Today's post is the third 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 first post, I drew attention to a tension in United Methodism between our contextual theology and our connectional polity. In this post, I will continue to illustrate this tension at play by looking at the first element of the “Quadrilateral”: Scripture, following up on my remarks from my previous post about how approaches to Scripture shifted on the American frontier.
Wesley did not just read the Bible. He “searched the Scripture,” a method consisting of “reading, meditation, and hearing.” In a previous post, it was pointed out that Wesley’s was the first age where technology and politics had succeeded in lowering the price of a Bible so ordinary people could purchase their own copy that could be read devotionally. Piety has benefited from technology. The challenge was when American geography did much to transform the Bible as the church’s book to personal property; from “our” Bible to “my” Bible.
Searching the Scripture also consists of “meditation.” Wesley regularly spoke of “meditation” in his diaries and spent a great deal of time doing it. Prayer, reading, and meditation were listed together so often that they seem like a single act. He encouraged his preachers to meditate on Scripture from 4-5 in the morning and from 5-6 in the evening. Through meditation a thorough knowledge of the sacred meaning of Scripture is gained. In the “Preface” to his Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament (1765) Wesley wrote,
"If you desire to read the Scriptures in such a manner as may most effectually answer this end, would it not be advisable,
"(1.) To set apart a little time, if you can, every morning and evening for that purpose?
"(2.) At each time, if you have leisure, to read a chapter out of the Old, and one out of the New, Testament [...]
"(3.) To read this with a single eye, to know the whole will of God, and a fixed resolution to do it? […]
"(4.) Have a constant eye to the analogy of faith, the connexion and harmony there is between those grand, fundamental doctrines, original sin, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness:
"(5.) Serious and earnest prayer should be constantly used before we consult the oracles of God; seeing "Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given." Our reading should likewise be closed with prayer, that what we read may be written on our hearts:
"(6.) It might also be of use, if, while we read, we were frequently to pause, and examine ourselves by what we read, both with regard to our hearts and lives. […] And whatever light you then receive should be used to the uttermost, and that immediately. Let there be no delay. Whatever you resolve, begin to execute the first moment you can. So shall you find this word to be indeed the power of God unto present and eternal salvation."
By now some may recognize aspects of Ignatius of Loyola’s method of “lectio divina.” There are indeed similarities. It was Wesley’s belief that through a sacred reading and meditation on the text, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Biblical writers also inspires Biblical readers to read and discern the meaning of Scripture. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no “means of grace,” neither may Scripture be properly understood. So what exactly is grace?
The answer to that is found in the only catechism Wesley ever published, Instructions for Children (1745). The question was asked, “What is grace?” The answer given was, “The Power of the Holy Ghost, enabling us to believe, and love and serve God.” In Wesley’s pneumatology, the Holy Spirit is grace. An experience of the Holy Spirit is an experience of grace, and an experience of grace is an experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. Meditation is placing one’s self in a position of openness to hear and experiencing the Spirit of grace.
There is obviously a great deal of potential for abuse here too, particularly given what happened to Scripture on the American frontier. Whether it’s pietism or mysticism, the result can be exacerbated by an individualism that can easily be directed to a subjective authority that is now spiritually authorized. As Wesley was quick to remind us, to turn Christianity into a solitary religion is to kill it. At worst the radical individualism that has plagued much of Western society potentially leads to subjectivism, ethical relativism, and ironically, nihilism. When two individuals who are utterly convinced by the convictions of their subjectivism, it often becomes a case of the irresistible force encountering the immovable object.
The only thing capable of dislodging subjectivism is the need to accommodate and welcome the other. Christ has commanded it. Or, put another way in a previous post, the only thing capable of accommodating contextual theology in a connectional polity is the need to accommodate and welcome the other.
Reading and meditating must be balanced by something else, such as hearing and practicing. That is the hardest work of all. Perhaps it is the work and presence of the Holy Spirit alone that enables the one who reads and meditates out of the closet of prayer and solitary devotion to encounter the “other” as the basis of community.