Doing Theology as Wesleyan-Arminians: Biblical, Systematic, Consensual

The reflections below spring from ruminations on what has been called paleo-orthodoxy or consensual theology. As a person deeply committed to the Bible as the source and substance of all that I believe and teach, I want to avoid the shoals of solipsistic theology. How does a Wesleyan-Arminian avoid the stagnation of clubbish, intramural theology?

First, he must be humble. Humility recognizes that we are finite. We are neither omniscient nor omni-competent. We are limited in perspective. We need the wisdom that comes from corporate perspective. It will be only as we listen attentively and appreciatively to the perspectives of others within the Christian community that we can extend the bounds of our vision past the categories of our own mind, hence the need for consensual theology.

When we listen to our brothers and sisters, how shall we listen? Is consensual theology a potluck buffet? All ideas are presented; we each choose the combination that appeals to us? This cannot be the nature of consensual theology if truth is unitary. Mutually contradictory ideas cannot both be true in the same way at the same time. Truth is one.

So then what will arbitrate between conflicting ideas? Shall we choose a champion from the ranks of the faithful and say, “We are of Paul?” Or, “We are of Wesley?” This is the path many have followed, but it is the wrong path. It is a comforting path, but it is the wrong path. It is a well-worn path, but it is still the wrong path. What then shall arbitrate? It must the inspired, infallible, error-free word of God. 

Second, he must be scriptural. But how shall Scripture arbitrate when it is the subject of disagreement? It can arbitrate if we will listen to its full counsel. The primary reason so many have disagreed over its meaning is because they have failed to listen to all it says. God has given us, in written revelation and in its presentation of the Word incarnate, all that is necessary to be completely equipped for every good work in this life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Word is sufficient, even to serve as its own arbitrator. It supplies the data for our systematization and the check for the accuracy of our systems.

This is the map and the compass of our journey. With this compass, we can navigate the vast reaches of the Church’s testimony, thoughts, conclusions, and systematizations of God’s truth. We need consensual theology. We should reject the possibility or desirability of hermeneutical neutrality. We deny the existence of the theological tabula rosa. Yet when we listen to the fathers and their sons, ancient, medieval, and modern, we always ask, “Is this in harmony with the totality of inscripturated revelation?” Or more simply, “Is this what the Bible says?”

We come to our brothers and sisters to hear their understanding of Scripture and to measure our understanding against theirs, and both by the Scriptures. We measure their readings of Scripture by the Scripture’s reading of itself (e.g., Isaiah’s reading of Deuteronomy, Jesus’, Paul’s, and other NT writer’s reading of the OT).

How does this apply to being a Wesleyan-Arminian? First, the fact that we accept that label means that we have listened to others and have been shaped by others. Second, it means that we have concluded that Arminius’ and Wesley’s understanding of the broad message of Scripture regarding salvation takes into account more of the data of Scripture in a logically coherent and compelling fashion than do the understandings of others of our brothers in Christ.

To be Wesleyan is to have read the Bible with Wesley and to have evaluated Wesley by the Bible. It is to have found that Wesley and his followers’ reading of Scripture is consistent and compelling in its main lines of thought. It must never mean simply that we read the Bible as Wesley and evaluate the Bible by Wesley. It does not mean that we must accept all of Wesley’s thoughts about Scripture. It does not mean that we must think only in the categories that Wesley thought. It must never mean that Wesley is our hermeneutical touchstone—all we believe must agree with him. And more broadly, it must never mean that the Wesleyan/Methodist consensus is our hermeneutical rule of faith—all we believe must agree with it. This is the mire and bog from which every serious student of Scripture must steer clear.

Some will call this impossible or arrogant. It is not. It is Mosaic, Isaianic, and the true Christ-ian hermeneutic. Moses said a prophet’s message must be evaluated on the basis of the written law of God. Isaiah said, “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, there is no dawn/future for them.” Jesus said, “It is my word that shall judge you.”

Yet we need to go deeper. Some will claim that this approach makes one’s personal understanding of Scripture the arbiter of all other’s understandings of Scripture, that we have elevated ourselves to the position of ultimate Judge in theology. Is this true, or is there an objective standard that transcends the individual interpreter, even the interpretive community? Is there one that provides an objective measuring tool that may be reduced to a science and that is not subject to individual skewing?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, there is a set of objective standards that is a part of the imago dei in us: language and logic. Rejecting much of the current philosophical skepticism regarding the indeterminacy of meaning and the arbitrariness of language, we believe that God designed language and logic as reliable means for understanding Himself and His will. His word implies this by its very existence and affirms it in many places and varied ways.

On the other hand, the use of language and logic cannot be reduced to a formulaic chemistry that if the right sequence and combination of elements are combined the same result will always occur in every case. Our personal limitations can skew our use of these tools. The use of language and logic is itself a skill that is both science and art. There is more than enough science to it to provide guidelines, bounds, rules, and even solid prohibitions regarding what the language of the Bible can or cannot mean. Yet skill in the use of language and logic is the work of a lifetime and requires many tutors. Here we arrive back at the need for humility and willing listening to others in our own pursuit of this skill.

We can and must learn language along with all its multitudinous underpinnings, and we must learn the nature and laws of logic. Together these provide the platform for all analyses of biblical theology and all systematizations of those analyses. These provide the tools for building consensual theology, and they also provide the means for evaluating each workman’s contribution to that theology as well as the shape and direction of the total structure. We are not limited solely to our faith community, nor should we desire to listen only within its circle. Yet we are a product of our faith community and we should not desire nor attempt to achieve monastic or monadic theology.

What does this mean for Wesleyan-Arminians?  It means we are unapologetically and committedly a part of the Wesleyan-Arminian community of faith. It means we have listened and continue to listen to Arminius, Wesley, and their expositors because we find their theology consonant with the language and logic of Scripture. However, we are not and should not desire to be Arminius-ites or Wesley-ites. We must be, as both Arminius and Wesley were, people of The Book. Our enduring cry is “Back to the Bible!” which means back to its language and its logic as the touchstone for all our theological formulations. 

The systematic formulations of Methodist theologians from Wesley to the present are valuable and some are enduring, but they should never be viewed as the ultimate arbiter of either the form or the content of our theology. They are guides, good guides, but limited and finite just as we. The language and logic of Scripture alone is the ultimate arbiter of both the form and the content of our theology. We must do theology in community. We cannot and should not avoid such consensual theologizing, but we must always spiral back to the Word to verify, correct, restrain and extend our theological formulations.


Popular posts from this blog

Man looks at the outward appearance, but God ... 1 Sam. 16:7

A Sketch of a Biblical Theology of Sanctification: Wesleyan-Arminian but not Wesleyan/Nazarene