In the language of the sacred writings, we may observe the utmost depth, together with the utmost ease. All the elegancies of human composures sink into nothing before it: God speaks not as man, but as God. His thoughts are deep: and thence his words are of inexhaustible virtue.” – John Wesley
One of the most pervasive influences in the lives of John and Charles Wesley was the Bible. They imbibed the Bible. They lived in it. I often tell my students – because one of my professors told me – that if you want to understand the Wesleys one needs to immerse themselves in the King James Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (a book made up almost entirely of scripture). This sort of approach bore fruit in the Wesleys’ lives, not simply as each grew closer to Christ, but even in the way that they communicated with others. Many scholars describe John Wesley’s language as “biblese,” arguing that even the words and structure of Wesley’s sentences were infused with biblical references and allusions. One only comes to speak “biblese” from sustained exposure to the Bible.
Out of this immersion, the Wesleys have given us some practical tools for understanding scripture. I won’t include them all here, but the following will hopefully be useful to you as you immerse yourself in the written Word.
Pray That God Might Inspire Your Reading
First things first, pray. One of Charles Wesley’s hymns, originally published in 1783, puts this best. I provide here just two of the four verses:
Whether the Word be preached or read,
No saving benefit I gain
From empty sounds or letters dead;
Unprofitable all and vain,
Unless by faith Thy Word I hear
And see its heavenly character.
If God enlighten through His Word,
I shall my kind Enlightener bless;
But void and naked of my Lord,
What are all verbal promises?
Nothing to me, till faith divine
Inspire, inspeak, and make them mine.
To grasp the truth of Scripture, one must approach it with faith and openness to what God has to say. I’ve often heard this as an approach that uses a “lens of appreciation” rather than a “lens of critique.” But it also speaks of the inspiration of Scripture, in that we must pray that the same Spirit who inspired the writers of Scripture would also inspire our reading. Our encounter with Scripture should be a Spirit-fueled event. There’s a reason that Wesley called it a means of grace.
It Really is All About Christ
Jesus told the disciples who walked with him to Emmaus all about the Scriptures, and most importantly, that they all pointed to him (see Luke 24:13-35). Wesleyans read the Scriptures in that same way. The Old Testament has significance and value as a work about God’s calling of the people of Israel (amongst many other things), but its fullness is seen in a Christ-centered approach. Christ fulfills (not replaces) the promises and the imagery of the Old Testament. He is, for example, the true Temple of God, the place in whom, to use N. T. Wright’s language, heaven and earth meet. The Old Testament, read together with the New, actually gives us a fuller picture of Christ. Isaiah, as the church fathers said, is the Fifth Gospel.
So the New Testament becomes the fulfillment of the Old Testament. We can see this clearly in the use of the law. Wesley was very emphatic that the moral law of God is not void. He even described it as being summarized in the Ten Commandments. The ritual and civic law of Israel has been completed in Christ, but in terms of a new ritual (i.e., baptism and the eucharist, primarily) and a new community, the church. But the moral law is binding, because as Wesley wrote in “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fifth,” the moral law was made by God at creation and is therefore a blueprint of God’s will for us at all times. At the Fall, we became incapable of fulfilling our calling, but in Christ we are now enabled by the power of the Spirit to fulfill the moral law and live as God intended us to live when He created us.
Understand Scripture with Scripture
Wesley understood that there are times when the Scriptures are hard to fathom. Even St. Peter said that St. Paul’s writings were difficult to understand! So if a text was difficult and did not make sense within its context (and after you’ve read it without chapter breaks, which were added much, much later), Wesley taught that we should read Scripture with Scripture, meaning that we should find similar ideas or themes in the Scripture and then try to understand the difficult passage using one that is more clear.
The “General Tenor” of Scripture
Wesley also promoted another interpretive tool, and that was the “general tenor” of Scripture. What he meant by this was that there is a general theme running throughout the Bible; the theme of salvation. From beginning to end, God reaches out to a world that needs God. And the culmination of the whole text is the new creation, heaven and earth brought together. And so Wesley often spoke of God’s work of restoration, restoring the glories of the pre-Fall creation and yet making it even better. See, in particular, his sermon “The General Deliverance.”
So when you are reading Scripture or run into a concept or passage that is not clear, how does it fit within the “general tenor?” Or, how does it fit within God’s over-arching work of restoration and wholeness in Christ? Keeping this in mind as you read will enable you to grasp more fully the meaning and the depth of the text.
Finally, the concept of “covered promises” is key to a Wesleyan approach because it speaks of holiness of heart and life – the ultimate theological theme for Wesley. When you see a commandment of God, it is not only a commandment but also a promise that He will enable you to complete it. So when we see in Matt 5 the commandment to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” we need to see that as a promise. Read the passage in light of 1 Thess 5 (understanding Scripture with Scripture) where we see – in a passage about sanctification – “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
God’s commandments are meant for our betterment; our Creator designed them so that we might live lives of wholeness and happiness. Only because of sin do we see any of them as onerous. But by God’s grace, we are enabled to live that life that He has made for us. I see this not only as a covered promise but as a sign of God’s ultimate love for each and every one of us.
Some Resources Going Forward
First of all, buy a bible that will last. If you’re reading it even half as much as the Wesleys did, you’ll need it. I recommend both Cambridge Bibles and Schuyler. They are an investment, but well worth it. But also, every Wesleyan should own a copy of John Wesley’s Notes Upon the New Testament. This is the ultimate Wesleyan resource for the New Testament and it was written to be accessible.
There are many Wesleyan biblical scholars; David Watson, Ben Witherington, George Lyons, Joel Green, Bill Arnold, and many others who write biblical commentary from a distinctly Wesleyan perspective. I recommend their work to you. I don’t mean to ignore the many Methodists who are biblical scholars (I enjoy the work of my colleagues, Bruce Birch and Carla Works), but for this post, I’m only referring to those who write from a distinctly Wesleyan perspective.
And while I’m going to write an entire blog on this set soon, I will recommend here the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. If you want to read the Bible the way that Wesley did – with the church fathers – you’ll want to look into this set. Reading the Bible with the church fathers is one of the most spiritually enriching practices that I have ever encountered.
Ryan N. Danker