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JOHN WESLEY ON THE AUTHORITY AND INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
The future of any constructive Wesleyan theology must begin with a clear understanding of Wesley’s theological method. Central to his method are the authority of Scripture, its relation to other authorities, and the rules which govern its interpretation. Together these three topics will be considered as an introduction to Wesley’s relation to the Bible.
Authority of Scripture
The authority of Scripture can logically be divided into two functions, authority as source of truth and as norm for truth. Wesley sees the Bible as both. First, he frequently refers to particular Bible passages as the sources for particular views. In a 1763 letter to H. Venn, Wesley writes that he drew all his notions from the Bible. In his view, some of Methodism’s most controversial doctrines, e.g., Christian perfection and the witness of the Spirit, are based on plain interpretations of the Bible that could not be set aside.
In another way of talking about the Bible as a source of doctrine, Wesley names “Searching the Scriptures” as one of the ordinances of God which all Methodists should use. In the sermon “The Means of Grace” he suggests that reading, hearing, and meditating on the Bible are means of grace for all persons, even those who have not yet become Christians.
However, this view of Scripture as a source of doctrine does not make it a market from which one can select whatever one wishes. Wesley talks about the minister as a messenger who is obligated to preach the message given her or him by the Bible. The faithful preacher must preach all scriptural doctrines regardless of how distasteful some may be. The faithful hearer of the message must follow all the behaviors commanded, regardless of how unpleasant they are. Scripture is a source whose teachings must not be ignored.
The second function of Scripture’s authority is to serve as a norm for Christian faith. There are many places where Scripture is referred to as the “whole and sole” rule of Christian faith. In many places Wesley speaks of bringing a doctrine “to the law and the testimony” as a rhetorical device to insist that Only the authority of Scripture is to be considered. In other places, he demands, “Bring me plain, scriptural proof for your assertion, or I cannot allow it.”
to Other Authorities
Since 1970, a certain understanding of authority has come to be well-known in UM circles as “The.Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Many UM are able to quote the four components—Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience—and say that Wesley used therri in sOme manner. Ted A.Campbell’s essay “The ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’: The Story of a Modern Methodist Myth” (in Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church [ed. T.A. Langford; Abingdon, 1991] 154-161) gives the history of this concept and correctly argues that it cannot be attributed in its present form to Wesley.
First, in Wesley’s conception of authority, there is no role for “tradition” at all. His uses of the term are always pejorative and reflect his view that Christianity went into severe decline after the accession of Constantine in 312. instead of tradition, Wesley appeals to Christian antiquity and to the Church of England as authorities because, and only because, their doctrines and practices are scriptural.
Wesley’s conception of authority is best summarized as saying that Scripture, reason, Christian antiquity, the Church of England,.and experience together form a single but complex locus of authority. Scripture is primary, but its correct understanding is dependent on the other four. Reason and antiquity are needed for proper interpretation. The Church of England testifies to Scripture’s authority in a manner binding upon all its clergy. Experience proves the promises of Scripture to be true.
Conversely, the very definitions of how the four subordinate authorities are properly used involves their fidelity to Scripture. Any position that denies the inspiration and authority of Scripture is irrational. Only those parts of antiquity and the Church of England that conform to Scripture are authoritative. Experience alone cannot prove or generate doctrine; it merely confirms what Scripture teaches.
These five authorities are best seen as a single locus of authority for two reasons. First, “proper use” of each one is only known through the use of at least one of the other authorities in the group. At the level of definition, they are mutually interdependent. Second, when properly used, all five make the same witness. The “general tenor” of Scripture delivers a reasonable message which was the basic teaching of the primitive church, is also taught by the Church of England, and has been shown to be real by the experience of many individuals. This Unity forms a web of interrelated ways of talking about the central truths which they all proclaim. As understood by J. Wesley, they all point in the same direction.
Wesley’s use of Scripture largely confirms his conception of its authority, with one significant exception. He makes a much greater use of the whole Christian tradition than his conception would suggest. To take Wesley’s statements about tradition at face value, one would expect to find references only to the primitive church and the Church of England. Instead, he makes explicit positive references to several figures from Medieval and Reformation periods and uses ideas and phrases taken directly from creeds and theologians throughout Christian tradition.
From a twentieth-century point of view, Wesley is insufficiently self-critical about his use of tradition. One might argue that all Christian churches are the inheritors of centuries of Christian tradition and therefore are inescapably bound up in using it. Whereas some churches might seek to minimize that influence, the Church of England provides explicit warrants for traditional influence in its Articles and Liturgy. In depending on the Church of England in the way that he does, Wesley is depending on the whole of Christian tradition more than he admits.
as the oracles of God.
Of these, the rule that guides all the others in Wesley’s actual interpretation of Scripture is the rule always to interpret Scripture “according to the analogy of faith.” By this Wesley means that any one passage must be seen in the context of the message of the whole Bible. Over and over Wesley argues that if a particular passage is unclear it must be referred to the “general tenor” of the whole Bible.
Wesley understands the general tenor of Scripture to be the “grand scheme of doctrine which is delivered therein, touching original sin, justification by faith, and present, inward salvation” (Notes on the New Testament, Rom 12:6). The Bible, when taken as a whole, delivers God’s gracious offer of salvation to humankind.
When Wesley deals with difficult biblical texts, such as those concerning predestination, his interpretation rests on the consistency that must exist between those texts and the general theme of the Bible.
Nowhere does Wesley argue for his view that the general tenor of Scripture is constituted by the order of salvation. He neither evaluates other credible alternatives nor shows why his view is preferable. It is probable that his view of the wholeness of Scripture was the hermeneutical side of his theological conversion in 1738-39. When Wesley realized the priority of justification by faith in the order of salvation, he also saw the wholeness of Scripture in a different light.
David Kelsey’s study of The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Fortress, 1975) argues that calling a text as Scripture entails attributing to it some kind of wholeness. It is my suggestion that a Wesleyan hermeneutic must begin by arguing that the wholeness of Scripture is best seen as constituted by the doctrine of salvation. Here, Wesley has a significant contribution to make to modern constructive theology.
By Scott Jones, Ph.D., an elder in the UMC and former John Wesley Fellow; now pastor of Howe UMC, Howe, Texas.
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