude. While no denomination is perfect, I’m so thankful to be part of a group that both champions Scripture but also recognizes its limitations. I appreciate being in a worldwide community that believes God’s purpose for the Bible is that we might use it to follow God’s call of salvation.
(Find the full text of the report here on the Didache website.)