Authority of Scripture, a Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward

pic- bible and communion“It’s really about the authority of scripture.” “Your interpretation undermines a high view of scripture.”  These talking points are at the core of many arguments around the Way Forward.  In light of this rhetoric, I want to think through the issue of hermeneutics (the system we use for interpreting the scriptures) and reflect upon how we might do this in a Wesleyan way. (It is a longer than usual post).

As Wesleyans, we must start by affirming that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation.   At the same time, Wesley makes it clear that some passages take “hold of our conscience” in a special way and serve as “master text” (my language) to help us interpret all revelatory claims, even those in scripture (See Sermon 91, “On Charity” and Sermon 132 “On Laying the Foundation”).  In his notes on the New Testament, Wesley gives us this rule – to interpret every doubtful scripture through the grand truths that run through the whole (Note on Roman 12:6). On several occasions he calls us to assess all scriptures through key passages built around the word “love,” starting with what Jesus calls the summary of it all — Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley also turns frequently to I Corinthians 13, calling the love defined here as the ““chief of all graces” and the “royal law.” This love is patient and kind and never insist on its own way.  In terms of hermeneutics, we are called to filter all scriptures through these and other passages that serve as lenses to provide clarity to the whole.  For you, what would some of the other key passages be?

In one hermeneutical approach that is often criticized, the suggestion has been made that we divide the scriptures into categories, with one category for passages that express the timeless values of God, another for passages that express culturally conditioned values, and a third for texts that do not fit with the will of God as we have come to know it through the lens of Christ. This framework can be helpful for discerning core truths and navigating difficult passages.  Nevertheless, with this method, it is tempting to simply throw out passages that do not fit with our sensibilities.  To provide some perspective, I would say that inspiration is found in the fact that our predecessors did not “clean up” the scriptures. They gave us the gift of struggling with all texts to help us discern how we might live faithfully and fruitfully in the context we are given. The method of interpreting through the lens of key passages is very helpful in this struggle.  We might call it a hermeneutic of struggle in community to discern God’s will for us in our time and place.

As Wesleyans, we honor the whole of scripture by noticing the context, exploring the history, understanding the words, and seeking God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the scriptures come to life as we engage them in relationship, using tradition, reason, and experience as resources. We seek common ground in key values that illuminate the whole beyond the sometimes culturally-conditioned realities — and here the list is long – slavery, women, children, diet, dress, war and peace, wealth and poverty, property, inclusion of others, the kind of leadership that is needed, and yes understandings of marriage and divorce, just to get started. When we apply one hermeneutical to an issue that might affect us and then draw a hard line on another issue for others, it perhaps says more about our own prejudices than it does about our desire to live faithfully and practice love.   Wesley consistently call is to self-examination rather than judgment.  This would be another hallmark of a Wesleyan hermeneutic.

When it comes to issues around covenant relationships, this method allows us to give priority to virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. Often, this level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice. This surface focus can actually foster justifications and excuses for more harmful and self-serving behaviors.

Through this hermeneutic, we avoid “proof-texting,” or the picking of verses to prove an opinion.  And yet this practice continues.  When opinions run strong, it is tempting to select certain texts while ignoring others. Doing this, however, is not unlike the use of the “slippery slope” fallacy (as challenged in a previous post) where negative consequences are assumed while ignoring other possibilities.  Here we can add another official fallacy – the fallacy of misusing an authoritative source to affirm one interpretation on one issue without acknowledging other possibilities. A faithful way forward cannot be built on such sand.

And now a drum roll please.  The most important dimension of a Wesleyan hermeneutic is our trust that the Holy Spirit is at work…and that God is big enough to work uniquely with all of us through our incarnate realities of cultural circumstances, personalities, gifts, interests, and identities this side of heaven.  In God we trust! We do not have to judge.  Our job is to learn how to love one another. This is the way we participate in making the path straight for “all flesh to see the salvation of God.”

Examples from Wesley to support this understanding could fill volumes.  For one example, in his sermon on “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  The truths of scripture are actually hidden, rather than revealed, when we use the Word to prove something to others and thus cause division.  Wesley likened this to the “worst kind of enthusiasm,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.  When one is “drunk from this spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.  Scriptures come to life when we engage them together and “steer a middle course.”   As Wesleyans, the witness of the Spirit is revealed when we come together to practice faith and grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.” The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

Through this hermeneutical lens, I have written a series on Scripture, Wesley and the Way Forward. After an overview (found in Feb of 2018), I dealt with Wesley’s teaching on effeminacy, sodomy, marriage, divorce, and more. Believe me, it is not all one-sided. Room is given for more than one interpretation.  In my opinion, to use the argument that there is only one perspective on the issues before us actually belittles a high view of the authority of scripture. It makes it more about power over others. It might make a good sound bite, but it does not honor the high calling that we have been given to be the Body of Christ in the world.