This article is part three in a series on Bible Interpretation. To go back and read part one, which discusses our Articles of Religion, click HERE. To read part two, which discusses John Wesley and early Methodists, click HERE.
As we continue this series there is one more section of our Book of Discipline that is worth looking at, because it also speaks to how we interpret the Bible as Methodists. Where the first section was about principles, the second about application, this one is about theology.
Let’s start with a definition:
Let’s start with a definition for the word: Theology
Theology is the study of the nature of God (what God is like), how God relates to the world, and it also touches on faith and religious practice. It is often ordered or sometimes called “systematic.” You might use the word “theology” to compare/contrast different understandings of God (like for example Catholic theology compared with Methodist theology).
How is Theology Connected with Bible Interpretation? Quite a bit, it is heavily informed by Bible interpretation and that’s what we’ll take a look at.
Our Theological Task – ¶105 in the Book of Discipline
Below I summarize what this section has to say about Bible Interpretation. The whole section is VERY GOOD READING and covers far more than just what is summarize below (specifically what this section has to say about Bible Interpretation):
- Theology is defined as the application of our church doctrine. It’s very contextual: Theology serves the Church by interpreting the world’s needs and challenges to the Church and by interpreting the gospel to the world.
- The work of theology is: critical and constructive, individual and communal, contextual and incarnation, and practical.
In a section called Theological Guidelines: Sources and Criteria an important question is discussed. Where do we get our theological data/information from? The Book of Discipline names four sources for theology, but clearly states that they are nonequal, one is primary. Here are links to the Book of Discipline as it speaks about each section: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. We will begin with Scripture:
- “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.
- Scripture is primary among the four theological sources. It reveals the word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation’. The disciplined study of the Bible is vital to our theology.
- We meet Christ, the living Word of God in scripture.
- The Biblical authors, illumined by the Holy Spirit, bear witness that in Christ the world is reconciled to God.
- The Bible bears authentic testimony to God’s self-disclosure in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as in God’s work of creation, in the pilgrimage of Israel, and in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity in human history.
- The Bible is the source point of our faith and understanding of God.
- We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole
- We are aided by scholarly inquiry, personal insight, historical, literary, and textual studies.
- “The Bible serves both as a source of our faith and as the basic criterion by which the truth and fidelity of any interpretation of faith is measured.”
After discussing scripture, three more sources for theological inquiry and reflection are named. Scripture is the primary, the norm by which all three of these are judged, yet each of these are a vital part of our theological work, they are:
- Tradition – the extremely valuable historical record of our brothers and sisters in the faith who have come before us. This includes that historical record’s soaring and inspiring successes, and its disappointing failures that can learn from.
- Experience – both individual and corporate. We look (within our lives and the life of our community and context) for confirmations of the realities of God’s grace attested in scripture.
- Reason – “any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason”. It is quite literally what we use to read and interpret scripture, determine the clarity of Christian witness, ask questions, and seek to understand God’s action and will.
Theology seeks an authentic Christian response to modern challenges, injustices, suffering, secularism, and so much more. As Methodists we practice theology globally and that’s very unique to our church.
We work Ecumenically (with other traditions of the faith).
The section closes with this quote from Ephesians 3 “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen”
What does this look like in practical application at Downs UMC?
Hopefully you’ve heard the phrase: “Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason” from our church before. It is taught and used in sermons, because, as a Methodist pastor, I believe it to be a fantastic tool for Christian discernment.
- At our church, the primacy of scripture matters. Because of that, most bible studies and sermons at Downs start with the text, and then seek to apply that text to a life of faith.
- We do sometimes start the other way around, beginning with an issue or item and then searching for scriptural commentary, support, or opposition. Those types of studies work best however when a strong background of scriptural understanding is already present. This is why we work hard at Downs to offer solid education on Biblical content, so that when you do theology on your own you have a good solid base to work with.
- We accept the Bible as the true rule and guide for faith, and therefore do not believe that the Word of God will ever lead a faithful Christian to error. If error occurs in interpretation or application of the Word of God, we expect it to be human error, not an error from God.
- When we come upon a passage of scripture that is hard to understand, doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t seem to fit, we use the recommended process (based on the Book of Discipline) for Biblical Interpretation, and we often do so in this order. In a seminary, this process could also be called a form of Exegesis.
- We begin by allowing the Bible to comment on the Bible. Understanding that scripture is not just one book it’s a collection of 66. We invite other portions of scripture to inform the passage we are looking into.
- Next we may consult scholarly inquiry which takes many forms: Commentaries, archaeology, cultural studies, and more. We prioritize resources that have proved trustworthy in the past, but we also look for new resources that bring fresh insights.
- We consult the wealth of Christian tradition. So many faithful sisters and brothers have come before us, perhaps they have studied and commented on these passages.
- We consult our own experience. Do to the aspects of this passage of scripture have an echo in our life or the life of our community? This is also a good place for Christian conversation, speaking with a brother or sister in Christ.
- In all of these ways we are applying our God given gift of reason as we seek to interpret the scripture properly.
- Ideally we look for agreement in all four categories as we prayerfully study. When there isn’t agreement in all categories then more work is needed for interpretation and study. If a piece of information from experience or tradition, for example, is in conflict with scripture then we use scripture to interpret it.
This is a really helpful process, and one that we recommend for both individual and communal theological reflection. Yes, there’s a good amount of work involved, but it bears the fruit of drawing us closer to God. It also bears the fruit of helping us bring our lives in greater alignment with God’s purposes and intention. Additionally, it challenges the church to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ, and to communicate the fantastic promises of God to our world in a way that our world will understand it.
In our next article we’ll close with a final discussion on practical Bible interpretation by discussing the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.