Searching the Scriptures: Ever-Reformed by This Means of Grace

August 9th, 2017

We rode along in the 1976 Ford pickup making small talk, eating wheat crackers and trying not to cry. The daily trip was two hours to the hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where my father was critically ill. This day it was my turn to drive. Throughout my childhood, both parents were hostile toward the church, having had unpleasant encounters with religious folk. Nonetheless, in their late sixties Jesus won them over. They were both new Christians when I got the call that Dad was sick. Within hours I was on my way.

Mom needed help with Dad in the hospital, and there was work that had to be done around their small farm. As we talked about the challenges that would face them if Dad survived, we got onto the subject of God’s help in times of need. I was driving and Mom was in the passenger seat. Mom asked if there was a passage of scripture that could help. I was still a beginner myself, having just started leading “the group for special ladies.” I pointed to the Bible in my tote bag. It was huge, a black, leather-bound Thompson Chain Reference New International Version with an impressive zippered case. “You can look up words like comfort and help in the back,” I said. “We’ll find something.” All of a sudden Mom looked at me, stricken, the Bible in one hand, her cigarette in the other. “Do you reckon God minds if I smoke while I read the Bible?” she asked. She was serious.

In John Wesley’s terms, Mom wanted to “search the scriptures,” one of the means of grace. We hoped that God might provide guidance and comfort at a time of great uncertainty. In her simple question, Mom raised powerful theological issues: What are the conditions under which a person can “search the scriptures” and encounter therein the living God? What might be obstacles to seeing and hearing God through scripture when we do read the Bible? How does one go about reading the Bible so that scriptures come to mind helpfully when we need them?

The phrase “searching the scriptures” is old-fashioned, as if we are looking for buried treasure. Yet this is an accurate description for a truly Wesleyan way to read the Bible. In his preface to The Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, one of his most important texts, John Wesley describes his purpose in having done the background research and then having written the commentary notes. The Explanatory Notes are not written for intellectuals or professional scholars. Rather, they are written “for plain, unlettered men, who understand only their mother tongue, and yet reverence and love the word of God, and have a desire to save their souls.”[i] This comment, along with many other statements Wesley makes about the Bible, demonstrate that for Wesley, reading the Bible is for the explicit purpose of Christian transformation. We “search” the scriptures, leaving no stone unturned, expecting to encounter the living God and discover life-changing guidance in its pages.

John Wesley was sometimes mocked for his deep love of scripture. Some of his detractors called him a “Bible moth.” He called himself a “man of one book,” an interesting designation considering he read widely from many disciplines, including science and medicine. The most popular book in his lifetime that he wrote was Primitive Physic, a guide to holistic medicine. When he referenced himself as a man of one book, then, what he meant was the central role the Bible played in his thought and life. In reading through his journals, sermons, and other writings, it is obvious that his very cadences of speech have been shaped by the Bible.

Even so, Wesley didn’t understand the Bible to be infallible in the way some interpreters prefer today. The Anglican Articles of Faith and the Confession that guided Wesley’s doctrine of scripture never refer to the text of scripture as “inspired,” nor do they call the Bible “the Word of God.” It’s clear that Wesley believed the Bible was inspired by God, but Randy Maddox points out “it is doubtful that he should be characterized as an inerrantist in the contemporary sense of the term.”[ii] The Confession states that the Bible “reveals the word of God.”[iii] Despite his deep love of scripture, Wesley never preached a sermon focusing exclusively on the Bible, nor did he write a treatise about it. Scripture rather was the water in which he swam, permeating his thought, words, and actions.

In his preface to the Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, Wesley advises the following. First, the reader should set aside time morning and evening, habitually, to read a full chapter each from both the Old and New Testaments. If there is not time for two chapters, the reader should select one chapter or a portion of one chapter. The goal in this reading is for one purpose: to know and do the will of God. Because the goal is Christian formation, Wesley urges readers to keep in mind at all times the basic themes and doctrines of the Christian faith as interpretive lenses. The reader must pray for the Holy Spirit to illumine his or her mind to receive the spiritual understanding of the text, something that doesn’t happen automatically and without which the reading will be useless. While reading one should move slowly through the passage, pausing to reflect often so that the text can aid the reader in self-examination, with the scripture sometimes comforting, sometimes challenging, and sometimes convicting the reader of the need for change. Finally, one should immediately put into practice any guidance or instructions that come through this twice-daily practice of searching the scriptures.[iv]

The goal in searching the scriptures is that we increasingly bear the love and grace of God to our neighbors because God’s word has become alive in us. Sometimes when searching the scriptures we don’t seem to notice anything that speaks to us. We may not always feel anything, or find ourselves drawn to an image or idea in the text. There are times when we read the Bible and, despite our best intentions, it seems dry to us. At such times, we may rest in the love of God and simply let the experience be what it is. The important thing is to regularly pray with scripture in this way. Over time, as we habitually search the scriptures with our hearts open to God, we will be in the words of Robert Mulholland, “shaped by the word.”[v]

Riding along in the truck that day, neither Mom nor I knew what the future would bring. She did find a passage using my briefcase-sized Bible and read it aloud so that we could both hear it. We talked about God as our ever-present help in times of need. Dad did recover to live a few more years. My mother became an avid student of the Bible and a strong woman of prayer. When she died at age 96, she was known far and wide as a woman of deep faith who helped many other people put their trust in God. She even finally gave up cigarettes, with God’s help. She told everyone she just couldn’t justify the expense any longer, but I know for a fact that God spoke to her through Psalm 139, her favorite Psalm. Searching the scriptures led her to the knowledge that in God’s view she was “fearfully and wonderfully made,” so she might take better care of her lungs.

This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Five Means of Grace by Elaine A. Heath.

[i] “Preface,” Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament.

[ii] Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood, 1994), 38.

[iii] Quoted in Scott J. Jones, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 130.

[iv] “Preface,” Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament.

[v] This phrase is the title of Robert Mulholland’s book on reading the Bible for spiritual transformation, Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation, Revised Edition (Nashville: Upper Room, 2001).

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