Perspectives Resources

Reading Scripture as Wesleyans: The Contribution of the Wesley One Volume Commentary

Kenneth J. Collins and
Robert W. Wall and

With the rise of the information revolution that spawned so many outlets for expression on social media, from twitter to Facebook to blogs, we are surrounded daily by a cacophony of messages, all crying out for our attention. How do we sort through all of this? How do we make sense of these many voices, some of them shouting, so that we can hear, genuinely listen to others, and yet not be overwhelmed? In order to come to clarity, with opportunities for deep understanding, we need a guide or standard to chart the way. For the Christian community, the Bible has helped so many in the past, throughout the centuries, to come to terms with what knowledge is valuable and what knowledge quite frankly is not. Accordingly, it will be helpful to take up a discipline, what ancient monks, as well as twenty-first-century aspirants alike, have called lectio divina, that is, study of the Bible bathed in both meditation and prayer.

A One-Volume, Wesleyan Bible Commentary

Among the most valuable resources for Bible study, whether to prepare sermons or assignments for a class, is the one-volume Bible commentary. Although single-volume commentaries on particular biblical books capture our attention and benefit careful Bible study, the growing popularity of one-volume Bible commentaries reflects the important role they perform in guiding busy clergy and overworked students through the passages they promise to preach and are assigned to study. The best of this commentary genre provide succinct introductions to each biblical book, followed by cogent commentary on the content of every biblical book, whether the plotline of a narrative, the poetic structure of a psalm or prophetic oracle, or the argument of an apostolic letter. Most provide easy-to-follow outlines and select bibliographies that list more in-depth commentaries for further study. Paired with a solid study Bible, the one-volume Bible commentary often provides an indispensable and trustworthy shortcut into a biblical text.

The Wesley One-Volume Commentary (WOVC), edited by Kenneth J. Collins and Robert W. Wall (Abingdon, 2020), fits comfortably within this genre of Bible commentary. Its principal function as a reference tool is to introduce every biblical book, to set each in its own literary and historical context, and to present competent commentaries on the meaning of each of the book’s paragraphs in turn. But there is one important difference that distinguishes the WOVC from all others: each commentary of every biblical book in this volume is written from a distinctively Wesleyan theological perspective. The two essays that introduce this commentary, written by Ken Collins (“Introduction to a Wesleyan Theological Orientation”) and Rob Wall (“Introduction to Wesleyan Biblical Interpretation”), seek to locate the purpose and usefulness of this thick volume on solid theological ground. And critically so. Much of what goes today as the “theological education” of our students or the “biblical preaching” of our clergy reflects modern criticism’s separation of theology from Bible study. The WOVC seeks to move its readers in the opposite direction—or as a riff on Charles Wesley’s famous admonition might put it, the WOVC “seeks to unite the two so long divided, Bible knowledge and vital theology.”

While the WOVC’s contributors are fully aware that the Bible gathers together collections of diverse compositions and often comment on the different social settings and ancient time-zones that shaped the texts they comment on, they spend little time speculating what biblical texts may have meant to their first readers. The keen emphasis of this commentary from beginning to end is on how a people called Methodist might read Scripture as God’s word for God’s people right here for right now. There is a general recognition, even if unstated, that every Scripture was providentially sanctified by God’s Spirit “in the fullness of time” and was recognized and received as the church’s Scripture in order to form subsequent generations of faithful readers who love God and all their neighbors in Christ-like ways. The holy end of a more accurate interpretation of Scripture is the restored knowledge of God’s truth so that the perils of intellectual estrangement from life with God may be remedied (cf. Eph 4:17-19).

With these ends in mind, the WOVC targets a more self-critical theological approach and self-aware ecclesial location to biblical interpretation. In the marketplace of one-volume Bible commentaries in wide variety that reflect the interpretive interests of their contributors and prospective readers, we invite the readers of Catalyst to ask what gap this particular volume fills in what others do not. Those invited to contribute commentaries to WOVC either pastor Wesleyan-Methodist congregations or teach at educational institutions related to the Wesleyan tradition. Their contributions not only reflect their own experiences in those settings but target those who study the Bible in the academy and congregations connected with Methodist, Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal denominations. The results are self-conscious interpretations of the biblical text informed by dialogue with Wesley’s own readings of the same texts or by their agreements with a Wesleyan theological grammar. Their interpretations, then, result from a scholarly yet self-aware practice of drawing on the core materials of a particular ecclesial tradition as a hermeneutical guide.

While this more confessional approach to biblical interpretation produces a commentary that is more theologically coherent than most, it is hardly monolithic in how it manages this end. Even a cursory review of the WOVC presents a variety of ways a Wesleyan reading of Scripture is understood. Sometimes Wesley himself is quoted for support, whether from his use of Scripture in sermons and journals or from his Notes on the Old and New Testaments. But often a commentator will elaborate a distinctively Wesleyan theological conception—such as the new birth or God’s sanctifying grace—to contextualize interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture. Still others read Scripture with a Wesleyan sense more intuitively, shaped as they are by reading and singing Wesley in worship and personal devotions. This theological unity expressed and applied in diverse ways is one of the signal strengths of this commentary.

Just as often, however, the readings found in the WOVC are the result of a contributor’s theological intuitions forged over time by their active participation in worshiping or learning communities drenched in the Wesleyan materials, where the hymns of Charles Wesley are sung by heart, where the worship practices initiated in Wesley’s evangelical revivals are continued, where personal testimonies and proclamations cued by Wesley’s core theological themes are routinely heard, and where the routines of spiritual devotions that include reading sermons and biographies written by and for Wesleyan communicants are maintained. What are forged in these communities of worship are unconscious interpretations of Scripture that ring true to their experiences of the gospel. These readings, unadorned by a critical apparatus or appeals to Wesley, are also found in the WOVC.

Simply put, the purpose of the WOVC is to retrieve a “Wesleyan sense” of Scripture for the reader’s use in worship, instruction, mission, and personal devotions. We expect some will be wary of a commentary written from a particular confessional and ecclesial perspective. One of the practical reasons typically offered in defense of modern critical approaches to biblical studies is that it rids interpretation of confessional bias, both explicit and implicit. Even though modernity’s apologia of intellectual neutrality has long since been shown wrongheaded, we would allow that the tone and purpose of the WOVC is hardly triumphal or sectarian. Its publication is not an exercise in Wesleyan exceptionalism! The purpose of providing a resource is to help clergy and faculty, students and parishioners become more fluent in a Wesleyan theological reading of Scripture for worship, instruction, mission, and personal devotions in order to animate and help shape a distinctively Wesleyan contribution to Christ’s entire church. Our intention, then, is not tribalistic or divisive but rather to make clearer the particular contribution of a Wesleyan theological reading of Scripture for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The holy end of doing so is not a renewal of a sectarian interest in a particular tradition but to form a deeper commitment to it in order to participate more fully and confidently in the ecumenical conversations of the global church.

Wesleyan Distinctives for Reading Scripture

In his own day, John Wesley was well aware of the worldwide church, and he positioned Methodism to “spread Scriptural holiness across the land” in a generous and ecumenical way, that is, in conversation with a diversity of theological traditions. Accordingly, ever since the rise of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening, a Wesleyan way of reading Scripture has emerged, and it has proved to be an enormous boon to people around the globe. Like Augustine before him, who ministered in North Africa, Wesley in his own English setting believed a basic interpretive principle could function as a guiding standard to ensure that the way we read the Bible in community, that is, within our theological traditions, would not go far afield and become more a reflection of ourselves than of the divine will.

What’s the Bible all about according to Augustine? Simply put, it’s about love, the love of God and neighbor. In a similar way, Wesley in his own age taught in numerous ways that sacred Scripture is about holy love, the holy love of God and neighbor; and if that love is to be communicated to human communities then grace is of course necessary. Indeed, grace is the communication of who God is to sinners, people who are decidedly not what God is, namely, holy. When we approach the Bible in this way, by asking the right questions from the start then we get the basics right, and this can unleash the ordering power of the Word of God for our lives. We therefore will be able to make sense of all the many voices that call for our attention today.

Though a Wesleyan way of reading Scripture will share its basic interpretation with other Christian traditions, some distinctives are noted as well. Therefore, the question, “Do you speak Wesleyan?” which treats interpretation almost as if it were another language, is appropriate after all. Such a question reminds us of a distinct vocabulary, a definite rhetoric and interpretive posture, that in its details will be understood by United Methodists, Wesleyans, Free Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, and others. What then are some of the Wesleyan interpretive distinctives under this broad banner of holy love?

First, because God is holy love then the Most High desires that all people be redeemed. To be sure, for Wesley love is God’s “darling attribute”; in other words, it describes the very being of the Almighty. Simply put, because of who God is, as revealed in Scripture, God cannot but will the redemption of all people. This also means that Christ died for all. How could he not? Love compelled him. That doesn’t mean that all are redeemed, and so universalism is excluded, but it does mean that both the offer of and provision for salvation have both been marvelously made in Jesus Christ. God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3–4.). Once again, all means all.

Second, in a Wesleyan reading of Scripture, God is always ahead of us; the Sovereign One always initiates, indeed, the Almighty has already acted even before we are aware of it. Put another way, God gives to all people prevenient grace that literarily comes before redemption, properly speaking. This grace is sovereignly given in the wake of the fall and human sin in order that all people may be savable, so debilitating are the effects of original sin. Again, even before we realize it, God has given us wonderful gifts in the form of conscience, a measure of freedom (whereby we are free to receive more grace), and knowledge of the moral law (a standard operating in conscience) and of the basic attributes of God.

Third, though all Christian traditions teach about the forgiveness of sins and the new birth, the Wesleyan tradition (given its understanding of sin, properly speaking, as a willful violation of a known law of God), affirms in its reading of 1 John, for example, that a child of God, one born of God, is free from both the guilt of sin in justification and from its power in the new birth. Moreover, this negative freedom, this “freedom from,” is the backside of the positive liberty of loving God and neighbor—which, once again, is what the Bible is all about. In short, freedom marks our hermeneutic in a decisive way for Wesley. That is, an optimism of grace in terms of what God can do in a human life, rather than a pessimism of nature, will be one of the recurrences in a Wesleyan reading of Scripture. Unfortunately, not all Christian traditions have acknowledged such a freedom, due in some measure to different conceptions of sin—and of grace as well. On one level, then, a Wesleyan reading of Scripture will function as a corrective of the diminishment of grace that plays out in other theological traditions. God’s grace is greater than some have imagined.

Fourth, a Wesleyan reading of the Bible highlights that believers can know that they are the children of God—in other words, that they are beloved, precious in God’s sight, through the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit. Carefully exegeting the locus classicus of this doctrine, Rom 8:16, Wesley unpacked the apostle Paul’s teaching in the following manner: “the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” So then, believers are neither left clueless in terms of their status as God’s children, nor are they judged to be proud simply because they know in their hearts, at the core of their being, that they are redeemed, the beloved. Pastorally sensitive in many respects, Wesley admitted there could be exceptions to such an assurance of God’s love and favor due to ignorance of the gospel promises or due to illness or bodily disorder.

Fifth, a Wesleyan reading of Scripture will encourage believers who have been born of God to continue to grow in grace in a process of sanctification. Since the problem of the sinner is twofold—in terms of both actual sins (plural) and inbred sin (singular; sin as a state or condition)—so then God’s grace has made provision for freedom and deliverance in both of these areas. In this reading of the Bible, then, the sufficiency of the grace of God in terms of the need of sinners can be seen in two key ways: Deliverance from sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, of course, but also from a sinful, corrupted nature. The cleansing of a perverted, off-the-track nature, so to speak, is very much a part of redemption. In fact, that nature is so hostile to God that it cannot and can never be forgiven! Instead, it must die.

A Wesleyan interpretive stance will therefore lead, in its best sense to a Wesleyan way of living, a practical theology that ever engages both heart and mind—and is reflected in action, especially in terms of service to others. Again, a Wesleyan interpretation of the Bible will make a huge difference and have practical applications for our worship, instruction, mission, and personal devotions.

The gift of Scripture is received and realized only when its faithful and rigorous study is used by God’s Spirit to illumine what God’s people must do and say in sanctified witness to God’s invincible love. For Wesley, the practice of interpreting Scripture is never left to the linguistic analysis of biblical texts alone—a critical practice in which he excelled; its holy end is to draw us into loving koinonia with the triune God in whom we experience eternal life (1 John 1:3). Our deepest desire, as coeditors of this commentary, is that those who use it profitably will share in that grace-filled experience.

Posted Sep 16, 2020