Wesley's strong insistence upon the primacy of scriptural authority had a lasting effect upon the religious tradition developed from his teaching. In both Britain and the United States, which were the initial spawning grounds of Methodism, the priority of Scripture continued as a fundamental aspect of belief and practice. The primacy of scriptural authority may be seen in a number of ways in the development of the movement. First, early Methodists continued Wesley's claim that all standards of doctrine were based upon Scripture. No standards were considered valid if separable from Scripture. Second, some standards were established that sought to assist Methodism in clarifying the accountability of that religious community to Scripture.See Thomas C. Oden, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 21. With regard to the latter, Nathaniel Burwash summarizes the standards of doctrine provided by Wesley:
I. The Standard of Preaching—the fifty-two sermons embraced in the four volumes
II. The Standard of Interpretation—Wesley's Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament
III. The Standard of Unity with the Sister Churches of the Reformation—the Twenty-five Articles of Religion (adapted from the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles)Nathaniel Burwash, ed., Wesley's Doctrinal Standards (Toronto: William Briggs, 1881), xi.
These standards of doctrine all attempted to develop accountability to Scripture. Of these standards, Edward Sugden comments that the Sermons and Notes were particularly important to the early Methodist preachers in sermon preparation because they considered sound biblical preaching central to Methodist worship.See Edward H. Sugden, Introduction, John Wesley's Fifty-Three Sermons, ed., Edward H Sugden (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983), 4-5.
Wesley's interpretation of Scripture in the Sermons and the Notes reflects his high regard for the trustworthiness of the text, particularly the Greek text. But Wesley was not a slavish literalist. His alterations of the King James Version, his treatment of technical problems in Scripture, and generally his appeal to tradition, reason, and experience in the interpretation of Scripture reveal his openness to critical scholarship.See also George C. Cell, John Wesley's New Testament Compared with the Authorized Version (Chicago: Winston, 1938); Oden, Doctrinal Standards 82-84; Robin Scroggs, “John Wesley as Biblical Scholar,” Journal of Bible and Religion, 28.4 (October, 1969): 415-22; R. Larry Shelton, “John Wesley's Approach to Scripture in Historical Perspective,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 16.1 (1981): 23-50; and Colin Williams, John Wesley's Theology Today (New York: Abingdon, 1960), 23-28. This concern for the study of Scripture and its proper interpretation has persisted throughout the Wesleyan tradition. Thomas Oden notes that Wesley's “own pattern of openness was followed largely by Methodist biblical interpreters that came after him.”Oden, Doctrinal Standards, 83. For example, the biblical scholar Adam Clarke (1760-1832) followed in Wesley's tradition of affirming the necessity and authority of Scripture, bringing critical concerns to the study and application of Scripture.See Adam Clarke, General Preface, Commentary on the Holy Bible: One-Volume Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 8-10, and Christian Theology (New York: G. Lane & P.P. Standford, 1842), 47-63.
In the field of theology, Richard Watson (1781-1833) and William Pope (1822-1903) first outlined and defended the theology of the Wesleyan tradition and its distinctive Arminian emphases. For the most part, Wesley scholars have not considered it important to write systematic theologies per se, but they have been careful to articulate their beliefs in light of critical scholarship. In Theological Institutes, Watson was faithful to the evangelical heritage of Wesley, distinguishing it from Calvinistic views of predestination, which limit the atonement of Jesus Christ. Watson affirmed the infallibility of Scripture, and studied it in light of the exegetical contributions of Protestant scholarship.See Richard Watson, Theological Institutes (New York: B. Waugh and T. Mason, 1833), 56-70, 510-44. In Compendium of Christian Theology, Pope argued that Methodist theology conformed to scriptural, catholic, and orthodox beliefs of church history, and that its Arminian emphases varied only from the extreme forms of Calvinism.See William Pope, A Compendium of Christian Theology (2d ed.; New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1881), 1:20-21.
As Methodism developed, at least two basic positions emerged in the Wesleyan tradition with respect to Scripture: evangelicals and liberals. On the one hand, evangelicals continued to believe, as Wesley had believed, that Scripture is the primary revelation of God and that standards of doctrine should conform to it and to the orthodox creeds of the Christian antiquity. Evangelicals minimized the authority of tradition, reason, and experience, and focused primarily on Scripture. Most evangelical Wesleyans avoided the fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy, but the leaven had an effect upon some of their views.See William J. Abraham, The Coming Great Revival: Recovering the Full Evangelical Tradition (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 102-8. Liberals, on the other hand, wished “to maximize intellectual freedom to explore and develop various new theological positions more amenable to emergent culture.”Oden, Doctrinal Standards, 108-9. Those denominations, for example, whose mergers formed the United Methodist Church, experienced far greater influence from liberals than other Wesleyan branches. In 1972, the United Methodist Church added a statement on “Our Theological Task” in its Book of Discipline, which embraces the principle of doctrinal pluralism.See The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 1972 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1972), 68-82. The diversity stems from various opinions concerning the relative authority of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
Although two basic positions on Scripture can be discerned in the Wesleyan tradition, many individuals, groups, and denominations consider themselves somewhere between the two. Most continue to recognize the primary authority of Scripture, though there is also recognition that the interpretation of primacy varies. Certainly the religious authority explicitly attributed to tradition, reason, and experience represents a distinctive characteristic of historic Wesleyanism. The inclusion of experience reflects both a strength and weakness of the tradition. The strength lies in the sophistication and vitality that the Wesleyan tradition brings to its understanding of Scripture; the weakness lies in the capriciousness and lack of accountability to Scripture that may occur.