Reading Scripture the Wesley Way

March 9, 2017

Bill T. Arnold

The Wesleyan Covenant Association affirms that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; NRSV). We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.

As United Methodists, we also emphasize three principles of interpretation. These three progress from the simplest to the most complex, and in the case of the third principle, the most important for Wesleyans.

(1) Texts in Contexts. We insist on taking “individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole” (2016 Book of Discipline, ¶105, page 84). This is our statement against what is commonly called “proof-texting,” or lifting a single verse from somewhere in the Bible, stripping it of its surrounding literary context, and using it to prove what it never intended to support. In addition to literary context, we also must take each verse carefully in its linguistic and historical context. For example, by proof-texting, one could argue that the Old Testament psalmist is an atheist because he says “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1 CEB). But of course, in reality, the whole line reads: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’.” A proof-texting argument would make the psalmist say just the opposite of what the whole psalm is actually teaching.

Such cultural and literary contexts are particularly important when Christians today read the Old Testament law. For example, the Israelite law forbids beard-trimming (Leviticus 19:27), lobster-eating (Leviticus 11:10; Deuteronomy 14:10), and a host of others. And this is not to mention the many laws requiring the reader to do something positively, such as elaborate instructions for offering animal sacrifices in worship (Leviticus 1-7), or keeping the sabbath on Saturday (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

It might help us to remember that the heart of Israelite law was summarized by Jesus as love of God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39; Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18). Moreover, Jesus came into the world not to abolish the Old Testament law but to fill it up with significance (Matthew 5:17). Anyone who ignores the least one of these commandments is least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19). The way we understand the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is clearly complicated. The Hebrew Scriptures were God’s message and God’s will for the Israelites in their time and place. But as Christian Scripture, the Old Testament’s central tenets cannot be dismissed easily today, including the hard to understand legal portions.

This distinction between Mosaic laws that are ceremonial, civil, and moral cannot be applied to specific laws, as some have tried. Shall we take the Ten Commandments as moral, dismissing the rest as ceremonial or civil? That won’t work because the command to keep the sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15) is moral, ceremonial, and civil. So while these categories cannot be applied specifically to individual verses (in proof-texting fashion), they are helpful nonetheless in understanding the way the Old Testament is still God’s word for Christians today while not necessarily representing God’s command to us in every instance. We therefore are compelled to look for principles and truths lying beneath the surface of each command, and in case-by-case fashion, look for ways these truths are relevant for our edification today.

In this way, even the prohibitions against beard-trimming and lobster-eating contribute to our understanding of the way ancient Israelites were to relate to Yahweh as a holy people. The immediate context in each case explains that the prohibitions are related to living a holy life before God (lobster-eating = Leviticus 11:44-45; beard-trimming = Leviticus19:2 and Deuteronomy 14:2). We may try to argue that those prohibitions are culturally embedded in ancient stigmas or outmoded in light of today’s understandings. But that doesn’t make them irrelevant. Yes, even the prohibitions against beard-trimming and lobster-eating have important lessons to teach us about holiness. Application in these cases comes not in the form of enactment, but of instruction.

(2) The Canon of Scripture. As United Methodists, we view the Bible “as sacred canon for Christian people,” specifically the “thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament” (2016 Book of Discipline, ¶105, page 84). As sacred canon (or authoritative standard) for the Church, we believe the Bible is not primarily inspired for us to know things (epistemology). We learn quite a lot from the Bible, of course. But this is not its primary function in and for the Church. Instead, the Bible is inspired and given by God to the Church in order for Christians to know God through personal and corporate salvation (soteriology). Even my use of the word “know” in the previous sentences has different meanings. By “know” when referring to things, I’m essentially referring to the use of my brain to accumulate facts. But by “know” when referring to God, I mean encountering God and relating to him in a way made possible by the sacrificial atonement of Christ on the cross. We believe the whole canon is a gift from God, inspired to lead us to an intimate relationship with God individually and corporately, and to transform us into God’s image, individually and corporately.

(3) The Primacy of Scripture. As United Methodists, we are convinced “that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (2016 Book of Discipline, ¶105, page 83). In this conviction we stand squarely on the shoulders of our forebear, John Wesley, who took Scripture as “the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice” (Sermon “The Character of a Methodist,” ¶1), while also turning to other authorities to confirm and develop his understanding of the message of Scripture.

Specifically Wesley recognized five authorities for Christian doctrine, while never losing sight of Scripture as primary among them. Scripture and reason are a type of joint authority in that reason serves to supplement and interpret Scripture. A third authority for Wesley was Christian antiquity or the “primitive church,” by which he means Christianity prior to Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD. Wesley believed doctrines should be proved by Scripture and reason, and by early Church history if need be. Fourth was the Church of England, in which Wesley was an ordained priest. He turned specifically to the Church’s liturgy, articles of religion, and homilies, although he was clear that its authority was subordinate to Scripture. The fifth and last source of authority for Mr. Wesley was experience, by which he means specifically Christian experience. This criterion for Christian doctrine is least of all. Whenever Wesley sees instances where Scripture and experience deviate, he characterizes Scripture as trustworthy and experience as untrustworthy.