That the Bible is the inspired Word of God was never a problem for John Wesley. There are hundreds, yea thousands of quotes from his illustrious pen which clearly indicate his view of Scripture. One needs only to read any of his sermons, many of his journal entries, or several of his letters to know this to be true. The question, however, is whether or not John Wesley had a particular method of Bible study. Did he have a particular hermeneutical approach to Bible study? Perhaps the most apparent of all his statements is the one that appears in the Preface to his Standard Sermons.
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of lights: “Lord, is it not thy Word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God’? Thou ‘givest liberally and upbraidest not’. Thou hast said, ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual”. I meditate thereon, with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God, and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach (Wesley’s Standard Sermons, I: 30.).
Though the term hermeneutics was not employed during the time of John Wesley, it is evident that John Wesley had a fixed routine he exercised in seeking to understand Scripture.
It is vital that those of the Wesleyan-Arminian persuasion understand, acknowledge, appropriate, and utilize a hermeneutic method that is both faithful to the Word and honest to God. There are many hermeneutic approaches to Scriptures today which do not meet these criteria. The scholarship seen in current theological books, papers, and other writings give evidence to this fact. Green says:
As important as Scripture is within the Wesleyan tradition, though, I do not think I am exaggerating much when I suggest that methodists have not always known what to do with Scripture. More particularly, we have not always known what to do with Scripture as methodists. We have tended in recent decades, for example, either to follow the patterns of reading the biblical materials taught and learned in universities and seminaries, or to reject those patterns. Neither approach is particularly methodist. Neither leads to our reading Scripture as Wesleyans (vii).
This paper will commence with an exact explanation of what hermeneutics is, because a proper comprehension of hermeneutics will assist in the development of a proper method of Bible study. Then there will be an assessment of some current hermeneutic approaches, which are subjective in nature. The conclusion of the paper will attempt to reveal Wesley’s approach to Scripture and what that means for Wesleyans today. In comparison to various subjective hermeneutic approaches, it will be shown that the proper Wesleyan hermeneutic is nothing more than the traditional, objective, grammatical-historical approach to Scripture.
What is Hermeneutics?
Our word hermeneutics comes from the Greek verb ἑρμηνεύω, hermēneuō, which means “to interpret or explain,” and the noun ἑρμηνεία hermēneia, which means “explanation or interpretation.” It is ultimately derived from Hermes, the Greek God who brought the messages of the gods to the mortals. Hermeneutics has been defined as the science and art of the correct interpretation of Scripture. “Hermeneutics is a science, in that it can determine certain principles for discovering the meaning of a document, and in that these principles are not a mere list of rules, but bear organic connection to each other. It is also an artas we previously indicated because principles or rules can never be applied mechanically but involve the skill of the interpreter (Ramm, 11).”
“Hermeneutics, therefore, is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application of these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure (Terry, 20,).
Paul said it best when he said to young Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). “Rightly handling” is the translation of a single word in the Greek. Vine says of this word: “lit., ‘to cut straight’ (orthos, ‘straight,’ temno, ‘to cut’), is found in 2Ti 2:15, AV, “rightly dividing,” RV, “handling aright” (the word of truth); the meaning passed from the idea of cutting or ‘dividing,’ to the more general sense of ‘rightly dealing with a thing. What is intended here is not ‘dividing’ Scripture from Scripture, but teaching Scripture accurately (178).”
“Moulton and Milligan suggest that it might be a metaphor derived from the stone mason’s art of cutting stones fair and straight to fit into their places in a building. They quote Sophocles, a Greek writer, using it to mean, ‘expound soundly (Wuest).’” Vincent gives good insight:
The thought is that the minister of the gospel is to present the truth rightly, not abridging it, not handling it as a charlatan (see on 2Co 2:17), not making it a matter of wordy strife (verse 14), but treating it honestly and fully, in a straightforward manner. Various homiletic fancies have been founded on the word, as, to divide the word of truth, giving to each hearer what he needs: or, to separate it into its proper parts: or, to separate it from error: or, to cut straight through it, so that its inmost contents may be laid bare. Others, again, have found in it the figure of dividing the bread, which is the office of the household steward; or of dividing the sacrificial victims; or of cutting a straight furrow with the plough(302).”
Whatever the word picture in the recesses of the mind of the apostle, the accurate understanding of his words implies a usage of the word of God in a way that is correct, appropriate, and rewarding for both the user and his audience. This is what the science and art of hermeneutics entails.
It is vital that sound principles of biblical hermeneutics be developed. These principles will govern the procedure by which the hermeneutist determines the true meaning of Scripture.
The importance of establishing sound and trustworthy principles of biblical exposition is universally conceded. For it is evident that a false principle in his method will necessarily vitiate the entire exegetical process of an interpreter. . . . We cannot believe that the sacred writers desired to be misunderstood. They did not right with a purpose to confuse and mislead their readers. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that the Scripture, given by divine inspiration, is of the nature of a puzzle designed to exercise the ingenuity of critics. It was given to make men wise and to salvation, and in great part, it is so direct and simple in his teachings, but a little child can understand its meaning (Terry, 163).
Relationship of Exegesis, Interpretation, and Application
Three steps may be noted that are employed in the science and art of hermeneutics. The first is exegesis, which is defined as extracting from the Bible that which the original author intended to communicate. The second is interpretation, which may be defined as correctly understanding the message as intended by the communicator. The third is application, defined as the making of the truth of the Bible relevant in the contemporary world. While hermeneutics is called a science because there is a method involved, it is also an art because it requires a skillful and patient interpreter in order to correctly exegete, interpret, and apply the Word of God.
What is the link between exegesis, interpretation, and application? Hermeneutics that does not employ careful exegesis will find its interpretation faulty and lacking the power of God. Because exegesis determines the correct definition and usage of words, phrases, and idioms in their context, a faulty exegesis leads to a faulty interpretation. A faulty interpretation leads to error, and error leads away from the truth of God.
Hermeneutics that does not interpret the exegesis correctly will lead to a misunderstanding of the text. Though exegesis may be done correctly, a hermeneutist who interprets incorrectly may inadvertently insert his own bias into the passage. It is imperative to study the exegesis closely to make an accurate interpretation.
Hermeneutics that does not apply the truth of the word appropriately has done a disservice to the Church of God. While the hermeneutist may have accurately exegeted a passage and interpreted it properly, an adequate application must be drawn from the passage or the significance of it is lost. So on the whole, hermeneutics has to be completed properly in all three steps so that the Bible may be handled as God intended.
A simple comparison may be made to properly understand the relationship between exegesis, interpretation, and application. When someone goes to a doctor to have him diagnose a problem, he will employ x-ray and/or MRI to find the cause of the problem. An x-ray and an MRI can see what the naked eye cannot see. So it is with exegesis. Exegesis helps the hermeneutist to dig deeper into the text to discover exactly what the author intended to say. Next, the doctor examines the x-rays and/or MRIs and interprets what they show. So the hermeneutist takes what is learned from exegesis and makes in interpretation. Then of course the doctor will use his knowledge of medicine to apply what he’s learned by dispensing the correct medicine. Application is the hermeneutist’s dispensing of God’s Word by applying it to the aches and ills of a sin-sick world.
This paper will primarily deal with the middle step of hermeneutics, namely interpretation. Mickelson’s words should guide him as we seek to determine the task of interpretation:
Simply stated, the task of interpreters of the Bible is to find out the meaning of a statement (command, question) for the author, and for the first hearers or readers, and thereupon to transmit that meaning to modern readers. The interpreter will observe whether a given statement tends to be understood by a modern reader identically, similarly, or differently from the sense intended by the ancient writer, and will adjust his explanation accordingly (5).
But Keener reminds us that interpretation is easier than most people think. After all the people of Jesus’ day were at best semi-literate people “who heard Jesus speak one time, orally, and understood his communication (3).” In fact, they did not see his words in writing but only heard them. The people who received Paul’s letters most likely had the letter read once to them orally, before it was passed on to other groups, and yet they seemed to get the point. We must understand that God is not trying to conceal the truth through his authors, but rather is “trying to make truth clear and plain (4).” Says Fee and Stuart, “The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get the ‘plain meaning of the text.’ And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text. Correct interpretation, therefore, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart” (18).
There are three major problems associated with hermeneutics. The first is that of misinterpretation. People misinterpret the Bible when they read it, and believe it to say one thing, but in reality it says something else. There are several ways that misinterpretation happens. One way is by assuming that our bias or presupposition is the correct interpretation of a passage. Taking a passage out of context is another way to surely misinterpret the meaning of Scripture. Keener points out that one of the things that he believes contributes to misinterpretation is the continued use of the King James version Bible (McCain and Keener, 6).
Bible passages may also be under-interpreted. Under-interpretation occurs when the hermeneutist fails to understand all that a passage says. This may result because of a misunderstanding of the culture of the passage, a particular grammatical idiom, or the geography of an area. The interpreter must seek to exegete the passage well in order to obtain all the information contained therein.
Over-interpretation of a particular part of Scripture means finding more than what the author intended. This is perhaps the most common problem found in interpretation today. Keener gives 5 reasons why the Bible is over-interpreted: (1) because we have a magical view of the Bible; (2) because we assume that the Bible is for spiritual giants or experts; (3) because we tend to look for “spiritual truths;” (4) because we look for nuggets of truths rather than whole truth; and (5) because we read the Bible in chapters rather than whole segments (3-5).
Are there any basic principles to guide the hermeneutist in understanding and interpreting the Bible? McQuilkin, in his foundational book Understanding and Applying the Bible, enumerates three basic principles (77-85). The first principle concerns the context of the original author. To understand what the author intended to convey, the interpreter must understand the context from which the author wrote. God has revealed himself to humankind in human history by human language. It is our responsibility to study and understand this communication.
The second principle of interpretation is the truth of Scripture. Every part of the Bible must be believed as true, and must be treated as such. If then the Bible is true in all his parts, then it must be unified as a whole. Scripture can be compared with Scripture for interpretation, and the context of both the author and the receivers must be examined.
The third principle is that interpretation deals with the authority of the Bible. McQuilkin gives four major implications of this principle. (1) the purpose of divine revelation – God revealed himself in the Bible for the purpose of human salvation; (2) The goal of biblical study – the initial goal of biblical study must be to understand the authors meaning; (3) extent of authority – the authority of Scripture covers the words as well as the concepts; and (4) limitations implied by the principle of authority – limitations of human context and limitations of seeking the unity of all Scripture.
Approaches to Hermeneutics
When a hermeneutist comes to a text of Scripture to exegete and interpret it, the question that is always asked is this: can the hermeneutist come to the Scripture without any presuppositions or pre-understandings? There are certainly some pre-understandings with which a Christian must come in his approach to the Bible. For example, if a Christian believes that the Scriptures are the inerrant, infallible, and inspired Word of God, then, that recognition will necessarily bias his interpretation, although in a right way. The Christian hermeneutist must apply the universally recognized foundational doctrines of Scripture to his interpretation. These common doctrinal presuppositions about the Bible and God are necessary for good interpretation.
“The basic presupposition about the Bible that distinguishes believers from unbelievers is that the Bible is God’s revelation of himself and of His will for us humans. Although Christians are united in that basic affirmation, the implications of the statement are viewed in very different ways. It is important to understand those different approaches, for a person’s presuppositions will determine, to large extent, how he understands and interprets Scripture (McQuilkin, 21).”
Millard J. Erickson first reminds us of how bad presuppositions can throw us off course, and then informs us that presuppositions are important in hermeneutics.
“We do right in attempting to apply our method of interpretation as thoroughly and carefully as possible. Built into that method, however, will be certain factors of which we may not be consciously aware. We do not work toward them, we work through them or with them. A slight difference in those assumptions will make a large difference in the conclusions to which we come, even if we perfectly apply the method (Radmacher and Preus, 595).”
Westphal puts it another way: “Understanding is relative to the presuppositions of the interpreter. If the interpreter adopts a particular method or strategy, that method, so far from rendering thought presuppositionless, is a systematic presupposition about the best way to understand the matter in question (Porter and Stovell, 73).”
The problem, however, comes when the hermeneutist utilizes presuppositions that are not universally agreed upon by Orthodox Christianity, but instead are the relative doctrinal positions of a particular group. These doctrinal distinctives tend to cloud the hermeneutist’s judgment when it comes to interpretation. One might easily be thrown off track by their own bias concerning a particular doctrine. This is plainly evident in a cursory viewing of the history of Christianity. Even today, this issue continues to be important to the Christian church because of the many and varied interpretations offered in the mainstream of theology.
Not only does one’s theological persuasion tend to cloud the hermeneutist’s judgment, contemporary thought has also played a vital role upon his critical look at Scripture. As shall be discovered, the modern philosophical thought found in society also wreaks havoc by further muddying the waters. “Biblical interpreters prior to this century were indeed conscious of the role played by personal bias, but they simply took for granted that such a bias could be overcome. No more. If there is anything distinctive about contemporary hermeneutics is precisely its emphasis on the subjectivity and relativity of interpretation (Kaiser and Silva, 241).”
Mickelson has a word of caution for us in the area of presuppositions, or as he calls them, assumptions.
We are rarely aware of where our artificial assumptions come from even if we are conscious of their deleterious effects on our interpretation. We may know that someone taught this to us. We may be able to cite numerous works that teach the same thing, but this only proves that unsupported assumptions can be popularized almost as easily as sound ones. The best thing to do with artificial assumptions is forget them. To dwell upon their history accords them far more attention than they deserve. Nevertheless, they all have a history, and the number of those who been deceived by their apparent plausibility is often appallingly large (371).
Thus, no interpreter of the Bible comes without some presuppositions, pre-understandings, or biases. However, Christians should never approach the Bible to attempt to force their own beliefs into it. They must also approach the Word of God with a solid exegesis, so that their interpretation will be accurate. At this point, it is imperative to review and critique several hermeneutical approaches taken by modern scholars.
Methods of Interpretation
While fundamental and evangelical Christianity declare and support the essential
doctrines clearly understood in the Bible, liberalism, or modernism, and particularly liberal Christianity, has taken an entirely different approach. Liberalism approaches the Bible with a basic set of presuppositions that are foreign to evangelical Christianity. Instead of viewing religion, Christianity in particular, as a matter of belief or dogma, it was observed to be concerned with feelings, thereby relegating Christianity to being compatible with different theologies or ethics. It also moved from a more objective view of interpretation to a more subjective one.
What liberalism has accomplished is the destruction of the basic principles of hermeneutics. It has taken interpretation out of the arena of science, and placed it more squarely in the philosophical arena. It has taken the intellectual dimension out of the equation and replaced it with the more liberal idea of the experiential dimension. Now interpretation is more about the interpreter than what is being interpreted. Erickson describes it this way:
In later liberalism, particularly in the United States, . . . There was de-emphasis of the doctrinal or intellectual dimension (in the sense of involving acceptance of certain tenets). When fundamentalism insisted upon the retention of certain beliefs, while liberalism was more tolerant of doctrinal diversity, it was partly because liberals considered the older forms to be obsolete, and thus in need of replacement by more contemporary ways of understanding. But to a large extent, it was simply because liberalism did not think doctrines to be all that important. True Christianity found its locus elsewhere. If this shift is accepted, then the aim of Christianity will not be seen as attempting to lead to any particular belief. And consequently, the Scripture will be interpreted in light of what type of experience or action it tends and intends to evoke, rather than what belief, it might seem to be inculcating (Radmacher and Preus, 598).
The historical-critical method of biblical interpretation developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a result of the liberalism that crept into Christianity. Friedrich Schleiermacher was the main proponent of this method. In an essay highly regarded as influential in the hermeneutical arena, Bultman in his “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” insists that a person can transcend his own biases in interpretation, but that he cannot do so apart from a methodological approach, such as the historical-critical method, since it influences the types of questions asked, and those considered important. It also takes into consideration the interpreter’s view of the first century world, contrasted with the contemporary world. Sadly, Bultman adopted existentialism as his framework for translating the New Testament situation into contemporary life. (Radmacher and Preus, 616-617).
Craig Blomberg gives a concise summary of this method, which he calls the historical-critical/grammatical view.
The historical-critical/grammatical method . . . Analyzes the historical setting in which a given communicative act occurs. This involves general information about who is speaking to whom, where, when and under what circumstances, as well as specific information concerning what is sometimes called a shared “presuppositional pool” – whatever customs and practices, culture and society, and so on, that might be important for interpreting particular details of the communication at hand. The historical-critical/grammatical method is critical as well as historical because it seeks to analyze the formation of documents, including earlier written sources, oral forms of communication and whatever distinctive emphases the author of the document may have added to the tradition he or she inherited. . . . Finally, the historical-critical/grammatical method is grammatical because it insists on a careful study of words, grammatical forms, sentence parts, sentences and multi-sentence structures as they relate to each other (39).
The historical-critical method of liberal theology has completely undermined the doctrinal stance of the modern church. It undermines the confidence the church should have in the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture. McQuilkin is on target when he says, “All biblical critics, if they have are done their homework, operate from the same evidence. If this evidence seems to undermine the trustworthiness of Scripture, one’s presuppositions come into play. . . . Those who believe that the Scripture, like any other book by human authors, may err, have no need to pursue further analysis (50).”
On the other hand, you have the postmodern view of biblical interpretation. This method was built upon the work of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who were existentialists in the early part of the twentieth century. They “believed that life has no objective meaning apart from present experience” (McQuilkin, 59). Existentialism crept into the church beginning with Soren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century, but was further influenced by theologian Karl Barth. Barth believed in the supernatural and in objective truth; however, he believed the revelation of God’s truth in Scripture only becomes God’s word once it is mixed with the faith-response in the reader. Though his successor, Rudolf Bultman, originally used the historical-critical method, his existentialism became the basis for the postmodernism movement. He further undermined the authority of the Bible by “de-mythologizing” the supernatural element found in Scripture. This “became the dominant hermeneutical approach of existential theologians in the last half of the twentieth century. So dominant was this approach that it was called The New Hermeneutic, or the ‘hermeneutical circle.’ The search for meaning and ‘truth’ shifted from the ancient text to the present context, particularly the interpreter’s own context and response (McQuilkin, 59). All of these led to the beginning of postmodernism.
Postmodernism takes a naturalistic approach to the study and interpretation of Scripture. Since postmodernism believes that subjective perception controls meaning, interpretation becomes individualistic.
One of the basic approaches of postmodernism is to treat all – or virtually all – Scripture as narrative. The Bible is simply a story of ancient people’s encounter with God, and as such may be beneficial to us in our own encounters. Our purpose should not be the futile one of discovering God’s intention in having men record that history or giving those teachings, but to feel the impact of the story in my own life today. Don’t look for propositional truth statements, we’re told, but ask, rather: how do I respond to the story told or implied (McQuilkin, 61)?
Postmodernists do not view the Bible as having a single message that is timeless and eternal. Rather, they seek to find the truth behind the message. “Yet postmodernity bristles at the notion that, if we simply apply the right technique, we can ‘decode’ what God is really saying in Scripture. Some postmoderns tell us that words are not simple containers of meaning; people who read words in their various context make meaning out of words in ways that make the best sense for them (Thompson and Oord, 141).” This is a direct result of the influence of Bultman and his demythologizing of Scripture.
What are the main ideas that govern the way postmodernism approaches the interpretation of the Bible? Here again, McQuilkin gives us an excellent summary:
It has challenged traditional approaches to Scripture at three points, among others: 1. Unchanging, ultimate truth does not exist. 2. Language cannot accurately communicate thought to another person’s mind, and with our time and culture distance from the Bible authors, the attempt becomes even more futile. 3. The inadequacy of language is not necessarily bad, because meaning is constituted of a combination of what is out there (objects and events, including the words of others) and what is in here (my own subjective sense) (61).
In evangelicalism, these concepts must be completely rejected. Unchanging ultimate truth does exist, because there is a God that exists, and this truth exists in him. Language can accurately communicate to another person’s mind, because God can communicate what is in his mind with words that are understood. No good, evangelical Christian truly believes that subjective perception controls meaning, because there is an objective truth. Evangelicalism looks for the truth within the text, while postmodernism searches behind or before the text to determine its message, thereby missing the message altogether. As Kevin J. Vanhoozer cleverly says, “Such non-theological biblical criticism is like music criticism by the deaf and art criticism by the blind (McQuilkin, 63).”
Unfortunately, postmodernism has crept into the Christian church among evangelical interpreters unawares. Many so-called evangelical hermeneutists have allowed relativism to cloud their judgment in their interpretation of the Bible. Now, rather than the overwhelming majority of evangelicalism promoting the idea of Jesus being the exclusive path to God, almost half of evangelicalism accepts an inclusive approach that allows for other pathways to the Father. Foundational Bible truths are being booted out the door of the Church and replaced with postmodern ideas of what they believe and teach that truth is. Gary A. Phillips warns of the dilemma facing the hermeneutist: “Thus the dilemma facing the Bible interpreter since the 1980’s – a question that ‘perplexes, if not haunts biblical critics’ – is this: ‘Do texts control their own interpretation, or do factors that lie outside the text determine meaning? Or put more oppositionally, which is more determinative – text or reader, reader or text (McQuilkin, 63)?’”
At this point another methodology will be discussed, especially since it is almost diametrically opposed to the premise of this paper. Those who are of the Calvinist persuasion freely and readily admit that they have a bias in their approach to interpreting Scripture. It is important to note that later Calvinism is somewhat distinctive from the doctrinal treatises set forth by the reformer John Calvin. Indeed, his followers have taken some of his teachings to further and greater extremes, as is common with almost any leader of any group. However, it appears as if the followers of John Calvin have perhaps more precisely stated exactly what John Calvin intended.
This approach to interpretation falls under the category of dogmatic. McQuilkin describes the dogmatic approach in this way:
There is, therefore, a legitimate use of a system of doctrine in studying Scripture. The problem arises when the system itself becomes the authority, sitting in judgment on the independent authority of any given passage of Scripture. The Bible is misinterpreted when the interpreter uses the dogmatic assumptions of the system to force the passage to conform to the dogma, rather than to modify the dogma to conform to Scripture (69).
In An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics by Walter C Kaiser and Moisés Silva, Silva writes a chapter entitled “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics.” It can be agreed that Calvinism’s scholars have done a great service to the church by providing excellent scholarship in commentaries and other works. Silva is quick to remind that conservative Christianity, especially American evangelicalism, has depended upon the works of some the great Calvinistic authors and Reformed scholars. But he is equally as quick to admit that Calvinists themselves have their own presuppositions when it comes to the interpretation of the Bible.
The first presupposition is that of grace. Calvinists appear to believe that they have a monopoly upon the grace of God, and they clearly reveal their true colors by speaking of grace extensively. John Calvin referred often to common grace, which he correctly distinguished as something God gives equally to all men. His followers have extended it even further, for they make the grace of God to be the exclusive act in salvation. In other words, the only ones who are saved are the ones to whom God extends his grace as an act of kindness, and man cannot resist that grace if he is so honored to receive it. So, salvation is essentially an act of grace, with faith, only an afterthought that God has to provide for man. Obviously, this type of presupposition will skew one’s view of mankind, and it cheapens God’s grace. Why should God extend common grace, or grace in any form, knowing that mankind cannot willfully respond? If God has already determined who will be saved and who will be lost, and He has to extend faith to the ones he determines will be saved, then what good is grace?
Another presupposition used by Calvinistic interpreters is the sovereignty of God. Evangelicalism accepts the sovereignty of God, but not with the presuppositional nuances that Calvinist do. Calvinists use their own unique view of the sovereignty of God as a grid for their interpretation of the Bible. Listen to the words of Moisés Silva:
The God who controls the events of history is the God who interprets those events in Scripture, and thus there can be no inherent contradiction between the two. . . . The doctrine of divine sovereignty also helps us to appreciate the centrality of the concept of covenant in Scripture. . . . An appreciation for the Calvinist or Augustinian (indeed, Pauline!) doctrine of divine sovereignty and election affects one understanding of biblical interpretation as such. It is not sufficient to recognize God’s Lordship over biblical history without submitting ourselves to that Lordship as interpreters. It is in fact quite silly, on the one hand, to affirm that the events related in Scripture, as well as the actual writing of Scripture, or fulfillment of God’s will and, on the other hand, to assume that our interpretation of that material has some sort of neutral character or independent status (Kaiser and Silva, 266-267).
Silva equates such presupposition as being the presupposition of even the apostle Paul!
Is their starting point valid? “We are forced to ask, Is the Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty the proper starting place upon which to base one’s hermeneutical grid? An even better question follows: Is the Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty correct? And if not, then that method by which Calvinists interpret the tenor of Scripture is erroneous (Birch).” After dealing with the same passage that Silva does, 1 Kings 12:15, Birch goes on to say this:
Lest we be accused of failing to distinguish between God’s desires and his decretive will (as most Calvinists do when proof-texting Psalm 115:3), let us acknowledge the following. Calvinists such as Silva note that God “controls the events of history.” I am suggesting that God governs the events of history. We need to be careful with our language. To “control” something is to have “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events” (Oxford). If God “controls” the direction of people’s behavior, then he is to blame for all of the evil which they commit. If he strictly controls “the course of events,” then how can anything happen which he neither desired, planned, nor willed? And yet we find events in the Bible that came about which God did not strictly “control,” or rather bring about (Hosea 8:2-4; 1 Samuel 8:7) (Birch).
This is a fatal flaw for Calvinism, one that they overlook and do not readily admit.
Again, Arminians and Wesleyan-Arminians are not saying that God is not sovereign. Indeed, we acknowledge it wholeheartedly. But the question of whether or not God sovereignly orders all things is a topic we hotly contest. “The argument between Calvinists and Arminians is not over God’s sovereignty but over the meaning and implications of God’s sovereignty. I am arguing that the Calvinist’s definition of God’s sovereignty is deficient, both biblically and philosophically. All things that happen among human beings do not find their origins in the desires, mind, and will of God (Birch).” Silva concludes his article by inferring that all believers should use the grid of God’s sovereignty when interpreting the Bible.
Yet a moment’s reflection on God’s sovereignty ought to set us straight. If the Lord assures us that his word will not return to them empty, but rather will accomplish what he desires (Isa. 55:11), can we really think that his purposes will be forwarded and that his people will fail to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God” (Eph. 4:13)? May we learn to do all our biblical interpretation with assurance that “he who began a good work in [us] will carry on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).
Birch’s words at the conclusion of his article are equally instructive:
For the most part, most modern Arminians wholeheartedly agree with Arminius and the Remonstrants on the Reformed view of God’s sovereignty, so long as God is not attributed with foreordaining, predetermining evil (James 1:13). Moreover, we find Calvinism to be an erroneous systematic theology because its hermeneutical grid is based on a faulty view of God’s sovereignty. With a faulty hermeneutical grid, proper exegesis is impossible. Thus Calvinism is to be avoided by all Christians (Birch).
Thus, it is imperative that we recognize the fatal flaw of presuppositions that cannot be fully supported by the Word of God. The doctrines readily agreed upon by Evangelicalism as being biblical doctrines can be used as presuppositions in approaching the Bible. No one is completely prejudice-free in their approach to the interpretation of Scripture. But erroneous prejudices and presuppositions will definitively change the interpretation of a Scripture in our minds. Having such presuppositions is reflective of having blinders on; one will only see what he desires to see, and will never allow the Scripture to speak as a whole for itself.
A Wesleyan Approach to Hermeneutics.
John Wesley’s understanding of hermeneutics
Just because there are many methodologies for interpretation of Scripture in which presuppositions rule the day does not mean that every method necessarily has presuppositions that overrule the intended meaning of the Bible. Is it possible, therefore, to interpret the Bible without any movement-distinctive doctrine affecting the outcome? As already stated, all conservative hermeneutists approach the Bible and its interpretation with preconceived ideas agreed upon generally in Evangelicalism. The question before us is whether or not the Bible can be interpreted, or has been interpreted, without denominational-distinctive doctrines. Certainly Wesleyan-Arminians have distinctive doctrines that are different from those of the reformed theology movement. But do Wesleyan-Arminians necessarily use their doctrinal distinctives as a grid for interpretation? The intent of this paper is not to go all the way back to James Arminius, but to only consider the approach of John Wesley and those who follow after him. The term Arminian is bandied around much today, and some claim the name even though they may only agree with three or four points of the 5 points of the Remonstrant position. As that is the case, this paper will deal with John Wesley and those who took up his doctrinal distinctives.
So what was John Wesley’s view of the Bible? In his preface to the first volume of his sermons, Wesley made it very clear concerning his personal view of the Bible:
I want to know one thing, the way to heaven – how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He has written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of others. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book – for this end, to find the way to heaven (Preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, 1:104-5).”
Wall says that this is “a claim justified by even a cursory reading of his sermons, and other works, where the premises and sufficiency of Scripture is clear and certain. Wesley understood true Christianity to be a biblical religion (Callen and Thompson, 46). “This proclaimed desire to be “a man of one book” could suggest that the best way to honor Wesley’s legacy would be to say nothing more about him, and simply study the Bible (Thompson and Oord, 101).” But later Wesley would explain what it means to be “a man of one book” by stating that such a person does not regard any book comparatively besides the Bible.
Wesley understood and realized that God’s Word was of central importance in the formation of the people called Methodists. In fact, Wesley and his group of followers were slandered for placing such a high emphasis on the Bible. For Wesley, these derisive remarks were worn proudly as a badge of honor. This is for what he lived, and for what he spent his life in the ministry of our Lord. Methodists have always been known to be people of the book, and John Wesley would have wanted them to wear that moniker proudly.
So the question is not whether or not the Bible was important to Wesley, but did he have a particular methodology or framework through which he interpreted the Bible? A perusal of articles and books by Wesleyan scholars seems to suggest that he had a number of presuppositions which he used in his hermeneutics, especially the authority and inspiration of the Bible, the perspicuity of Scripture, and the deity of the Holy Spirit. Upon closer inspection, however, it is evident that he approached the interpretation of the Bible in the traditional historical-grammatical methodology that has been the rule for Evangelicalism for several centuries.
A closer examination should be made of Wesley’s own approach to interpretation. In the quote from Wesley above, it appears at first glance that when Wesley read the Bible, he did so with just the Bible in front of him and God in him. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Clearly, when Wesley interpreted the Bible, he was never alone, but surrounded by other interpreters, contemporary and passed. Moreover, as he worked with Scripture he drew on a wide range of learning – including commentaries and devotional works, which we might have expected, but also classical philosophers, early church writers, and the latest science of his day (Green, viii).” It is important to note that Wesley was not without his tools. According to Maddox, Wesley had Johann Buxtorf’s Hebrew grammar, Richard Busby’s Greek works, and multiple versions of the Greek New Testament. Wesley particularly favored what was perhaps the best critical Greek text of the day, that of Johann Bengel (Thompson and Oord, 103). However, it was the Bible first and foremost to which Wesley capitulated in his times of interpretation and that came from the original languages. And so his statement means that he placed preeminence on the Bible and not on the words of men. If it came down to God’s word against man’s word, there was no doubt on which side John Wesley stood.
The Bible, in John Wesley’s mind, was preeminent because he regarded it as the primary authoritative source for Christian teachings and doctrine. In Wesley’s sermon entitled “On Faith” he stated, “The written Word is the whole and sole rule of their [the Protestants’] faith, as well as practice (Wesley, 3:496).” From where did Wesley’s confidence in the authority of the Bible come? It came from his own personal belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture. Because Wesley himself never produced a systematic presentation of his views, it takes more than a perusal of his sermons to discover this view. Nevertheless, throughout his sermons, there is an upholding of this high view of Scripture. This is exactly why Wesley could call himself a man of one book, for in the pages of the Word of God he found the truth of a God of truth. If God who is truth inspired Scripture, obviously, that Scripture is then truth.
Not only did Wesley believe the Bible to be inspired, but he also believed it to be inerrant. Dr. Vic Reasoner documents this:
It is anachronistic to claim that John Wesley would or would not have been in agreement with the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. However, Wesley did declare, “Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.” While the use of the actual term “inerrant” has been more recent, it corresponds to the traditional term “infallible.” Wesley taught, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true)” (64-65).
To Wesley, inerrancy necessarily follows inspiration. If the Bible is the product of the God who is absolute truth, then inerrancy becomes a given, for no word from God could have any error in it.
Wesley’s statement reveals a further presupposition found in his hermeneutic. Because the Bible is the inspired word of God, it therefore has the purpose of God behind it. What is the purpose and aim of Scripture? According to Wesley, there is a soteriological element to be mined from the depths of biblical study. For Wesley, the Bible was no mere book to be toyed and tinkered with on the way to uncovering spiritual truth. Rather, the ultimate purpose of the Word of God, and its focus, was to elicit faith from man to obtain God’s proffered salvation. Wesley placed much emphasis on the transformational character of Scripture, a direct correlation of his strong belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God. If the Bible is God’s Word, and it is, then application of the word of God to man’s soul will always bring man’s sinful behavior in alignment with the holiness of God. The very first step in the process of salvation is the use of God’s word to declare God’s truth to the heart of man, and to allow that truth to be used of God to bring about salvation.
This . . . means that it is never enough to say that Methodists, “take the Bible seriously” or that we think “the Bible is important for faith and life.” This would be true of Christians generally. More is at stake than these statements, however true they might be. To push further, we need to recognize that our heritage as Wesleyans is a tradition that underscores the importance of theological formation for biblical interpretation. As Wesleyans, we read with a constant eye to what Wesley called “the Scripture way of salvation.” We read with a constant eye toward the ongoing formation of the people of God in holiness (Green, ix).
It is to be noted that John Wesley was not without his dependence upon the Holy Spirit. He often spoke of how the guidance of the Holy Spirit was needed in understanding God’s Word. He often spoke of the “inspiration” of the Holy Spirit that enabled the understanding of Scripture. The use of this word by Wesley in this manner was not to equate it with the inspiration of Scripture. Wesley used the term in this instance more as we would use the word “illumination.” In his Explanatory Notes on 2 Timothy 3:16, Wesley encourages his readers “to seek the Spirit’s inspiring assistance in reading Scripture (Thompson and Oord, 107).” But for Wesley, the Scriptures were the sufficient resource for matters of religious faith and practice. “For though the Spirit is our principal leader, yet He is not our rule at all; the Scriptures are the rule, whereby He leads us into all truth. Therefore, only talk good English, call the Spirit, our ‘guide,’ which signifies an intelligent being, and the Scriptures our ‘rule,’ which signifies something used by an intelligent being, and all is plain and clear (Callen and Thompson, 85,).”
It should seem evident by now that Wesley’s approach to Scripture was in the manner of the great reformers. Furthermore, Wesley’s preference of the Bible over every other book should be a cue for his followers who have taken up the name of Methodist or Wesleyan. For those who would lay claim to Wesley as their forefather, a predisposition of the importance of the Bible is required. Nothing short of the acceptance of the Bible as the authoritative, inspired, and inerrant Word of God can be tolerated. Wesleyan hermeneutists today must interpret the Bible in an objective fashion, exegeting Scripture within the historical and grammatical framework in which it is found. Otherwise, the claim of the name Methodist or Wesleyan is taken in mockery.
One of the criticisms of any theological tradition – regardless of whether it is Lutheran, Calvinist or Wesleyan – is whether that tradition has so takennon a theological perspective that its interpreters of scripture are no longer capable of relatively objective, inductive studies. This question is especially relevant to biblical studies in the Wesleyan tradition because inductive Bible study has been an important self-description of its hermeneutics, that is, methods of biblical interpretation (Wesleyan Theological Journal,Volume 30, Number 2, 1995, 187).
It is not the premise of this paper that John Wesley is our final authority in hermeneutics. But for those who claim to be proponents of the theology which he espoused, they would do well to study more carefully his works in order to adhere more closely to it. In “The Character of a Methodist,” Wesley admonishes those who would come after him to carefully differentiate between the doctrines of fundamental Christianity and those of secondary opinions.
We believe, indeed, that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;” and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and the sufficient rule, both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish church. We believe Christ to be the Eternal, Supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Aryans. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we “think and let think.” So that whatever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no “distinguishing marks” of a Methodist (Wesley, 9:3, 3-34).
Contemporary issues in Wesleyan hermeneutics
There are many contemporary issues which the Church faces in hermeneutics, but today’s Wesleyan movement is especially in crisis. One of the areas that the Wesleyan movement is dealing with is the inspiration of the Scriptures. Wesleyan scholars appear to be influenced by the liberalism and postmodernism prevalent in the modern theological arena. They are beginning to question, as liberalism and postmodernism does, whether the Bible is indeed the very Word of God or a book merely written by man.
In a book entitled Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways, Richard P. Thompson calls into question Wesley’s exact understanding of inspiration. He is apparently influenced by postmodern subjectivism, suggesting that inspiration had as much to do with the human authors as with the words of God. He seems to suggest that Wesley believed that God allowed men to use their own judgments, as well as their own expressions, in recording of Scripture. Yes, the authors might have been collectors of information, but by whose judgment was the decision made to include such information in the written record? Wesley never advocated that the human part was as essential to the inspiration process as the divine. But Thompson says,
. . . Wesley identifies the role of divine inspiration or direction in more than one level of the writing process. That is to say, Wesley did not limit his understanding of inspiration to verbal dictation. He recognized that the biblical text were products of collaboration by both God and the human authors. As a result, Wesley perceived Scripture as the accurate communication of the message of God; the written text both reveals that inspired message and reflects the judgments and expressions of the human author (emphasis mine) (Callen and Thompson, 62).
Did Wesley in reality believe and teach that inspiration of the Scripture also included the subjective judgments of the original authors? Wesley, in his preface to Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament put it this way:
In the language of the sacred writings, we may observe the utmost depth, together with the utmost ease. All the elegancies of human composers sink into nothing before it: God speaks, not as man, but as God. His thoughts are very deep, and thence his words are of inexhaustible virtue. And the language of his messengers, also, is exact in the highest degree: for the words which were given them accurately answered the impression made upon their minds (Wesley, 9).
But Thompson goes further in determining to bring postmodernism into the modern Wesleyan hermeneutic. He argues that Wesley also believed that God “inspires” the readers of holy writ, writing that Wesley emphasized the “reading event” of the text of Scripture as included in inspiration as much as in the “writing event.” He quotes Wesley’s comment on 2 Timothy 3:16, where Wesley said, “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assist, those that read it with earnest prayer” (Wesley, 794). Says Thompson: “This inspiring activity of the Holy Spirit was not for Wesley an optional element in the task of biblical interpretation. He stressed that the reader can only interpret the divinely inspired message of the biblical text through the continuing inspirational activity of the Holy Spirit”(Callen and Thompson, 63). But does Wesley mean here that the reading of the text by the individual is as much a part of the inspiration process as the giving of the Scriptures by God to the original authors? Wesley defines what he means by “inspires” in the next two words, that is, “supernaturally assist.” Wesley’s use of the word “inspires” here does not put the “reading event” on the same level as the “writing event,” but instead is closer to the idea now referred to as the illumination of Scripture. Illumination is simply the indwelling Holy Spirit giving the Christian the ability to understand Scriptures, and Wesley’s use of the word “inspires” is more closely akin to this idea. “While illumination through intensification of experience may prepare the mind for the reception and appreciation of the truth already revealed in the Scriptures, it is not in itself a communication of that truth” (Wiley and Culbertson, 51-52).
Randy Maddox joins Thompson in attempting to bring Wesley and his ideas into modern culture. He suggests further that the subjective understanding of the Bible by more experienced people was used by Wesley in his interpretation of the Bible. “. . . Wesley identifies consulting particularly those ‘more experienced in the things of God.’ His focal concern is not scholarly expertise (though he is not dismissing this), but the contribution of mature Christian character and discernment to interpreting the Bible” (Thompson and Oord, 108). Is Maddox really suggesting that the interpretation of Scripture should partially be based upon the experience of more mature Christians? Plainly, postmodernism is affecting the scholarship in Wesleyan scholarly circles.
Dr. Vic Reasoner has written a small booklet, The Importance of Inerrancy, in which he documents the crisis of inerrancy found in the modern Wesleyan movement. His subtitle is “How Scriptural Authority Has Eroded in Modern Wesleyan Theology.” In his preface, Dr. Reasoner remarks concerning the fact that Wesleyan theologians have ended up dismissing the biblical doctrine of inerrancy, declaring it to be Calvinistic or fundamentalist. Says Dr. Reasoner, “But ideas have consequences. It we embrace the prevailing view that Wesleyans are not concerned with such obscure issues as biblical inerrancy, the ultimate conclusion this leads to has tremendous implications. Inerrancy is a watershed issue. John Wesley declared, ‘Nay, will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture, shake the authority of the whole (Reasoner, iv)?’”
American Methodist Albert C. Outler in his introduction to the 1964 collection of John Wesley’s sermons referred to Wesley’s method for theological reflection as a quadrilateral approach. After examining Wesley’s writings, Outler theorized that Wesley used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions, namely, Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. However, Wesley never used the term “quadrilateral.” Some Wesleyan theologians believe that this quadrilateral formed the grid through which Wesley interpreted the Bible. “. . . the Holy Scriptures stand first and foremost, and yet subject to interpretations that are informed by “Christian Antiquity”, critical reason and an existential appeal to the “Christian experience” of grace. . . . Thus, we can see in Wesley a distinctive theological method, with Scripture as its preeminent norm but interfaced with tradition, reason and Christian experience as dynamic and interactive aids in the interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture” (Wesleyan Theological Journal, Volume 20, Number 1, 7,9). But did Wesley really use reason, tradition, and experience as aids in interpretation of Scripture, or as further illumination and confirmation of what had been interpreted?
The 1996 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church affirms that “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience and confirmed by reason” (McMaster, 1). This may be the best statement concerning the relation of the other three to Scripture. Then McMaster makes these comments:
What is affirmed as being consistent with Wesley is a dialogical way of doing theology. The primacy of Scripture means that Methodists are still open to Scripture’s critique of traditions, reasonings and experiences. In other words, tradition, reason and experience are subordinate authorities. This does not reduce the complexity of the Quadrilateral dynamics. Scripture is not interpreted without the trilateral and even when interpreted, always provisional. The authority of the interpretation can never be equaled with the authority of Scripture, however that is defined. The truth of the interpretation is never ultimate truth or absolute truth. Yet the rule of Scripture within the trilateral hermeneutic of tradition, reason and experience is a viable way of theologizing for (United) Methodism (McMaster, 1).
Is McMaster suggesting that the truth of Scripture may be known without interpreting it? Is the truth of Scripture something mystical, or is the truth of Scripture revealed through interpretation? The Scripture is authoritative because it comes from God, but how can that authority be known without interpretation? If the interpretation of Scripture through the trilateral is always provisional, are they then useful tools in interpretation? God has revealed His truth through His written revelation, and hermeneutics is the avenue through which man discovers that revelation.
As previously shown, the Bible was preeminent for Wesley. Wesley allowed the Bible to speak for itself, but was quick to consult the early church fathers for comparison to what had been interpreted. Yet Wesley would have upheld the Scriptural interpretation over the writings of church fathers. Personal experience for Wesley again could only verify the truth of God’s Word. While the hermeneutist should employ his faculty of reason in making an interpretation, human reason alone is subjective. Human reason would only affirm that what God’s truth revealed was indeed sensible and correct. Usage of personal experience and human reason in interpreting the Bible once again reveals a postmodern influence upon modern hermeneutics in that both are subjective.
Outler would later confess,
It [the Wesleyan quadrilateral] was intended as a metaphor for a four element syndrome, including the four-fold guidelines of authority in Wesley’s theological method. In such a quaternity, Holy Scripture is clearly unique. But this in turn is illuminated by the collective Christian wisdom of other ages and cultures between the Apostolic Age and our own. It also allows for the rescue of the Gospel from obscurantism by means of the disciplines of critical reason. But always, Biblical revelation must be received in the heart by faith: this is the requirement of “experience” (Outler, 11).
A modern Wesleyan’s guide to hermeneutics
There stands before Wesleyan people several questions which must be answered. First, is there a Wesleyan hermeneutic to be developed? Second, what does this hermeneutic look like? Third, how do we go about developing it? Dr. Reasoner once received an email from a Dr. Staples, who wrote him, saying, “I wish you would develop a truly Wesleyan hermeneutic.” “He recommended that I read Ray Dunning’s article ‘A Wesleyan View of Scripture.’ However, the article does not demonstrate that Wesley operated from a different hermeneutic than the Protestant historical-grammatical principle” (Reasoner, 74). Robert Wall writes in an article entitled “Toward a Wesleyan Hermeneutic of Scripture”,
“Not long ago, I asked another Wesleyan biblical scholar, Prof. Richard Hayes of Duke Divinity School, whether he thought it possible to construct a Wesleyan hermeneutic of Scripture. He responded only by wishing me ‘good luck,’ adding that once he was asked to read a paper on this very topic, only to give up in complete frustration. Even though Hayes did allow that the possibility exist in theory, one may well wonder with Stanley Fish whether ‘theory’s day is dying and the hour is late’ (Callen and Thompson, 39).
In the title of an article written by Joel Green he asked this question: “Is There a Contemporary Wesley Hermeneutic?” He begins his article by saying, “At the close of his meticulous analysis of John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, Scott Jones writes hopefully of the promise of a genuinely Wesleyan view of Scripture articulated for our times”(Callan and Thompson, 123). He adds further,
Is it possible to speak of a Wesleyan hermeneutic, a way of reading Scripture peculiar to those who find their identity in the Wesleyan tradition? . . . At the same time, we may agree that is often easier to spot a Wesleyan reading of Scripture, then to articulate a hermeneutic that is distinctive Wesleyan. We know it when we see it, perhaps, but how do we articulate this “it”? . . . What is needed, rather, is involvement in biblical interpretation by persons formed in Wesleyan communities” (Callan and Thompson 123-124).
It seems everyone is interested in developing a Wesleyan hermeneutic. Some want to develop a Wesleyan-holiness hermeneutic, others a Wesleyan-Pentecostal hermeneutic, and still others a Wesleyan-feminist hermeneutic. The landscape of Wesleyan theology is dotted with those who want to join the Wesleyan hermeneutic bandwagon. This writer does not have all the answers, nor yet understands all the questions! Nevertheless, an attempt will be made to assemble necessary data in order for a Wesleyan hermeneutic to be constructed. But be forewarned; no new information will be submitted, nothing startling will be revealed, and, in fact, many may be disappointed with the conclusions.
The first point to consider, which is already been pointed out, is Wesley’s high view of Scripture. Wesley would not have used tradition to help interpret Scripture, for the Roman Catholic Church was steeped in such a process. Roman Catholicism held church fathers in higher esteem than the Bible itself, and Wesley understood and that ought not be so. He himself did not reject the church fathers, but rather employed them comparatively.
Nor would Wesley have used reason as a grid for interpretation since the Enlightenment era had elevated it to such a high status over the Bible. The number one aim of proponents of the Enlightenment was to proclaim reason as king and religion as dead. Wesley knew the place of God-given reason, but would not have elevated it to a status equal with nor above Scripture. Wesley’s dependence on the Holy Spirit in illumination reveals his belief that human reason was worthwhile only in touch with the Divine mind.
Experience could not be employed because of its overuse by the mystics of his day. Though Wesley was certainly influenced by mystical groups, they only taught him that experience was as much a part of spirituality as knowledge. The mental assent to things spiritual must be combined with that which is experienced. Placing experience as a grid through which the Bible is interpreted leads to a mystical understanding of spirituality. Wesley understood that it is through Scripture itself that true Christianity is discovered, and then it is lived out in experience.
As discussed, Wesley began with Scripture alone, and he himself was a linguistic scholar in his own right. Digging into the original languages of the Bible, Wesley produced his own translation as well as providing explanatory notes on the New Testament. His sermons are sprinkled with scholarly observances of the original languages, and one cannot read them without knowing that Wesley was in his own right a literary critic. That he consulted Greek and Hebrew helps in understanding words and phrases, including their nuances, is evident.
A perfunctory study of Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament serves to reveal that he understood the historical aspect of the Bible as well as its grammatical aspect. His sermons based on Old Testament passages also enlist the historical settings in assisting him in interpretation. Wesley also understood the maxim that “Scripture interprets Scripture,” and used Scripture quotations profusely throughout his sermons. Because Wesley often did not reference quotes, it is compulsory to have a Bible reference tool at hand when reading his sermons in order to know from which Scripture he was quoting.
Wesley often insisted that the Bible alone was the rule for Christian faith. He understood that the Scriptures are the guide for determining Christian belief. “Wesley strongly affirmed this purpose, insisting that he regulated his theological convictions by Scripture, and arguing that no pastor could be a good divine (i.e., theologian) without being a good textuary” (Thompson and Oord, 117).
Another understanding Wesley had of Scripture was that it was the rule of Christian practice as well. Wesley comprehended the fact that understanding Christian belief relayed directly to the practice of Christian belief. Wesley himself made this comment in one of his sermons:
From the very beginning, from the time that for young man united together, each of them was homo unius libri – a man of one book. God taught them all to make his “Word a lantern unto their feet, and a light in all their paths.” They had one, and only one rule of judgment in regard to all their tempers, words, and actions, namely, the oracles of God (Thompson and Oord, 117).
Wesley intended that Christians adopt the very language of Scripture, turn to the Bible as their guidebook on moral issues, and to use God’s word to develop their dispositions.
Developing a Wesleyan hermeneutic in the 21st century involves going back to the theological roots that brought Wesleyans where they are today. Early British and American Methodists following on the heels of John Wesley easily recognized the hermeneutic of their forefather. Men like Fletcher, Clark, Watson, and Ralston pulled very heavily from Wesley’s works and sermons in the further development of Wesleyan theology. But they were first and foremost men who were renowned as scholars in their own right, and there’s scholarship is still hailed today. Wesley would have it no other way, and perhaps that is why he never developed a systematic theology of his own. He knew what he believed, and preached from the Word of God with a fervor and conviction that won the hearts of Englishmen. That is not to say that systematic theology books are irrelevant, but rather a clear understanding of the Bible is the important matter.
Present scholarship would do well to return to the same roots, starting from the Bible and not from preconceived or presuppositional ideas. They must cast off the cloaks of liberalism and postmodernism, which have shrouded them from the proper view of Scripture. The church has been so influenced by these destructive methodologies that its interpretation of the Bible has led it down the road toward apostasy. To reclaim it will involve much work, but it is a rewarding work nevertheless.
Wesleyan scholars must be Biblicists first and foremost. Too much time has been lost trying to determine if there is such a thing as a Wesleyan hermeneutic. In fact, Dr. Reasoner says, “it has become popular to advocate that Wesley’s use a ‘Wesleyan hermeneutic.’ But what is called a ‘hermeneutic’ is actually an a priority presupposition. If I did not start with a Wesleyan hermeneutic would I arrive at Wesleyan conclusions?” (75) But Joel Green suggests that one can be Wesleyan without actually following Wesley’s method!
Generally, I have been less interested in what Wesley says about how he reads Scripture and more concerned with what he actually does as he reads Scripture. What motifs surface? What in forms and shapes his interpretation? The result has been a fascinating exploration of how Wesley engaged in disciplined theological interpretation of Scripture. Here we see something of what it means to be Wesleyan – not in the sense of marching lockstep to his cadence are matching his gait with our own (ix).
Can one truly call himself Wesleyan if he does not follow Wesley’s method? If we approach the Bible with presuppositions that are not Wesleyan, are we truly using a Wesleyan hermeneutic?
Is too much emphasis being placed on being Wesleyan in our hermeneutic? Some would say so, and advocate that denominational- and movement-oriented ideas on how to interpret the Bible be cast aside. Dr. Reasoner once said in a class at Southern Methodist College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, that he does not start off by looking under the Wesleyan-Arminian heading to know how to interpret the Bible. Rather, after he interpreted the Bible and looked up, he found himself more nearly in the Wesleyan-Arminian category than any other.
Unfortunately Wesleyans today, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the presuppositions of Calvinism, have themselves developed their own presuppositions. It is well documented that there has been major shifts in the theology of major Methodist and Wesleyan denominations. The United Methodist Church went off the deep end of liberalism many years ago, and continue their downward spiral. Their doctrines are hardly recognizable as being Methodist at all. In recent years the Wesleyan and Nazarene denominations are slowly seeing their doctrines eroded through the onset of postmodernism in their universities and seminaries. There are plenty of journals, books, symposiums, conferences, and other such vehicles through which a cry to return to a Wesleyan hermeneutic is being heard. But until recognition is made of the sinking ship in which the Wesleyan/Methodist movement finds itself, the holes will never be plugged. It will continue to sink in the waters of worldliness until it becomes insignificant.
It is imperative that the Wesleyan places of higher learning reclaim their rightful consignment as the places of preparation for the next generation of conservative biblical scholarship. They are producing not only future liberal scholarship, but future pastors also who are influencing Wesleyan churches and impacting the culture of Christianity. If this trend continues, the fires of conservatism may slowly be extinguished. Thank God that there are still small denominations and associations of churches in the Wesleyan tradition who uphold biblical doctrine as discovered through the historical-grammatical method of Bible interpretation.
As promised at the beginning of this thesis, it has been clearly demonstrated that Wesley’s method for interpretation of the biblical record is nothing more than the traditional historical-grammatical method. It is objective in its view, goes to the written record first and foremost, and considers the historical record surrounding the text. This was Wesley’s method, plain and simple.
Wesley was between the pre-critical and critical methods of hermeneutics. He often found himself following the method of the great reformer Martin Luther. Luther proposed that Scripture was its own interpreter, and Christ its center. Wesley even consulted the works of John Calvin from time to time. He himself once declared to John Newton that his theology was but a hair’s breadth from Calvinism. In a blog posted on August 25, 2009, Rick Hogaboam used this intriguing title, “John Wesley: a “hairs breadth” from Calvinism, a mile away from modern Wesleyanism?” His title speaks volumes about how far the Wesleyan movement has moved from its founder, John Wesley.
Charles Simeon, records a conversation he had with the elderly Wesley:
“Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?”
“Yes, I do indeed.”
“And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?”
“Yes, solely through Christ.”
“But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?”
“No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.”
“Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?”
“What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?”
“And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?”
“Yes, I have no hope but in Him.”
“Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree” (Jones and Carpenter, 69).
Obviously Wesley does not support the Calvinist position on predestination, but he had no problem drawing from authors and writers of different theological persuasions.
Reclamation of the Wesleyan hermeneutic in this century may be an impossibility for some movements within Wesleyanism. Some are too far gone, and nothing short of a miracle could set their feet on that path. There are some movements within Wesleyanism that are just beginning to turn onto the wrong path need only a few good scholars to arise and sound the alarm. Those movements within Wesleyanism who are still solid in their hermeneutic must continue to produce doctrinal works that are biblically sound so that those who are going down the wrong path will have something to lead them back. Those within the prevailing camps of Wesleyan theology who are having the most influence are those who question the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, as well as promoting liberal and postmodern ideas. A return to the historical-grammatical methodology for biblical hermeneutics is the only deterrent to the bad theology influencing the Wesleyan movement.
“We would be better served to reject this subjective, so-called ‘Wesleyan hermeneutic’ and instead return to Wesley’s objective view of Scripture. The real battle is whether we should utilize a grammatical-historical hermeneutic or a critical-historical hermeneutic which utilizes destructive higher criticism. . . . If God’s Word is forever settled in heaven (Psalm 119:89), it serves no useful purpose to undermine its full authority here on earth” (Reasoner, 77).
Professor and biblical scholar Robert Wall wrote an article entitled, “Toward a Wesleyan Hermeneutic of Scripture.” In that article, he laments the broad chasm that separates biblical scholarship and the theological conversations within the church. However, his main concern seemed to be the way the Bible is read in Wesleyan circles, not how is interpreted. Though this author disagrees with the interpretive methodology laid out by Wall, his concluding paragraph is reflective of this author’s own intent.
I conclude feeling even more tentative about the project of Wesleyan hermeneutics than when I began. Am I correct, however, to presume that we possess from Wesley a particular perspective of Scripture, and that this perspective forges in turn those presuppositions of biblical interpretation that helped shape in a decisive way what it means for Wesleyans to be the church and act like the church should for the glory of God? Am I right to sponsor a hermeneutics whose agenda is to retribalize Wesleyanism in order to nurture, even to reform the theological understanding and praxis of the whole church? I think so. . . . The Wesleyan interpreter should cast biblical meaning/theology in a way that enables our particular cloud of Christian witnesses to understand and embody more fully a distinctively Wesleyan form of saving faith and holy life (Callen and Thompson, 55).
It is a correct presumption that Wesleyans have had passed down from their founder, John Wesley, a particular methodology for hermeneutics, one that has been used successfully by evangelical Christianity for years. Just because it is not peculiar to Wesleyans does not mean it is not a proper hermeneutic. Though this author has confidence that he has correctly shown what a proper Wesleyan hermeneutic is, Prof. Wall was not so sure, and says so in his concluding sentence to the above paragraph: “What I’m less certain of is how best to do this.”
It is sad when those who are in the majority, though not necessarily right, continue to beat down those in the minority. In the Wesleyan movement today, liberal and postmodern scholarship rule the day. Clark Pinnock in his day was considered to be one of the top Wesleyan scholars. According to his intellectual biographer, Barry Callen, Pinnock’s early career focused on defending the authority of the Bible, but “he journeyed from being a fierce defender of a reformed fundamentalistic view of biblical inspiration and authority to a carefully nuanced, although still a revelationally rooted view of the Bible quite compatible with the Wesleyan theological tradition” (Callen and Thompson, 137). Notice that Callen refers to a conservative view of biblical authority and inspiration as the reformed view. Under the subheading “The Hermeneutical Challenge,” Callen reveals Pinnock’s view of evangelicals:
It has remained the firm assumption of Pinnock that true Christianity depends on a truth deposit once delivered to the saints, a deposit that must be maintained and accepted by faith. This is why he holds staunchly to the “text horizon” of the faith in the face of the obvious role always played by the quote, reader horizon.” The problem, he now sees, however, is that evangelicals, for whom the Word of God is of utmost importance, “have spent a great deal of energy defending the authority or inerrancy of the Bible and [have] given little attention to the equally important matter of its interpretation.” They have, in fact, often evidenced a “naivete in hermeneutics” that threatens “to drag the meaning of the text into the range of what we wanted to say.” The text is not there to do human bidding, and it does not mean whatever readers want it to mean (Callen and Thompson, 145).
It is interesting that Pinnock believed that evangelicals spent too much time building up the twin columns of authority and inerrancy in defense of the Bible, and did not give enough time to the interpretation of the Bible. Precisely the reason evangelicals have defended the supporting columns of the authority and inerrancy of the Bible is because men like Pinnock have hacked away at them until they have begun to crumble. Evangelicals see these two tenants as necessary for a proper hermeneutical methodology. It is Pinnock and scholars like him who have no base upon which to stand for interpretation.
It is high time that conservative scholarship come out of its hiding place and assert leadership in the field of hermeneutics. Conservatism, or fundamentalism, or evangelicalism, or whatever name is used, has been the ugly stepsister to liberalism and postmodernism for too long. Let those scholars who still adhere to the historical-grammatical interpretive methodology rise up and step to the front of the bus. The people of God who still hold dear the fundamental doctrines of the faith should rally together and take back their universities and seminaries from the stranglehold of liberalism and postmodernism.
It was the Wesley Theological Journal that invited scholars to write essays which were collected and published in a book entitled Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways. The development of this book had been prompted by a series of questions.
Should the Bible remain as the central authority for the contemporary Christian community? If the Bible’s authority does remain central, how should a believer go about interpreting it? How should the church as a whole undertake the task of interpreting the Bible? In the process of seeking a responsible interpretation of the Bible, are there within the Wesleyan theological tradition important resources for appropriate and currently relevant interpretation? Put otherwise, are their distinctively Wesleyan ways of reading the Bible? If there are, what are they and are they worthy of clarification for a new generation of Wesleyans and for the ongoing life of the whole church (Callen and Thompson, 9)?
Notice how the questions move from the objective authority of the Bible to this objective reading of the Bible. This is precisely what is happening in the scholarship of the Wesleyan movement. The shift is from objectivity to subjectivity, revealing the postmodern influence prevalent among Wesleyans. The title of the book itself revealed its true purpose without ever having gotten into the text. Joel Green even picks up the banner in his little book entitled Reading Scripture as Wesleyans.
The Wesleyan movement needs scholars like Dr. Vic Reasoner, President of Southern Methodist College, and Dr. Chris Bounds, Associate Professor of Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University, to continue to produce scholarly articles and books that defend evangelical doctrine against the onslaught of liberalism and postmodernism. It is imperative that more scholars be trained to take up the banner in years to come. But more than that, we must train our pastors and lay people the proper hermeneutical methodology of conservative Wesleyanism. The leaders of the Reformation died defending the right of the common layperson to know The Word of God, and it should not be taken back from them. The Bible was written in order to be understood, and understood it can be with proper training.
Wesley would call his people back to his simple, yet profound, method of hermeneutics. The people called methodists do not need modern scholarship informing them of a postmodern hermeneutic, only the traditional historical-grammatical method that has produced some of the greatest scholarship this world has ever seen. Let the battle cry for Wesleyan interpreters be that of one of the main mottos of the Reformation: “Sola Scriptura!” Let them put aside their aimless and baseless presuppositions and return to the centrality of the Scriptures in interpretation. It is for Wesleyans to reclaim their heritage, and become people of one book as Wesley was. Let them cry as Wesley did, “O give me that book!”
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