Consider Wesley

Reverencing the Scriptures

Steve Harper

“From a child I was taught to love and reverence the Scripture, the oracles of God,” John Wesley wrote (“Farther Thoughts on Separation from the Church,” §1). As you prepare for a career in ministry, consider John Wesley’s habits of biblical study and the manner in which he “reverenced” the Scriptures.

Albert Outler once quoted two sentences from John Wesley’s sermon on “Original Sin” and then asked his hearers, “Did you recognize that this passage, in its entirety, is composed of bits and pieces from Romans 5:19, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Genesis 5:3, Job 14:4, Ephesians 2:1, 12, and 3, Psalm 51:5, and then back home to Romans 3:22-23, in that order?” Outler then observed, “Wesley lived in the Scriptures and his mind ranged over the Bible’s length and breadth and depth like a radar, tuned into the pertinent data, on every point he cared to make” (Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit [Tidings, 1975] 10, 11).

That Wesley was constantly immersed in Scripture appears evident enough from the way in which scriptural phrases are interwoven in his works. The same could be said for the hymns of his brother Charles, where multiple biblical quotations and allusions abound in almost every verse. But it was not simply a matter of knowing the biblical texts: John Wesley had studied them in depth, and with the best tools that were available in his time. He knew and could cite the biblical texts in Hebrew and Greek. In his Sermons he did not hesitate to cite the Greek meaning of a term or phrase when it illuminated the meaning of a passage. He carried a small Latin Testament with him (it is still handed on from President to President of the British Methodist Conference). His Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (a Methodist doctrinal standard) incorporates notes from a variety of sources, including Johann Albrecht Bengel, one of the founders of textual criticism.

John Wesley not only studied the Bible in depth and with the use of critical tools, he also studied the Bible devotionally. To “search the Scriptures” (John 5:39) was, in his view, one of the divinely appointed “means of grace,” and one of the requirements for continuation in Methodist societies (according to the “General Rules”). As a means of grace, biblical study was to involve “both hearing, reading, and meditating” on the Scriptures (“The Means of Grace,” §3.7). Do not dismiss the first of these three verbs: Wesley mentions hearing scripture (orally) before reading Scripture and this implies a liturgical context in which the Scriptures are read in the congregation. Beyond hearing and reading, meditating on Scripture implies a deeply devotional approach to the Scriptures.

To follow Wesley’s example, you will have to cultivate the habit of constant recourse to Scripture, constant immersion in the biblical texts. If you are part of a small group (like a Covenant Discipleship group), you might ask the group to hold you accountable for a regular program of devotional biblical study. The use of a continuing lectionary, such as the daily lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer may also help with forming a consistent habit of biblical study.

Finally, you might help us all to think about how we can teach future generations of Methodists “to love and reverence the Scripture.” The very manner in which we handle the Bible (especially in church) should reflect our reverence for it. Observe how Jews handle the Torah in a Sabbath service, or how Eastern Orthodox or Anglo-Catholics solemnly process with the Gospel book. For all our talk about scriptural authority, Methodists (and Protestants more generally) often handle the Bible with the reverence appropriate to a suburban telephone directory.

Preparation for ministry today should engage you with a wide range of approaches to the Scriptures. Personal honesty and integrity do not allow us to escape into a precritical world of understanding the Bible. But in dialogue with contemporary ways of understanding the Scriptures, consider Wesley’s example of a deeply learned, liturgical, and devotional approach to the Bible.

Posted Nov 01, 1999