A Wesleyan Perspective on the New Testament
Evangelical Wesleyans use the NT as their primary theological sourcebook. They regard its teachings as normative for both doctrine and life. Most declare that anything not found in the Bible nor that can be proved by it can be required as an article of belief or as necessary to salvation.
Thus, Wesleyans take the Bible seriously. They are concerned, when doing theology, that resulting views are “biblical”; those that are not are subject to challenge. References to specific supporting texts are commonplace and considered important in theological argumentation. Indeed, when engaged in a reexamination of major tenets, biblical studies of the topic are de rigueur. Church doctrine must be based upon the Holy Scriptures, and documentation of NT support is especially important.
Evangelical Wesleyans, however, are inclined to examine such support in relation to the total biblical context. They are not so focused on the fine grammatical detail of Scripture as are their evangelical peers. Rather, their approach to reading the Bible is more holistic.
One consequence is that evangelical Wesleyans have had little involvement in the “battle for the Bible.” The doctrine of inerrancy is not really that crucial to their interests. Like their forefather, John Wesley, they affirm the truthfulness of the Bible's teachings (God, creation, humankind, etc.). But particular details may be disputed at no threat to their faith; thus, they rarely become defensive respecting the interpretation of a single text.
Wesleyans look to the Scriptures to inform them on matters of Christian doctrine and the holy life. Other matters, such as historical details, are subservient to these major interests. Their focus reflects their understanding of God's primary purpose for revealing himself to us.
Throughout its history, beginning with the Wesleys, the theological interests of the movement have been dominated by the Gospel: God's salvation in Christ. Correspondingly, in the areas of Christology and soteriology, Wesleyan theology is comparatively well developed. Other areas, such as eschatology, garner much less attention. The same profile is reflected in their theological use of the NT.
Evangelical Wesleyans accept at face value and without qualification what the Scriptures declare concerning Jesus Christ. They believe implicitly the Christological affirmations of the traditional creeds: Being God, he became man and lived a sinless life in this world; having offered his life for our atonement, he was raised from death and exalted to God's right hand where he sits enthroned as Lord. One day he will come again to take his own to be with him, and then with the Father will judge all humankind. In brief, Jesus Christ is our Savior and Lord of all.
Wesleyans accept the NT's interpretation of these events on the basis of the OT Scriptures. They view them as the fulfillment of God's saving purpose in history. Wesleyans take seriously the biblical claim that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2Co 5:19). Further, all the NT is interpreted in the light of that theological affirmation.
Accordingly, evangelical Wesleyans are especially drawn to three “moments” in the history of Jesus: (1) the Incarnation; (2) the Cross; and (3) the Resurrection.
The Incarnation symbolized the fact that “God was in Christ.” In accord with the orthodox creeds, evangelical Wesleyans believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virign Mary, joining the deity of God and the humanity of man: Jesus was God in human flesh, truly and fully both God and man.
Further, they declare that he came to save us. Following the NT writers, they attribute saving significance to Jesus' death. His death is regarded as a vicarious sacrifice: Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried for us. His blood is regarded as an atoning sacrifice, poured out for the forgiveness of sins—not ours only but for the sins of the whole world.
The Resurrection is accepted as historical fact. Just as Jesus physically died so he was physically raised from death. To this fact is attributed great theological significance. In the first place, it is symbolic of Christ's victory over Satan, sin, and death. Second, it is the surety of our own resurrection to eternal life. Third, it is the basis of his exaltation to God's right hand.
All the rest of history is viewed in the light of this fact: Jesus is our exalted Lord! He intercedes for us. He pours out his Spirit upon us. He empowers us for witness to the world. One day all his enemies will be brought into complete subjection. One day he will return to judge all people. One day every tongue will confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Wesleyan theology is Christocentric. All other matters of doctrine pale by comparison, excepting one that is closely related to the first: God's salvation in Christ. Indeed, Wesleyans are distinguished for their attention to soteriology; moreover, the witness of the NT has been especially important in their study of this doctrine.
Wesleyan soteriology has a comprehensive character. For example, while the Protestant doctrine of justification receives due attention, it represents for Wesleyans only one aspect of God's saving work. Thus, it is arrayed alongside other biblical terms such as reconciliation, regeneration, and adoption: Wesleyans take all of these together to achieve a view of the complete picture. Consequently, “justification” does not occupy the same place of prominence that it does in Reformed theology.
Wesleyan studies of NT soteriology highlight as real the personal experience of divine forgiveness, cleansing, and empowerment, which results in a new life and relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Taking the NT at face value, Wesleyans believe that God can and does actually impart new life so that in Christ we have in fact a new spiritual nature imbued with faith, hope, and love.
This transforming experience of salvation happens in a moment, but God's work in the believer continues throughout life. God uses the crises in spiritual experience and the process of growth to accomplish his work in us. This is an area to which Wesleyans have devoted a great deal of study under the subject of sanctification.
Holiness before God and love for neighbor represent the epitome of God's work in the believer, according to the Wesleyan interpretation of Scripture. Contemporary scholarship has contributed significantly to our understanding of holiness. Not only has the subject been examined historically, theologically, and experientially, it has been thoroughly studied biblically. Admittedly, there has resulted in recent decades some shifts of emphasis within Wesleyanism regarding the doctrine and its treatment. But these shifts have also resulted in a more holistic approach to the NT.
Holiness is part of the warp and woof of the Scriptures; to preach the Bible (especially the NT) is to preach holiness whether or not that particular terminology is used. Increasingly, Wesleyan preachers are less concerned about preserving the shibboleths of the doctrine and are devoting more energy to applying the biblical message to needs of their parishioners.
That is the heart and burden of the Wesleyan gospel. It is a Christcentered message that borrows heavily from the language of the NT, accepting at face value its declarations concerning Jesus. In looking to Jesus, the focal matter of interest is his saving work for and in the believer. The proclamation of that saving Gospel and its continuing application is what energized the movement called Wesleyan.
Wesleyans have a practical bent. They are not so interested in theology for theology's sake. They want to know the benefits of the doctrine, how it applies, how it works out in real life. Reflecting the influence of Pietism on Wesley, they are as concerned with devotion as with theology. That is certainly true in their reading and use of the NT.
John Wesley advocated reading both the OT and the NT daily. His instructions are devotional in nature: Begin and end with prayer, read with the single purpose of knowing God's will, examine yourself “with both heart and life being scrutinized” by the light given, apply what is learned immediately (from the Preface to Wesley's Explanatory Notes Upon the OT). Clearly, for Wesley Bible study was more than a scholarly exercise; it was a devotional one.
Wesley never wrote a systematic theology. He was not a theologian in that sense; rather, he was a field evangelist, a circuit-riding preacher, a busy church administrator. While he read widely, Wesley found in the Bible his daily spiritual nourishment. It was the source of his own personal vigor and virtue and the source of the hundreds of sermons he preached as well as of his theology. His theology issued from a life of devotion and ministry. Like the theology of the NT, Wesley's is embedded in his letters, sermons, notes on the Bible, and tracts.
Several corollaries flow from this heritage: (1) Wesleyans do not read the NT through the grid of a particular systematization of theology; they simply read it for what it is, a collection of early Christian documents. (2) Wesleyans have a certain affinity for working through such documents (letters, tracts, etc.), searching for theological and practical guidance. (3) Like Wesley, his followers tend to be practical people, deeply involved in the work of ministry. (4) Contemporary Wesleyans continue to look to the Scriptures for spiritual sustenance, sermon ideas, and instruction for daily life. The devotional tradition is alive and well in the Wesleyan movement.
The dominant hermeneutic in the movement is called the inductive method. Its primary feature is direct, personal study of the English Bible. The process begins by observation, discovering what is in the text itself. The use of outside tools or references is interdicted. Observations are recorded both in the text and alongside it. These collected data, then, become the basis for interpretation, which in turn forms the basis for application. The process is not considered to be sound or complete without working through each of these steps.
Obviously, this is a straightforward, if rigorous, process. It is not peculiarly “Wesleyan”; many other contemporary groups committed to serious Bible study also deploy the same or similar method. But it is this approach to the Bible that forms the basis of much of Wesleyan life today.
Because of their interest in the practical issues of living as Christians in the world, Wesleyans have a high appreciation for the exhortatory materials of the NT. Thus, while Paul is highly valued for his doctrinal treatment of sin and sanctification, James's letter is not regarded as a “strawy epistle,” as Martin Luther held, but is esteemed for its teachings on faith and works, etc. The applied ethical teachings of the NT epistles are accorded as much attention as the doctrinal sections.
Like their peers, contemporary Wesleyans do not draw heavily on such brief letters as 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude. By comparison, however, their attitudes toward and handling of the NT are more balanced. Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and James are accorded as much respect as Paul's writings; and none of the gospels is more favored than another, while the interest in Revelation is not disproportionate to the rest of the NT.
Contemporary Wesleyans do bring to their reading of the NT a special interest in soteriology and a certain understanding of Christian experience. They also bring a devotional desire for spiritual nourishment and a volitional determination to apply God's Word to the issues of life.
Since the time of Wesley, those issues have always been viewed as embracing social concerns as well as personal ethics. The resurgence of Wesleyan involvement in social redemption reflects the heritage in justice and mercy as modeled by the movement's founder in the eighteenth century. For evangelical Wesleyans, at stake is not the question of either/or. The Wesleyan ideal is a proper balance between the two: personal salvation hand in hand with social redemption.
Therefore, the Wesleyan appropriation of the NT is driven by its sense of mission. That mission derives from its understanding of the NT. Its central message constitutes the Wesleyan gospel; the NT functions as the guiding norm for the members and ministries of the movement. Both its theological study and its devotional life have a common source, and that source is the Bible. As Wesley claimed to be “a man of one book,” so his spiritual heirs are “people of the Book.” They understand that Book, though written by human authors in the languages and literary forms of their times, to be an inspired and trustworthy record of God's revelation. Further, they believe God continues, by his Holy Spirit, to speak through this Word to each generation and culture, including our own. As believers, they are committed to proclaiming the central message of the Bible, God's salvation in Christ, to all the world. And that witness, they are convinced, must be attested not only in word but in deed. So by lives of holiness and through works of love as well as in the preaching of the Gospel, they declare, “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us” (Jn 1:14). That is the Wesleyan way, and it reflects our way of understanding the NT.