Scripture in the Methodist Tradition, Part 1: Four Principles From Article VI

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The Holiness Movement is part of the Protestant tradition. Each year we commemorate the Protestant Reformation on October 31, while masses are masquerading for tricks and treats. October 31, the eve of All-Saints’ Day, is the day on which Martin Luther posted his ninety-five disputations on the community’s social media wall—the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany—in 1517. His post set off a firestorm followed by a century of doctrinal correction within European Christianity. Much of the controversy had to do with the Bible, and subsequent storms were spawned through the following centuries—the Liberal-Fundamentalist controversy of the late 19th century, the inerrancy controversies of the mid-20th century, and battles over translation in the late 20th century. 

Several years ago, I began studying the doctrine of Scripture within the Methodist tradition and uncovered some curious findings, some of which are included here. As a lover of church history, I collected church manuals and filled boxes with dusty “disciplines,” as they’re usually called, and church handbooks of various lengths. They’ve proven to be a treasure trove for theological analysis. I intend in this short series of articles to introduce, compare, and analyze the formal history of the doctrine of Scripture in the Holiness Movement. I begin with Article VI of the 39 Articles of Religion, then explore revisions within the Holiness Movement that represent significant movements in its history. 

I. Our Theological Heritage from the 39 Articles of Religion

The Holiness Movement lies squarely within the theological tradition of the Church of England and its 39 Articles of Religion (1571). Nearly all of the faith statements in the Holiness Movement include exact verbiage from the 39 Articles, and many take the statement on Scripture verbatim, with one notable exception. The foundational article on Scripture for the Holiness Movement is Article VI of the 39 Articles. Article VI was first hammered out in 1552 for the Church of England. It was influenced by several earlier Protestant statements, underwent some revisions over the next two decades, and was finally published in the Book of Common Prayer in 1571. Here is Article VI as it has been received by the Holiness Movement:

The Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of Holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

The article ends with a list of the sixty-six canonical books included in the Protestant Bible and accepted as Holy Scripture. This is followed by a list of the fourteen non-canonical books which are rejected as Holy Scripture by Protestants but are counted as Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church.

The Holiness Movement lies squarely within the theological tradition of the Church of England and its 39 Articles of Religion (1571).

The articles that follow Article VI are important for understanding the relationship between Scripture, the Church, and Tradition—all central themes of the Reformation. Article VII describes the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Article VIII affirms the authority of the creeds. Articles XIX “The Church” and XX “The Authority of the Church” are likewise relevant. I believe that the tradition received and passed on by the early Methodists attempts to preserve a Protestant view of Scripture, the Church, and Tradition that does not undermine either the primacy of Scripture or the role of the Church as the guardian of the truth. How successful that attempt has been remains to be seen.

A. Four Principles from Article VI

John Wesley abridged the 39 Articles of the Church of England into the twenty-five articles adopted by the Methodists. In the process, Article VI of the 39 Articles became Article V for the Methodists. Although Wesley shortened the whole, the Methodist statement on Scripture remained unaltered from the original Anglican article. Therefore, Wesley preserved the four principles outlined in Article VI, which we will examine shortly. It is noteworthy that these same principles were reaffirmed in Silas Comfort’s 1847 Exposition of the Articles of Faith of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a publication of the Genessee (NY) Conference.

1. All that is necessary to our salvation is contained in the Bible.

This principle is explicit in the opening line: “The Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation.” It is important to read this in the context of the 16th century: it is a Protestant statement, a protest against the popular idea that the Holy Scripture and the Spirit’s accompanying illumination are insufficient for salvation, and that the Church is infallible along with the Word and Spirit.

If you want to know about salvation, seek no higher authority than Holy Scripture itself.

The Reformation was a crisis in epistemology, and the opening line is an epistemological statement: if you want to know about salvation, seek no higher authority than Holy Scripture itself. The Bible, because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the single, infallible source of knowledge for salvation. Silas Comfort asserts, “The Bible contains the whole of divine revelation; and this revelation has come down to us complete and whole.” First, note that Comfort is referring to the whole of special revelation and is not denying general revelation. More to his point, he uses the word “contains” but not in the sense that Karl Barth meant, that the Bible merely contains divine revelation rather than being divine revelation. In other words, Comfort is asserting that all the content of the Bible is necessary and sufficient for faith.

Finally, what is necessary to our salvation is contained in the Bible. This little preposition is important: not for (Latin: pro) our salvation but to (Latin: ad) our salvation. This line is not suggesting that knowledge of Scripture is necessary for salvation. This would imply that those without access to the Holy Scripture cannot be saved. But the preposition to indicates that this is more an affirmation about the Bible as divine revelation of salvation. All of the happenings and truths of Scripture are necessary to salvation, that is, in order for salvation to be a reality. The Holy Spirit as the agent of prevenient grace has given sufficient grace and knowledge to all people so that all may be saved (Titus 2:11, John 1:9), even those without access to the Bible. Article IV is not making a claim about access to Scripture. Rather, it merely states that the Bible alone contains the plan of salvation. Although one may be saved without having access to a Bible thanks to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, salvation never occurs outside the plan revealed by Scripture.

2. Church discipline only applies to matters which may be proven by Scripture.

The second principle comes from the next portion of Article VI: “so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” This portion of the article places it squarely within the conversation of church discipline, and what should or shouldn’t be enforced upon believers. Nothing unfounded in or on Scripture should be required or rendered necessary to salvation. This leads us to consider the two criteria for church discipline: “whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby.”

Only what is read or implied by Scripture is to be required as an article of faith or required behavior for church members.

The first criterion is the explicit teaching of Scripture, or what can be read in Scripture. The second criterion is what can be proven from Scripture. All of these truths—explicit and implicit—are properly called “biblical.” Only what meets one or the other of these criteria should be the standard by which church discipline is practiced.

Church discipline covers two areas: what we believe and what we do. This portion of the article ends by describing these two areas covered in church discipline. Only what is read or implied by Scripture is to be required as an article of faith or required behavior for church members.

3. All of Scripture is contained in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.

The third section of Article VI says, “In the name of Holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament.” Since the article ends by rejecting the books of the Apocrypha, it is obviously a Protestant statement. Only and all of the Old and New Testaments count as Holy Scripture and are authoritative for Christians. Scripture is our rule of faith, says Silas Comfort. Given the previous two principles, this one is especially targeting the Roman Catholic Church which holds itself and its interpretation as an additional infallible authority. Comfort represents Methodism when he writes, “The Scripture canon contains all the books acknowledged to be of divine authority.” These sixty-six books are the only directly, divinely authorized texts. Again, we can be assured that “the Bible contains the whole of divine revelation; and that this revelation has come down to us complete and entire.”

4. All of Scripture is authoritative in the Church. 

The fourth principle can be found in this portion of the article: “of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” There were, of course, many doubts and debates in the early church regarding some letters of the New Testament, but those debates coalesced into a consensus. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, discerned and identified these holy writings which are called Holy Scripture.

Scripture’s authority is always situated in the Church; that is, the Church is where divine authority is manifest in the obedience of Christians.

The relationship of Scripture and the Church is crucial. Scripture’s authority is not merely affirmed by the Church, but it is also exercised in the Church. The Church exists entirely under the authority of the Holy Spirit and the word inspired by the Spirit. There is no disguised reallocation of authority. Scripture’s authority is always situated in the Church; that is, the Church is where divine authority is manifest in the obedience of Christians. This is why church discipline is such a focus of Article VI. We will explore this more in the next article of the series.

David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).