This post is part three of a five-part series, “Why I’m a Nazarene”:
- Part 1: History and Background of the Church of the Nazarene
- Part 2: Equality in Ministry in the Church of the Nazarene
I’ll admit it. This is the post in my “Why I’m a Nazarene” series that I have been dreading to write. Particularly in recent years, even among faithful Nazarenes, there is quite a bit of controversy regarding our official stance on Biblical inerrancy. Many other Nazarenes have no idea what our denomination actually believes regarding this issue.
Additionally — more than any other issue — the arena of Biblical inerrancy seems to divide evangelical Christians into two camps, resulting in accusations, quarrels, and debates on both sides. It’s something my husband Randy has written about on two different occasions, and a constant source of conversation in our household. It seems to us that entire theological systems can be boiled down to one single question: where do you stand on Biblical inerrancy?
So take a deep breath with me, and let’s dive in.
The Church of the Nazarene does not affirm strict or absolute Biblical inerrancy.
Our Article of Faith on the Holy Scriptures (Article IV) states:
“We believe in the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, by which we understand the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation, so that whatever is not contained therein is not to be enjoined as an article of faith.”
“But wait a second! It says ‘inerrantly’ right there! What do you mean you don’t believe in biblical inerrancy?!”*
Let me try to explain:
Our Article of Faith on Scripture does not say that we believe the Bible is entirely, factually accurate in every detail or that it contains no error whatsoever. Frankly, we don’t feel the need to prove that the Bible is without error or that it should always be read literally. We do not think it is wise, beneficial, or necessary to try to make those kind of absolute arguments. When we do this, we risk turning the Holy Scripture into something that it was never intended to be: we make it an almanac, textbook, or manual, rather than a tool that points us toward God.
What this Article of Faith does say is that the Bible is trustworthy and reliable for all things regarding our salvation and relationship with God. This is called “soteriological inerrancy.” In other words, the Bible is true and right because it points us toward Christ. It shows us how we, guilty sinners, can be saved, made new, and brought into the family of God. The Bible is a faithful source of instruction and guidance as it shows us how to be the people of God and followers of Christ in our world. Ultimately, the Bible is the story of how God interacts with humanity and continually offers us salvation and love.
Additionally, we believe in “plenary” inspiration. This word “plenary” means “whole, complete, full.”
On the one hand, this means that we believe the whole Bible was inspired: Genesis to Revelation. We can’t just “pick and choose” which parts we believe are inspired by God! This also means that we need to take Biblical context into account. Taking verses out of their original context and using them to prove a point is called “proof-texting,” and it’s something we try to stay away from in the Church of the Nazarene.
On the other hand, plenary inspiration means that we believe God was fully involved in the whole process of inspiration: the original writing, the multiple transcriptions and translations, the various interpretations and multiple versions, and even when we read the Bible today. God still “inspires” every time we pick up the Bible and read his Word.
But let me be careful to say this: plenary inspiration is not the same as direct or verbal inspiration. We do not believe that God literally dictated the words of the Bible to its human authors. These authors each had their own unique writing style (you can probably even tell that John writes much differently than Paul), and they were each uniquely influenced by their culture, experiences, circumstances, and time period. But in his great creativity, God allowed (and even encouraged!) these writers to use their individual differences within their writing. But ultimately, he was still in control of the message. We can trust that God communicated exactly what he wanted to say to his people, and that the Scriptures are reliable, trustworthy, and authoritative for our lives. As we Nazarenes like to say, the Bible is “the Word of God, in the words of man.”
So yes, for Nazarenes, the Bible is of great importance.
It is one of the main ways that God revealed himself to humanity. It is our primary source of information and instruction as believers. It is dependable and definitive for our lives. In fact, as Article IV says, we would never include something into our denominational doctrine that did not match up with Scripture! But as much as possible, we Nazarenes try to interpret the Bible through the lenses of church history and tradition, individual and community experiences, and our God-given reason, always taking into account cultural and canological context.
Overall, I am so thankful to be a part of a faith tradition that maintains these views of the Bible. I am proud that we have held on to our convictions despite the wave of fundamentalism that has swept over Christianity. (In fact, the Church of the Nazarene recently reaffirmed our rejection of strict Biblical inerrancy at the 2013 General Assembly.) While we love the Bible, we are able to recognize that it is not God, nor is it an object to idolize and worship. By putting the Bible into the proper perspective, we are able to look to God as the ultimate authority in our lives.
For me personally, I believe that the Nazarene view of the Bible leaves a lot of room for God’s grace and mystery. We don’t have to know for certain which gospel account of Christ’s resurrection is the “most accurate;” instead, we just celebrate that we serve a Risen and Living Lord! We don’t need to prove that creation happened in six literal days; we are reminded that our Creator God is in control of the world! We don’t need to know exactly how many people Jesus fed with five loaves and two fish. We are simply in awe that he performed such a miraculous event out of his love and compassion for people! We don’t have to determine whether we are pre-millennialists, amillennialists, or post-millennialists. We just look forward to Christ’s second coming and to the day when he will put the world back in order!
By not being strict inerrantists, Nazarenes are able to embrace the “bigness” and the mystery of God without having to have all of the right answers. We are able to seek God in faith. We are able to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to our hearts beyond the written text. And in believing as we do, we are (hopefully) able to extend grace to others who may believe slightly differently than ourselves.
*On that word “inerrantly”… As the story goes, H. Orton Wiley, one of the early Nazarene theologians, strategically added this word “inerrantly” to our Article of Faith on the Bible in 1928. He did so to pacify Nazarenes leaning toward Fundamentalism, but in such a way that still preserved our Wesleyan and Anglican roots regarding the sufficiency of Scripture in all things necessary to salvation. You might say that he was a “wily” fellow indeed! Article IV has not been modified since then.
For further reading on the Church of the Nazarene’s stance on Biblical inerrancy, please see the following:
- Scripture Study Committee Report at the 28th General Assembly
- “What Do Nazarenes Believe About the Bible?” by Kris Beckhert
- “Nazarenes Reject Strict Inerrancy” by Thomas Jay Oord
- “The Modern Inerrancy Debate” by Dennis Bratcher
- “Kudos to the Church of the Nazarene…” by Roger E. Olson