How to read the Bible like Wesley (sort of)

August 14th, 2019

I recently read through Scott J. Jones’s excellent book, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture (Kingswood, 1995). I’d read parts of it before, but I’d never made my way through it cover to cover. It’s a very informative work. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Wesley and Scripture. Especially since the emergence of higher criticism,we Wesleyan/Methodist/Pietist folks have struggled with how to approach the Bible as both a collection of historically situated writings and the revealed word of God.

It’s the and that causes us so much trouble.

Wesley read the Bible from a specifically theological perspective. He always preferred what he termed the “literal sense” of Scripture, but at times the literal sense created a contradiction with another passage of Scripture or implied an absurdity. In those cases, one would have to be more creative in discerning Scripture’s meaning. Nevertheless there were parameters for creative interpretation. The “analogy of faith” provided a theological framework for reading Scripture.

Stay with me here… This is going to get a little more complicated.

The analogy of faith

The “analogy of faith” is a way of speaking about the core content of the Christian faith as Wesley understood it. This core content had primarily to do with salvation. It was itself derived from Scripture, and it also functioned as a norm for interpreting Scripture.

A basic summary of the analogy of faith goes something like this: All people stand under the influence of original sin. We can’t escape its influence on our own. God gives all people the opportunity to repent (preventing grace), though most people will not do so. For those who repent and place their trust in Christ for their salvation, there is new life in the present and eternal life in the age to come. Christ removes the guilt of original and actual sin (justification) and allows us to live in keeping with the will of God (sanctification). The Holy Spirit works in us throughout our lives, reshaping us into the divine image (also sanctification). We should expect to be made perfect in love in this life (Christian perfection).

Wesley assumes some basic concepts in this schema of salvation. He simply assumes classical doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation and resurrection. He assumes the atoning work of Christ on the cross. He assumes Christ’s virginal conception. These are never in question for him, despite the growing skepticism of Christian faith claims emerging in Europe during his lifetime.

Primitive Christianity

Wesley assumes the truth of these faith claims because they represent for him “primitive Christianity.” This is the religion of the early church, which has been faithfully preserved in the doctrinal traditions of the Church of England. For Wesley, the problem with the Church of England wasn’t its doctrine, but its practice. The Anglicans had lost their fire. They had the form of religion without the power. Wesley wanted to see that power restored to the church he loved and served.

The religion of the primitive church, Wesley believed, was preserved by God in Scripture. Thus readings of Scripture that deviated from the faith of the primitive church were wrong and needed correction by the analogy of faith. There is obvious circularity in this schema. Scripture conveys the faith of the primitive church, and the faith of the primitive church (the analogy of faith) norms the interpretation of Scripture.

How should we assess and appropriate such a reading of Scripture today? It’s not an easy question to answer. The history of the development of doctrine and the canonization of Scripture are more complex than Wesley suggests. In my own thinking, it works something like this:

A basic canon of doctrine preceded the final form of the Christian canon of Scripture

In the first century we start to see basic creedal formulations popping up (e.g., Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20). In the second century we get the Old Roman Symbol (a precursor to the Apostles’ Creed), along with the Rule of Faith preserved by Irenaeus. To put it another way, the basic parameters of Christian belief were widely in place quite early on, and these parameters served as criteria for the selection of Christian writings that would become Scripture. Over time, works that taught the faith of the church found wider and wider use. Works that didn’t teach the church’s faith gradually fell out of use.

While the early church used the Old Testament from the time of Christ onward, it took a few centuries for the NT to congeal. While the basic contours of Christian doctrine were in place in the second century, a solid New Testament canon was a long way off. In the second century we begin to see the fourfold collection of the gospels emerging alongside collections of some of the NT epistles. The final form of the NT canon, however, wouldn’t emerge until the mid-to-late fourth century (the earliest witness to it is 367).

A two-way street

It’s fair to say that a basic canon of doctrine helped to shape a basic canon of Scripture, but this was not entirely a one-way street. As the canon of Scripture began to take shape, it began in turn to exert influence upon the ongoing development of the canon of doctrine. In other words, the church’s Rule of Faith contributed to the formation of a “canon” (meaning “rule” or “measuring rod”) of Scripture, and the canon of Scripture contributed to the ongoing formation of the church’s rules of faith (like the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon).

Doctrine and Scripture, then, had a mutually formative relationship within the early church. This isn’t entirely different from Wesley’s understanding of the relationship between doctrine and Scripture, but it isn’t entirely the same, either.

OK… So what?

As I’m thinking through what this means for the church today, I have a few thoughts. I’d appreciate your help in sorting out their pros and cons.

Wesley commonly allowed the analogy of faith to determine the “literal sense” of a text. This goes against everything I was taught as a biblical scholar. I was taught that exegesis should function independently of later Christian doctrinal formulations. Otherwise we run the risk of distorting what the text itself says (in its original context) by bringing it into conformity with what later Christian theologians believed.

For the most part, I agree with this. I think we need to let the text speak. Sometimes there is tension between the biblical texts and later doctrinal formulations.

As Christians, however, we are obliged also to ask what a text means for the church in light of the church’s core faith claims. In this sense I’m 100% with Wesley. The two-Testament Bible is a creation of the church. The works the NT comprises were written specifically for the church. The purpose of their writing and collection was to teach and build up the church. Conformity with the Rule of Faith was one of the reasons certain works became canonical while others didn’t.

The Bible and the church

The Christian Bible makes no sense apart from the church, and the church makes no sense disconnected from the Bible.

It is entirely appropriate, then, for Christians to read the Bible in light of the doctrinal claims that represent the church’s reflection on the God who is revealed in Scripture. Every sentence of the Bible stands within a larger work, and every book of the Bible stands within the larger canon. The canon of Scripture itself stands within a larger body of Christian tradition. In other words, as we read Scripture in and for the church, we honor the particular witness of its component parts, but we also interpret these in light of their larger contexts.

For example: does the Book of Genesis presume a Trinitarian vision of God? No, it doesn’t. But Genesis is part of a larger canon. And when read it in light of this larger canon, we begin to get a more complete picture of God. We must account for the Jesus of John’s Gospel, for example, who was there “in the beginning” as the divine Word, who became flesh, prayed to his Father and sent the Holy Spirit. As the church reflected upon the apostolic witness in light of its developing canon of Scripture, it came to affirm a certain vision of God: that God is one, but existent as three persons. None is subordinate to the other. Each is eternally and fully God. It makes sense, then, to say that, even though Genesis does not presume a Trinitarian vision of God, the God disclosed therein is nonetheless the Holy Trinity.

Here is another example: the Gospel of Mark does not presume the two natures of Christ described in the Chalcedonian Definition. But our theological understanding of Jesus as Christians is not limited to Mark. We have a canon of Scripture on which to draw. We also have the important doctrinal developments, rooted in Scripture, that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries. Is the Jesus whom Mark describes the same Jesus we profess in our creedal tradition? Indeed he is. He must be. Scripture itself gave rise to the church’s teaching on Christ’s human and divine natures.

The historical/cultural/literary exegesis so common among biblical scholars can be exceedingly helpful. Yet once we bring the Bible through the doors of the church, there are additional contexts that come to bear on our interpretation: the larger canon of Scripture and authoritative tradition. It is only in light of those additional contexts that we will begin to perceive the richness of God who has disclosed himself to us over time.

This article originally appeared on David F. Watson's blog.To learn more about reading Scripture from within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, see Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture, ed. Joel B. Green and David F. Watson (Baylor, 2012), and Reading Scripture as Wesleyans, by Joel B. Green (Abingdon, 2010).

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