Monday, February 02, 2009

Reading the Bible Like Wesleyans

On March 7 at Canterbury UMC in Birmingham and on March 14 at Trinity UMC in Hutnsville, I will be leading a discussion on the unique Methodist way with scripture. I will discuss the particular Wesleyan contribution to the study, interpretation, and embodiment of Holy Scripture.

This event is open to all interested pastors and laypersons. The same workshop will be repeated in two different locations on from 9:30 - Noon. The Wesley Study Bible can be purchased through Cokesbury, Birmingham.

This event coincides with the publication of the Wesley Study Bible by Abingdon Press. The Wesley Study Bible is a unique study Bible that is edited by Bishop Willimon and Dr. Joel B. Green, formerly of Asbury Seminary. The Bible will be available from Cokesbury in February.

The Wesley Study Bible

Dr. Joel B. Green, (distinguished biblical scholar, formerly of Asbury Seminary, now at Fuller Seminary) and I have been working for the past three years on the Wesley Study Bible. To be published this February, the Wesley Study Bible is quite an event. Dr. Green and I have invited nearly two hundred of our church’s best biblical scholars, Wesley scholars, and scholarly pastors to produce the Wesley Study Bible. I thank the Cabinet and the North Alabama Conference for giving me the time and the encouragement to work on his project. Hailed as a landmark event in this history of the United Methodist Publishing house, I believe that this Bible will be a grand resource for ministry. I commend it to our pastors and congregation.

The most wonderfully Wesleyan aspect of the spectacularly successful Disciple Bible Studies is its name. It’s not the “Thinking Long Thoughts about Scripture” series, or the “Noble Ideas from the Bible” series. It’s Disciple. As I see it, John Wesley made two enduring contributions to the church universal: (1.) Scripture is meant to be embodied, performed, and enacted in our daily lives. We’re not talking distinctively United Methodist Christianity if we’re not talking practical, incarnate, obedient Christianity. We read the Bible to strengthen our disciplines of discipleship. (2.) Discipleship is for everybody, young and old, rich and poor. Wesley’s vision was that it was possible for ordinary Eighteenth Century people, of every age and rank, to be saints – if they were disciplined, educated, and formed by Scripture. Early Methodists designed a score of creative means to enable the accomplishment of those two goals.

Randy Maddox showed me an exchange of letters between Wesley and Miss J.C. March that illustrates the twofold particularities of Wesley’s practical Christianity. Miss March had written to Wesley about inadequacies in her spiritual life. Wesley replied, without noticeable sympathy for her plight, chiding her to give up her “gentlewoman” airs and be a disciple of Jesus. How? “Go see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman!... Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear an higher character. You are an heir of God!”

Two years later, in response to Miss March’s continued whining about her sad spiritual state, an aggravated Wesley replied, “I find time to visit the sick and the poor; and I must do it, if I believe the Bible….. I am concerned for you; I am sorry you should be content with lower degrees of usefulness and holiness than you are called to.” It’s vintage Wesley. For Father John, biblical interpretation meant not just thinking about Jesus by reading the Bible but also getting busy in Christ’s work, going where Christ goes, doing what Christ commands us in the Bible. (I count 86 references in his sermons to the importance of prison ministry.)

This vignette from Wesley’s life is a rationale for the usage, in our congregations, of The Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Joel Green and I, working with editors of the United Methodist Publishing House, assembled a diverse, distinguished group of scholars and scholar-pastors whose marginal notes and sidebars enable biblical passages to speak in fresh and revealing ways. Their work on this Bible proves the fruitfulness of reading scripture from an enthusiastically Wesleyan perspective.

Here is the beginning of the introduction to the Letter of James:

Martin Luther dismissed the Letter of James as “an epistle of straw”…. For John Wesley, however, this small letter was central for Christian faith and life. In his journal he described James as a remedy against the general temptation of leaving off good works in order to increase faith…. Elsewhere, Wesley observed that, when James wrote his letter, “That grand pest of Christianity, a faith without works, was spread far and wide; filling the church with….envy, strife, confusion, and every evil work’”….

Throughout the text are sidebars that (1.) treat Wesleyan Core Terms related to various passages and (2.) apply the text with selected Life Application Terms for individual believers and the church. You will find Wesleyan Core Terms ranging from Acceptance and Almost Christian, to Yielding to Temptation and Zeal, concise discussions of Classes, Connection, Conscience, Conversion, Conviction of Sin and more. This Bible is a treasure trove of Wesleyan believing.

Here is part of the sidebar for the Wesleyan Core Term “Faith and Works”:

For many faith and works are two aspects of Christian living that seem to be in opposition to each other. But not for Wesley! For him, faith and good works are united in God’s love. God expresses God’s love for us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; and we, in turn, express our response to God’s love through our good deeds, particularly toward those in need….

Distinguished pastors from a dozen different Wesleyan church families have tackled Life Application Terms that encompass the full range of Christian discipleship, everything from Acts of Kindness to Christ Died for You, from Justice to Conflict in the Church.

Linked with the Letter of James, Chapter 2 is this Life Application Topic, “Caring for the Poor”:

Today, we honor the rich as potential patrons of our church; James says the poor are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom (2:5), and the rich are in big trouble. Where did John Wesley get his scorn for the rich and his advocacy for the poor? He read James…..

With its constant combination of historical and theological background, paired with Wesleyan theology and practical application, I think that you will find the Wesley Study Bible to be a great to explore again that life-giving territory that Karl Barth once called, “the strange new world of the Bible.”

William H. Willimon

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to ordaination this summer... the WSB may be what I choose as my ordaination Bible. I can't think of a better companion for the journey ahead. Thanks Will.