United Methodists are shaped and transformed by Scripture

April 8th, 2016

For the heirs of John Wesley—I will call them “Methodists”—the central importance of scripture in the formation of God’s people is nonnegotiable. Evidence for this claim in Wesley is easy to document. Consider Wesley’s own words: “Bring me plain, scriptural proof for your assertion, or I cannot allow it.” “You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour if you depart ever so little from Scripture.” In his eighteenth-century Britain, Wesley and his movement were slandered for their emphasis on scripture. Like rotten tomatoes, names like Bible-bigots and Bible-moths were tossed at them by their detractors. Wesley wore these derisive words as badges of honor.

As important as scripture is within the Wesleyan tradition, though, I am not exaggerating much when I suggest that Methodists have not always known what to do with scripture. More particularly, we have not always known what to do with scripture as Methodists. We have tended in recent decades, for example, either to follow the patterns of reading the biblical materials taught and learned in universities and seminaries, or to reject those patterns. Neither approach is particularly Methodist. Neither leads to our reading scripture as Wesleyans.

Here are some hints. Simply put, the typical patterns of reading the biblical materials taught and learned in formal biblical studies today have little to do with reading the Bible in and for the church, Methodist or otherwise. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the reigning approach to biblical studies has been its requirement that practitioners put their faith commitments on hold. Serious biblical study, according to this approach, neither assumes nor necessarily leads to religious commitments.

This is not to say that these patterns of biblical study ought to be rejected wholesale, but it is to say that, left to themselves, these interpretive practices have little to do with the life of the people called Methodists. The answer does not lie in rejecting this sort of disciplined approach to the Bible in favor of what is sometimes called “taking the Bible literally.”

Wesley made a number of assumptions about the nature of scripture, and these led to characteristic practices for reading the Bible. The result could hardly be called “precritical” or “naive.” We find one of the most telling comments Wesley made about the Bible in the opening to his “Sermons on Several Occasions”:

I want to know one thing, the way to heaven—how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He has written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a person of one book]. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of others. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book—for this end, to find the way to heaven.

Wesley urges in no uncertain terms that the aim of scripture is to lead us to and in “the way to heaven.” We might take exception to the way Wesley has thus described biblical interpretation as something he does “alone.” We might also take exception to the fact that someone who wrote so many books and who was so widely read could thus aim to be “a person of one book.” Wesley’s practice as a reader of scripture undermines these two criticisms. Clearly, when Wesley interpreted the Bible, he was never alone but surrounded by other interpreters, contemporary and past. Moreover, as he worked with scripture he drew on a wide range of learning—including commentaries and devotional works, which we might have expected, but also classical philosophers, early church writers, and the latest science of his day. These criticisms, then, should not detract from the central point of this passage from his “Sermons on Several Occasions.” This is that, for Wesley, reading scripture is tied to the journey of salvation. The Bible teaches “the way to heaven.” And Wesley reads the Bible with this aim in mind—“to find the way to heaven.”

How do we know if the Bible is “true”—if it shows us the way to heaven? How do we know if we have read the Bible well—if our reading of scripture has furthered our progress on the way to heaven?
“The way to heaven,” of course, is for Wesley not simply a statement about eternal bliss. It refers more broadly to the journey of salvation—from original sin to justification and new birth, and on
to holiness. Reading scripture as Wesleyans means taking seriously both this aim of scripture (to show the way to heaven) and these consequences of our reading scripture (to find the way to heaven).

This also means that it is never enough to say that Methodists “take the Bible seriously” or that we think “the Bible is important for faith and life.” This would be true of Christians generally. More is at stake than these statements, however true they might be. To push further, we need to recognize that our heritage as Wesleyans is a tradition that underscores the importance of theological formation for biblical interpretation. As Wesleyans, we read with a constant eye to what Wesley called “the Scripture way of salvation.” We read with a constant eye toward the ongoing formation of the people of God in holiness. There are other ways to read the Bible, to be sure. But Methodists locate their reading of the Bible within the larger Wesleyan tradition. We read the Bible as Wesleyans. And we need to know what this looks like.

This article was excerpted from Reading Scripture As Wesleyans (Abingdon Press, 2010).

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