How We Read the Bible

Bill T. Arnold, Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary

Article V (Articles of Religion) — Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament of whose authority was never any doubt in the church. The names of the canonical books are:

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, The First Book of Samuel, The Second Book of Samuel, The First Book of Kings, The Second Book of Kings, The First Book of Chronicles, The Second Book of Chronicles, The Book of Ezra, The Book of Nehemiah, The Book of Esther, The Book of Job, The Psalms, The Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or the Preacher, Cantica or Songs of Solomon, Four Prophets the Greater, Twelve Prophets the Less.

All the books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive and account canonical.

Article IV (Confession of Faith) — The Holy Bible

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.

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Seldom has the Church had more confusion over how to read the Scriptures. Perhaps it’s a result of the information age. We confuse accumulated factoids for knowledge and character formation. Whatever the reason, the UMC is in crisis partly because of an inability or refusal to receive the Bible as God’s gift of grace for the Church.

In the current malaise, our Bible’s testaments have been reduced to two individual phases in the history of religion, each bearing witness to an ever-improving and superseding wisdom. This new wisdom, it is thought, gloriously comes to fruition in our day of enlightenment. In such a way of reading the Bible, the church must determine which passages are outmoded and thus to be ignored. Other passages, it is assumed, might have been helpful at some point in history. But we know better today. What is left of the Bible can be applied to our lives. It’s more or less left to us to decide which bits are therefore “applicable” to our Christian faith and relevant to contemporary ethics.

What a novel idea! In reality, the Church has a long and helpful tradition of developing what the Bible means for believers, based squarely on our understanding of Scripture as the unique revelation of God, and the primary means by which God’s grace is poured into our lives. And this has all been worked out in a careful hermeneutic, or theory of interpretation. It begins by cheerfully and gratefully accepting all of Scripture as God’s gift of grace, rather than reducing it to a channel for specific instructions to be applied only after sorting wheat from chaff.

We take the Bible as the means by which “the living Christ meets us in the experience of redeeming grace” (all quotes from the UMC’s Book of Discipline, parag. 105, pages 81-82). In other words, we United Methodists see Scripture as a means of grace, one of the primary ways God pours his grace into our minds and lives. On the other hand, we also understand the Bible as “the words of human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit,” so that we are committed to reading it “within the believing community,” in proper context, and “aided by scholarly inquiry.” The theological task of United Methodism aims to “draw upon the careful historical, literary, and textual studies of recent years.”

In light of this understanding, we need to review three principles of interpretation at the core of the way we read the Bible as United Methodists: the whole of Scripture, the canon of Scripture, and the primacy of Scripture.

1. The whole of Scripture

As United Methodists, we insist on interpreting “individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole.” This is our statement against what is commonly called “proof-texting,” or lifting a single verse from somewhere in the Bible, stripping it of its surrounding literary and historical contexts, and using it to prove what it never intended to support. For example, by proof- texting, one could argue that the psalmist is an atheist because he says “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1). But of course, in reality, the whole line reads: “Fools say in their hearts, There is no God.” The argument makes the psalmist say just the opposite of what the whole psalm is actually teaching.

Sometimes instead of lifting a text from its context to prove a point, we strip it of context in order to dismiss a passage we don’t like. For example, it is common to hear people today dismiss commands such as the prohibitions forbidding beard-trimming (Leviticus 19:27) or lobster-eating (Leviticus 11:10; Deuteronomy 14:10). Some have argued such commands never expressed the will of God and can simply be ignored because they no longer apply to today’s Christians. But this is a form of reverse proof-texting, which lifts a command from its context in order to dismiss it, or at least to argue that such Old Testament commands are irrelevant for today’s Christian readers.

Such proof-texting misses the fundamental reality that the whole Bible, including the hard to explain legal bits of the Old Testament, is God’s word for Christians today while not necessarily representing God’s command to us in every instance. We’re supposed to look for principles and truths lying beneath the surface of each command, and in case-by-case fashion, find ways these truths are relevant for our edification today. In this way, all of Scripture is still the word of God for the people of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).

Thus even the prohibitions against beard-trimming and lobster-eating contribute to our understanding of the way the Israelites related to their holy God as a holy people. The immediate context in each case explains that the prohibitions are related to living a holy life before God (lobster-eating = Leviticus 11:44-45; beard-trimming = Leviticus 19:2 and Deuteronomy 14:2).

Some argue that these prohibitions are culturally embedded in ancient stigmas or are otherwise outmoded, and therefore apply only in some indirect fashion if they apply at all. But we cannot dismiss them as altogether irrelevant, which would itself be a form of proof-texting.

2. The canon of Scripture

As United Methodists, we view the Bible as “sacred canon for Christian people,” specifically the “thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.” As sacred canon (or authoritative standard) for the Church, we believe the Bible is not primarily inspired for us to know things (epistemology). We learn quite a lot from the Bible, of course. But this is not its primary function in and for the Church. Instead, the Bible is inspired and given by God to the Church in order for Christians to know God through personal and corporate salvation (soteriology). Even my use of the word “know” in the previous sentences has different meanings. By “know” when referring to things, I’m essentially referring to the use of my brain to accumulate facts. But by “know” when referring to God, I mean encountering God and relating to him in a way made possible by the sacrificial atonement of Christ on the cross. We believe the whole canon is a gift from God, inspired to lead us to an intimate relationship with God, and to transform us into God’s image, individually and corporately.

3. The primacy of Scripture

As United Methodists, we are convinced “that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.” John Wesley recognized five authorities for Christian doctrine, while never losing sight of Scripture as primary among them: (a) Scripture, (b) reason, (c) Christian antiquity, or the “primitive church,” meaning the first three centuries of Christianity, (d) the Church of England, and (e) experience. The last one, “experience,” means specifically Christian experience in Wesley’s usage. This criterion for Christian doctrine is least of all. Whenever Wesley sees instances where Scripture and experience deviate, he characterizes Scripture as trustworthy and experience as untrustworthy.

By emphasizing the primacy of Scripture in what we now call the “quadrilateral,” our Wesleyan tradition means we turn to the other three components (reason, tradition, and experience) for help when interpreting Scripture. They are privileged in the process hermeneutically (as instruments for interpreting the Bible) but not epistemologically (as sources for truth). They are useful norms for interpreting Scripture, not as independent sources in theology.

The inclusion of “experience” in our theological task can be misleading. In Wesley’s practice of interpreting the Bible, he often turned to an awareness of God’s presence in the lives of individuals in the early Methodist movement for help. In particular, he was interested in hearing testimonies of those giving witness to an assurance of salvation by faith. And thus he added “experience” to the Anglican triad of Scripture, reason, and tradition, in order to clarify the notion of conversion. Especially after his own heart-warming experience at Aldersgate Street, Wesley was seeking a way to legitimize his own conversion experience and those of others into the Anglican way of doing theology.

For more, see Bill T. Arnold, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World (Franklin, Tenn.: Seedbed, 2014), 70-89.

5 thoughts on “How We Read the Bible

  1. Just a few thoughts – While biblical scholarship has invested much needed sweat equity in the research and application of historical criticism over the last century, it has often done so at the expense of the authority and power of the text in its final canonical form as we have it today. The Bible has been so qualified that it has been disqualified. It has been so qualified as “cultural,” “myth,” “redacted,” “patriarchal,” “pre-critical,” “pre-scientific,” “Gnostic,” and more that it is rarely believed as the word of God and thus has little value or power in the lives of its readers. Hyper-criticism and hermeneutical strategies such as the Quadrilateral have so paralyzed the text that not only can the Scriptures not save us, but also they cannot even save themselves. What we have left is a deflationary view of Scripture that has been flattened of its divine authorship, supernatural working, salvific content, and transformational power. In its final canonical form the church has the written word of God that when mixed with faith is able to save our souls because it reveals the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. The word of God reveals God and God’s power to save, and it is effective in those who believe. It is a gift given to us for our theological, liturgical, formational, and missional practice. however, instead of believing God’s word, we have spent too much time crucifying it. I believe we have judged the word of God long enough; it is time to let it judge us.

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  2. Pingback: 衛理宗對聖經的看法 - 信仰百川

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