A new Wesley Study Bible
by Joel B Green
“I want to know one thing, the way to heaven — how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be [a man of one book]. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.”
This justly famous passage from John Wesley’s preface to his Sermons on Several Occasions counts as one of an almost endless list of references in Wesley’s writings to his belief in the centrality of Scripture in all matters of faith and life. Though tossed at him as words of slander, he wore such epithets as “Bible bigot,” “Bible moth,” and “Bible Christian” as badges of honour.
What is more, he insisted that the same was true of all Methodists: they too were “Bible Christians’’. In his scholarly study John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, US United Methodist Bishop Scott Jones emphasized how Wesley’s own view of Scripture underscored its authority and inspiration.
Similarly, in his book The Bible in the Wesleyan Heritage, retired United Methodist Bishop Mack Stokes insisted, “Among ‘the people called Methodists’ there has never been any doubt that the Bible is the basis of Christian belief and practice.’’
These words of Wesley highlight the central importance of Scripture to Christian life, but they also tell us something about what it means to read the Bible as heirs of the early Methodist movement. Most critically, Wesley tells us that we ought to read the Bible according to its own subject matter, its own central theme: “In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.” Wesley is not reducing the gift of salvation to life-after-death, as though heaven were the single, narrow focus of salvation: “Pie in the sky, in the sweet bye and bye!”
Instead, for him, salvation was and is a “way’’, a journey, a life-path that begins now and participates in and leads to eternal life with God. This is the way of salvation: becoming more like Christ, loving God and loving neighbour, being holy as God is holy. And this way of salvation is the focus of the entire message of the Bible.
Simply put, this message about the subject and aim of Scripture is too easily neglected, too easily forgotten. That is one of the reasons that Abingdon Press has assembled an all-star cast of contributors from across the Wesleyan world—United Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and many more (including Britain’s Brian Beck) to publish a new Wesley Study Bible. All of us involved joined together in this attempt to make central to our reading of the Bible what is central to the Bible: the story of God saving his people. What does this mean in practical terms?
~nnChristians who read the Bible as Wesleyans can never be satisfied with that adage that describes a well-known approach to reading the Bible: “A verse a day keeps the devil away!” We know that God’s Word is easily misunderstood, even bent to our own wills, when we quote a verse here, a verse there. Our theology is not known by its proof texts, but by its coherence with the entire witness of the Bible. So the Wesley Study Bible helps us to see the whole of a scriptural passage, and to see how the great truths of our faith are woven throughout the whole of Scripture.
n~~nChristians who read the Bible as Wesleyans know that the purpose of reading Scripture is not simply to win a trivia contest at Sunday school. We want people to know their Bibles, to be sure, but we know it is never enough merely to know what the Bible says. The message of Scripture needs to be put into practice in our lives, embodied in our relationships, and put on display in the preaching, teaching, and witness of our churches. So the Wesley Study Bible helps us to see how Scripture works itself out today—sometimes in encouraging ways and sometimes in challenging ways, as its message of holy love finds its root and puts out branches and leaves in the lives of God’s people.
n~~nChristians who read the Bible as Wesleyans know that we have nothing to fear from the faithful use of the tools of biblical scholarship. Wesley himself gave considerable room to reason and even engaged in the empirical methods of science while at the same time holding to the unity of Scripture and articulating clearly its authority and practicality. Wesley emphasized what he called “the plain, literal meaning” of Scripture. “You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour,” he wrote in Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection, “if you depart ever so little from Scripture; yea, or from the plain, literal meaning of any text, taken in connection with the context.” The bottom line is that the more we situate ourselves under the authority of Scripture, the more important are our practices of interpretation. We want to understand the Bible well.nn~
Contributors to the Wesley Study Bible worked hard to clarify the plain sense of Scripture, taking seriously Wesley’s own demand that we read the Bible in its context. What separates the Wesley Study Bible from other resources like it, though, is our recognition with Wesley that the Bible must be read not only in its historical or literary contexts. These are important, but just as central is reading the Bible in its theological context—that is, reading the Bible within and for the church.
Like the breath that gives life, John and Charles Wesley, our eighteenth-century ancestors in the faith, inhaled and exhaled the words of Scripture. Patterns of biblical teaching shaped their thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviour. Reading, studying, pondering, memorising, reciting, teaching and proclaiming Scripture — for them and for us, these are essential means of grace.
Through our ongoing engagement with the Bible, we hear God’s voice, share in God’s grace and become more like Jesus Christ. The Wesley Study Bible is a gift to aid us as we experience and put into practice God’s good gift of discipleship.
The Wesley Study Bible provides three kinds of resources to help us understand the biblical roots of our faith and grasp its significance for daily life as followers of Christ.
~**First, biblical scholars, all members of the wider Wesleyan-Methodist family, assist the reader in following the flow of the text and highlight issues that are important to our Wesleyan heritage. These notes are found at the bottom of each page of the Bible.*~~*Second, scholars with deep knowledge of the Wesleys and the Wesleyan tradition enable us to understand our faith and heritage. These notes appear in some two hundred sidebars focused on key terms, like Prevenient Grace, New Birth, Baptism, Assurance and Lay Leadership. Reading these is like taking a short course on the essential elements of our faith as Methodists.*~~*Third, a number of key pastors provide notes to help readers live out their Wesleyan faith.**~
Together, these tools are concerned with the formation of Christians whose daily lives are marked by holiness, love and faithfulness.
We need to know who we are. Even more, we need to be who we are. We joined together to create the Wesley Study Bible as a gift to the people called Methodist across the world, trusting that it will serve as God’s instrument to help us be clear about who we are, shape us as people going on to perfection and encourage us to live lives that truly reflect our faith in Christ.
Jeol B Green, is the author of Seized by Truth: reading the Bible as Scripture and general editor of the Wesley Study Bible, both from Abingdon Press. Green is an elder in the United Methodist Church, USA and serves as Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Associate Dean for the Centre of Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.
The article first appeared in Good News Magazine and is reproduced by kind permission.
METConnexion Spring 2010 pp.10-11.