By Larry Duggins
Thoughts on Our Theological Task #7
United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine. Through Scripture the living Christ meets us in the experience of redeeming grace. We are convinced that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God in our midst whom we trust in life and death. The biblical authors, illumined by the Holy Spirit, bear witness that in Christ the world is reconciled to God. The Bible bears authentic testimony to God’s self-disclosure in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as in God’s work of creation, in the pilgrimage of Israel, and in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity in human history. As we open our minds and hearts to the Word of God through the words of human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit, faith is born and nourished, our understanding is deepened, and the possibilities for transforming the world become apparent to us. The Bible is sacred canon for Christian people, formally acknowledged as such by historic ecumenical councils of the church. Our doctrinal standards identify as canonical thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith). We properly read Scripture within the believing community, informed by the tradition of that community. We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole. We are aided by scholarly inquiry and personal insight, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we work with each text, we take into account what we have been able to learn about the original context and intention of that text. In this understanding we draw upon the careful historical, literary, and textual studies of recent years, which have enriched our understanding of the Bible. Through this faithful reading of Scripture, we may come to know the truth of the biblical message in its bearing on our own lives and the life of the world. Thus, the Bible serves both as a source of our faith and as the basic criterion by which the truth and fidelity of any interpretation of faith is measured. While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding. The Wesleyan heritage, reflecting its origins in the catholic and reformed ethos of English Christianity, directs us to a self-conscious use of these three sources in interpreting Scripture and in formulating faith statements based on the biblical witness. These sources are, along with Scripture, indispensable to our theological task. The close relationship of tradition, experience, and reason appears in the Bible itself. Scripture witnesses to a variety of diverse traditions, some of which reflect tensions in interpretation within the early Judeo-Christian heritage. However, these traditions are woven together in the Bible in a manner that expresses the fundamental unity of God’s revelation as received and experienced by people in the diversity of their own lives. The developing communities of faith judged them, therefore, to be an authoritative witness to that revelation. In recognizing the interrelationship and inseparability of the four basic resources for theological understanding, we are following a model that is present in the biblical text itself."
― from "The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016"
Scripture is the primary source of our doctrine. We believe that scripture authentically reflects the ongoing nature of God’s interaction with creation and humanity in the past, the present, and the future. Scripture reveals the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a way that presents all that is necessary and sufficient for salvation. The Scripture reveals the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in the world.
The Discipline calls for us to read scripture in community, working with each other to understand and to search the previous understandings of those who have gone before us. We are to take into account the location of a passage of scripture in the text as a whole, and we are to consider the work of scholars and others about the context and times during which the text was written. Historical analysis, literary analysis, and textual studies may all inform our work with scripture. Said differently, we are to work hard to apply everything we can find out about the writer of the text; the language in which the writer wrote; the audience the writer addressed; and the political, environmental, and social climate in which the writer lived, because all things may affect the way we understand scripture in our own times.
The Discipline acknowledges that the Holy Spirit works with us as we work to engage scripture. The Spirit may help us to see new things as we search scripture by providing us with a personal insight, or by having us recall the words of a teacher or ancestor, or by helping us see the scripture in a new light based on a past experience of our own. This theological stance describes scripture as a living means of grace, a way in which God speaks into the world every day using words themselves as the starting point and refining our understanding of those words through the work of others, and our own thoughts and experiences. There are four basic resources for theological understanding, not just one, and all four must be used for faithful interpretation, as scripture itself demonstrates.
I think this is why I get so discouraged with biblical literalism. For me, a strictly literalist interpretation assumes that all scripture is carved in stone like the Ten Commandments, and that all we are to do is read the ancient words and obey them. I simply do not believe that, and I do not believe that such an interpretation is faithful to the Discipline. I believe that scripture is just like any other means of grace in that God uses scripture to speak with us. I believe it to be a nuanced conversation, a gift of communication between teacher and student, Creator and creation, Lover and beloved. Through that conversation, we grow and learn and change under the guidance of a God who loves us all, and who created us with the ability to think for ourselves. Growing in holiness requires this dialogue with the Spirit.