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The Bible: What Kind of Book?

The Bible: What Kind of Book? October 2, 2013

What we think of Scripture can be mapped on a spectrum from God to human, from a divine product to a human product, from God-inspired truth to human perception of God’s ways in this world. That spectrum, though, gets complicated: Do we read it in conjunction with other elements — tradition, reason, experience — or are we to suspend those three elements to get back to the Text Itself?

John Calvin and John Wesley differed on Scripture, not on its inspiration (a divinely-produced Book) or its authority (it stands over all humans and their endeavors), but on how that Bible is to be read and interpreted. Don Thorsen, in his exceptional book Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice.  And Don raises another issue that complicates our spectrum: What you think about the Bible can be measured by how often you read it. You may say it is inspired, etc, but if you read it once a week you are saying you don’t need it that often. If you need it daily you may be confessing all you need to confess.

So, Calvin on the Bible. It is inspired by the Spirit and its authority is confirmed by the witness of the same Spirit, and here Calvin is pressing his view against the standard Catholic appropriation of traditions. For Calvin Scripture is not confirmed or authorized by the church. The church emerges from Scripture not Scripture from the church. Human reason is sufficient for understanding Scripture. Calvin was proficient as an interpreter. His focus was the natural sense of the text. He opposed fanatical and idiosyncratic interpretations. Scripture is sufficient, and the Spirit does not lead us beyond the Bible.

Calvin was a sola scriptura guy (20-21). He was a pupil of Scripture and wanted theology and truth all to be formed by the Bible. He was not literalistic or wooden; he was “remarkably sophisticated” (21). His approach was, however, not the Bible alone — he was in touch with history and with the great tradition of the church; he didn’t want to create something new but reestablish the old. He oversaw the rise of Reformed Confessions.

Wesley differs a bit, but he affirms with Calvin the inspiration, authority and truthfulness of Scripture. Like Calvin he was a lover of the Bible. He said he was a “Man of one book.” The Spirit was the guide but Scripture the rule. Again, he was not simplistically a man of one book (as many like to claim for themselves, masking laziness and ignorance) but was alert to history and theological discussions. He belonged to the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England.

So here is a difference: the Anglicans dipped far more often than Calvin in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of the church. Scripture was primary but tradition was important. Anglicans discerned truth through the primacy of Scripture along with reason and tradition. So Wesley was in the via media tradition of the Anglicans. For him “sola Scriptura” and church tradition were not at odds. He valued the great tradition but the Reformation over the Catholic tradition, and English Reformation over Continental. And from historic authorities and reason. So we have the classic form of Wesley’s quadrilateral (a term he did not use): Scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

Reason was the art of good sense. His sense of “experience” is the “religion of the heart” or “experimental religion.”  (I do wonder how substantively this differs from Calvin’s testimony of the Spirit.) Regardless, this emphasis on experience marks revivalism today — current evangelicalism — as having a deep root in Wesleyan thinking. This is about experiencing God and salvation in faith and hope, but especially also love. His perception of experimental religion then was broader and more expansive than Calvin’s more confirmation of the truth of Scripture view.

So Thorsen sees a difference in that Calvin’s view is more sola or solitary while for Wesley Scripture is primary. And Calvin’s view of Scripture led to knowing the truth while Wesley’s tended more toward a living faith.


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