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The Gifts of Methodism for Biblical Studies

Three New Testament scholars discuss the influence of the Methodist tradition for their understanding of Scripture

For many decades, scholars have debated whether the academic study of the Bible should require faith commitments to be checked at the door of the classroom. Some have contended that personal religious practice and belief should be kept at arm’s length from the work of scholarship. 

In contrast, Duke Divinity School provides examples of top biblical scholars who seek to integrate their personal commitments to the church with their scholarly work. Richard Hays, Ross Wagner, and Brittany Wilson sat down for a conversation about Wesleyan approaches to the Bible, how their respective generations of scholars see things differently, and what’s distinctive about Duke Divinity School’s approach to the Bible.

Biblical scholars are professionally committed to understanding and teaching what the text says. How could being Wesleyan enter into that?
Brittany Wilson: I can’t help but read the text as a Wesleyan. It’s the tradition in which I was formed. I find that I notice things about the text that those not formed in a Wesleyan tradition will not see. For example, when I read Acts, I see how God acts and humans respond. God or the kurios [Lord] or the Spirit initiates, and then humans respond. You won’t always see that emphasis in the scholarly literature.

Ross Wagner: Being formed in a Methodist church, a community shaped by Wesley, also helped prepare me to read the text. Wesley beats the drum of prevenient grace: all we’re called to do and be is a response to God’s prior action. Wesley has encouraged me to continue to look for the Spirit’s justifying work, which is integrally connected with sanctification. To read well is to become a community that takes on the mind of Christ and walks the way Christ walked. Being a Wesleyan makes one attentive to those things.

What distinctive emphases in your work derive from the Wesleyan tradition that formed you?
Richard Hays: When I started out as a New Testament scholar, I had no intention of saying, “I will pursue a Wesleyan approach.” I became aware of my deep Methodist formation after I published Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Christian Beker [of Princeton Theological Seminary] characterized it as an example of “Methodist pietism,” referring to my emphasis on the real possibility of the transformation of a community through the power of the Spirit.

Salvation for Paul is not simply a matter of forensic declaration that says our sins are forgiven. It’s transformation into a new life. One of the texts that most clearly articulates this is this passage in Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” it begins. Often the Reformation traditions focus only on this phrase. But the text goes on: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ has set you free from the law of sin and death. ... [God] condemned sin in the flesh.” Here’s why: “hina [so that] the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” I thought I was just reading Paul, but my formation in the Methodist tradition helped me to see that in the text.

Wagner: An important theme to me is how much the missionary context shapes the way that Paul articulates his theology. He understands God to be calling into being communities of Jews and Gentiles. Everything Paul does is oriented toward participating in the work of the kingdom embodied in these communities. For Paul, the emphasis is not just individual conversion but conversion of a community that will display Christ. This really resonates with Wesley’s link between personal and social holiness; his passion to save souls included a belief in the gospel’s power to compel the church outward from its own walls.

Wilson: This isn’t exclusive to Wesley, but he understood Scripture as a living document, a living word. That governs the questions I have when I approach the text. Yes, I read it attentively and in context—but I try to have in view what this word has to preach to us today.

Are there particular texts you’re more drawn to than others, and if so, can that be traced to Wesley?
Wagner: Wesley loves 1 John and its theme that to be Christian is to walk the way Jesus walked. And he also refers to Philippians 2, to have the “mind of Christ.” Paul uses this hymn about Christ to explain how the community should behave toward each other. That’s the heart of Wesley. What God does for us in Christ, God also does in us. Justification is linked to sanctification, and the pattern of Christ’s life becomes replicated in the lives of believers in the community. Philippians also sounds the note of joy. Wesley comes back over and over to the phrase “happy and holy” as the goal of the Christian life. Joy is linked to fellowship with God, which requires sanctification.

Hays: Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament borrows a great deal from Johann Bengel, but things he changed were about the passages in Paul that talk about the law. Wesley insists that the law does give expression to the righteousness of God that Paul is talking about. The Sermon on the Mount is also central to Wesley. And Wesley doesn’t read the Sermon on the Mount as Reinhold Niebuhr did—as an impossible ideal. It’s an actual call to a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Why should a church beset with so many other worries invest in biblical studies?
Wagner: The only reason the Methodist church exists at all is because we’ve been given a story about God’s action for us in Christ and his continuing action in and through us as God redeems the world. We need to keep coming back to that foundational story about God to gain our bearings. We have no idea what problems we have or how to address them until we can understand the world from God’s perspective.

Wilson: To read texts in their own context, from a confessional point of view, takes humility and grace. These texts often subvert the cultural norms of their time, and that subversion relates to the message of the gospel itself, the audacity that God came down in human form, breaking open human categories.

Hays: When I began to feel called into teaching, I wrestled with whether to apply in systematic theology or in New Testament, even while I was filling out applications. I decided I would go into biblical studies because that seemed to be where the deepest roots of the church’s problems were. Much of the approach of a certain kind of modernist biblical criticism was corrosive of the church’s faith and mission. I wanted to deal with what I thought was the taproot of the problem. What’s wrong with the church is not that we don’t have a contemporary message or technologically sophisticated delivery. It’s that we need to recover why we exist in the first place.

How would you characterize Duke Divinity School’s approach to Scripture?
Wagner: The notion of forming a scriptural imagination is a unifying project among our faculty. Scripture tells us the truth about ourselves, our world, and our God. Teaching Scripture is a process of learning how to inhabit that story and live in light of it in a concrete time and place. This goes far beyond the Bible department. Duke students are formed to be thoughtful readers, committed to allowing God to use Scripture to form their thoughts and affections. Wesley uses the word happy—we might choose the word joy—but he has an awful lot to say about our heart.

Hays: Both fundamentalism and liberalism flatten the scriptural witness. We’re trying to inhabit the scriptural story in way that is more rounded and deeper. We’re not the only place in the world concerned about that, but it is characteristic of our approach.

You three belong to different generations in biblical studies. What changes do you see across those years?
Wagner: When Richard entered graduate studies, something was deeply wrong. Coming in 20 years later, I found the field changed, with space to talk about Scripture as a narrative that shapes the life of community. Richard’s work helped that to happen, along with Tom Wright, Don Juel, Chris Beker, Luke Johnson, Ben Witherington, and Joel Green, among others. They asked big questions about God and the shape of community life, which are now very much on the table for New Testament scholarship.

Hays: High boundaries separated the disciplines of biblical studies and theology. In the 1970s theologian Hans Frei described it as “obliviousness to narrative as narrative.” A recovery of biblical narrative has developed in such a way that now Brittany’s scholarship can read Luke as narrative without having to justify it.

What particularly Methodist pitfalls exist in New Testament studies?
Hays: One is overconfidence about human capacity that can shade into Pelagianism, which Wesley also wouldn’t want. Some Methodist circles exhibit a kind of do-goodism, in which passion for justice gets disconnected from God. Another pitfall is experientialism. Methodist candidates for ministry aren’t required to study biblical languages. In my 33 years of supervising doctoral studies at Yale and Duke, I’ve had exactly one United Methodist doctoral student, and that’s Ross Wagner! Methodists can be prone to assume that we have experienced the grace of God and we’ll go out and make the world right—without attending to the kind of scholarly grounding you get from studying languages.

Wilson: Many Methodists don’t know what to do with the Bible. They may not read it—or they don’t know how to read it or how to be distinctively Wesleyan. What makes us different from some other flavor of Christianity? The danger is that we lose our distinctively Wesleyan heritage to bland homogenization.

Wagner: Another potential pitfall is more pietistic: to narrow Scripture’s vision to “Jesus and me” and ignore the part of the gospel calling that was the passion of the Wesleys—to go beyond the walls and challenge the social structures of day. This is part of the larger context of Duke: we have the Center for Reconciliation, the Office of Black Church Studies, Thriving Rural Communities—there’s a wideness to the vision of what human flourishing looks like. That’s important for how we teach Scripture here.

When you look back over your life, what will allow you to say, “That was Methodist biblical scholarship”?
Hays: In my “State of the School” address, I spoke of the way scholarship forms character. I would hope that a life formed by Wesleyan biblical interpretation would embody fruit of the Spirit—love, peace, patience, joy, and generosity—even toward enemies. You would hope that a Wesleyan biblical scholar would not be an arrogant, preening self-promoter.

Wagner: Scholarship is a particular discourse with real value, but our calling is much wider. I hope to see fruit beyond the academy in the lives of students taught and communities affected.

Wilson: Writing for the academic guild is something we’re called to do. But my goal is to write beyond the guild, for those in the pews and for pastors. Such scholarship spills over into the local church.