I and several others at IWU are on a deadine to write chapters for a book on a "Wesleyan hermeneutic." Since we are of diverse perspectives and there has been no organizing definition of what a Wesleyan hermeneutic is, I doubt seriously that this volume will actually answer the question very well. I suspect it will turn out to be a loose collection of somewhat disparate chapters by individuals in the Wesleyan tradition.
I could of course be way off here. Perhaps we will find unexpected covergences that we did not expect or plan.
My chapter is "Scripture is Coherent." An unintended--but not surprising--organizing principle has emerged to my chapter in its first draft. I thought I would share the first section, not least because some of you out there have far more expertise in Reformation hermeneutics than I do. Here it is.
1. "Pre-Modern" Coherence
One of the most crucial issues for Christians who consider the Bible to be God’s authoritative word—perhaps in fact the most crucial—is the matter of biblical theology. How do we get from the particular teachings of individual books and passages within the Bible to be able to say what the “Bible” as a collective whole has to say? According to one recent count, over 38,000 distinct Christian denominations exist.[i] No doubt the overwhelming majority of these are groups that consider the Bible the primary, perhaps even sole source of their beliefs and practices. While such diversity is primarily a function of social groups, it is enabled by vast ignorance of biblical context. Further, it is a direct reflection of the diversity of the Bible itself and the myriad ways in which one might integrate that diversity into a coherent whole, a biblical theology.
“Pre-modern” interpreters, for lack of a better term, are interpreters who largely without realizing it read the words of the Bible against their own use of language, against their own symbolic universes and contexts.[ii] They come to the words of the Bible with their default mechanisms of understanding and read the biblical books accordingly. Yet as recent studies in the cultural anthropology of the biblical worlds have illustrated, the mere translation of words from ancient Hebrew or Greek into contemporary English is vastly inadequate to the task of translating the ancient meanings of those words.[iii] The words of the Bible took on their meanings—as all words do—within the symbolic universes of ancient cultures, cultural networks of meaning resulting from interrelated customs, ideologies, religious expressions, and social relationships.[iv]
The meanings of words are a function of the way people are using them at any given time.[v] Words are not fixed pointers toward a pool of specific word-meanings that all times and all places hold in common. An English translation of the Bible made today will inevitably become dated over time, perhaps even within a generation, because the words will inevitably take on new uses and old ones will fall into disuse. The diversity of Christian denominations is thus an understandable function of readers from thousands of distinguishable social contexts reading the biblical words from the standpoint of their own, several symbolic universes.
To varying degrees, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, just as their Roman Catholic counterparts, were “pre-modern.” John Wesley was not equipped in his time to be able to read the words of the Bible in context to the degree that we are today. To make such a statement implies no lack of intelligence on his part—or on the part of Martin Luther, John Calvin, or other Christian thinkers of that period. It is simply to point out that their symbolic universes differed even from ours, and that we are privileged to inherit a set of glasses that they did not.[vi]
Wesley’s mechanism for organizing diverse biblical material was the “analogy of faith.” His Explanatory Notes on Romans 12:6 give a good sense of how it worked for him:
"Let us prophesy according to the analogy of faith — 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 connexion 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 rule; every doubtful scripture interpreted according to the grand truths which run through the whole."[vii]
The analogy of faith is the coherence of the several parts of Scripture with the “grand scheme of doctrine,” the “grand truths which run through the whole.” It is a reflection of “a close and intimate connexion between the chief heads of that faith ‘which was once delivered to the saints.’”
What Wesley is doing here is talking about an overarching biblical theology. The grand scheme of doctrine for him is his signature ordo salutis, the path to salvation. It includes such teachings as that “on original sin, justification by faith, and present, inward salvation.” Wesley was by no means the first to speak of a “rule of faith” as an organizing principle for the various materials of the Bible. We find this idea as early as Irenaeus in the late second century.[viii] From one perspective, it is the idea that certain core Christian beliefs provide a general rule that governs how the meaning of Scripture is understood and applied.
One of the distinguishing marks of the Reformation was Luther’s claim that Scripture itself must provide this rule, that the rule cannot derive from Christian tradition or ecclesiastical bodies.[ix] Rather “Scripture interprets Scripture” and “unclear” passages in the Bible are to be interpreted by the “clear” ones. In Luther's case, however, the clear passages turned out to be his interpretations of John and the Pauline letters, by which he clarified “unclear” passages in Matthew, James, Hebrews, and Revelation. From our current standpoint, we can provide no clear rationale from Scripture alone for this way of establishing unity within the biblical diversity. Luther was simply establishing a new rule of faith based on his own symbolic universe, which drank heavily from his own experiences and personality.[x]
Indeed, contemporary interpreters in the Calvinist tradition prefer to speak of an “analogy of scripture” rather than an “analogy of faith.” The distinction they thereby make is a coherency between meanings of the biblical books read in context rather than the coherency of biblical material with some overarching “faith,” as seems particularly obvious in Wesley's interpretation yet also in Luther's. They reflect the fact that, of all the Reformers, perhaps John Calvin was the most in tune to original context. Calvin thus provides us with a bridge to the bulk of twentieth century evangelical interpretation, which was more “modernist” in approach than “pre-modern.”
[i] Barrett, David B. and Johnson, Todd M., International Bulletin of Missionary Research (January 2008).
[ii] Hans Frei
[iii] Just two examples of this sort of work are Mary Douglas’ work on taboos and purity laws in the Old Testament (Purity and Danger) and Bruce Malina’s on the New Testament (The New Testament World). Whether we accept the specific reconstructions of scholars such as these, their basic point seems established.
[vi] Calvin better than the others.
[x] Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.