As you know our Lay Ministry Team sponsored a Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist theology. This is an excerpt on Wesleyan commitment to Scripture from my book United Methodist Beliefs (available from Cokesbury).
On Wesleyan Commitment
In our Discipline the first source of theology is Scripture. Scripture is primary in Wesleyanism:
We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, the confession that our justification as sinners is by grace through faith, and the sober realization that the church is in need of continual reformation and renewal.
Many have noted a “crisis in authority” in contemporary life. Once revered sources of authority — family, elders, science, government – are now under suspicion. Scripture has a privileged place in our thought. The first place that we turn, whenever we have some doctrinal dispute or argument about ethics, is to the Bible, the received, revealed wisdom that is Scripture. And the last word, in any of our debates over faithfulness, is Scripture.
More than that, we believe that Scripture means to have practical authority over our lives as Christians. Think of Christian thinking, in great part, as lifetime training in how to submit, in thought and in action, to the authority of Scripture. I say “lifetime training” because that’s usually how long it takes to take the Bible a little more seriously and ourselves a little less so. Most of us come to the Christian faith already in the grip of other authorities – our peers, our social class, our gender, our nation, our race — the list of our masters is long.
The ability to say, “The Bible shows us that….” is therefore not as ingrained in us as the tendency first to say, “My best friends believe that….” or “As a loyal American I believe…,” or “Science has proven…..” We dismiss the authority of Scripture as too limiting, too archaic, and too constrained by cultural context — which proves what a great challenge it is to free ourselves from the authorities that are in charge of our lives in our present cultural context. What we call “freedom of thought” is often a testimonial to how happily enslaved we are in present intellectual constrictions. The restrained, limited “modern world view” has got us. So we open up the Bible and say things like, “It’s so violent!” (an ironic thing for someone who is a member of one of the world’s most violent cultures to say about t he Bible). Or we point with condescension toward the sexism or racism that we suspect in the Bible. (It is so much easier to see the Bible’s cultural limitations than our own.) We have not thereby freed ourselves from the Bible’s limitations so much as we have demonstrated our own cultural blinders.
So one of the most radical, truly countercultural acts that we perform in Sunday worship is when we gather and then open an ancient book — written in languages quite unlike our own, in cultures very different from ours – and we become silent, and we listen to the word read and proclaimed and thereby we say to ourselves, “These ancient Jews know more than we.”
John Wesley had a vivid sense of Scripture as a talking book. In his first collection of published sermons, Sermons on Several Occasions, Wesley said that he aspired to be “a man of just one book.” With Wesley we believe that through this collection of ancient writings, God has uniquely spoken to the People of God. And even more remarkable, we believe that God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – speaks to us today through Scripture. John Wesley taught that Scripture is “God breathed,” that God continues to show us divine wisdom and guidance through Scripture.
Though a few confused United Methodists may have been “literalists,” or “fundamentalists” in their reading of Scripture, we have never officially been so limited. We have too much respect for our dependence upon the Holy Spirit in our scriptural interpretation, and a healthy acknowledgement of the distance between Scripture’s originating context and our own situations, as well as a too vivid sense of the reality of a living, resurrected and revealing Lord. We have found that the Bible’s word is enlivened through scholarly study rather than muted and that the word the Bible speaks is always multivocal, thick, lively, relevant and rich. The Bible intends to be more for us than just a book of rules, a repository of helpful principles for better living. Attempts to use the Bible like that are bound to be frustrated by the nature of the Bible’s way with the truth. Scripture is an attempt to construct a new world, to stoke, fund and fuel our imaginations. The Bible is an ongoing debate about what is real and who is in charge and where we’re all headed. So the person who emerged from church one Sunday (after one of my most biblical sermons, too!), muttering, “That’s the trouble with you preachers. You just never speak to anything that relates to my world,” makes a good point.
To which the Bible replies, “How on earth did you get the idea that I want to speak to your world? I want to rock, remake, deconstruct and rework your world!”
So when someone says that Scripture, contrary to the way United Methodists see it, is impractical and unrealistic, tell them that what they probably mean is that Scripture is difficult and demanding. When we read Scripture, allowing it to have its authoritative way with us, submitting to its peculiar way of naming the world, we are being changed, transformed, sanctified in the hearing. God is breathing an enlivening Holy Spirit upon us, Jesus is speaking directly to us, and a new world is being created by the Word. It’s Genesis 1 all over again.
Thus when we read Scripture, we’re not simply to ask, “Does this make sense to me?” or “How can I use this to make my life less miserable?” but rather we are to ask in Wesleyan fashion, “How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?” Every text is a potential invitation to conversion, transformation, and growth in grace. And, as we have noted earlier, we Wesleyans love to get born again, and again. Scripture is God’s appointed and most frequently used means for getting to us and getting at us and thereby changing us in the encounter.
William H. Willimon