When a reading of scripture is inconsistent with the Wesleyan way

April 10th, 2016

Clergy in the Wesleyan tradition believe that John Wesley and his followers developed ways of seeing God, humanity, creation, history, and contemporary life that are supported by scripture, reason, and experience. They have chosen to serve a God of love who is always graciously offering ways to participate in a relationship that culminates in seeing God face-to-face on heaven’s “happy shore.”

They, like other Christians around the world, have access to numerous sources that purport to guide them into clearer understandings of the scriptures. Although we benefit from others’ training and insight, some interpret the Bible by assuming what God must be like, not what scripture, reason, and experience show that God is like. They read scripture in decidedly non-Wesleyan ways. Although Wesleyan interpretations themselves vary, certain terms, statements, and notions disclose which really are Wesleyan, while others betray alternative systems, such as Calvinist/Reformed. Pointers can be helpful in this regard.1

Of course, all Christian interpreters claim the Bible is their central guide to faith and life. The differences between contemporary interpreters are caused by divergent assumptions—ways of thinking about God and the text; different lenses—ways of approaching and seeing what’s there; and various emphases—accentuating some scriptural concepts while minimizing others. For example, Calvinists and Wesleyans disagree about God’s most important attribute: power or love. Does love control God’s power (Wesleyan), or does God’s power trump God’s love (Calvinist)? Similarly, both approaches use the same terms, such as sovereignty, but define them differently. Wesleyans generally connect God’s sovereignty to God’s holiness, justice, mercy, grace, and love. Sovereignty for Calvinists includes the notion that God foreordained whatever happens.

“There is a reason for everything.” This phrase is often spoken to manage major or minor events, including tragedies, to imply that God is in control, that there’s some good reason for everything. But Wesleyans say: “There might be a reason for this tragedy, a very bad reason. God will lead God’s people to help, heal, comfort, and bring good out of evil, but God did not foreordain or cause this evil.”

For Calvinist/Reformed interpreters, human depravity or “inability” and “the fall” are also explanations for sin and other evils in the world, even among Christians. A book or blog that constantly employs
“the fall” as the explanation for sins committed in the present (or across history) undercuts the reality that humans choose to sin instead of choosing to obey God. While Wesleyans recognize the pervasiveness of sin, alienation, and the theological significance of Genesis 3, they are less eager to blame the couple in the garden for all other sin. For Wesleyans, free will accounts for sin, just as it accounts for human response to God’s grace and salvation. Wesleyans point out that every genre of scripture assumes and/or demonstrates free will, whereas very few verses depict utter sinfulness.

Contemporary interpretations that use the terms election and predestination (or otherwise claim that the destiny of each individual was determined by God before creation) are not Wesleyan. Wesleyans emphasize the participatory, dynamic, cooperative relationship between humans and God. Wesleyans believe that God desires salvation and sanctification for everyone, not a “preordained elect.” Wesleyans, nonetheless, agree with scripture’s view of election. God elected the Gentiles as a group to join the people of God through Christ (Eph 1:3-5; 3:5-6). Certain people are elected to be prophets and apostles (Eph 1:15), whereas others are called to various vocations.

Other ways of handling scripture signal whether a reading is Wesleyan or not. Some popular interpreters deploy the Bible as a rule book for all time, but Wesleyans receive it as God’s storybook, full of grace and truth. The story is messier; contexts matter and determine which guidelines are universal and which are conditioned by historical particulars. Like Wesley himself, his followers integrate concepts others hold apart, such as faith and works. They tolerate ambiguity, rejoice in God’s grace, and let love be their guide.

1. This short article does not attempt to include teachings or interpretations of the primary documents of Calvin and Wesley, which are extensive, nuanced, and far more complicated.

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