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Was John Wesley an inerrantist?

I recently read an excellent collection of essays entitled, Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading the Bible as Scripture.1 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. In a previous post I responded to the argument made by one of the contributors, Jason E. Vickers. In this post I will respond to the argument made by another contributor, Elaine A. Heath.


As discussed in the previous post, Vickers acknowledges that Wesley affirmed biblical inerrancy but suggests that modern Wesleyans should not follow Wesley in this affirmation. Heath takes a different approach. Instead of disagreeing with Wesley, Heath simply denies that Wesley was “an inerrantist in the contemporary sense of the term.”2 Heath defends this conclusion by observing that Wesley “read the Bible in its original languages, appreciated the biblical scholarship available to him, and drew heavily from others’ exegetical work.” Thus Wesley’s approach to Scripture was not “naïve, fundamentalist, or uniformed by the emerging critical scholarship of his day.”3


Of course, Heath’s argument only works if contemporary inerrantists are indeed naïve fundamentalists who are uniformed by critical scholarship. But is this an accurate description of today’s inerrantists? The flagship organization for contemporary inerrantists is the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). ETS was founded on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and the affirmation of this doctrine is a requirement for membership. One need only peruse the list of ETS presidents to dispel the notion that contemporary inerrantists are disengaged from critical scholarship. In 2016, for example, ETS was led by Daniel Wallace, an eminent Greek scholar who wrote a standard textbook on Greek syntax. Four years later, ETS was led by Craig Keener, another eminent scholar who is noted for his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman literature.


While Heath does not mention Genesis, the claim is occasionally made that modern inerrantists insist on a literal reading of the creation narratives. Many members of ETS, however, argue against such an interpretation. William Lane Craig, for example, recently published a thorough and sophisticated defense of the view that Genesis 1-11 belongs to the genre of "mytho-history" and should therefore not be read literally.4


In conclusion, Heath’s suggestion that Wesley was not an inerrantist "in the contemporary sense of the term" rests on an inaccurate caricature of contemporary inerrantists. Wesley was certainly an inerrantist and would have gladly affirmed the ETS doctrinal statement: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”


 

1. Joel B. Green, David F. Watson, eds., Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading the Bible as Scripture (Baylor University Press, 2012).

2. Here Heath is quoting the opinion of Randy L. Maddox, another Wesleyan scholar.

3. Elaine A. Heath, "Reading Scripture for Christian Formation," Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading the Bible as Scripture, 211-25, esp. 212.

4. William Lane Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).

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