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A previous generation articulated “the battle for the Bible” in terms of its accuracy. Some insisted, for example, that the Bible is without error; others, that it would never fail.1 Lines were drawn as Christian leaders, churches, and other institutions were labeled and either approved or dismissed.2 Although this was a heated discussion, I have always imagined that it was not quite on point. This is because affirmations about the Bible have no necessary relationship to how the Bible is understood, nor to whether God’s people are willing to live lives shaped by the Bible. In fact, I want to urge that the problems we presently face as Wesleyan Methodists, and the challenge before us as we envision the future of our movement, must be shaped in terms that attend, above all, to how we read Scripture.
Two Stories, One Outcome
Let me draw attention to two occasions that illustrate my claim regarding how we read Scripture.
One of my favorite episodes in the history of the church is the argument Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 125–ca. 202) mustered against the theology of the Valentinian Gnostics. In his book Against Heresies, he rails against their deviant beliefs concerning a defective creation and flawed humanity, the blame for which they laid at the feet of an imperfect creator, Israel’s God. After explaining this faulty theology at length, Irenaeus turns finally to critique it, and he does so by accusing his opponents of bad exegesis. They do not know how to read the Bible.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, Homer’s epic poems were more widely known than today’s Harry Potter books or The Chronicles of Narnia, so Irenaeus turns to Homer to make his point. He imagines that someone might cherry-pick phrases and names from Homer, then scatter them throughout a fresh composition. Those who did not know Homer well would naively think they were reading Homeric verse. In the same way, Irenaeus argues, these Valentinians gather words and phrases scattered throughout Scripture, then sprinkle them over a narrative of their own making—thus fooling themselves and others who do not know Scripture. Their grasp of Scripture’s story does not derive from the prophets, the Lord Jesus, or the apostles, but from sources outside the Scriptures. They disregard what Irenaeus calls “the order and the connection of the Scriptures.”3 For Irenaeus, the problem is bad exegesis, so his argument is about how best to read the Bible.
Consider Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:1–13). Having returned from his baptism by John, Jesus, led by the Spirit, is tempted by the devil over a period of forty days. The devil directs the starving Jesus to make bread from a stone, then promises Jesus the world’s kingdoms if he will worship the devil. Confronted by these two temptations, Jesus cites texts from Deuteronomy: “People will not live by bread alone” and “You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (8:3; 6:13 AT). As if suddenly recognizing how best to undercut Jesus’ resolve, the devil turns to Scripture, too, citing Psalm 91:11–12: “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘They will carry you in their hands so that you will not hit your foot on a stone’” (AT). To this third temptation, Jesus responds again from Deuteronomy: “It is said, ‘Do not test the Lord your God’” (6:16 AT).
Why do we imagine that Jesus does well to quote Scripture, but the devil does not? The easy answer is that Jesus is God’s anointed Son, whereas the devil is, well, the devil! But this response does not tell us why Jesus’ reading of Scripture is right and the devil’s is not. Both quote Scripture; why embrace this reading but not that one?
Note that the devil is not wrong to imagine that Psalm 91 might refer to Jesus. God does rescue Jesus, even if the devil has the wrong idea about when and how this will occur. We who read or hear Luke’s Gospel know well that God has indeed rescued Jesus—not from suffering and death, but through suffering and death, by raising Jesus from the dead. The devil’s reading of Psalm 91 falls short in a second way. He overlooks the reality that this psalm is addressed to those who love God and find their home in him. Accordingly, the devil’s interpretation works against the grain of the scriptural text, for he urges Jesus to turn aside from God’s aim for the shallow purpose of testing God’s promises. Third, Luke’s account and Jesus’ responses indicate a deeper pattern in God’s redemptive work, a pattern to which the devil seems oblivious. Testing in the wilderness, forty days, the Spirit’s leading, and these quotations from Deuteronomy—are these not reminiscences of the exodus story? Indeed, Luke shows that the story of exodus (Israel’s liberation from Egypt), now recast as new exodus (Israel’s restoration from exile), is unfolding in Jesus’ mission. Refusing the devil’s tests, Jesus proves his faithfulness to God’s plan to save Israel and, with Israel, the nations. But the devil’s strategy was to deflect Jesus from his allegiance to God’s purpose, and to this end he recruits Scripture so as to question God’s faithfulness.
These stories do not turn on affirmations of the Bible’s trustworthiness, but on faithful reading of Scripture.
We are a people constituted by and in Scripture. Today, though, we find ourselves at a crossroads with respect to reading the Bible. We are faced with competing approaches that, however appealing, have no necessary connection to faithful engagement with the Bible as Christians. Here, I am concerned especially with two such approaches—one a Bible-only faith, biblicism for short, and the other committed to reading the Bible like any other book. Our challenge is a difficult one, since, for many Wesleyan-Methodist communities, one or the other of these is already baked into the cake, so to speak. That is, they follow biblical and theological recipes taught across decades of seminary education, or they follow alternative recipes that reject modern approaches to the Bible wholesale. Within different communities, these interpretive practices are unquestioned. They just seem right. Recognizing them as problematic may be difficult, moving beyond them even more so. Accordingly, my discussion of these two options will not be neutral or impartial. As I present these two misshapen approaches, then turn to a third option, it will be clear where my commitments lie.
Like Any Other Book
Borrowing words from the Anglican theologian Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893), we are urged to “interpret the Scripture like any other book.”4 Jowett imagined that doing so would put the words of Scripture into the hands of every person while promoting care in reading the Bible, and there is something to be said for maintaining this slogan. Reading a parable as a parable, a letter as a letter, a poem as a poem—that is, taking a biblical text’s genre seriously—is an important practice. We misstep when we read the book of Revelation as though it were like the letter to the Philippians. Reading biblical books in their entirety (as we would with books more generally), rather than as a compilation of verses (like a book of quotations or recipes)—this is sound advice. In the years following Jowett, though, the loss of long held assumptions about Scripture’s holiness and purpose would mean that the Bible would become, indeed, like any other book.
Three centuries of academic study gradually removed the locus of reading the Bible from prayer, liturgy, and the church, to a home in the university increasingly untethered from the church’s influence.5 Detached from the fashioning of Christian communities, the cultivation of personal and social holiness, and doctrinal formulation, academic study of the Bible found its reason for being in the concerns of scientific inquiry. Theology is one thing, biblical studies another, and this has required of students of the Bible bottom-line commitments to objectivity and autonomy. Biblical criticism insists that readers simply go where the evidence takes them, since readers are not shaped or bound by either their own interests or those of the church. The world of the reader and the world of the text—these rarely overlap. For many, this means that the ancient text has no special claim on the present; for others, the ancient text can speak only once its reconstructed meaning has been transformed into contemporary idiom.
Many congregations are accustomed to participating in this exchange after the reading of Scripture: “This is the word of the Lord. // Thanks be to God.” More and more, though, these are just human words that tell of what people used to think or believe. As such, they are open to critique as we moderns determine what texts are helpful and which ought to be set aside. Trained to read the Bible like any other book, Christian leaders today often struggle with reading the Bible as Christian Scripture, with encountering in these pages God’s speech.
By questioning biblicism, I have no desire to undercut Christian commitments to biblical authority but want, instead, to counter a pervasive approach to reading the Bible. Biblicism is marked by the notions that everything God has to say and everything we need pertaining to God’s will is contained in the Bible, so the Bible should be read as a handbook on all aspects of faith and life, including, say, handling stress, friendship, gardening, and financial planning.6 Never mind that the Bible is first and foremost about God—God’s character and purpose, God’s engagement with God’s creation. Should I take out a loan? Here, read this verse. Do you want a happy home? These verses sketch biblical family values. Is America the promised land? I have a verse for that too. Like a big-box store, the Bible brims with phrases that speak to this concern or provide divine proof of that view. Like an encyclopedia packed with informative tidbits, the Bible houses counsel for whatever contemporary interests we bring to it. Bible studies and sermons thus arrange this verse alongside others to provide practical, biblical insight into today’s issues. In this view, not only is the Bible detached from the church’s faith, not only is the Bible isolated from other ways of discerning God and God’s will, not only are the Bible’s parts isolated from Scripture’s whole, but also the Bible is mobilized to speak decisively on all subjects: the natural sciences, economic policy, and more.
Superficially, John Wesley may sound like a biblicist. He is well known for his emphasis on Scripture: “Bring me plain, scriptural proof for your assertion, or I cannot allow it.”7 To their critics, Wesley and his Methodists were naive Bible-thumpers, mocked as Bible-bigots, Bible-moths, and the like.8 However, Wesley, who professed himself to be a man of “one book,” read widely from the early church, theology, the natural sciences, and more, and brought that learning to bear in his theological engagement with Scripture.9 Although he peppered his speech with words and phrases borrowed from Scripture, this was the result not only of his profound intimacy with the words of Scripture, but also of his overall grasp of what Irenaeus called the order and connection of the Scriptures. Simply put, Wesley ordered biblical words and phrases around the story of salvation that Scripture tells.
Of course, the reformers emphasized Scripture’s clarity and accessibility to all Christians and countered any hint that the Scriptures and their interpretation were owned or validated by the church’s elite. Their convictions paraded under the banner, sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.” Is this not reason enough to embrace a Bible-only approach to faith and life? For the reformers, the answer could only be a resounding no. Scripture alone does not strip Scripture of its churchly context or the mutually informing relationship between Scripture and the church’s historic faith.10 When the reformers confessed Scripture alone, they were recognizing the Bible not as the only source for Christian theologizing, but as the final authority by which to judge Christian faith and life.
In short, biblicism has more in common with the Valentinians against whom Irenaeus wrote in his book, Against Heresies, than with Wesley’s interpretive practices or those of the reformers. Inserting a scriptural reference here, identifying a principle as biblical, or sprinkling some biblical phrases over one’s sermon outline—these do not constitute a faithful reading of the Bible as Christian Scripture. We need a better way.
This Is the Way
Though I have emphasized how to read, the way forward does not depend on better technique. Some methods are better than others, but no meaning-making process can guarantee or certify faithful engagement with the Bible. This is because we can practice most any method without taking seriously the essential and overarching drama of Scripture. For example, working piecemeal with biblical texts, reading a verse here or there, digging deep into the background of a textual unit, even reading a whole book without accounting for the entirety of Scripture, we fail to see that the Bible tells an overarching story that runs from Genesis to Revelation. This is the story of creation and fall, slavery and exodus, exile and restoration, and the coming of Christ to unveil God’s new creation. This is the story of God, the God who created, liberated, and led; the God who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Holy Spirit. If we do not grasp this all-encompassing drama of Scripture and read accordingly, then we fail to see the larger mural of divine activity, we fail to see the role of the church in God’s agenda, and we fail to understand who we are and the vocation of service to which God has called us.
Similar words can be spoken, too, with respect to the Bible and the church’s confession of faith. The formulation of the books we know as the New Testament took place in the context of and was guided by the early formation of the creeds, which themselves reflect the influence of Israel’s Scriptures. Accordingly, we read Bible and creed together, in mutually informing dialogue.11 Pressing further, we recall that Wesley understood the general tenor, or essence, of Scripture in terms of the way of salvation—God’s gracious work to reform us in perfect love. This marks reading Scripture as a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit shapes us into greater Christlikeness.12
Christians come to Scripture to hear God’s voice—that is, to hear and do God’s Word. Emphasizing Scripture’s authority too easily grows out of modern concerns for verification rather than out of Scripture’s own concerns and purpose; debating what the Bible is or is not too easily becomes one more way for us to stand over the Bible. Indeed, attempts to defend the Bible’s character or authority assume that the aims of Scripture depend on us rather than on God. What we need instead are gestures of openness, humility, submission, and obedience. Christian readers of the Bible want to become familiar with ancient peoples and their cultures. We honor being schooled in the biblical languages. We want to cultivate good skills for reading the Bible. What we need even more, though, are such dispositions and postures as acceptance, devotion, attention, and trust.
Taking the Bible as Christian Scripture entails adopting habits of reading and prayer that lead to the conformity of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors to God’s will revealed in Scripture. We find here, in the pages of Scripture, who we are and what we are to become. Taking the Bible as Christian Scripture also presses us to place our reading and study of Scripture in relation to our lives as God’s people. What difference does it make to our reading of Scripture that we recite the creed? That we gather at the Lord’s Table? That we involve ourselves in the lives of those who do not share our faith? That we share meals together? That we pray to Jesus and welcome the Spirit’s presence? In such ways, we invite the ongoing work of Scripture’s divine author, the one who desires to shape us as the church for service among God’s people and within the world.
Validity in Interpretation
The central question of all biblical interpretation is this: How do we know we have read Scripture well? Is a valid reading known by its attention to historical context or practical application, by satisfying public opinion or publication in a magazine or blog? Were we to learn from Wesley, we would focus above all on the formation, life, and hope of the church and its people. In his pamphlet, The Character of a Methodist, Wesley sketches what distinguishes his movement. Like other Christians, he writes, we confess the faith of the church set forth in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. Like other Christians, our practices and habits are determined by God’s Word. For Wesley, right doctrine and right actions are important, but these do not distinguish Methodist Christians. “What then is the mark? . . . I answer: a Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him’; one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.’”13 Reading Scripture faithfully leads to his: love of God, love of neighbor.
Unfortunately, one can make strong claims about the Bible’s character and status while still holding the Bible at arm’s length. But Scripture is for reading, meditating, discussing, and digesting. Orthodoxy, orthopraxis, and orthokardia—our beliefs about Scripture—are most on parade here, in our practices of thinking, feeling, believing, and behaving. Here we take the measure of the faithfulness of our engagement with Scripture, and it is to this end that we read Scripture.
This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.
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1. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978).
2. Robert K. Johnston, Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979).
3. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (1.8.1).
4. Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” in Recent Inquiries in Theology, by Eminent English Churchmen; Being ‘Essays and Reviews,’ 2nd ed., ed. Fredrick H. Hedge (Boston: Walker, Wise, and Co., 1860), 362–480.
5. Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
6. Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011).
7. John Wesley, Advice to the People Called Methodists with Regard to Dress (1780), §5.1.
8. John Wesley, “On God’s Vineyard,” in Works, Sermons III, 3:503.
9. Randy Maddox. “The Rule of Christian Faith, Practice, and Hope: John Wesley on the Bible,” in Methodist Review 3 (2011): 1–35.
10. Edith Humphrey, Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
11. Robert Jenson. Canon and Creed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
12. Daniel Castelo and Robert W. Wall, The Marks of Scripture: Rethinking the Nature of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).
13. John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” in Works, The Methodist Societies: History, Nature, and Design, 9:35.