John Wesley and the Bible

January 28th, 2011 / 34 Comments

It makes sense to ask a world-class John Wesley expert to give a keynote address at an event exploring a Wesleyan approach to the Bible. Here’s a sneak preview of Randy Maddox’s thoughts on Wesley and Scripture. He presents more at The Bible Tells Me So conference.


One Wesley quotation many people know is his claim to be a man of one book. “Let me be homo unius libri,” says Wesley, with Latin flare.

But Wesley was far from being concerned with literally only one book. He read widely and required his ministers to read many other books. Maddox notes that Wesley scolded his ministers who claimed to read only the Bible as exhibiting “rank enthusiasm.” That’s like calling someone today a raving religious lunatic!

By homo unius libri, says Maddox, Wesley meant he regards no book comparatively but the Bible. Scripture is the first book of importance, but not the only important book.

Maddox notes that Wesley drew upon other sources, including scholarly tools, when reading the Bible. He appreciated textual criticism, says Maddox, but was less warm to historical criticism.


When it comes to the question of biblical errors, some will quote Wesley’s letter to William Law (see correction to this attribution in blog comment below). “If there be one falsehood in the Bible,” writes Wesley, “there may be a thousand; neither can it proceed from the God of truth.”

Maddox notes, however, that Wesley never used the phrase “biblical inerrancy” nor embraced its modern understanding. Modern biblical inerrancy, says Maddox, “insists that the Bible is accurate in every detail, including historical allusions and descriptions on the natural world.” Wesley wasn’t concerned with this, and occasionally he notes apparent discrepancies in the biblical text.

Wesley’s comments about the trustworthiness of the Bible focus on what calls the “rule of Christian faith and practice.” Wesley followed 2 Timothy 3:16–17, says Maddox, in which “inspiration of Scripture is related to its usefulness for instructing in Christian belief and training in lives of righteousness.”


In one of my favorite parts of Maddox’s conference keynote text, Randy writes the following:

“Wesley’s descendants may want to … suggest that his conviction about how God works in salvation—by undergirding and assisting our will, but not overriding our liberty—has broader implications than he realized. Applied to God’s agency in inspiring the human authors of Scripture, this conviction would allow one to take with utmost seriousness the cultural specificity of the various books in the Bible that modern scholarship makes evident, while still affirming a robust sense of the authority of Scripture as the “book of God.”

I am a descendent of Wesley who advocates precisely what Maddox says. That is, I think we should take as central Wesley’s insight that God assists but does not override the freedom God gives creatures.

Placing this insight at the heart of our understanding of God helps us solve a host of theological problems related to evil, science, and the inspiration and interpretation of the Bible. With regard to the Bible, it suggests that free human authors of Scripture can make errors or have misunderstandings that do not affect the main message in the biblical text.


Maddox notes that Wesley affirmed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit both to the authors of the Bible and to present-day readers. “We need the same Spirit to understand the Scripture,” says Wesley, “which enabled the holy men of old to write it.”

Maddox says Wesley’s deepest concern was personal embrace of the saving truth in Scripture. Even “the devils” believe the Bible, says Wesley, but they do not embrace its saving truth for themselves.

Wesley believes we need to read the Bible “in conference” with others. Some people are simply more mature, and we can benefit from their insights if we listen in community. Meeting in groups to study the Bible is important for forming people and helping to identify the Bible’s central purposes.

Wesley recognized the limits of all human understanding. Even spiritually mature persons see through a glass darkly when interpreting the Bible. Wesley writes:

“Although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true, is the same thing as not to hold it); yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true.”

Part of interpreting the Bible well, says Maddox, involves “not limiting our dialogue partners to those who are most like us, or those with whom we already agree.” Those who see things differently than we do might identify places where our understanding of something in Scripture might be wrong.


Maddox identifies a number of other sources Christians should consult when reading the Bible. Wesley valued the writings and biblical interpretations of those who had come before him in the Christian tradition.

Wesley appealed to what he called “the Rule of Faith” as a tool for interpreting the Bible. The rule of faith identifies the central and unifying themes in the Bible. Difficult, ambiguous, or obscure passages should be interpreted in light of Scripture’s central themes.

Wesley also thought God’s revelation in the natural world could help us interpret the Bible’s special revelation. “And when Wesley confronted an apparent conflict between current science and Scripture,” says Maddox, “he sought an understanding that did justice to both.”


Perhaps Wesley’s most distinctive way of reading the Bible pertains to the lens of love he used to interpret it. Wesley recognized that Christians regard some interpretive lenses as better than others. He writes:

“We know, ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,’ and is therefore true and right concerning all things. But we know likewise that there are some Scriptures which more immediately commend themselves to every [person’s] conscience.”

Wesley prized the theology of 1 John above all others. Maddox notes that Wesley “used 1 John for his sermon text much more frequently (comparative to the number of verses in the book) than any other biblical book.”

Wesley said 1 John 4:19 — “We love [God] because he first loved us” — is “the sum of the whole gospel.” The book stresses clearly God’s goal to transform us so that we might love both God and neighbor and live lives free from the tyranny of sin.

Maddox summarizes:

“Wesley increasingly and self-consciously read the whole of the Bible in light of a deep conviction that God was present in the assuring work of the Spirit both to pardon and to transform all who respond to that inviting and empowering love (and all can respond!). This conviction was not something that Wesley thought he was imposing on Scripture. He was convinced that it was the most central and clear message of Scripture—as seen particularly in 1 John and related texts. At the heart of reading the Bible in “Wesleyan” ways today would be embracing Wesley’s central interpretive lens, even as one continues to test and refine it by ongoing conference with the whole of Scripture and the range of other readers.”


I hope you see from this material why I am so excited to have Randy Maddox give this conference address.

I’m also excited that Randy’s lecture will be one chapter among others in The Bible Tells Me So book. This book arises from the conference, and I am co-editing it with Richard Thompson.

For those who have not yet registered for the conference, you can still do so. But for those who cannot attend, I invite you to watch the free online simulcast of The Bible Tells Me So. A link to that simulcast will be placed on the NNU homepage on the first day of the conference, Feb. 10.

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Jeff Clarke

Great article, Tom.

John Wesley had a number of very important insights into viewing, interpreting, understanding and applying Scripture that I value greatly today. Reading the Bible through a lens of love is significant. Also, seeing the Bible for what it was meant for, as a document that is ‘useful for instruction’, is refreshing. It removes the need for a perfect text so many strive to attain through variations of an inerrancy doctrine.

Thanks for sharing.

John Grant

Thanks for this article, Dr. Oord.  It is very insightful and helpful.  Looking forward to the conference.

Todd Holden


You sure know how to make us all salivate for this conference! I am having my patience dearly tried by waiting for this conference. I am over the top excited about the conference and just being with all of my brothers and sisters there!

Also, I think we all want to know when the book, “The Bible Tells Me So” is being published!

Thomas Jay Oord

Todd—Look for the book to be out near the end of the summer.

Jon Privett

In a time where there is a polarity between those who believe “The Bible tells me everything” (absolute inerrancy) and those who believe Jesus loves them because “The Bible tells me so”(soteriological inerrancy), I am glad to hear the emphasis on Wesley’s reading of the Bible as love.

Maybe, unless we kill each other on the Internet or in the foyer or create splinter churches, we can live with each other because the Spirit that enables us to live out the Gospel of Love instead of feasting on each other with literalistic fervor.

And maybe we can quote Wesley while loving those who misuse the quotes (as if they wrote them) or quote another theological tradition.

I am sure glad Jesus loves me either though I can not know or love Jesus inerrantly. May we do as much for others.

John W. Dally

Years ago I came across this quote from Brevard Childs.

“The biblical exegete is forced to hear testimony from inside and outside the community of faith because he lives in both worlds. He dare not destroy the canonical witness by forcing it into the mold of the ‘old age.’ Nor dare he construct out of the canonical witness a world of myth safely relegated to the distant past. Rather, he confesses his participation in the community of faith by ‘searching the scriptures.’ He seeks to share the bread of life with the church through the testimony of scripture. He remains open in anticipation to those moments when the Spirit of God resolves the tension and bridges the gap between faith and history.”

Brevard S. Childs
The Old Testament as Scripture

I have given a copy of it to every student I had in the hopes that they would see the balance between Scriptures and the world we live in and how to work within them both. It hung as a plaque over my desk as I prepared my weekly sermons for over eighteen years.

Douglas Perkins

Thomas, Thank you for this synopsis.  Will the full text of Randy Maddox’s keynote address be published?

Thomas Jay Oord


Randy’s essay will be included in a book to be published after the conference. The book’s title comes from the conference title: “The Bible Tells Me So.” Richard Thompson and I are editing it.  Look for it in late summer or fall.


Richard Benner

Reading the comments about scripture and issues such as inerrancy, I am struck by the thought that none of the New Testament writers set about to write “sacred” texts.  They wrote what we now call “histories” of the life of Jesus and the early church and letters to various people on various topics.  In some ways, these were very ordinary, everyday writings with no thought of creating “holy writ.”  It would be a surprise to them to find that over the centuries, their “common” activity would take on such “sacred” meaning that people would kill others and die over their writings.  Yes, Jesus loves me, for the bible tells me so, but it would still be true without having to invest so much sacredness onto the series of personal writings of early Christians.  Much of the debates on topics such as inerrancy, remind me of “angels on the head of a pin” debates of earlier eras.  These debates have almost no relevance to the mass of people I encounter and to the realities of their daily lives.  They are, however, good sport!!
Blessings and gratitude in all things.

Tabitha McLaren

“By homo unius libri, says Maddox, Wesley meant he regards no book comparatively but the Bible. Scripture is the first book of importance, but not the only important book.”

I love John Wesley. There is a point in ones life where only reading the Bible is no longer enough. While I do hold that the Bible is the most authoritative book in the world it is not the only book. The Bible is rich in meaning and language but is also thousands of years old. If we only used the Bible to get by then we cannot know how to apply it to us today. The Bible was written for a culture then and in some ways now. In order to understand how it can apply to now we have to think out side the book.


The quote about there being no errors in the bible was not in a letter to William Law, it’s from a quote in his journal about a book he read by Soame Jenyns called, “View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion.”

Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks for the correction, Elijah.


For someone to say that just because Wesley didn’t use the word “inerrant” he didn’t believe in inerrancy is ludicrous.  Don’t be so sure in saying that others are the ones misusing Wesley’s quotes.

“Nay, will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture, shake the authority of the whole?” (Works, Jackson ed., 9:150).

“The faith of the Protestants, in general, embraces only those truths, as necessary to salvation, which are clearly revealed in the oracles of God. Whatever is plainly declared in the Old and New Testaments is the object of their faith. They believe neither more nor less than what is manifestly contained in, and provable by, the Holy Scriptures…. The written Word is the whole and sole rule of their faith, as well as practice. They believe whatsoever God has declared, and profess to do whatsoever He hath commanded. This is the proper faith of Protestants: by this they will abide, and no other.” [John Wesley, “On Faith,” Sermon #106, I.8].

“The general rule of interpreting Scripture is this: the literal sense of every text is to be taken, if it be not contrary to some other texts. But in that case, the obscure text is to be interpreted by those which speak more plainly”(Letter to Samuel Furly, 10 May, 1755).

“Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it. You are in danger of [fanaticism] every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture; yea, or from the plain, literal meaning of an text, taken in connection with the context.” (Works, 11:429).

James Hardy

As someone who believes in humanity’s free will, I was really encouraged by the section “Free Will and the Bible.”  The idea of God assisting human writers, rather than forcing them to write says to me that God cares deeply for creation—so much so that God would venture to reveal God’s self to humans—yet God will not override a human’s ability to act on his/her own.  That implies that God takes humans and their wishes as seriously as God takes God’s own desire to love—a balance that must be extremely difficult for God to maintain!

Mark Fonner

The more I read of Wesley and his view of inerrancy, the more I see a view to revise what Wesley wrote but more importantly what he believed. Wesley clearly believed in the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures. Yet, your view point is consistent with the rest of the view of the emergent church movement.

Clearly this article falls short of Wesley’s belief and is designed to fit in to a specific view point. Pull the cornerstone away from a building, it will fall. This is no less what is happening here to the Scriptures.

Frankly, I am very disappointed in this.

Lisah Malika

From all that I read, I would have to say that what stuck out to me was the advise given about being in constant dialogue with other individuals.I used to say that at the end of the day what matter is an individuals personal relationship with Christ. While I still believe that that is an important aspect in our daily lives, I have come to acknowledge and understand the importance of community. Another valuable statement I retrieved from the article is that while it is important to be in community, it is even more critical to be in dialogue with those who do not think like us. When we reach out to individuals who have different perspectives than we do, we are challenged and are able to grow deeper in our faith. If we simply associate with those who are like-minded, then will we ever be challenged in our faith? Perhaps that idea is scary because it may just change our beliefs on some of the things we hold so dear.

Angela Monroe

I think it is interesting that Wesley was so adamant about being a man of one book, yet knew that it was not the only book he should read. I think far too often this is misinterpreted and other Biblical writings are pushed off as unimportant. It is good to know that Wesley himself did not believe he could interpret the Bible on his own. He knew he needed the help of scholars and the communities around him.

I would be interested to learn more about his quote about the inerrancy of the Bible. I would like to compare it to other things he said in order to get a good idea of what he thought about the Bible’s authority and interpretations. I do agree with Wesley that we need the Spirit in our interpretations, and I am glad that was mentioned in this article.

Oscar D.

I really enjoyed this article. One thing that stood out was the section about reading the Bible as a community. I believe this is vital for the growth of a Christian. Being able to read, interpret and live the Bible out in a community enables people whom have experienced God in different ways to speak into a text and witness a different view of God that we cannot fully understand if we had not engaged with others in the first place. We are limited in our thinking, we can only understand so much, reading in a community, creates space for knowledge to compliment each other.

Derek Hunt

The entire section about “Helps for Understanding the Bible” was very out of place for me. Out of place only because I was not expecting to read about a historical highly influential Christian scholar who made continuous efforts to understand the world he lived in. To me, Wesley’s approach to seeking further explanation outside of scripture shows his true passion for seeking God’s truth here on Earth. In particular, his efforts to understand the conflict between modern sciences and Scripture and possible truths they may share exhibits a freedom found in a fearless faith. The revelation of God both in the natural world and in the Bible helped me to begin to understand how powerful it must have been to hear him speak, and why he is such an influential Nazarene figure.

Valerie Wigg

I particularly found interest in the part of this post that talked about reading the Bible not only with people who believe the same things or might agree with us on issues of the Bible. It is important to gain insight from several perspectives rather than reading it from a single lens of either legalism, tradition, etc. When we can dialogue with those different from ourselves, that is when we begin to become mature students of the Bible. On another note, I believe it is so, so important that we read the Bible from a lens of love as Wesley, Maddox, and Oord address. Without this lens of love, many have misinterpreted biblical passages and others have been harmed for it. This is simply unacceptable and can be overcome with a lens of love.

In regards to Wesley’s quote about falsehoods in the Bible, I am curious as to what he meant. We could assume that he wasn’t referring to “biblical inerrancy” but what if he was? And if so, how would that change the theology of the Bible that Wesleyans have today?

Nick McCall

I too think, along with John Wesley, that the Bible should be read in community. We are all so easily influenced by things that are happening around us and we allow those things to influence the way that we read and interpret scripture. When studying scripture, people who think different than I do are my best friends, because they are able to show me something that I had not thought of because of my own presuppositions when coming to the text. As mentioned in the article, there are some subtle discrepancies in scripture, but the Bible is true with all matters pertaining to salvation.
In the section on free will, I also affirm the idea that God does assist but never overrides in ones life. This is also true with the writings of scripture. We have errors in translation of scripture because God allowed for it to happen by not overriding peoples freedom to write and translate scripture.

James Shepherd

This is an interesting article. I say this because I was expecting this article to focus solely around Wesley being a man of one book, which as we know he was not. This article sheds light on the fact that we cannot fully live into this world if we are not engaging with the world. This goes along with what Wesley said about a person who only reads the Bible, that they are “rank enthusiasm.”  If we truly desire to make a difference in the world as leaders of the Church we need to be willing to see what is out there. This way we can be well equipped. Along with this, we should do all of this in context of community. This community will act as our balance system; meaning we will then be able to know when we have had too much of either side. From this we can conclude that we should always read scripture in the context of community.

Thomas Tilford

Good Article Dr. Oord,

I think Maddox’s work in particular in a helpful way to understand Wesley and how in worked with scripture. They are definitely some pit falls to be considered (inerrancy etc.) in the way we think about scripture and even today I think Wesley thoughts can help guide some thoughts.

Rachel Ball

I found this article to be very interesting in a few different ways. First of all, I would like to address the thought behind Wesley being open too more than one book (other than the Bible). I, myself am experiencing new writings quite often that carry an immense amount of weight for me. I don’t mean to uphold them to the level of the Bible, however they have value. Take Pastor Saeed Abedini’s letter from prison, for example. It has been compared tot he writings of Paul and is entirely relevant to today. (I strongly suggest you check it out if you haven’t!)

Kristina Wineman

I completely agree that the Bible should be read in community and even interpreted in the community. My question, though, is this: What if a man lived in the mountains and had no ability to be in community with someone else to interpret the scriptures? What then? Is his scripture reading less valuable? Does he miss something significant; like salvation?

Kaitlyn Haley

I found it most energizing to think of the bible as our book and every other thing we read as supplemental material. This other material can be recognized as containing truth and yet the reason we seek after truth is in order to better understand God and God’s world. Because scripture is one of the primary ways we can know God, by extension, other material and disciplines can help us better understand scripture. This creates for me a beautiful picture of what learning and searching for truth ought to look like.

Ryan O’Neill

I was most intrigued about the section on free will and the Bible, mostly because it is something I have thought a lot about in the past. I liked how there was a point brought up about the authors of scripture and how free will was incorporated within their writings, and how the general thought was yes, they do have free will, but this did not necessarily alter any sort of authority or biblical truth that the Bible had. The reason i have thought about this is simply the fact that with free will comes sin, and that’s a human condition. So it only makes sense that it’s entirely possible the author could have messed up in the writings, unless supremely swayed by divine direction.

Amina Chinnell-Mateen

I loved this article! Mostly for the fact it gets you thinking outside the terms and restraints of the Word and makes you go to other sources. The Bible is wonderful but when we can cross reference that to other sources of scholarly significant it’s even better. I believe as Christians we are meant to dialogue with one another, and the way you suggest that is through community. And that is a wonderful thing. Community brings about conversation and ideas that allow us to develop a better understanding. Although the Bible has some differences let us focus on what really matters which is context, and now it pertains to our salvation.

Andy Zane

What then, if not descended directly from heaven, gives the Bible value? Why do we hold it in such high regard? As Wesley noted, the Bible is not the only important book. Other men in recent centuries have written libraries of spirit-inspired work! These undoubtedly contain human error, like the Bible. So why do we place such value on this canon?
First and foremost, the Bible is incredibly unique in that it provides the first-hand account of the incarnate Son of God. Through Christ, we see the Father most clearly. Additionally, it is THE story of our redemption; the entire canon points to Christ as the most full revelation of the Father and the image we, as the body, ought to pursue.

Daniel Parker

Since Wesley’s central focus of interpreting the Bible was all about love, I wonder how that would affect his thoughts about how some people understand biblical inerrancy today? Just as well I think that in answer to my posed question that I think that he would agree with the understanding that scripture was symbiotically written.

d brown

The posts by Annette and Mark were refreshing in this thread of ‘Post-Wesleyan’ conformity. Also, the silence towards their points is eye-opening. I experienced the same spirit of ‘censorship by silence’ while attending a Wesleyan college. Is this the path towards true knowledge and understanding? Is it in the spirit of love (which we are so quick to quote Wesley on) that we ignore those we oppose? It certainly wasn’t the method Wesley chose regarding his disagreement with his life time friend Whitefield.

Kelli R Mize

Rather simply stated, what John Wesley meant by what he wrote was exactly what he wrote. By negating sermon after sermon with tricks of synonyms that can be askewed, like “inspired”, is to remove methodism from Methodists, which I , a Methodist, sadly am finding to be the case. John Wesley believed that if a dichotomy was found between scripture and man’s knowledge, then it should be approached with the attitude of the authority of scripture. He believed in seeking wisdom and knowledge and accepting scripture as perfect. (“Free Grace”, volume I, page 488) Contextually, historically, and literally, he taught that we should study scripture and if there is an understanding, or lack thereof, that would negate the authortity of scripture, one should first examine his heart, then examine the interpretation of scripture and its contextual meaning . If no reconciliation is found, then, again, the authority belongs with scripture. Many have tried to paste non historical and out-of-contextual misunderstandings of scripture as the “inerrantists” beliefs and folly, but this is just trickery and straw-man tactics, which leads me to ponder why deceit is needed to support this lower veiw of God’s word. There is no need for a new interpretation of what John Wesley meant by what he wrote and how his words could be tweaked so that they reflect what we would rather hear them say to us today. I think his words are quite timeless and speak for themselves. I think they still say exactly what they then said and it is also true that though times change, the heart of man remains the same.

Dr Steve H Hakes

I would think it better to render 1 Jhn.4:19 as open (NU), not closed (TR). Thus a general “we love” (NIV/ESV, et al), without specifying the object. True, we could neither love God nor our neighbor unless God loved us, but since he does we can love both, and as your article rightly notes, and which an open reading more easily suggests.

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