For John Wesley, Scripture was the unique and primary authority for theology. He would appeal to it again and again, and—often drawing on the “primitive church,” Anglican sources, and Christian experience—would argue for his interpretation over and against competing ones.
What is sometimes missed is how Wesley understood theology. For Wesley, theology is “practical divinity.” Its purpose is to show us the way of salvation, how to be a holy people, and how to participate in God’s mission in the world (which for Wesley was centered in spreading scriptural holiness). In other words, theology is like a map that points us to God and to the promises of God. We would not mistake a map for the territory it depicts. At the same time, we need a good map if we are to travel through that territory with confidence.
For Wesley, Christianity, understood as a “system of doctrine,” is just such a map. It first describes the character of a Christian “in all its parts, and that in the most lively and affective manner. The main lines of this picture are beautifully drawn in many passages of the OT. These are filled up in the New, retouched and finished with all the art of God.” Theology, then, “promises this character shall be mine if I not rest till I attain it. This is promised both in the Old Testament and the New. Indeed, the New is, in effect, all a promise….” Finally, theology “tells me… how I may attain the promise, namely, by faith” (“A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity,” §II.1-5).
The character that this practical divinity describes is love, “the love of God and all [hu]mankind; the loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made…as our own soul” (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” §2). Practical divinity, so understood, is an indispensible aid to proclamation, teaching, and mission, as well as Christian life and community.
But Scripture itself is more than the primary authority for theology as practical divinity. It is at the same time a central means of grace, taking its place in organic relationship with other “works of piety” such as prayer, the Lord’s Supper, Christian conferencing, fasting, and a wide range of “works of mercy” to the neighbor. “Searching the Scriptures” is a practice that, as we do it, the Holy Spirit acts upon our lives with transforming power. Commenting on Col 3:16 (“let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom”), Wesley understands Paul to refer to the entirety of Scripture. For Paul, this constituted the Hebrew Scriptures, while for us it includes both testaments. Scripture, Wesley insists, is to dwell in us; Scripture is to “not make a short stay, or an occasional visit, but to take up its stated residence.” Moreover, Scripture is to dwell richly, “in the largest measure, and with the greatest efficacy, so as to fill and govern the whole soul” (Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament [Epworth, 1950]).
Scripture understood in this way is not simply subject to our interpretation, however much that is done with prayerful and scholarly integrity. Ultimately, it is not a book we analyze, but a word we hear. Indeed, as we open ourselves to its voice, spoken by the Holy Spirit, and attend to the story of God it tells, we find that we are the ones who are being analyzed, along with the church, and our world. However, we are not only analyzed but given the promise of new life. Indeed, as we “search the Scriptures,” we actually begin to receive the life of love the Scriptures promise.