Here’s a passage where John Wesley explains how he goes about reading the Bible:
Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights. “Lord, is it not thy Word, if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God? Thou givest liberally and upbraideth not. Thou has said, ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do. Let me know thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. I meditate thereon, with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remain, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: And then, the writings whereby being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
This paragraph comes from the preface to Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions, published in 1746. Wesley’s reflections here offer us some insight into how he believed we should read the Holy Scriptures. You might call them Wesley’s principles of biblical interpretation. I’ll list four of them, connected to four statements he makes in the quoted paragraph:
1) I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights. — First and foremost, the reading of Scripture should be undertaken in such a way that it is clothed in prayer. Wesley’s belief in the power of prayer comes through just about everywhere in his writing. “God does nothing but in answer to prayer,” Wesley says in the Plain Account of Christian Perfection. “Every new victory which a soul gains is the effect of a new prayer” (Q.38.5). What this means is that we should not approach reading the Bible as something we are doing simply to learn the content, or as an academic exercise. Instead, we should approach the Scriptures through prayer. We should ask God the Holy Spirit to illuminate our hearts and minds that we might receive God’s word within us.
2) Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? — Another baseline principle of Wesley’s is that the Bible should be taken at face value unless doing so would make no sense. As Wesley puts it, “[I]t is a stated rule in interpreting Scripture never to depart from the plain, literal sense, unless it implies an absurdity” (“Of the Church,” ¶I.12). We can easily come up with examples of such absurdities—Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, for example. (When Jesus says, “I am the gate,” as he does in John 10:9, he has not literally transformed himself into a gate; he is referring rather to the way of salvation.)
Following Wesley’s counsel on reading the Bible at face value has some wonderful benefits. For one, it helps us to realize that we do not study the Scriptures in order to master them, but rather so that they might master us. It isn’t up to us to tame or domesticate God’s word. Rather, when we come to the Bible we are come in order to receive and be transformed by it.
On the other hand, the “unless it implies an absurdity” clause in this principle of Wesley’s biblical interpretation also keeps us from reading the Bible too woodenly. Going back to that opening sentence from the preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, we will inevitably encounter things in the Bible where we have doubt as to the meaning of what we’ve read. At those times the text must be read spiritually rather than literally. And when we get to those places it is important to have other interpretive principles upon which to rely.
3) I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. — The principle this statement points toward is that the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. If you want to understand some isolated passage or story in the Bible, then compare it with the whole witness of Scripture as represented in other parts of the Bible that shed light on it.
There are two ways that Wesley tends to express this principle. The first is through his phrase, “the whole scope and tenor of Scripture.” An example: in the sermon “Free Grace,” Wesley argues that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination “is grounded on such an interpretation of some texts…as flatly contradicts all the other texts, and indeed the whole scope and tenor of Scripture” (¶20). What he is pointing out here is that an isolated text (such as Romans 8:29) cannot be read in such a way to overturn the vast number of texts that affirm the steadfast love of God. Individual passages in the Bible must be read with respect to both the scope (meaning the breadth from Genesis to Revelation) and the tenor (meaning the enduring tone throughout) of the whole.
The second way that this principle comes through in Wesley’s writing is with his many references to the “analogy of faith” or “rule of faith.” This phrase is drawn from Romans 12:6 (“let us prophesy according to the analogy of faith,” in Wesley’s translation). In the Christian tradition, it is typically taken to mean the whole, unified message of the Bible. The early church often saw the analogy of faith as the content of the creed—the Bible’s witness about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Since the time of the Reformation, Protestant thinkers have often connected the analogy of faith with the biblical teaching about salvation. This is how Wesley understood it, as we can see from his commentary on Romans 12:6 itself: “St. Peter expresses it, as the oracles of God: according to the general tenor of them; according to that grand scheme of doctrine which is delivered therein, touching original sin, justification by faith, and present, inward salvation. There is a wonderful analogy between all these; and a close and intimate connection between the chief heads of that faith which was once delivered to the saints. Every article therefore, concerning which there is any question, should be determined by this one rule: every doubtful scripture interpreted, according to the grand truths which run through the whole.”
Thus, Wesley advocates a principle of biblical interpretation whereby shorter passages of Scripture always be read in light of the analogy of faith of the scope and tenor of Scripture—that is, according to the “grand truths which run through the whole.”
4) I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: And then, the writings whereby being dead, they yet speak. — Wesley often said that Methodism was nothing other than “the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Church of England” (e.g., “On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel,” ¶II.1). That formulation offers us a succinct way of pointing out something that Wesley took for granted: if you want to live faithfully; if you want to read the Bible accurately; and if you want to renew the church, you look backward to those times when the church was at her best. When it came to the faithfulness of the church herself, for Wesley this meant the church before the age of Constantine the Great. He both appealed to the life of the church in this age as well as to the writings of the early church fathers. Thus, when we need help understanding the Bible, we will do well to consult the fathers of the early church whose writings will bring clarity to the writing of Scripture itself.
So by working through that paragraph from the preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, we arrive at these principles of biblical interpretation:
- Approach reading the Bible through heartfelt prayer.
- Read the Bible with an eye to its literal, plain sense meaning unless such a reading implies an absurdity.
- The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture, so read each individual passage in light of the whole scope and tenor of the Bible.
- Use the witness of the early church fathers as an abiding guide to Bible study.
Those were Wesley’s guiding principles to the reading of the Bible, and they can be helpful principles for us to adopt today as well.