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The Bible in the Methodist Tradition

Wed, Sep 10, 2014

The Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church were adopted in 1784 at the founding conference of the former Methodist Episcopal Church. John Wesley, the initiator of the Methodist revival within the Church of England, took the original thirty-nine articles establish by the English church and edited them to make them more concise and removed overly Calvinist language. Wesley compiled his revision of the Anglican thirty-nine articles, now pared down to only twenty-five, into his Sunday Service of the Methodist, a book similar to the common prayer book of the English church. This book of prayer, worship, and instruction was adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church in America as a founding document. The Articles[1] have remained a binding statement for Methodists throughout many splits, unions, and reunions. As a guiding statement within the Methodist church, conversations around the place of the Hebrew Bible within the church must start there.

As part of the greater English reformation tradition, Methodists take heed from our Anglican forbearers and embrace the protestant call to sola scriptura. Article five of the Methodist Articles of Religion states that the Holy Scriptures,[2] “containeth all things necessary to salvation.”[3] From this basis, the traditional Methodist understanding has been that the Holy Scriptures are the infallible[4] – not inerrant[5] – word of God. All things required by God for salvation are contained within scripture and nothing outside of scripture – neither that based off tradition, experience, nor other external sources – “should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”[6] Within this framework, the Hebrew Bible plays a large part in God’s revealing to humankind the nature and method of His salvation; to the Israelites first and then, in the New Testament, to the nations.

As an heir of the Reformation, Methodists only accept the traditional Jewish cannon of the Hebrew Bible divided into thirty-nine books as being authoritative. The status of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament within the Methodist tradition is not well defined. The original article six of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion lists the deuterocanonical books as being useful, “for example of life and instruction of manners, ” within the church.[7] However, when Wesley edited the Anglican Articles, he removed the statement regarding the deuterocanonical books outright from the Methodist article five. Therefore, Methodists have no binding statement as to whether the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament are to be read or not. In practice, however, the deuterocanonical books are excluded from the Methodist lectionary and are almost never used in sermons or other religious instruction.

The Hebrew Bible holds a revered and holy place in Methodist worship. In Methodist congregations where the traditional Methodist order and style of worship are practiced, the worship service is peppered with references, allusions, and quotes from and to the Hebrew Bible. Communal prayers, calls to worship, and many hymns are sourced from the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. A large number of hymns within the United Methodist Hymnal directly quote the Hebrew Bible or allude to biblical characters, stories, or themes. When the lectionary is followed, each Methodist Sunday worship service contains two public readings of the Hebrew Bible; a reading of a Psalm or Proverb and a reading from another less poetical book. In congregations embracing non-traditional modes of worship, the Psalms and other passages from the Hebrew Bible are still the source of many worship songs and extemporaneous prayers.

In addition to its special place in worship, the Hebrew Bible is an authoritative source of doctrine in the United Methodist Church. The Articles – specifically article six – note that the Old Testament does not contradict the New Testament for in both, “everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ.”[8] Further, the Hebrew Bible is viewed through the traditional lens of those things which pertained only to the Israelite state and ritual established by God in the Promised Land and eternal moral teachings. Article six instructs that the moral teachings of the Hebrew Bible are binding; that, “no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”[9] However, at the same time, “the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, ” and should not be used as the basis for any modern governing body. Within the Methodist tradition, the Hebrew Bible is used in sermons, the Christian education of all ages, and is a required element of study for all seeking formal ordained ministry.

I find the Methodist view of the Hebrew Bible to be more flexible and realistic than views coming out of other traditions within the Christian church. Traditionally, Methodists, have taken the sensus plenior of the Hebrew text; applying to the Hebrew Bible that which has been revealed of Christ in the New Testament texts. However, because the English church and thus Methodism’s founders were comfortable with older allegorical methods of interpretation, the leap to modern critical methods was not a huge jump. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, saw the Holy Scriptures as being written by people inspired by the Holy Sprit; God’s intended purpose was impressed upon the authors and editors of the Bible, but men cannot perfectly capture all the language of God. Therefore, to understand the fullness of the text one would – outside of historical, linguistic, or theological knowledge – need the Holy Spirit’s presence as well.

In addition, holding to an infallible rather than inerrant view of the Hebrew Bible means that certain passages can be taken by Methodists as myth or not entirely factual without changing God’s intended purpose through the author(s) or editor(s) of the passage. The Hebrew Bible can remain an authoritative source of God’s revelation without having to match up factually to archeological findings or resolve textual contradictions.

To me, Methodism’s view on the Hebrew Bible is very balanced. The Hebrew Bible is not always to be taken literally, but contains morals and theology relevant for the modern church and the Christian life. Whether Job is an actual person, a prototype, or a character in holy fiction the meaning of the morals and salvific teachings are not affected in Methodism. Whether the Pentateuch was written by Moses or the documentary hypothesis holds true, the moral truths and message of salvation to the Israelites and the nations is still the revealed word of God. Though over two-hundred years old, the teachings set forth in the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church still point towards a balanced, sound, and faithfully true approach to the Hebrew Bible.


[1] The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church [2] Holy Scriptures within the Methodist context means the canonical books of the Protestant Hebrew Bible – i.e. Old Testament – and the Christian New Testament. [3] “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church V-VIII.” [4] Infallible by my and traditional Wesleyan understanding means without error to points of salvation or correct belief. [5] Inerrant, to my understanding, means without any factual error. E.g., if the Bible says Jesus fed 5,000 people, then there were exactly that many present. [6] “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church V-VIII.” [7] “Articles of Religion.” [8] “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church V-VIII.” [9] “The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church V-VIII.”


Works Cited & Referenced

“Articles of Religion (Methodist).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, August 22, 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Articles_of_Religion_(Methodist)&oldid=602881696.

“Articles of Religion.” Accessed September 1, 2014. http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/articles/articles.html.

“Biblical Inerrancy.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, August 29, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Biblical_inerrancy&oldid=622640517.

“Biblical Infallibility.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, August 29, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Biblical_infallibility&oldid=618540932.

Bright, John. The Authority of the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.

Callen, Barry L., and Richard P. Thompson, eds. Reading the Bible in Wesleyan Ways: Some Constructive Proposals. Kansas City, Mo: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2004.

“Five solae.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, August 29, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Five_solae&oldid=623294969.

“Section 3 - Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules.” Accessed September 1, 2014. http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1648.

“The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church V-VIII.” Accessed September 1, 2014. http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=1649.

“Thirty-Nine Articles.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, August 27, 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thirty-Nine_Articles&oldid=623004736.