Today's post is the second of a four-part series on the tensions between contextual theology and connectional polity in The United Methodist Church, written by Barry E. Bryant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
In my last post, I drew attention to a tension in United Methodism between our contextual theology and our connectional polity. In this post and the next, I will illustrate this tension at play by looking at the first element of the “Quadrilateral”: Scripture.
It should come as no surprise that John Wesley had a method for reading the Bible. He called it “searching the Scripture.” It was simple, insightful, and memorable: read, meditate, and hear. Wesley repeatedly told Methodists that “searching the Scriptures” was a means of preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace. This is too easily forgotten by us today. The method was so important that he included it as a part of the “General Rules” and anyone who took love of God and love of neighbor seriously could not afford to ignore it. More than that, “searching the Scripture” illustrates how to engage in a Wesleyan way to study the Bible and appropriate it into a theological method.
First there is “reading.” We take the devotional reading of Scripture for granted and forget that not all Christians everywhere and in all ages have had either a Biblical text to read or the ability to read it. For 1400 years, texts were kept and maintained in monasteries where they were copied by monks. Access to them was a privilege and copies were rare. Scripture reading itself was an act of elitism.
Bibles were not cheap. In 1450 when Johannes Guttenberg printed the first Bible the price would have been around $200,000; in 1539 the Coverdale Bible would have about $5000; the 1576 Geneva Bible about $1400. In 1611 Bibles were finally being printed small enough to be owned by individuals who could afford them.
By the 18th century technology had increased and governmental interference had decreased enough to bring down prices. In 1710 the Canstein Bible Institute in Germany printed Bibles for around $6, making the Scripture affordable for most people. In 1755 Wesley would publish Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, to be read by Methodists, a doctrinal standard for United Methodism still today. The reading of scripture could now be become a common part of Christian piety. Now that anyone could own a Bible everyone should read the Bible as a means of grace.
This means reading and literacy are generally a means of grace. Teaching others to read is an important ministry and assists others to discover the liberative power of Scripture. For this reason, in 1769 Hannah Ball, a Methodist woman in the north of England, started the idea of having school on Sunday so children could learn to read in order to read the Bible. The liberative power of Scripture was also why slaves were forbidden to read, even by Methodist slave owners. Literacy was empowerment.
After the Civil War, the American Bible Society sought to place Bibles into the hands of westward moving settlers. Bibles were now cheap enough to be given away and placed into every open hand that wanted one. The Bible was slowly but surely being transformed from “our” Bible, into “my” Bible. It had become personal property in the truest American sense. And this was the frontier. The mythology of America’s “rugged individualism” was being cultivated and coupled with a vast expanse that did little to nurture a sense of sacramental Christian community. On the frontier, the Bible did not just meet technology. It encountered Jeffersonian democracy and its values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In a sense, the Bible fell off the pulpit and into the pew, and from the pew into pious Protestant hands and homes.
And for Methodists, who were struggling with a perennial shortage of ordained clergy who alone were capable of administering the sacraments, this was significant. The American frontier sheered away the sacraments, leaving mainly the Bible in the pew and the conversion experience as the single most important event shaping one’s Christian formation and not the sacraments. The “altar call” was no longer an invitation to the Communion table. It was the place for penitents to be converted. Revivalism, camp meetings, and the conversion experience, placed the pulpit as central, not the communion altar.
Is all this to suggest that reading the Bible is a bad thing? Not at all. But it is to suggest that “searching the Scriptures” in the Wesleyan sense includes more than just reading.
So, just how does Wesley’s method of “searching the Scripture” overcome these American challenges? The short answer is through “meditating and hearing.” In the next post we’ll consider “meditating” on Scripture.