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Reading Like Wesley - A Review of Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways

Definition: Hermeneutic – a method or theory of interpretation.

Growing Up as a Theological Mutt

The churches I grew up in were not what I would consider ‘theological.’ That’s not to say they were bad churches. They were wonderful congregations filled with kind, Christ-like people and led by generous, loving pastors. But they didn’t leave me feeling intellectually satisfied. The teaching of doctrine and theology fell very low on their scales of importance.

Since I realized that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted through my local church, I searched elsewhere. I discovered the writings of John Wesley, Norman Geisler, and Josh McDowell – among many others. Likewise, I followed a number of pastors and ministries online. John MacArthur, Answers in Genesis, and a variety of Christian bloggers contributed to my intellectual and spiritual formation during that time.

It was an exhilarating time: full of learning and growing and discovering. And yet, I always felt like something was off regarding my interpretations of scripture.

It was a barely noticeable feeling but it was there. The sense that I wasn’t reading scripture consistently.

That Feeling When You Don’t Belong

I had grown up with a more Wesleyan heritage. My great-grandmother and aunt had both been ministers in the Church of God. I believed strongly in the continuation of the gifts of the spirit and that sanctification actually does something in a life and isn’t a mere legal declaration. I was an amillennialist who saw Revelation as a largely symbolic book.

Again and again, I found myself butting up against some of the thinkers and ministries that had helped me in those early years.

And as time went on, I slowly realized that something deeper was going on. I think the thought probably first came to me when I was at an Answers in Genesis conference. I had been a staunch young earth creationist – so much so that if someone told me they believed anything else, I immediately lost respect for them. But I recall looking around and coming to the realization that, though we agreed on the date of creation, I disagreed on so many other issues – women in ministry, the gifts of the spirit, the end times, etc. This isn’t to say that there weren’t people there who believed like I did on those issues. There were. But the overwhelming majority toed a particular line.

And I didn’t.

Searching for a Consistent Hermeneutic

So I began wondering why that was. And I started asking myself questions about how I interpreted scripture. And the more questions I asked, the more I realized my problem: I was holding to a theory of scripture-interpretation (or hermeneutic) that wasn’t consistent with how I was actually interpreting scripture.

When it came to Genesis, I sounded off the usual talking points about literal meaning, just believing what God wrote, etc. But what about when I turned to 1 Corinthians 11:5? 1 Timothy 2:15? 1 Peter 3:21? Romans 11:26? Or the entire book of Revelation? Or any number of other places?

When I came to those passages, I recognized the importance of noting the author, audience, and cultural situation. I sought principles that applied to today even when the actual situations didn’t. And I valued reason, tradition, and experience as helps to understanding what God was saying through scripture. I looked at everything as ultimately being focused on leading us to Christ.

In other words, I was reading the Bible like a Wesleyan. Except in Genesis.

In Genesis, I was reading like a Calvinist.

That Moment You Realize Wesley Wasn’t a Calvinist

Now, before I get a bunch of angry letters, let me be clear: this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I know Wesleyans who read things more mechanically and Calvinists who are open to understanding things in non-literal ways. But when you get right down to it, I believe that Calvinist and Wesleyan-Arminian theology lead us to read the Bible in different ways.

This thought (the idea that Welseyans and Calvinists read scripture differently) had been circling around in my head for several months when I came across ‘Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways.’ I was floored when my own thoughts were confirmed by one of the included essays.

Robert Wall notes that “…Arminius (whom Wesley follows at this point) understood Scripture’s authority in functional terms, whether to confirm the actual experience of conversion or to interpret the holiness of life for a particular setting…Those of Calvinist traditions, on the other hand, tend to press for a uniform interpretation of Scripture and its single meaning that justifies a creedal an uniform ‘orthodoxy’ – one book, one faith. Scripture’s authority is viewed in propositional terms…”

In other words, Wesleyans and Arminians tend to view scripture’s authority more as a result of the fact that God reveals himself and speaks through it. The Scriptures are sacramental. They function as a sort of medium through which God communicates with his people. So the historicity of every little detail is less important than the fact that God speaks through it.

A Quick Aside…

(Let me be clear at this point. I’m not saying that I’ve converted from Young Earth Creationism to Old Earth Creationism. Instead, I’ve come to realize that God didn’t intend Genesis to give us an exact history of the world. And asking ‘How old is the world, according to the Bible?’ is akin to asking ‘Do I have to be baptized to be saved?’ It’s the wrong question. We get baptized because Christ calls us to. Not because it’s a hoop to jump through in order to get to Heaven. Likewise, we read Genesis to meet Christ in his word. Not because it’s the ‘Authorized History of the World’.

I also understand the concerns of staunch Young Earth Creationists. They’re genuinely worried about a drift toward liberalism, a casting off of God’s word, etc. I think though, that if conservative Wesleyans better understood their hermeneutic, they’d realize that many of the arguments that they’ve attached themselves to on this issue are driven by Calvinistic concerns. Not biblical ones.)

Reading ‘Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways’

As I read through ‘Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways’, I was confronted again and again with theories that I had already been practicing though I had never really thought them out. They flowed naturally out of the Wesleyan-Arminian influences that had shaped my thinking through the years. So, for example, though no preacher I grew up listening to would have described scripture as ‘sacramental’ (as Robert Wall does in his essay, ‘Toward a Wesleyan Hermeneutic of Scripture’), in practice they all treated it that way. The same could be said for Wall’s other ideas.

And it isn’t just that essay. Each essay included in this book fleshes out a different aspect of Wesleyan hermeneutics. Geoffrey Wainwright explores the way Wesley (and Wesleyans) saw all three persons of the Trinity working together to provide and clarify scripture. Richard Thompson compares Wesley’s methodology with the more modern literary-critical method (noting both similarities and differences). Clark Pinnock argues that God is still speaking through his word – and will continue to until Jesus returns.

Though the essays are by a variety of different scholars – from various Wesleyan denominations and movements – there is a cohesiveness to the work that I’ve found lacking in many other books of essays. The only essay that felt semi-out-of-place was the last one, ‘Wesleyan-Holiness-Feminist Hermeneutics: A Historical Rendering with Contemporary Considerations’. And even this one wasn’t bad so much as it didn’t really feel like it belonged with the others.

With all of that praise, you might think that I found no flaws at all. That isn’t the case. I didn’t agree with every argument or statement. There were moments when I seriously questioned some of the assertions. But these essays never failed to make me think. And that – in my opinion – is the purpose of any good book.

The Final Word

Over all, it’s an excellent collection of essays that will force you to think about the way you interpret Scripture. We should strive to think deeply about our hermeneutic, whether we’re Wesleyans, Calvinists, or something else entirely. We should strive for consistent, clear, holistically-biblical interpretations of scripture. ‘Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways’ will help you think through the way you interpret scripture whether you’re a Wesleyan or not.

Oh, and the essay, ‘Women as Bible Readers and Church Leaders’ is one of the best brief defenses of women in ministry I’ve ever read. Don’t miss it.


Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways: Some Constructive Proposals

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