This continues the Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition series. The last one is here.
The bulk of those in our tradition continued to interpret the Bible in an individual and direct way. God might make a specific verse come alive just for you. He might give you a “life verse” or give you specific directions from a phrase or word that jumped out at you. The common origins of the Wesleyan and the Pentecostal tradition showed strongly in the way each used Scripture. These pneumatic and non-contextual uses of Scripture were more individualized than throughout most of church history, but followed the same method many New Testament authors used.
But these were the non-intellectuals of our tradition. The intellectuals of the Wesleyan tradition joined the stream of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. It is no surprise that when modernists were treating the Bible as if it were mythical and erroneous in the same way as any other ancient literature that Christians would respond by emphasizing Scripture’s truthfulness and inerrancy. Evolution was the tool of social Darwinists and was presented in opposition to the Bible. The bottom line is that those few Wesleyans who engaged in these debates understandably took the fundamentalist and then evangelical side in them.
But of course the bulk of Wesleyans in the pew were not engaged in such debates. Those who were took on the errors of that debate. In particular, both sides in the fundamentalist-modernist debate operated with the same modernist assumptions, leading to some of the key peculiarities of late twentieth century evangelicalism. For example, the entire debate about the truthfulness of Scripture operated almost exclusively in terms of precise historicity and often a simplistically literal understanding of the Bible.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, most Wesleyan Bible scholars would recognize that these standards of error are largely foreign to the biblical text. Most Wesleyan denominations have actually removed the word inerrancy from their articles of religion because of the modernist baggage attached to the word. Those like the Wesleyan Church that have retained the word have done so without giving it the precise definition it had among the Calvinist evangelicals who promoted it in the mid-twentieth century.
Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of late twentieth century Wesleyanism was the emphasis on mission and evangelism. It was neither legalism nor fundamentalism that was the emphasis of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Rather, the focus was on church growth and evangelism. Even here, however, the emphasis often deteriorated into a myopic focus on numbers.
We must thus view the preoccupations of twentieth century Wesleyanism as mixed. They continued to preach the power of the Spirit over sin in the Christian life and some lived it authentically. Others got sidetracked into legalism. The popular Wesleyan continued to hear the Spirit in the words of Scripture. Others got too preoccupied with defending the Bible on a playing field set by the Enlightenment, rather than by the Bible itself. The emphasis on the mission of the church continued, but often with hostility to social justice and with a shallow focus on numbers…