What is a Wesleyan Hermeneutic?



I just returned from the symposium on a Wesleyan Hermeneutic sponsored by the General Superintendents of The Wesleyan Church. So I have been thinking of hermeneutics since coming home yesterday. The papers were excellent and the discussion provocative, but I’ve been going down a different path from many of the presentations, a more practical path. Which brings me to a quote from management guru Tom Peters.


Tom Peters once quipped that the real mission of any entity is usually not found in what is stated on paper but is actually “that mission statement that accounts for the collective behavior of the organization.”  Peters recognized that a mission statement is often more a statement of hope than a reflection of reality—it is often what should be, not what we are.  He suggested the shock therapy of listing all of the normal behavior of people then writing a mission statement that accurately accounts for that behavior.  In applying his shock therapy to the university he said the functioning mission of a university was actually, “to provide comfortable and fulfilling jobs for the staff and professors” since that was the only mission statement that would accurately account for the collective behavior of most universities.   Of course nobody in the university would admit this, but Peters argued this was the only statement that accounted for the collective behavior so it was indeed the functioning mission statement. Of course his therapy was supposed to nudge everyone to confess that they needed to change behavior not just write nice mission statements. 


When I heard Peters make this remark several decades ago I immediately thought of the church.  If we tallied up all the behavior of pastors and laity in any one church, what mission statement would account for it? It was a delicious mind game and I‘ve actually done it several times with church boards since. It is indeed shock therapy as Peters promised, and it is a wonderful exercise for church leaders—or for a University of church headquarters.


So what does all this have to do with a Wesleyan hermeneutic?  A lot.  This week we had some scholars who wanted to define a Wesleyan hermeneutic as the hermeneutic of Wesley—the way John Wesley interpreted and applied the Bible in the 1700’s. That didn’t satisfy me completely for that would be John Wesley’s hermeneutic, not necessarily a Wesleyan hermeneutic. Others leaned toward defining a Wesleyan hermeneutic as the way the 19th century holiness people used the Bible: with a “holiness hermeneutic” basing what they found in the Bible on their own experience of entire sanctification. That’s closer, but it still fell short for me because I remembered Tom Peters quote from 20 years ago.  I want to try Peters’ shock therapy on the Wesleyan hermeneutic.


Thus, since yesterday I’ve been asking myself: What hermeneutic would account for the collective interpretation and application of the Bible among Wesleyans?  That would be the functional Wesleyan hermeneutic. It might be right or wrong, it might be near or far from John Wesley or Daniel Steele but it would accurately describe our functioning hermeneutic. So I’ve been recollecting the last 50 years—since the 1960’s What hermeneutic would account for our decisions since the 1960’s?


So I’m making a list of some of the decisions we’ve made. I’m trying to figure out what hermeneutic would account for how we decided things like,


I know, I know, these are “marginal issues” to some but these issues raised plenty of heat at the time. They were the “hot issues” where we tried to claim the Bible spoke…or didn’t speak, or no longer applied like it used to. I’m trying to recollect exactly how Wesleyans went about making these decisions.  Did we gather together with blank slates and study the Bible to see exactly what it said with a completely open mind? Did we turn to Bible scholars for help? Did we “just know” the answer on these issues through experience or reason and then search for proper proof texts to support our already-firm beliefs? Did we make some decision without even using the Bible at all? What role did we give to the “Holy Spirit’s leading” in these decisions? What role did experience play? The culture? The rest of the church or church tradition? This is what I’m thinking about.


I was an eyewitness to all of these decisions so I have some tentative hunches. But in the summer I don’t write—so I’ll just post this musing here secretly where nobody will see it, and think about it myself while I’m riding my bicycle all over the Rails-to-Trails routes this summer.


But if you found this secret post you are welcome to post a comment. ;-)




Keith Drury   June 7, 2009