Earlier this year, we in the Wesleyan-Methodist church family received an important gift for spiritual and theological formation. This is the Wesley Study Bible (Abingdon, 2009), the result of contributions from scores of Wesleyans from the wider Methodist family. Let me address several questions related to the need and relevance of the Wesley Study Bible.
First, why publish another study Bible? After all, one simply needs to google “study Bible,” and hundreds of alternatives can be found. However, in my opinion, the trend of the majority of modern evangelicalism has a Calvinist/Reformed bent. This theological worldview dominates the lyrics of contemporary Christian music, the majority of Christian publishing and broadcasting, and the content of most Christian bookstore best seller lists. The church that I serve has hundreds of people who have been exposed to curriculum, books, DVD’s, and a variety of other media that advocates this theological worldview, and, over time, have begun to drift from the distinctively Wesleyan approach to living faith, reading Scripture, and applying theology into benign evangelicalism. I do not think that the church I serve is unique—indeed, many with Wesleyan roots can be described by this form of general, benign, cultural Christianity.
I also believe that the world and culture in which most of us find ourselves is ripe for a resurgence of a Wesleyan approach to faith and practice. However, we were in need of a study Bible that reflected our unique theological perspective and approach to reading the Scriptures. People are looking for a faith expression that will integrate head, heart, and hands, inviting them to participate in changing the world through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion—this is the heart of the Wesleyan way. I believe the Wesleyan approach to doing the gospel is very attractive to the contemporary culture around us, and that the Wesley Study Bible can be a helpful tool in this work.
I will leave the debate about the superior merits of a Wesleyan/Arminian theological worldview over a Calvinist/Reformed worldview to those who are much more qualified, but this deep conviction was critical in the development of the Wesley Study Bible.
Second, who are the contributors? Reading through the pages of contributors, I found a Who’s Who of leading pastors, leaders, and scholars that reflect the various roots of Christian tradition that trace their spiritual heritage to the family tree of the Wesleyan movement. The biblical, theological, academic, and pastoral contributors represent the best of the depth and breadth of our tradition. It may be the first time that scholars and pastors from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God (Anderson), the Free Methodist Church of North America, The Salvation Army, the United Church of Canada, The United Methodist Church, and the Wesleyan Church have worked collaboratively together on something of this scope and scale. A careful reading of their contributions reveals the very best of our tradition combined with a balanced presentation, and the support materials in the Wesley Study Bible represent the wide bandwidth of the Wesleyan movement.
Third, what difference will it make? Time will tell. It will not unify us on every issue, but it will help us frame the conversation in a distinctively Wesleyan way. The Wesley Study Bible’s auxiliary materials—the introductions, the footnotes, the pastoral sidebars—give credence to the balancing of all aspects of our Wesleyan theological worldview.
There is much room for improvement when it comes to living into the full promise of our Wesleyan tradition. In my tradition (United Methodist), we have tended to bifurcate the Wesleyan message. Those who would call themselves conservative and evangelical embrace the personal salvation and personal holiness aspects of the theology of John Wesley. We can become so concerned with saving souls that sometimes we ignore human pain and suffering. Those who would call themselves liberal and progressive embrace the social gospel and social holiness (justice) aspects of the theology of John Wesley. We can become so concerned with meeting needs that we do not share the saving message of Jesus with those who have been ground down by our culture. The result of this polarization of the Wesleyan approach to faith is “a dead sect that has all the form of religion, but lacks the power.”
Unless we begin to embrace the whole of the Wesleyan message—personal salvation and social gospel, personal holiness and social justice—we are not thoroughly Wesleyan and our gospel impact is diminished. The genius of Wesley was the marriage of a religion of the heart and head that engaged the hands of Christ-followers in the redemption of the world.
Who will use it and benefit from it?
Although there are some things that could be done to improve it (e.g., add red letters, a concordance, and cross references), the content of the Wesley Study Bible will be a gift to pastors who want to readily connect the Scriptures with living faith, to Sunday School teachers who struggle to interpret curriculum into a Wesleyan context, to the person who will use it for their daily devotions, the young person who is trying to figure out how their belief in Jesus should impact their life, and countless others.
Finally, what were its origins?
Occasionally, one gets the chance to be a part of something significant. Sometimes, the reason is naiveté—such as that experienced by new parents who have a sense of awe for the privilege that has just been afforded them, yet have no clue what the future will hold. Other times, it is sheer ignorance—like a young spiritual leader who leads a congregation to do what others have failed to do for years—simply because she thought she could. Sometimes, it is because of hard work and ingenuity—like a business leader who follows the best practices and accomplishes expected results. If this leader is not careful, he can take more credit for the success than is appropriate. Other times, sheer providence seems to be in play—like the pastors of two neighboring churches in the same community, operating with the same philosophy of ministry, yet one flourishes and seems to enjoy a measure of favor that is inexplicable. Who can understand such things?
The Wesleyan would trace the reasons to grace. Grace in all of its forms—prevenient, justifying, sanctifying, and glorifying—is the most powerful force in the universe, and we have the choice to respond to it. Sometimes, we are surprised by grace—God’s unmerited, undeserved, unlimited love and favor—and find ourselves involved in something truly exciting. Such is the case with the development of this new study Bible from a distinctively Wesleyan perspective. The Wesley Study Bible is a welcome addition to the toolbox of those who are charged with imbedding a Wesleyan approach to the Christian faith in the hearts, minds, and lives of the people in their congregations, ministries, or classrooms, but it began its journey to reality in a conversation between a pastor and a layperson.
One of the great aspects of the Wesleyan movement is that we are at our best when clergy and laity partner together in mission and ministry. The idea for the Wesley Study Bible emerged in this kind of partnership. During my early days as the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Phillip Connolly, a trustee and member of the First UMC in Marysville, OH, shared an idea with me. He had served as a delegate to six General Conferences, and had held various leadership positions in his local church and the West Ohio Conference of the UMC. He and I had known each other since 1996 when we served as trustees on the board of the Foundation for Evangelism. In all my days as a pastor, judicatory leader, and seminary president, I have never met a layperson more passionate about preserving, living, and advancing the Wesleyan way as Phillip Connolly. He is thoroughly and passionately Wesleyan, and it was his vision that sparked what has become the Wesley Study Bible well before the presses began to roll at Abingdon.
Although there had been a previous effort at this type of publication, it was Phillip’s belief that the time was right for a more comprehensive effort that would utilize a more widely accepted translation. He sought to tap leaders to provide solid Wesleyan content, and with the help of a major publishing house, have the chance for wide distribution and use. Shortly after, I shared the idea with Joel Green, known widely as an excellent biblical scholar in the Wesleyan tradition. He immediately saw the viability and marketability of such a project, and was equally intrigued with the idea. I am not sure of how the rest of the process unfolded, but the Wesley Study Bible project soon moved from idea, to proposal, to print galleys, publication, and release to the wider church.