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.