Reading Scripture as Wesleyans

Written by Joel B. Green Reviewed By David Fry

Joel Green has made his contribution to the growing attention to John Wesley’s use of Scripture. Although the title makes this work appear more prescriptive than the book actually is (a more fitting title would have been Reading Scripture with Wesley), it summarizes well how Wesley used Scripture. Green’s “sampling of the New Testament books” draws widely from Wesley’s sermons, letters, journal entries, and expository notes. Apparently Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, the Pastoral Epistles, Philemon, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude do not contain significant contributions since these letters are not included in the sampling. Despite this limitation, the book is advertised as a companion “ideal for use with” The Wesleyan Study Bible for which Green served as general editor. It is not precisely clear how this project functions as a companion, but it is designed for individual or small group study with each chapter ending with several questions for reflection.

The author usually begins each chapter with his own introduction before proceeding to Wesley’s reading of Scripture and theological interpretation. On a few occasions Green offers alternatives to or criticisms of Wesley’s reading, but remains optimistic about Wesley overall while emphasizing Wesley’s commitment to interpreting Scripture by Scripture and the rule of faith.

In a very important four-page introduction, Green acknowledges the methodist (lower case to refer to the ecclesial tradition) commitment to Scripture, but contends that methodists have not always known how to read Scripture as methodists. From the author’s perspective, methodists have often fallen into one of two errors: some follow the “university or seminary” reading of Scripture, where faith is put on hold and spiritual formation is of no concern, while others reject a disciplined approach in favor of “taking the Bible literally.” Neither, claims Green, is Wesleyan. Rather, Wesley found in Scripture “the journey of salvation” and, with an eye constantly on the soteriological message of Scripture, emphasized spiritual formation that becomes, for Green, characteristic of the Wesleyan reading of Scripture. The author’s purpose, then, is to describe how Wesley read Scripture without falling into either of these faulty approaches.

In his articulation of the Wesleyan reading of Scripture, Green provides three coordinates that fix the Wesleyan reading and use of Scripture (pp. 37–38). The first concerns the reader’s own interests, allegiances and character: Are we approaching Scripture to hear the voice of God? The second emphasizes the theological task of reading Scripture: Does our reading cohere with the orthodox faith of the church and induce us to further our journey of salvation? Finally, Wesleyans ought to use any tool that does not hinder but encourages the first two. Of primary interest is moving beyond mere historical research to our own spiritual formation. This is where I find Green to be most helpful. His background as an exegete is apparent and is typically insightful. He rightly emphasizes that Wesley never read Scripture “alone” and that theological interpretation takes place in the context of the church. Consequently, Wesley’s theological reading and Green’s comments are easily compatible with preaching notes or small group discussion.

From a theological standpoint, Green’s introduction is especially thought-provoking and worthy of careful consideration. His description of the methodist dilemma is typical. However, the conditions giving rise to the problem are crucial and are not mentioned. It may be Green’s failure to describe Wesley’s alliance with a Reformed view of Scripture at several points that handicaps not only his description of the problem but also his solution. Certainly methodists today face a more complicated set of circumstances than choosing merely between an uncommitted reading of Scripture and an unqualified “literal” reading of Scripture. Green identifies two protagonists: he is especially concerned with the secularist who refuses to read the text theologically, but he also expresses concern for the “literalist.” Insofar as he seeks to correct left-leaning interpreters, his comments should be well-taken. But his treatment of the other is suspect. Green refers to the latter as those who would “grasp the Bible’s ‘truth’” as foremost a matter of “events reported in the Bible [that] really happened just the way the Bible tells it” (p. 37) and who seek to know “what actually happened.” According to Green, such knowledge would require an all-knowing perspective (p. 67). Furthermore, we should not seek to harmonize the differences between the Gospels in such a way because the meaning of the text is “spiritual” (p. 49). Again, in grappling with Wesley’s use of science, Green seems to imply that there is tension between the claims of Scripture and science (pp. 5–6). Reading for spiritual formation does not require an unqualified “literal” reading, but a historically grounded reading. Reading Green at this point brings Lessing’s ugly ditch to mind. Despite Green’s lack of careful qualification here, there remains some validity, I believe, in stressing that Wesleyans do not base their faith merely on “what actually happened” but more on what the actual events mean theologically. If this is what Green means when he writes that the significance of the Gospel events is “their inner, spiritual meaning,” one would expect an explicit statement in order to avoid possible conflict between the details of history and the substance of faith (p. 49).

To the extent that the author describes Wesley’s theological interpretation of Scripture, the book is useful for any student of Wesley even if the author’s interpretative remarks are less than satisfactory. The book’s title, however, promises more than it delivers. The question it raises remains largely unanswered. What does it mean to “read Scripture as Wesleyans?” The general principles described could as well refer simply to a Christian reading of Scripture, that is, reading with faith, interpreting Scripture with Scripture, and utilizing the history of interpretation. What it is that makes Green’s description peculiarly Wesleyan is uncertain. In fact, it may subtly confuse the uninformed reader into thinking that Wesleyans read Scripture differently than other Christians. A more balanced reading of Wesley would bring one to the conclusion that any difference between Wesleyans and other traditions emphasizing the primacy of Scripture is one of emphasis rather than essence.

David Fry

David Fry
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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