Wesleyan Theology and Fundamentalism
The Wesleyan tradition in Christianity, with its high view of Scripture, has a fair number of people in its ranks tempted by fundamentalism. A new book should help Wesleyans resist that temptation.
Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists argues that fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology do not fit together. After a historical introduction to fundamentalism by Floyd Cunningham, the book offers short chapters on scripture, science, theology, and ecclesiology. Each chapter has a follow-up reflection on practical implications of the material.
What is Fundamentalism?
Defining Christian fundamentalism has been an ongoing debate, but it is generally thought to have three primary distinctives:
1. Belief that the Bible is inerrant in all matters,
2. Hostility toward contemporary science or philosophy that does not fit neatly with literalist interpretations of the Bible,
3. A “Christ vs. Culture” stance that emphasizes a premillennial notion that saints will be raptured soon.
Contributors to Square Peg show, as the introductory essay puts it, “the differences between fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology are so important that denominations in the Wesleyan tradition cannot adopt fundamentalism without forfeiting essential parts of what it means to be Wesleyan” (8).
Different Views of Scripture
Many of the differences between fundamentalists and Wesleyans come down to their differing views on how the Bible should be regarded. Both traditions have high views of scripture.
Robert Mulholland points out that fundamentalists believe the Bible has “comprehensive and rationally accessible inerrant divine truths or propositions” (38). The Bible becomes a depository of information either given verbally or dictated to writers.
By contrast, Wesleyans believe the Bible is a means by which we ought to focus on the message of God given most decisively in Jesus Christ. This shift in focus makes a whale of a difference!
To put it another way, fundamentalists appeal to the alleged inerrancy of the Bible as rationale for its authority. Wesleyans, by contrast, believe “the proof of the gospel resides primarily in its being lived, in transformed life, not in logic and argumentation” (9).
Science and Evolution
Bob Branson addresses the fundamentalist approach to the Bible and contemporary science. Contrary to fundamentalism, Branson says Genesis should not be read as a contemporary scientific account. “If God has used modern explanations to tell ancient Israelites how he created,” argues Branson, “ he would have been using language they could not have grasped. Furthermore, future developments in science will probably make much of our current knowledge obsolete” (45).
It’s important to note that leading theologians like H. Orton Wiley did not read Genesis 1 as a literal or scientific statement. Wiley called the chapter a “creation hymn” and said reading contemporary science onto Genesis does injustice both to the Bible and to science.
Fred Cawthorne tackles head-on the scientific issues in his Square Peg chapter. Cawthorne suggests that Christians can find harmony between Christian truth and a scientific understanding of evolution. “Consideration of evolution should deepen our affirmation that God works above, in, and through creation,” says Cawthorne, “it should strengthen, not threaten, our faith” (106).
Cawthorne’s affirmation of science in general and evolution in particular illustrates a guiding principle in this book: “The Wesleyan tradition offers no haven for any form of Christianity that shrinks from honest and rigorous consideration of all aspects of the Christian faith and its relationship to the world” (10).
Both Al Truesdale and H. Ray Dunning talk about how fundamentalism goes about ascertaining truth.
Dunning compares what he calls “the control belief” of fundamentalists with Wesleyans. Dunning argues that the fundamentalist control beliefs have chiefly to do with truth and attaining that truth.
By contrast, the control belief of Wesleyans relate to salvation. “This understanding of the Bible’s truth allows Wesleyans to recognize that although there may be minor errors in the [biblical] text, God has been faithfully using the Bible for centuries to bring lost human beings into a saving relation with himself” (66).
After stressing the role tradition, experience, and reason also play in the Wesleyan tradition, Dunning concludes his chapter by saying, “Wesleyan theology and fundamentalism cannot be successfully mixed” (71).
The book has many other strong chapters and responses. The roster of contributors is impressive. And I think the book will have great practical application for honest discussions about how Christians in the Wesleyan tradition should not succumb to the temptation to fundamentalism.
Near the conclusion of the book, I found these statements especially helpful:
“We in the Wesleyan tradition have a responsibility and the resources needed for embracing the best that biblical scholarship has to offer and for processing the results of legitimate science. Let the young people in our tradition know that it offers them solid spiritual and intellectual warrant for becoming leaders in the sciences, in theological studies, in Christian ministry, in social and political service, in commerce, and in all venues graced by the risen, reigning, and coming Lord.”