Approaches to Theology - what can we learn from Wesley when discussing difficult issues?
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
At a recent “Sunday@4” gathering, we explored Methodist approaches to theology and the authority placed on Scripture. It led to some rich and engaging discussions, so I thought I’d share with you here.
What does the Methodist approach to Theology look like?
According to the Methodist website, Methodists traditionally use a fourfold approach to learn about our Christian faith and apply it to contemporary issues and to our Christian practice:
Scripture : to discover the word of God through reading the Bible. There are different understandings among Methodists about the Bible's authority in our lives, so resources like different Bible translations, commentaries and Bible reading notes are helpful.
Tradition: the wisdom and creativity of Christians over time and across the world. It includes inspirational material like hymns, songs, prayers, poetry, Christian art and devotional books. There are formally agreed teachings like the creeds, the catechism, and statements and reports from Methodist Conference.
Reason: we are called to love God with our minds as well as with our hearts. We need to think things through in the light of reason, becoming aware of different points of view, and using our own critical thinking to make sense of God's world.
Experience: the importance of our own experience of God's grace working in our lives. We gain wisdom and maturity from life experience, especially when we pray and reflect about our story with other Christians.
We discussed the four images above that may help us understand these approaches. Which images help your understanding of how to approach Theology?
So how can we use the teachings of Wesley and his approach to theology to understand how to approach theology and the authority of Scripture in the 21st century? Are all the approaches evenly weighted? Methodist church doctrine states that “Scripture is supreme in faith and practice” and that the other elements can help us understand what God reveals therein. So, we are guided to place Scripture as paramount, using the other approaches to inform our interpretations.
Wesley viewed the 4 approaches to learning about our faith and applying it in our lives broadly like this:
Why should we treat Scripture as the “supreme rule of faith and practice?”
When Rich (my husband) and I were dating, we played our first game of Monopoly together. I’d played Monopoly plenty as a child, BUT I’d not really read the rules and my sister and I made it up as we went along. We had no idea of mortgaging or how to get out of jail. Richard on the other hand, had a VERY sound grasp of the rules and stuck to them rigidly! He spent most of the game referencing the rule book to make sure we stayed on track. He couldn’t cope with how much I’d developed rules that suited, it was confusing and we argued (mostly about money and free parking…).
Monopoly was created in 1903 by a lady named Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips. She wanted to illustrate the consequences of private monopolies, and the rules are carefully designed to do this. Richard respected the creator of the game, and played by her rules, even when they didn’t suit him. I made things up when the rules looked too hard to understand, or too harsh and took short cuts.
I believe that God set up Christianity a certain way with His own intentions and purposes. If we alter His rules, we’re, at best, not lined up with those intentions and purposes, and, at worst, not practicing Christianity at all. If we really want to honour God, grow in Christ, and truly be practicing biblical Christianity, we’ve got to play by His rules. Even the ones we don’t particularly like or understand.
If we don’t dig deeper into Scripture and take it as God’s Revelation to us, then we don’t get God revealed to us, and we are in danger of being largely ignorant of the Creator and His purposes and intentions, the things He wants to teach us. And what sort of witness is this to the world? Scripture says those who truly belong to Christ will have a heart to keep His word then we can be salt and light.
I found a different picture of the “quadrilateral” (the lower image at the start of the article) that best explains to me how Wesley presented the approaches to theology. Scripture is fully embraced within truth, whereas the others are open to error in our interpretation of God’s revelation. If our reasons, experience and traditions pull us away from God’s Divine Scripture then we need to ask ourselves – does this fall inside or outside Truth? Am I following God’s plan or making up my own alternative?
Wesley said, “Try all things by the written word and let all bow down before it. You are in danger … every hour if you depart ever so little from Scripture”
When we decide our beliefs based on our opinions, feelings, and subjective personal experiences rather than the written word of God, and the teaching and ministry of Jesus, what we say is, “I know better than the almighty, all-knowing God of the universe.”
Paul assures us that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” We will stumble along the way. We will sometimes mistakenly believe things we shouldn’t. We are fallible, so I pray that as we explore difficult issues together, we are reminded of our human capacity for error in our reason, experience and traditions and are called to submit to God’s unchanging, constant and ageless revelation to us through his Word. Let Scripture be our golden standard in how to follow Jesus.
 From “A Lamp to my feet and a Light to my Path” A paper to Methodist Conference 1998.
 John 14:23-24 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.
 in his book, Christian Perfection” 1758
Here's harvest loaf from the Harvest festival service. Delicious!
Inspired by Scripture!
The young people have had some spare time after exams and organised themselves to spend a day being creative. As part of the Mission Academy, they chose some scripture passages that mean something to them, and have made these into paintings of scripture to decorate the Upper Room.