How and Why We Should Read the Bible

How and Why We Should Read the Bible

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The question: “What do Methodists believe about the Bible?” is rather like: “What do Americans believe about politics?” In its relatively short history, the Methodist movement has been all over the map regarding biblical interpretation. Virtually nothing has been off limits. Within the United Methodist Church, one would be hard-pressed to identify any parameters defining acceptable methods of biblical interpretation. It is unsurprising that we cannot agree upon a common vision of the Christian faith and life when we have no common principles by which we interpret the Bible. If future iterations of Methodism follow suit, they will likely develop disputes just as intractable as those plaguing the United Methodist Church today.

As the Western world moves into an era we call “post-Christendom,” we Christians are going to have to become more intentional about the articulation, preservation, and teaching of our distinctive theological traditions. We cannot count on a “Christian culture” to carry us along anymore. We cannot assume that the people around us have any but the vaguest familiarity with Christianity and its core beliefs. A new, more traditional Wesleyan denomination will have to be clear not only about what we believe as Christians, but what is distinctive about our witness within the larger body of Christ. This will be particularly important with regard to our doctrine of Scripture. It is imperative that we develop greater clarity about what Scripture is and what it does, both for ourselves and for the world to which we offer our witness.

I take for granted that, as Methodists, we will want to make use of the best historical, literary, linguistic, and text-critical information available to us in the work of biblical interpretation. Wesley did so, at times making historical and literary observations about passages of Scripture, and even correcting the translation or text of the authorized version. That said, there is nothing about these tools that is distinctive of our theological tradition. Reading the Bible as Methodists is a theological undertaking, one that requires that we recover some of the historically central beliefs and practices of our great heritage. We cannot, of course, entirely recreate Wesley’s worldview and interpretive process, nor should we want to. Yet we are his spiritual children, and there are elements of his approach to Scripture that can instruct us today as we open our sacred text. In what follows, then, I will suggest a few principles for biblical interpretation rooted in Wesley’s beliefs and practices. I will do so by addressing two questions: (1) Why do we read Scripture? and (2) How do we read Scripture?

Why Do We Read Scripture?

Scripture as Divine Teaching

In the preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, Wesley wrote:

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 hath 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 [a man of one book].1

This quotation commends several insights. First, Wesley identifies the purpose of Scripture: to teach “the way to heaven.” In other words, Scripture teaches us how to be saved. It is crucial to understand, though, that, for Wesley, salvation involved much more than eternal life in the age to come. He also understood salvation to involve new life in the present. Salvation, he said:

is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, ‘Ye have been saved’: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.2

In other words, salvation begins with that first twinge in our hearts, that first inkling that something is not right, that our lives are not complete, that we are not living as we should. It continues in our acceptance of Christ and forgiveness by God, our new birth in Christ and ongoing growth in holiness, and finally, that blessed day when we will see God face-to-face. Scripture can facilitate any and all of these aspects of our salvation. Wesley’s reference to the “way to heaven” is simply a poetic way of speaking of the entire process.

Second, with regard to the “way to heaven,” God “hath written it down in a book.” Wesley, of course, knew that God worked through human writers to give us the works of Scripture. Again, he is speaking poetically, this time about two important and closely related concepts in biblical interpretation: inspiration and divine revelation. We derive the word inspired from 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (NRSV). The word we translate here in the NRSV as “inspired” is theopneustos. It literally means “God-breathed.” That is, in fact, how the NIV renders the word (“All Scripture is God-breathed”). God breathed the Holy Spirit into these writings in order that we might be saved, and through these writings God has revealed to us things that we could not know otherwise.

From observing the world around us, we might surmise that there is a God and that this God values order, perhaps even beauty. We might surmise that this God is good and cares about creation. We might even surmise that particular ways of thinking and acting are not in keeping with the order of creation, and because of this we are in some sense estranged from the God in whom this order originated. We could not, however, conclude that this same God called out a single people—Israel—from among the nations to be the conduit of salvation. We could not surmise that God called this people to a particular way of living characterized by holiness—being set apart for a life that honors God. Simple observation of the world around us could not lead us to believe that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, who through his death and resurrection, made it possible for us to be reconciled to God. We would never conclude that this same God gives us new life in the present, which will blossom into eternal life in the age to come. No, all of these beliefs require divine revelation. We cannot know about our salvation, except that God has breathed into Scripture and revealed to us his love and saving work on our behalf.

Third, Wesley called himself a “man of one book,” but he did not mean that he read only one book. In fact, he read widely, and he encouraged others to do so as well. What he meant was that only one book was inspired by God for the purpose of revealing to us the truth about our salvation. Another way of putting this is to say that this one book functions as a canon. The word kanōn is a Greek term that means “rule” or “measuring rod.” When Christians talk about the “canon of Scripture,” we are talking about the list of books recognized as authoritative within the Old and New Testaments. We also mean, however, that these works together constitute a measuring rod for life in Christ. Remember: our salvation involves more than simply going to heaven. It involves the whole of our life with God. When we want to know what it looks like to live as saved people, we search the Scriptures. To be men and women of one book means that we look to one book above all others in seeking God’s will for our lives.

Scripture as Means of Grace

Scripture, then, teaches us about our salvation, but the purpose of Scripture is not just informational. It is transformational. The Holy Spirit works through the Bible in order to form us into more Christlike people. This is another way of saying that Scripture is a “means of grace.” Wesley defined “means of grace” as “outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end—to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”3 In other words, these means of grace are practices established by God, and their purpose is to mediate to us the work of God for our salvation: calling us out of sin, forgiving us of our sin, and forming us into more Christlike people.

In his sermon “The Means of Grace,” Wesley identifies the chief means as prayer (private or congregational), “searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon), and receiving the Lord’s Supper.”4 In the General Rules that Wesley gave to the Methodist societies, he expanded upon these a bit. He includes:

  • The public worship of God
  • The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded
  • The Supper of the Lord
  • Family and private prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures
  • Fasting or abstinence

To the list in “The Means of Grace,” then, Wesley has added public worship and fasting or abstinence. He also prescribes not just “searching the Scriptures,” but “the ministry of the Word”: the public reading, teaching, and preaching of Scripture. The Holy Spirit works through these practices, forming us into the people that God always meant for us to be. Scripture is one of the ways God transforms us. It is one of the means by which God rescues us from sin and death and births within us Christlike love.

How Do We Read Scripture?

The Message of Scripture

There are many interpretive approaches to the Bible. We call these hermeneutics. Everyone from the atheist to the seeker to the devout believer uses some type of hermeneutic. Wesley read the Bible with a doctrinal hermeneutic. In other words, he read the Bible through the lens of certain deeply held Christian beliefs. He was aware, of course, of other approaches. He lived during the European Enlightenment, and there were emerging at that time quite skeptical approaches to the Bible that would take root in the academy and profoundly affect biblical studies and theological education. These kinds of approaches sought to distance the biblical text from its interpretation in the church, to free it from the church’s dogmatic constraints. For Wesley, however, it was wrongheaded and unfaithful to remove the interpretation of Scripture from its proper context in the church. He thus read Scripture in dialogue with the church’s long held core beliefs, and he did so without apology. There were particular beliefs upon which the Methodist movement placed special emphasis, and these also played an important role in his understanding of the Bible’s message.

To speak of the Bible’s message—in the singular—may strike many readers as odd today. A considerable body of biblical scholarship produced over the last two centuries has emphasized Scripture’s diversity, even its disunity. Yet Wesley understood the Bible to form a coherent whole. He wrote: “The Scripture . . . of the Old and New Testament is a most solid and precious system of divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”5 His use of the word system is telling. Today we often hear the Bible spoken of as a “library,” but for Wesley it was more than that. He understood Scripture not just as a collection of books, but a single book with a single overarching message: God’s work of salvation, culminating in Jesus Christ and the newness of life available through him.

To be more specific, Wesley read the Bible through the lens of what is called the “analogy of faith,” a term taken from Romans 12:6. Think of this as Wesley’s hermeneutic. It consists of four central teachings: “Original Sin, Justification by Faith, the New Birth, [and] Inward and Outward Holiness.”6 A thorough account of each of these four doctrines is beyond the scope of this essay, but some explanation is in order. Original sin means that we human beings have inherited an irresistible propensity to sin, and because of this we are estranged from God. We cannot, of our own strength, conquer sin or reconcile ourselves to God. The power of sin is too great. Only by giving our lives to Jesus and receiving the power of the Holy Spirit who fills us with holiness can we overcome sin. Once we have accepted Christ in faith, we are justified—forgiven of our sins. We are no longer estranged from God as we were before.

At the same time, we receive the New Birth. As Paul teaches in Romans 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (NRSV). The body of sin is destroyed, but God births something new within us. Jesus taught: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3 NRSV). When we are born again, God restores in us the nature that has been corrupted by sin. We can now live in keeping with God’s will. Because of the change within us (inward holiness) we will live in ways that demonstrate our love for God and our neighbors (outward holiness). The renewal of our nature in the present will result in eternal life in the age to come.

This is Christian salvation, as Wesley understood it, along with Methodists who have remained faithful to his vision over the years. To read the Bible as Methodists is to understand that it has been given to us through the church by the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us ever more deeply into this vision of salvation. As we read, then, we read with these ideas in mind. No, not every passage in the Bible speaks directly to these doctrines. Nevertheless, these doctrines draw the different parts of the Bible, varied as they are, into a coherent whole. Salvation through Christ is the center of Scripture. It is Christ to whom the entire Old Testament leads, and it is Christ from whom the entire New Testament proceeds. If we do not read the Bible through the lens of Christ and the salvation we have in him, we lose its coherence. As two Free Methodist scholars have written, for Christians, “Jesus is Scripture’s singular referent.”7 Wesley certainly would have agreed.

The Primacy of Scripture

Although Wesley read the Bible through the lens of tradition, he always insisted upon the primacy of Scripture. In the General Rules, Wesley describes the Bible as “the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice.”8 This is an area of great confusion for many Methodists today because so much has been made of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” The quadrilateral involves the idea that we should consider theological questions according to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. At least in the 1972 United Methodist Book of Discipline, the relationship between these four resources was not clearly spelled out, and it took until 1988 for the UMC to agree upon a clear statement of the primacy of Scripture.

What does it mean for Scripture to be primary? To answer this question, we must once again return to the notion of Scripture as canon. Scripture is the rule or measuring rod for Christian faith and life. I have often heard Christians say something to the effect of, “God is still speaking,” and, indeed, that is true. God spoke through the historic councils and creeds of the church. God has spoken through mystics and prophets through the ages, and does so even today. God may speak through you or me, or guide our reason for some sanctified purpose. God may teach us of our own salvation by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Yes, God is still speaking. Nevertheless, the church discerned over centuries that, through Scripture, God has spoken in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Scripture is given to us to be the rule against which we test all other claims about faithful belief and living. Whenever we make claims about what we should think, what we should say, and how we should live as Christians, we stand under the inspired authority of Scripture. When we believe we have received a word from the Lord, we test that word against Scripture. When we feel that God is guiding us in a particular direction, we search the Scriptures for wisdom. Yes, there are other valid sources of truth and knowledge in the world. Yet when it comes to matters of Christian salvation and the way of life it entails, Scripture is uniquely authoritative. If we make some other resource our primary rule, we will inevitably fall into error.


I have tried to provide some guidance regarding the beliefs and practices that would help us to read the Bible in keeping with some of the best insights of our tradition. As Methodists today working to recover our historic practices, there are two main reasons we read Scripture. First, Scripture is uniquely inspired by God to teach us about our salvation in Christ. God has revealed to us in Scripture truths that we could not know otherwise. No other book can function in this way in the life of the Christian, because no other book has been inspired by God for this purpose. Second, Scripture is a means of grace. Through our engagement with Scripture we receive the transforming, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

With regard to how we read Scripture, there were certain theological ideas comprised within Wesley’s “analogy of faith”: original sin, justification by faith, new birth, and holiness. While Scripture is a collection of books, it is also a single book, and these are its central themes. Thus, when we read Scripture, we read with these in mind. Further, while we do make use of other sources in our theological reflection, Scripture must always remain primary for Methodists. Scripture is the church’s primary canon—its rule or measuring rod for faithful belief and practice.

There is undoubtedly much more to be said about the interpretation of Scripture for traditional Methodists going forward, and undoubtedly much more will be said. Methodism’s future must involve a process of intentional recovery. We must recover important emphases of our tradition that have been lost over time, not least with regard to the way in which we read the Bible. We must look back in order to move forward in faith.

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 1. John Wesley, preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, §5, in Works, 1:105.
2. John Wesley, The Scripture Way of Salvation, §I.1, Works, 2:156.
3. John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” §II.1, in Works, 1:381, italics original.
4. Ibid.
5. John Wesley, preface to Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (1754, London: Epworth Press, 1977), 10.
6. John Wesley, preface to Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament (1765), §18 (Schmul, 1975), ix.
7. Daniel Castelo and Robert W. Wall, The Marks of Scripture: Rethinking the Nature of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 59.
8. John Wesley, “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies” (1743), §7, in Works, 9:73.


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