Recently, an acquaintance expressed a desire to learn more about the Bible. She thought her church should be teaching her the Bible, it was not meeting that expectation, and she felt dissatisfied. However, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to learn or how she wanted to learn it.
Her vague notion that she should know more about the Bible than she did got me thinking about Wesley’s approach to interpreting scripture, one which is very easy to learn. His discussions of scripture can be divided into three main themes: Repentance. Faith. Holiness. That’s it. That’s Wesley’s analogy of faith, his interpretive method. His commentary on Hebrews 8: 10-12 is one example of his hermeneutic.
Hebrews 8:10 is a quote of God’s promise in Jeremiah 31:33 that those under the new covenant will have the laws of the covenant put in their mind and written on their hearts.
The Greek word translated as mind, διάνοιαν, refers to a thought process that is not verbalized. This function of the mind could be as simple as observations that one keeps private, or it could be as complex as critically reasoning about all sides of a controversy. (see HELPS Word-studies for more on διάνοιαν as critical thinking.)
In his Hebrews 8:10 Notes, Wesley concluded that God is promising to help Christians grasp the spiritual implications of the divine law: “I will open their eyes, and enlighten their understanding, to see the true, full, spiritual meaning thereof.” Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers theorized about human understanding (what it was, how it came about, what brain functions were involved, its relationship to the soul). Equating διάνοιαν with understanding is evidence that Wesley applied this intellectual perspective to his commentary on scripture.
Wesley’s commentary on the next section of verse 10, the promise to write the law upon the heart, draws upon a different body of literature: “And write them on their hearts - So that they shall inwardly experience whatever I have commanded.” The expectation that Christians will have an inward religious experience is consistent with the devotional literature that Wesley read.
In his commentary on verse 12, Wesley identified the characteristics of this Christian experience--”This, therefore, is God's method. First, a sinner is pardoned: then he knows God, as gracious and merciful then God's laws are written on his heart: he is God's, and God is his.”
So, want to learn to read the Bible the way Wesley did? Look for stories of sinners repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness. Find stories of sinners experiencing God’s mercy. Identify stories of the reconciled following God’s laws by embodying them in their attitudes and behaviors. Search for stories of people losing their faith, backsliding, and then repeating the process of repenting, believing, and following.
Wesley’s reading of the Bible was consistent with his conception of the Christian experience, a never-ending process of confessing our shortcomings, trusting in God’s grace, and following Christ’s example. When the eyes of our understanding are opened and the laws of the Bible are written on our hearts, then we will see examples of this three-fold process throughout the entire Bible, according to Wesley.
And as we learn more about the Bible, the story of our experience and the biblical stories of past experiences of God’s three-step method will become intertwined. This will create a collective understanding of the Bible.
The idea that God promises Christians a shared interpretation of scripture occurred to me when I noticed that the Greek word διάνοιαν is a singular noun not a plural. Wesley’s commentary suggests that Christians will have an individual understanding and experience. In the original Greek, experiencing the commandments is unique to each person (καρδίας αὐτῶν, their hearts); however when it comes to understanding divine law, Christians will become like-minded (τὴν διάνοιαν αὐτῶν, their mind).
A group process of critical thinking that reflects on scripture and is lead by God to the same conclusion, I have yet to experience that in a Bible study, but it’s a nice sentiment. Maybe that’s the confession that should open and close each Bible study session. Something along the lines of: “Lord, we are not like-minded. We disagree on how to follow your law of love in our lives, in our church, in our society. Forgive us. Make us more receptive to your teaching.”