February 5, 2019

Does Difference on Scripture Matter?

United Theological Seminary recently hosted a debate on the authority of Scripture between representatives of two wings of United Methodism. The pastors who spoke, David Watson and Mike Slaughter, discussed both the difference and similarity between their views.

As I watched their presentations, I became acutely aware that I was viewing it as an outsider. As a reformed Baptist, I had thought that all Protestants held to the doctrine of sola scriptura, which states that God revealed everything about the Gospel that is necessary for salvation in Scripture alone. From this discussion, I learned that United Methodists hold to the doctrine of prima scriptura, which, according to Watson, says God’s revelation includes church tradition, although Scripture is the tradition given primacy. I am unclear on the extent to which the doctrines differ, but if I say something off-target in what follows, this is probably the reason.

David Watson, who defended the traditionalist position, insisted that every word of the Bible was determined by God (called “plenary verbal inspiration”), although not inerrant. He admitted the difficulty that textual discrepancies presents to determining the exact words of the original manuscripts, and concluded that it is not helpful to affirm the inspiration of original documents lost to time. “We’re affirming the inerrancy of documents we don’t have,” said Watson. “I’d rather simply say that Scripture, interpreted carefully and prayerfully within the church in dialogue with the Christian tradition is a reliable guide to Christian faith and life.”

Perhaps it is my Calvinist ignorance, but I would defend Scripture’s authority less timidly. I would point out that an overwhelming majority of textual discrepancies are unimportant (spelling differences and the like), while other differences are synonyms, or one version is obviously correct. Overall, there’s only a handful of Biblical passages where the authenticity or correct version is in question. Obviously I’m not an expert in ancient manuscripts, but these arguments that I’ve heard from those more knowledgeable than me seem perfectly legitimate explanations.

Mike Slaughter, who identified as a centrist, denounced schisms among Protestants. While the Protestant Reformation helpfully restored our awareness of the primacy of Scripture, our difference over interpretation have caused schism after schism, taking the number of Christians denominations from 2 to over 34,000. The solution, he said, is to imitate the Catholics, who are able to disagree while remaining with each other inside the same church structure. For instance, he said when St. Francis of Assisi rejected the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the pope at the time judged that it was a minority position, rather than an outright heresy. Loving each other is more important for providing a good witness than right doctrine, he said.

Slaughter insisted, “Christians are not people of the book.” He said the Holy Spirit continues to provide new revelation to believers today, providing sometimes contradictory interpretations that are both true. Ours is a “Both-and Scripture, enlightened by the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, worked in trust and accountability of the community,” he said.

I think Slaughter’s insistence on a religion that embraces “both-and” logic instead of “either-or” logic would surprise many Christians. It certainly seems foreign to some of Jesus’ teaching, such as Matthew 12:30 (either you are with me or you are against me) and John 14:6 (either you come to the Father through me or you do not find a way to him at all). Christian apologists like Ravi Zacharias have argued that “both-and” reasoning is a feature of non-Christian religions, in contrast to the “either-or” logic of Christianity. If we are to imitate Catholics, the greatest Catholic philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas filled volumes of writings in argument form (They say this, but the opposite is true. Here is proof; therefore, they are wrong.)

Watson and Slaughter both emphasized their areas of agreement over their disagreements. In fact, they did not actually identify any disagreements until forced to do so during question-and-answer time. Both men were clearly “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

However, the first question asked them to identify their key disagreement. Watson gave two answers. First, he insisted that Christians are people of the book because the Word of God is authoritative—“binding on our lives.” Second, he responded that his friend’s concerns about schism were overblown. It isn’t a schism unless you break the fellowship of communion with each other, he said. Just because there are different denominations with different modes of worship and governance does not indicate schism if they can still share the Lord’s supper with each other.

For his part, Slaughter replied that his church was inclusive. “We welcome all people into membership. We welcome all people into service.” He was not willing to call anything unclean that God has made clean, so he would rather err on the side of grace and let God be the judge. “If I’m wrong, I’m going to get a slap on the hand.” But if he kept someone out of the kingdom wrongly, he feared a worse punishment.

Slaughter was willing to denounce parts of the Old Testament that he said were written because the people writing misunderstood God. Specifically, he insisted that God did not command the slaughter of infants in 1 Samuel 15 or the stoning of women who fornicated before their wedding, as instructed in Deuteronomy 22:13-21. “That’s Taliban theology,” he said. Even though God’s revelation is progressive, he insisted that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament, so God could not display such wrathful judgment.

Watson and Slaughter ended where they began, expressing unity with each other. They agreed there is widespread Biblical illiteracy on the individual level, and lay Christians need training. Before you can even get them there, however, they said it’s hard to get Americans to identify first and foremost as Christians—not as conservatives or progressives, Republicans or Democrats, but as Christians. Faithful Christians can express difference on these matters and still fellowship with one another as part of the Body of Christ. Restoring Christianity to its rightful place, they said, must start with church leaders, who passionately and consistently read Scripture and teach Scripture in their churches. Any effort to restore Christian identity to the church must start with the Scripture.

18 Responses to Does Difference on Scripture Matter?

  1. Bill T says:

    Well done. Informative and not judgmental. Hard to do when scripture is involved. I am with Watson. The other position leads to each of us defining God when God has defined Himself in Scripture.

  2. William says:

    Is this the same Mike Slaughter that joined up with Adam Hamilton to start this LOCAL OPTION movement — now the ‘one church plan? I once trusted Adam Hamilton and the “stuff” he wrote in his well selling ($$$$) books. Taught Sunday school using his books. After discovering the real Adam Hamilton — I felt betrayed, sucked, and tossed all his books in the trash. Anyway, these people in that Hamilton camp are NOT defenders, teachers, preachers, and witnesses of Scripture! Hamilton is actually now making money off one of his more recent books directly challenging Scripture, the one about the “three buckets” of Scriptural interpretation.

    • Wayne says:

      The best teaching books for Sunday School and preaching are by David Pawson. Start off with Unlocking the Bible. ALL of his books explain scripture incredibly. On Adam Hamilton I watched an hour sermon on him unexplaining scripture to approve of gay marriage and gay clergy. I was much dumber after wasting that hour. Trust y, read an watch David Pawson:s teaching.

  3. Reed Swanson says:

    Thank you, that was very objective and even-handed. I would very much like to have been there. I think there are areas where we can be both and, but other areas where we simply can’t. It would have been interesting to ask some of those questions. For example, I would like to have pursued the idea of God’s intent for human sexual intimacy.

  4. Claude says:

    In my own Conference, a bishop advanced Rob Bell’s videos and teachings, look where Rob is today, totally apostate. IMO, Slaughter and Hamilton are slouching toward watered down Christianity, too.

  5. Russell says:

    Only if Scripture does not matter do differences on Scripture not matter. I was in a UMC church led by a Claremont product who never preached Scripture and could not answer many questions about the Bible. He taught one thing to the traditional service and something completely contradictory at the contemporary service. He preached what the theologians who interested him said. “We don’t worship the Bible,” was his answer when asked to reconcile his preaching with Scripture. It was hard to figure out what religion he practiced. He also was never joyful at Christmas, because, well Jesus didn’t much matter either because Jesus may or may not be who he said he was. He killed the successful Alpha program, drove the faithful to meeting in homes, forgot to perform communion (that didn’t matter, either) and poured his energy into a small group focused on Spong, the Jesus Seminar and process theology. Church attendance dropped from 600 to about 60 and then he retired. His retirement package and benefits, they definitely mattered to him.

  6. Loren Golden says:

    It was the mishandling of Scripture from the pulpit that led me at the age of 24 to conclude my sojourn in the United Methodist Church, in which I had been raised since birth.
    It was May 1991, and I had been a member for three years in the large Wichita church in which my parents and maternal grandparents had been married, and in which my mother, her three siblings, my younger brother, and I had been baptized as infants.  Sunday after Sunday, the senior pastor—who was a gifted public speaker—would set his own context, into which the associate pastor assisting him would read the morning text, and then after the choir sang the anthem, the senior pastor would preach about whatever he wanted, regardless of what the text actually said.  (And it was also said of him that the only “gospel” that he really knew was Ecclesiastes.)
    Then one Sunday, I visited a large Presbyterian congregation in northeast Wichita, and what came out of the pulpit resonated deeply with my soul.  The senior pastor read the morning Scripture, and then he preached on it like he believed it.  He did not try to explain it away.  He did not come up with some witty way to denigrate it (such as claiming that the reason why Cain killed Abel was because the Israelites at the time were nomadic shepherds, and the story turned Cain, “a tiller of the ground” [Gen. 4.2], into the villain—something that the senior pastor of the aforementioned UMC congregation did say).  No, the pastors and staff of this PC(USA) congregation believed and taught the inerrancy, plenary inspiration, and sufficiency of Scripture.  And because of their faithful handling of the Word of God, so do I.
    So, for the last time in my life, I changed churches for a reason other than a geographic move due to a change in employers.  I have never looked back, and I have never regretted my decision.  And I have been wonderfully blessed by God in each church home ever since then.

    • William says:

      Strange. Irregardless of what the Methodist minister did, which is not surprising, it is the PCUSA that has discarded Scripture that they dislike regarding the sins of sexual immorality, specifically the practice of homosexuality, and tossed out Scripture with relation to the definition of marriage that Jesus gave when he described God’s created order of it in his condemnation of easy divorce.

      • Loren Golden says:

        The church I attended and joined after leaving the UMC (Eastminster in Wichita) and the church I attended and joined after moving in late 1996 to the Kansas City metro area (Colonial) were, at the time, both theologically orthodox churches in the PC(USA), but because the PC(USA) changed its ordination standards in 2010, both congregations changed their denominational affiliation to the EPC.  And the church of which I am a member now (Denton Presbyterian in Denton, TX, where I have attended since 2014) is affiliated with the PCA.

      • Richard Bell says:

        1. PC(USA) has not discarded any Scripture, not even that Scripture regarding sins of sexual immorality. PC(USA) has never condemned homosexuality. PC(USA) condemns homosexual relations outside marriage just as PC(USA) condemns heterosexual relations outside marriage.
        2. PC(USA) respects the Scripture wherein Jesus describes God’s creating the institution of marriage as the reason for Jesus’ condemnation of divorce. PC(USA) respects what is obvious in that: Jesus remarked the nature of marriage, but implied nothing about the qualifications for marriage; in particular, Jesus did not imply that same-sex couples are disqualified for marriage.

        • Penny says:

          Good Grief, Richard. I must pray more.

        • Scarborough says:

          Wow. You have a totally different interpretation of Matthew 19:1-12 than I have.

          4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” NIV

          But the more telling verse is verse 11, explained in verse 12.
          11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” NIV

          It always amazes me how many Christians don’t know Matthew 19 even exists. It disheartens me how many don’t care. (Not saying Richard is in either camp. Just that is what I have experienced in discussions — people taking a side without knowing what is actually written. It surprises me.)

        • John Smith says:

          And as I recall PC(USA) is in a death spiral as congregants fly in droves to denominations that affirm and uphold the scripture. Saying you hold to the scriptures while ignoring them doesn’t really fool anyone.

  7. David says:

    God, so atrocious in the Old Testament, so attractive in the New–the Jekyl and Hyde of sacred romance.
    – Mark Twain, Notebook, 1904

  8. Loren Golden says:

    “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?  And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
    —Moses, Deuteronomy 4.7-8, ca. 1406 BC

  9. John Smith says:

    Ahh, when the elders start talking about the people in the pews you need to listen carefully: “lay Christians need training.” means those foolish people in the pews think the words in the bible mean what they say. This is not a call to read the bible and study it as most people do. No, they need to learn that its ambiguities, cultural limitations, time specific commands and other such modifiers. Remember the Wesley Quadrilateral and keep it holy for the bible is only 1/4 of the equation and needs to be weighted accordingly.

    Did you know those lay christians don’t think the elders hold to traditional beliefs, that they have started to challenge the elders and other such heresies (denying the resurrection is not heresy)? That some are starting to withhold money from the district and conference since they are ignored by the elders? Obviously the lay christians need training on their place and their obligations.

  10. John Smith says:

    I suppose I should also point out that these 2 elders, “representing the 2 wings of UMC” are representing 2 wings of the elders. The congregants have been out of this completely. I’m waiting to see how the elders fly after jettisoning the body.

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