Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists
by Al Truesdale
Wesleyans aren’t fundamentalists because that would require them to exchange a high doctrine of Scripture for a low one.
Wesleyans and Christian fundamentalists (hereafter referred to as fundamentalists or fundamentalism) agree on many aspects of Christian doctrine, but there are major differences that involve what Wesleyans believe about revelation, the “Word of God,” truth, discipleship, and fidelity to Christian doctrine. The following distinctions are not meant to discredit anyone’s love for God.
Fundamentalism, as it exists among doctrinally conservative Protestants, arose in the latter part of the 19th century. It was largely a reaction against threats to Christian orthodoxy posed by certain features of modernity. Threats stemmed from modern critical studies of the Bible, from some developments in the sciences, and from default on some parts of historic Christian doctrine, including the deity of Christ. Without doubt, many of the perceived threats were real and had to be rebutted. By the 1920s, fundamentalists found themselves living in a culture that was becoming openly post-Christian.
The term fundamentalism, applied to Christians, derives from a series of booklets published in the U.S. between 1910 and 1915 titled The Fundamentals. The series defended what the authors saw as essential Christian doctrines under attack from liberal Christianity.
Defining fundamentalism is challenging. There is no uniform list of characteristics. Historian George Marsden defined early 20th-century fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.”¹ Major distinguishing features of fundamentalism are as follows:`:
1. A doctrine of inspiration of the Bible that insists upon its absolute inerrancy in all topics it addresses, whether God, religion, morality, history, or the sciences.
2. An unyielding rejection of the critical study of the Bible by using modern tools of literary analysis.
3. A belief that fundamentalism is the only faithful evangelical and orthodox interpretation of the gospel.
4. Traditionally, for most fundamentalists, a strong commitment to premillenialism.
5. Militant opposition to some developments in the sciences, especially neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.
6. Usually a reliance upon Reformed (Calvinist) theology.
Today, fundamentalism also includes what is called Neo-Fundamentalism. Neo-Fundamentalists battle what they see as threats coming from post-modern influences.
The principal difference between Wesleyans and fundamentalists springs from contrasting doctrines of Scripture and revelation. Other differences proceed from there.
For fundamentalists, revelation is thought of primarily as divine information or truth about God, humans, and the creation. For example, when Exodus 12:37 states the number of Hebrew slaves who left Egypt, that information is part of divine revelation. The Bible is the inspired and inerrant deposit of divine revelation. For that reason it is the Word of God. God unerringly communicated his revelation in various ways—through patriarchs, prophets and apostles, oracles, signs and wonders, and ultimately through Jesus Christ. Regardless of the topic the Bible addresses, it is part of God’s infallible revelation. It stands to reason that an inerrant God would communicate through an inerrant vehicle.
Therefore, in the Bible God has given us an inerrant source of truth. Either the entire Bible is without error, or the Scriptures as a whole must be false. Either Isaiah of Jerusalem wrote all of Isaiah, or the Bible is deceptive. Equally essential for fundamentalism is belief that the body of revelation the Bible contains is accessible to all who will rightly use their reason, and who will submit to what the Bible teaches.
We can see that for fundamentalists, “truth” is principally “divine truths” God has communicated to humans and recorded in the Bible. This makes the Bible “the Word of God.” Faith, then, is principally a matter of understanding and assenting to truth, to revelation, without reservation. This doesn’t minimize the importance of personal trust in Jesus Christ.
Wesleyans hold to a different understanding of revelation. The difference directly affects our doctrine of the Scriptures. God himself, not information about him, is the primary content of revelation. God manifests himself, his person, his “Name,” and his will in all the earth. he reveals his “glory” as Creator and Savior, the proper end of which is our worship of and obedience to him. God declares his Name particularly by creating a people who, in covenant with him, will bear redeemed witness to his holiness, his love, his Kingship, and his faithfulness. The Bible uniquely and definitively tells the story of God’s self-disclosure and of humankind’s response. But not everything in the Bible is essential to God’s self-disclosure.
For Wesleyans, knowing the truth is primarily a matter of knowing God, of being transformed and gifted by him, and of being placed in his kingdom service. Thinking of knowing the truth as principally a matter of assent to a body of divine knowledge or propositions strikes Wesleyans as once-removed from knowing him who is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
The Bible becomes the “Word of God” in that it faithfully and definitively bears witness to Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God incarnate (Luke 24:13-27).Calling the Bible the Word of God must maintain this critical order. For Wesleyans, the Bible’s truth is not primarily demonstrated and vindicated in a book or by arguments. Confirmation of the Scriptures happens in people who have been born again from above by the Holy Spirit, and who live as new creations in the power of the Spirit. Wesleyans read the Bible by asking “soteriological” questions (questions about salvation), not by asking questions about facts. They ask: How does a particular event or a book lead us to better understand who God is, his reign in the world, and what it means to be his people?
The measure of importance for any part of the Bible depends upon its role in declaring the Name of the Lord and in training God’s people in holy living. Not all aspects of the Bible equally serve this purpose. That God is the Creator is absolutely central; how he did it is incidental. That God delivered the hebrews from Egyptian bondage is absolutely primary, but how many escaped is secondary. That God will consummate his kingdom is paramount, but how and when is of marginal importance.
The Bible’s sufficiency for teaching us all things necessary for salvation and Christian practice defines its authority; forcing its authority to go beyond this will gravely distort the Bible’s purpose. Claiming too much for the Bible will end up diminishing its proper authority.
Next, while fundamentalists believe that through reason the content of the Bible—revelation—is accessible to any right-thinking person, Wesleyans believe that apart from the enlightening work of the Spirit the Bible remains inaccessible. Of course anyone can read the Bible, but unless the Holy Spirit bears convincing witness that what the Bible says about God the Redeemer is true—not as information, but as transformation—the Bible will remain a dead letter.
John Wesley taught that not only did the Holy Spirit inspire those who wrote the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:20-21), he must also enlighten those who read the Bible in earnest prayer.² This is the “the internal witness of the Holy Spirit” who alone can transform the written Word into the living Word. Wesley and John Calvin agreed: “Scripture suffices to give a saving knowledge of God [only] when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” Knowledge of the Bible’s real meaning and authority cannot be separated from the grace of regeneration.³ The goal of revelation, confessing “My Lord, and my God,” is something the Spirit alone can accomplish (John 15:27; 16:8-11).
The Free Word of God
The irony in the contrast between fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology is that Wesleyans end up taking the Bible more seriously than do fundamentalists. Though well-intended, fundamentalism requires of the Bible a perfection the Bible doesn’t require of itself. Consequently, the Bible cannot be itself.
Because Wesleyans don’t lock the Bible into an artificially imposed perfection, its long and rich history of composition (including the slow development of the Hebrew language) is permitted to speak. We can learn from various types of literature (genres) that characterize the books, and take seriously what genre tells us about purpose and social context. By studying the temporal setting of 2 Peter and its similarity to Jude, for example, we can gain a better understanding of its role in the New Testament and its importance for us today.
Only by taking seriously an author’s theological perspective can we hope to understand a book such as Chronicles. Moreover, the Wesleyan doctrine of Scripture doesn’t force the Book of Genesis to become a book about science. Thus, the Bible’s rich testimony to the living God stands forth in all its beauty and diversity, and its exposition becomes more fruitful. By contrast, because of its low doctrine of Scripture, fundamentalism can’t utilize these rich tools and crippling consequences follow.
Fundamentalism can certainly be chosen over a Wesleyan doctrine of Scripture. But we must not make the mistake of confusing the two. We shouldn’t ask the Church of the Nazarene, which is a Wesleyan denomination, to exchange its high doctrine of Scripture for a lesser one. What attracts us most is asking the Holy Spirit to so enliven the Scriptures that they will teach us how to become Spirit-filled and Spirit-led people in the Church and in the world.
1. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 4).
2. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, comment on 2 Tim. 3:16.
3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, 8.13.
Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary