I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.
Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.
The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:
1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.
2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.
In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.
Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).
Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.
Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.
Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.
For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”