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Should Wesleyans embrace biblical inerrancy?

I am currently reading through an excellent collection of essays entitled, Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading the Bible as Scripture (Baylor University Press, 2012). In this book, several of the contributors express considerable unease with Wesley's staunch declarations that the Bible is completely free from error. These scholars seek to articulate a theology of Scripture that follows the characteristic emphases of Wesley's theology while nevertheless avoiding his claim of biblical inerrancy.

One of these contributors, Jason Vickers, argues specifically that Wesley’s commitment to inerrancy is due to the influence of eighteenth-century rationalism (see esp. pages 150-151). In response to Vickers, I would simply point out that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy did not originate in the eighteenth century. On the contrary, it has been expressed by Christian theologians at least as early as the fifth century. Consider the words of Augustine (354-430) to Jerome (c. 345-420):

I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason. I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error. (Letters 82.3)

In critiquing Wesley’s view of Scripture, Vickers points specifically to the following two statements from Wesley: (1) “If there be one falsehood in the Bible, there may be a thousand; neither can it proceed from the God of truth”; and (2) “Will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture shake the authority of the whole?” As noted above, Vickers believes that such statements indicate that Wesley’s theology of Scripture has been infected by “the prevailing thought currents of the long eighteenth century” (150).

However, well over one thousand years before Wesley was born, Augustine made the same assertion about the inerrancy of Scripture. In another letter to Jerome, Augustine writes the following:

It seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. ... The authority of the Divine Scriptures becomes unsettled (so that every one may believe what he wishes, and reject what he does not wish) if this be once admitted, that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us, could in their writings state some things which were not true. (Letters 28.3, 5)

Augustine’s view is typical of Christian theology throughout the premodern era. For example, in the opening to his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74) insists that while the writings of the Church Fathers could be cited to establish the probability of a certain doctrine, only the Bible could be cited as “an incontrovertible proof.” At this point he quotes the words of Augustine to Jerome: “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them” (1.8).

In summary, John Wesley’s commitment to biblical inerrancy is not a mark of his susceptibility to eighteenth-century rationalism. Rather, it is a mark of his faithfulness to the traditional Christian view of Scripture.


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