In a previous post I spoke about how as Methodists we have a particular ‘Wesleyan’ way of thinking about faith and theology. Much of that thinking stems out of the way as Methodists approach our bible, not surprisingly we do it methodicaly!
Before I became a minister when I had a ‘proper job'(!) I would often travel with work which would mean an overnight stay in an hotel. If I ever forget to take my bible with me I wasn’t too worried as there would be a Gideons bible in the hotel room I could use. One of the good things in the Gideons version of the bible is an index which suggests bible passages that will help you in times of need, whether you are anxious, depressed, facing challenges etc. It means you don’t have to rifle through the pages trying to find a particular passage to offer help or comfort.
The phrase “searching the scriptures” is old-fashioned, as if we are looking for buried treasure. Yet this is an accurate description for a truly Wesleyan way to read the Bible. In his preface to The Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, one of his most important texts, John Wesley describes his purpose in having done the background research and then having written the commentary notes. The Explanatory Notes are not written for intellectuals or professional scholars. Rather, they are written “for plain, unlettered men, who understand only their mother tongue, and yet reverence and love the word of God, and have a desire to save their souls.” This comment, along with many other statements Wesley makes about the Bible, demonstrate that for Wesley, reading the Bible is for the explicit purpose of Christian transformation. We “search” the scriptures, leaving no stone unturned, expecting to encounter the living God and discover life-changing guidance in its pages.
John Wesley was sometimes mocked for his deep love of scripture. Some of his detractors called him a “Bible moth.” He called himself a “man of one book,” an interesting designation considering he read widely from many disciplines, including science and medicine. In fact the most popular book in his lifetime that he wrote was Primitive Physic, a guide to holistic medicine. When he referenced himself as a man of one book, then, what he meant was the central role the Bible played in his thought and life. In reading through his journals, sermons, and other writings, it is obvious that his life and thoughts have been shaped by the Bible.
Even so, Wesley didn’t understand the Bible to be infallible in the way some interpreters prefer today. As a life long high, tory Anglican priest Wesley’s doctrine of scripture was guided by the Anglican Articles of Faith and the Confession and they never refer to the text of scripture as “inspired,” nor do they call the Bible “the Word of God.” It’s clear that Wesley believed the Bible was inspired by God, but it is doubtful that he should be characterised as an inerrantist in the contemporary sense of the term. The Anglican Confession states that the Bible “reveals the word of God.” Despite his deep love of scripture, Wesley never preached a sermon focusing exclusively on the Bible, nor did he write a treatise about it. For Wesley scripture was the ocean on which he sailed his boat of faith allowing the bible to permeating his thought, words, and actions.
In his preface to the Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, Wesley advises the following. First, the reader should set aside time morning and evening, habitually, to read a full chapter each from both the Old and New Testaments. If there is not time for two chapters, the reader should select one chapter or a portion of one chapter. The goal in this reading is for one purpose: to know and do the will of God. Because the goal is Christian formation, Wesley urges readers to keep in mind at all times the basic themes and doctrines of the Christian faith as interpretive lenses. The reader must pray for the Holy Spirit to illumine his or her mind to receive the spiritual understanding of the text, something that doesn’t happen automatically and without which the reading will be useless. While reading one should move slowly through the passage, pausing to reflect often so that the text can aid the reader in self-examination, with the scripture sometimes comforting, sometimes challenging, and sometimes convicting the reader of the need for change. Finally, one should immediately put into practice any guidance or instructions that come through this twice-daily practice of searching the scriptures.
The goal in searching the scriptures is that we increasingly bear the love and grace of God to our neighbours because God’s word has become alive in us. Sometimes when searching the scriptures we don’t seem to notice anything that speaks to us. We may not always feel anything, or find ourselves drawn to an image or idea in the text. There are times when we read the Bible and, despite our best intentions, it seems dry to us. At such times, we may rest in the love of God and simply let the experience be what it is. The important thing is to regularly pray with scripture in this way. Over time, as we habitually search the scriptures with our hearts open to God, we will be shaped by the word.
God bless and happy reading. Alan.