Misplacing Romans: John Wesley and Hermeneutics

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In the thick of theological controversies and church conflicts I often think: It’s all about hermeneutics! Battles most often boil down to this question: How do we interpret the Bible?

Even (maybe especially) among Christians who emphasize the full authority of Scripture, different assumptions about how to interpret God’s written Word play a huge part.

One of the most insidious tendencies is to see all of Scripture through the lens of Romans. This bias goes way back in history. Romans’ priority is simply assumed, often unconsciously—especially in discussions about the meaning and nature of salvation.

I challenge that assumption, this misplacing of Romans. Remember three things: First, major sectors of the church through history have not assumed this. Second, in our day some traditions would see other parts of Scripture, or the patristic “rule of faith,” as the Bible’s hermeneutical key. Third and most important: Making Romans the Bible’s hermeneutical key is itself a hermeneutical error.

Romans: Key to Scripture?

J. I. Packer makes a strong case for prioritizing Romans in his classic study Knowing God (1973). He writes:

Paul’s letter to Rome is the high peak of Scripture, however you look at it. Luther called it “the clearest gospel of all.” “If a man understands it,” wrote Calvin, “he has a sure road opened for him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.” Tyndale, in his Preface to Romans, linked both thoughts, calling Romans “the principal and most excellent part of the New Testament, and most pure Euangelion, that is to say glad tidings and that we call gospel, and also a light and way in unto the whole Scripture.” All roads in the Bible lead to Romans, and all views afforded the Bible are seen most clearly from Romans, and when the message of Romans get into a man’s heart there is no telling what may happen.

What do you look for in the Bible? The wise man has his eye open for several things, and Romans is supreme on them all (p. 230).

I question this hermeneutical assumption hermeneutically. It is deductive rather than inductive. That is, it starts with an a priori assumption that Romans is the key and proceeds from there. The hermeneutically sound way would be to raise the claim of the priority of Romans as itself a hermeneutical question (which I am in fact doing here). How can it be justified biblically, according to sound hermeneutical principles?

This misplacing of Romans is in fact hermeneutically indefensible. Nowhere does the Bible itself even hint that Romans, or Paul, should be taken as the key to Scripture.

It may be true, as Packer says, that “the wise man has his eye open for several things” when he (and wise women) approach Scripture. But the wiser person will have his or her eyes open to everything the Bible presents us with, not just what we have a priori decided we should look for (which tends to be based largely on our particular theological tradition).

The two metaphors Packer uses in the paragraphs quoted above are telling: “high peak” and “all roads in the Bible lead to Romans.” There are many “high peaks” in Scripture, and it is not clear that Romans necessarily tops them all. Anyhow we should pay attention also to valleys, rivers, oceans, and deserts. In other words, in terms of the Bible’s sixty-six books, there is no solid reason for putting Romans atop the highest mountain.

Better to shift metaphors. The Bible is more like the complex construction of the brain, with its billions of neurons and connectors, than like the geography of mountains, with peaks and valleys.

“All roads lead to Romans”? Not really. The Bible is a complex landscape with many roads, paths, trails, byways, and a few tunnels. We don’t know the Bible until we understand this. The more we do, the more we will see that all roads in the Bible lead to Jesus Christ, and the road he walked. Prioritizing Romans runs the danger of prioritizing Paul over Jesus; the epistles over the gospels; dogmatics over the very person of Jesus Christ and of the church as his body.

Should we decide to use metaphors to buttress hermeneutical assumptions, we should at least use the whole ecology of the wealth of metaphors in Scripture.

The Apostle Peter actually flashes a red flag here. Certainly Paul received “wisdom” from God, but there are things in his letters which are “hard to understand,” and easily liable to misinterpretation (2 Pt. 2:15-16). Meaning: Be sure to interpret Paul in light of other Scriptures and the consensual teaching of the church.

I have quoted Packer because of his forthright clarity. But in fact he embodies a nearly dominant tradition within Protestantism.

On the Other Hand: John Wesley

There are many responses within orthodox Christianity to this “hermeneutical inversion” that misprioritizes Romans. The prophetic Anabaptist tradition, often denounced as (at least) near-heretical by some Reformed theology, is an important example, for it raises sharply the question: Should not the gospels have priority over Romans?

The standard Reformed response: But Romans is doctrine in ways that the gospels are not, so we understand the gospels aright only through Paul. This line of argument involves a fallacious either/or, which I pass over for now. We could also consider Pentecostal hermeneutics, though of course that is equally suspect from a narrowly Reformed view.

So let us look briefly at John Wesley. Wesley made extensive use of Romans, but did not practice the “hermeneutical inversion” discussed above. He was on much sounder ground in three respects.

First, Wesley insisted on building theology and discipleship on the whole Bible. This is seen perhaps most clearly in his sermons, but is evident generally in his writings.

Second, by employing the “rule of faith” (or “analogy of faith”), Wesley used the central biblical narrative of the history of salvation, centering and culminating in Jesus Christ, as the Bible’s hermeneutical key. Here he keeps good company with the most insightful Patristic writers.

Third, and within these commitments, Wesley prioritized 1 John as the key to understanding the meaning of salvation.

Rob Wall has an excellent discussion of this in his essay “Wesley as Biblical Interpreter,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley (2010). Wall writes, “Although the entire Bible has authority for Wesley, one part of this biblical whole held extra special resonance for him—the first epistle of John. This epistle was his canon within canon” (p. 117). Wall explores the evidence for this in an extended discussion of Wesley’s use of 1 John (pp. 118-22).

Late in life Wesley wrote, “If the preacher would imitate any part of the oracles of God above all the rest, let it be the first epistle of John” (Wesley, Works [Abingdon Ed.], 2:357). Wesley saw 1 John as “the deepest part of Holy Scripture” and in fact as “that compendium of all the Holy Scriptures” (Works, 22:13, 352).

Within 1 John, Wesley zeroes in especially on 4:19, “We love him, because he first loved us.” Wesley says in his Explanatory Notes, “This is the sum of all religion, the genuine model of Christianity. None can say more: why should any one say less, or less intelligibly?”

Wesley makes an interesting historical-theological move. He says the Apostle John was “the last of the inspired writers” and presents the Bible’s central message “in the clearest manner” (Works, 2:116). This move combines apostolic authority with a sense of progressive revelation. Why prioritize John? Because he lived longest, knew Jesus best, and wrote with profound simplicity, Wesley implies. So the writings of John, and supremely 1 John, are the biblical capstone. Among other reasons, Wesley’s hermeneutical move here is significant because he grounds biblical theology in experience as well as reason and tradition.

Much more could be said, but my main point is simply to challenge and help undermine the misplacing of Romans as the key and capstone of the Bible.

Hermeneutical Models & Metaphors

Romans should not be seen as the key to all Scripture. Many of the church’s problems trace to this mis-prioritizing of Romans, this myopia. The glorious promise of creation liberated in Romans 8 gets misconstrued because it is severed from the larger biblical story of God’s plan for the whole earth. The result is a diminished view of salvation—thus even of God’s glory!

This misplacing of Romans is one reason (among several) why so much of the church has taught a diminished and overly spiritualized message of salvation—one that actually violates the full promise of God in Scripture and in Jesus’ incarnation, life, and resurrection.

We might ask, not irreverently: Does Romans teach anything that is not taught elsewhere in Scripture? Probably not. But Romans brings key biblical themes together and makes connections in especially powerful ways.

Romans is of course a great highpoint of Scripture. We would be much poorer without it. But we cannot understand Romans aright without Hebrews, 1 John, Revelation, James, Isaiah, Daniel, Genesis, Job—and above all, the Gospels.

It is the whole, not the parts, that is the hermeneutical key to Scripture. And how Romans shines when seen in the Bible’s full light! We see how Romans both reflects and in some areas clarifies Old Testament revelation. We see that Paul is operating out of the Old Testament-shaped Hebrew worldview, rather than Greek philosophical categories (as many seem unconsciously to assume). Paul knew Greek and Roman philosophy and worldviews, but he also knew how to correct them. This is one of the big things Romans in fact accomplishes.

Packer states, in the quotation above: “when the message of Romans get into a man’s heart there is no telling what may happen.” Yes, indeed! Especially when Romans is interpreted inductively, in the full light of biblical narrative and ecology.

Visiting Director, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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