I am a Wesleyan at the heart of theological understanding. Nevertheless, I can critique my own tradition, such as having concerns about Wesley’s epistemic definition of faith as relating to certainty. Or, I would say that grace is not subdivided across the process of spiritual maturity in prevenient, convicting, justifying, and sanctifying, but rather that the same grace, God’s sending of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, has drawing, convicting, assuring, and transforming effects throughout the span of the Christian life. Then, I have my reservations about entire sanctification and the whole second work of grace, but not because I don’t believe that God can not perfect us as I think there are no strongholds of sin that God can not fight, but because I fear the perfectionist attitude that can be engendered by the desire for entire sanctification.
My simultaneous identification with the Wesleyan tradition and yet critique of it has always been rooted in the importance I placed on Scripture. After all, as a good Protestant, I was taught to always evaluate my theology in light of the Scriptures. So I engaged in an ever continuous process of self-critical reflection on my theology as I tried to interpret the Bible.
But, there was something subtle about this that I never realized until most recently. This way of reading Scripture and doing theology essentially makes theological interpretation the most important thing we can do, not the act of pay attention to Scripture. Believing the Scriptures are inspired by God (although I don’t have a refined sense of divine inspiration except that they are caused by God’s actions and disclosure therefore can say something about God), we presume that the most important thing in reading is to pick up the meaning because God has some meaning He is conveying to us. This often times works with an implicit assumption that the meaning is hidden in the text, and we just simply need the right hermeneutical tools to divine its message.
But what if the most important part of reading isn’t interpretation but attentiveness to Scripture? What if, as Deuteronomy 6:4-9 suggests, that God wants these words to be in our heart, to receive them, to know them, to meditate upon them? This isn’t to suggest a mutual exclusion of attentiveness from interpretation, but rather it places the emphasis for our spiritual formation in being attentive rather than in coming to know.
When we are focused on interpretation, we may minimize the amount of attention we provide to the words themselves. The most obvious example of this is eisegesis, where people find some meaning they want to be in the text, rather than draw it out based upon inductive, textual evidence and deductive, reflective reasoning. Some words can be interpreted to fit within some idea we have, so we think that is what the Scripture means.
This style of reading and doing theology engenders is the engendered by idea that the Bible is the go-to book of laws and rules as to what theology and ethics are right and wrong. We have some idea and then we go search the Scriptures to find the texts that support that idea. Why? Because ideas are usable; they are something under our control, so we are much more comfortable having our faith built upon a series of theological idea and concepts. Then, these ideas are used to guide our behavior, thinking, and feeling in a top-down, cognitive manner. What is important is that we get the right theological and ethical meaning and then conform ourselves to those meanings.
What I am proposing doesn’t condemn going the Bible to find answers, or trying to conform our behavior, thinking, and feeling to the specific interpretations we have. Rather, what I am saying is that our attentiveness to the words of Scripture and the very memory this act engenders is as important, if not more important, than deriving the right interpretation at the start. If God has expressed Himself, and if God is holy and is not wholly like us, then we would be wise to pay attention to what is said, rather than focus on trying to immediate divine the meaning of the words. Sure, we will interpret when we read; it is an automatic response that we can not just turn off when reading. But the primary formative elements of Scriptures comes through the act of attentiveness, with a heart of love and faith towards God. Then, over the course of time, reliable and spiritually edifying interpretations will rise to the surface, as we have been immersed in the whole of Scripture, in the various parts of the Bible, and then our theology and ethics will emerge from the bottom-up.
What if this is how God intends the content of our faith and holiness was to be engendered in the first place? What if we aren’t supposed to focus on getting all the right theological and ethical interpretations down from the start, but allow ourselves to be formed by the attention we give to those words because we trust them to be God’s Word to us?
To be clear, this is feasible and doable because interpretation is a multi-layered process. When we read, we get semantic senses of the individual words, the meaning of words together in phrases and sentences, and then the meaning that comes from integrating them all together in a specific genre (such as narrative, law, poetry, song, etc.). Then, as Christians who believe the words do not merely speak about things, including God, but that they are an expression from God, we find ideas about God, ourselves, and the world that we derive. Early, less familiarized readings of texts we are not familiar with work from a the bottom-up, where the individual words impact how we see interpret the collections of words, which impact how we make sense of the whole passages we have read, and so on. However, when we specific theological ideas in mind, then the process can work in reverse, in a top-down manner, where our theological ideas impact what the more rudimentary acts of interpretation.
So, when we place a greater emphasis on theological and ethical interpretations and meaning, the more we read the Scriptures in a top-down manner. Thus, attentiveness to the words is not as important in our process of reading, but rather how we align the interpretations of those words to into conformity to our theological ideas and questions. At the extreme, we act as if we have God, God’s power, and God’s will locked down into a set of abstract concepts that we suggest regulate God’s actions in a law-like systematic manner which God never deviates from.
But what if being formed by God comes first from an attentiveness to God in His forms of disclosures, which then through a bottom-up process we begin to connect to the things in ourselves and the world around us. When we see Paul say we are justified by faith, rather than imposed some top-down Protestant paradigm upon it, in our attentiveness in reading, we begin to discover the role that our faith plays in our relationship to God and how we experience and access the grace that God has given to us in Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit.
In the top-down process, we seek to interpret the Scriptures, God, the world, ourselves in conformity to the set of ideas we have. We have a tendency to create a Procrustean bed, lopping off all that does not fit without these set of ideas, minimizing the attention paid to passages that do not address one’s favored ideas. We develop an attitude of only partial listening, filtering out all information that is dissonant with these theological and ethical ideas we have. As we began to idealize and dream of these ideas are becoming true in our self, this theological process can lead us into a process of rationalizing away all information that doesn’t conform to these theological ideas and the ideal selves we have in being conformity to these ideas. A focused and emphasis on theological knowledge can lead to theological rigidity, rationalization, and inhibited listening.
By contrast, the bottom-down process of interpretation focuses on attention, taking in the specific, concrete information we trust that God has disclosed to us, and allow ourselves to discover over time the interpretations that are reliable and edifying. Our hearts are in each event become conformed to the words, rather than the words to our hearts. Then, the various parts of our inner life can emerge into union with the words that God have spoken. Here listening becomes deep and then a more robust understanding emerges.
To be clear, you don’t have to have all this minutiae of analysis to be able to engage in a more attentive style of reading. It simply takes us spending more time to focus on the words rather than on the interpretations of the words. It entails slowing down, letting everything come in rather than trying to master what comes out from the reading. This is more, however, than a spiritual practice; Lectio Divina works under some of these principles, but this form of reading shouldn’t be a special practice that we add to complement our spiritual life. Rather, it should be the primary action we take. Attentiveness to God and what and who He has chosen in His Son and His Spirit is where our faith grows from.
An added benefit is that this style of attentiveness also allows us to be more attentive to the impacts of our reading and interpretations. For instance, my concern about Entire Sanctification is not that there is no legitimacy at all for the idea. The Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, entails a notion of sanctification that is not limited by the flesh, but that the Spirit prevails. There is some grounding for the idea in that some people may experience dramatic changes and transformations in their life a long while after initially coming to faith, which John Wesley observed happening in other people. But Entire Sancitifcation and the second work of grace is not expressed in the Scriptures, nor is it the universal experience of all mature believers. But if we are focused on a top-down understanding and emphasis of the doctrine, it can engender within ourselves expectations and longings for perfection, a type of longing for perfection that the Bible rarely exhorts. We can project it onto our reading of the Scriptures and we can form within ourselves a perfectionist attitude as we move towards idealizing this being true for us. This is actually one of the weaknesses within my tradition, as Wesley’s rather exacting, perfectionist manner can be transmitted to those of us who wish to follow in Wesley’s footsteps with a top-down attempt to conform ourselves in a perfectionist manner, rather than in a bottom-up growth, which the realization of can take on various shapes, forms, and patterns.
But as a Wesleyan, I have discovered that my attentiveness to the Scriptural texts, and then later my growth into paying attention to the specifics of what I see, hear, etc. and less emphasis on how I interpret what I perceive, that I truly value the merit and understanding the Wesleyan perspective brings, but as I am formed and find both the positives and downsides of it, I can identify their problems and failings, without delegitimating the whole Wesleyan theology. This has also allowed me to related to other theological traditions, such as Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, less in a mutually antagonistic manner, as if it is a battle of ideas, but rather seeing them as expressions that can be understood together to help God’s will to emerge in a more cooperate manner, much as Paul saw the wisdom of God emerge from the various voices of the teachers, such as Paul and Apollos, when the people spiritually discerned the words.
In other words, love and faithfulness start in our listening to God.