Last week I was assisting Howard Snyder as he taught the class “John Wesley and the Mission of God” at Tyndale Seminary. Towards the end of the class I asked the students about their general impressions of Wesley’s sermons. One of the first comments was that Wesley doesn’t really do “exegesis” of a text. Rather, he usually takes a single verse as his starting point and then expounds upon a theme. His sermons are, in a sense, more “topical” than “exegetical.”
Personally, I’m quite wary of topical preaching. Typically it means that the preacher begins with a topic, knowing what they want to say, and then goes to the Bible to find a verse or passage that supports their preconceived idea. Scripture then becomes (in the worst case scenario) a prop to support the preacher’s ideas. The better way, then, is to begin with a passage of scripture and a blank sheet of paper – no preconceived agenda, other than allowing the text to speak to the particular context in which you are preaching.
Having said that, it would be wrong to dismiss Wesley’s sermons as examples of “topical” preaching. Although his preaching is not exegetical in the contemporary sense of the term, I would argue that his sermons are thoroughly biblical, in that they arise out of Wesley’s consistent theological interpretation of scripture.
This point is underscored by an excellent essay, “Wesley as Biblical Interpreter,” by Robert Wall, which is included in the recent Cambridge Companion to John Wesley. Though, as Wall indicates, Wesley is sometimes misread by some as an uncritical biblicist, a closer reading reveals that he can be seen as “an exemplar of theological interpretation of the Bible.”
Wesley had a keen sense of the overall shape of the Biblical narrative, centred on the saving message of salvation by faith, and read through the Epistle of 1 John as the simplest and most sublime statement of the gospel. While it might seem arbitrary for Wesley to give 1 John primacy of place, his logic was that the Apostle John lived the longest, and his writings were the last, and therefore, the most advanced witnesses to Christ.
Consider this quote from Wesley’s Journal, July 18, 1765:
In the evening I began expounding the deepest part of the holy Scripture, namely, the first Epistle of St. John, by which, above all other, even inspired writings, I advise every young Preacher to form his style. Here are sublimity and simplicity together, the strongest sense and the plainest language! How can any one that would “speak as the oracles of God,” use harder words than are found here?
The reality is that every interpreter makes these kinds of choices, but most protestants read the Biblical canon through Pauline eyes, rather than Johannine (which is generally seen as the Eastern preference). Not that Wesley spent all his time in 1 John. His sermons are peppered with scriptural quotations and allusions which range throughout the biblical canon. But 1 John served as a kind of hermeneutical key for Wesley. As Wall summarizes:
Whereas Wesley’s extensive use of biblical citations and allusions in his sermons instantiate an interest in letting each part of Scripture engage the whole – obscure texts illuminated by more lucid ones – his final court of appeal is 1 John. (“Wesley as Bibilcal Interpreter,” p. 117-118).
Wall also goes on to list ten “interpretive practices” in which Wesley engaged as a biblical interpreter (his headings, my summaries in brackets):
- The intuited text (role of the HS)
- The naked text (use of critical tools to understand the literal sense)
- The canonical text (sense of the way the whole of scripture fits together)
- The community’s text (reading scripture in the church, alongside other interpreters)
- The salvific text (reading scripture “for salvation”)
- The ruled text (use of the “analogy of faith” – the non-negotiable core of Christian faith – as a rule for interpreting each part)
- The preached text (translating the text to the immediate context)
- The responsive text (interpreting scripture so as to be changed by it)
- The performed text (relating scripture to Christian experience)
- The sacramental text (using scripture as means of grace for the community)
These practices, so helpfully illuminated by Wall, give us a rich picture of Wesley as a nuanced interpreter, who was well attuned to important theological and pastoral issues as he read scripture – a far cry from an uncritical biblicist!
The essay is well worth reading if you are a student of Wesley.