III. Revelation and Authority: God's Word Revealed in Scripture and Nature
Section III: Revelation and Authority: God's Word Revealed in Scripture and Nature
The Triune God reveals the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to us in both Scripture and nature (John 1:1-14). Sin has marred our ability to receive, know or believe God’s Word. But this God-given ability can be restored by God’s grace. In faith, the Holy Spirit reveals the Word of God to us through our physical senses, spiritual sensibilities, and ability to reason. In all of this, the traditional teachings of the Church serve as a guide for our faith.
Wesleyans affirm that God is fully and perfectly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Always and everywhere the Holy Spirit reveals the Father made manifest in Jesus Christ. For Wesleyans, then, all divine revelation is profoundly Trinitarian, centered in Jesus Christ by the illuminating witness of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we believe that the Holy Spirit illuminates all things, both visible and invisible, an illumination that becomes fully apparent to us through faith in Jesus Christ, who died and was raised from the dead for our sins (I Cor. 2:9-10).
For Wesleyans Scripture most perfectly gives witness to the saving revelation of God in Christ, and is therefore the ultimate authority in all matters of Christian faith and practice. For this reason, John Wesley often referred to himself as a “man of one book” and dedicated his life to studying Scripture and expounding it to others. John’s sermons and Charles’ hymns are thoroughly permeated with Scripture, and John wrote commentaries on both the Old and New Testaments.
As Wesleyans we recognize that Scripture is complex and multi-layered and bears the mark of the historical context and personal perspectives of the writers. Nevertheless, we believe that through Scripture the Holy Spirit guides us into all Truth, who is Jesus Christ (John 14:6, 16:13). John Wesley affirmed that individual passages of Scripture are best understood in light of the whole of Scripture. Moreover, Scripture chiefly reveals the person of Jesus Christ and its ultimate purpose is to lead us to faith and holiness in Christ. In line with these convictions, the Church of the Nazarene officially affirms that Scripture “inerrantly reveal[s] the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.”9 In other words, Scripture is best understood as the story of God’s work of redemption in Jesus Christ revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.
As Wesleyans we also believe that God reveals the wonder, majesty, and glory of Jesus Christ in and through nature. As Scripture affirms, all things were created through and are held together by the Word of God (John 1:3, Col. 1:16-17). John especially took a keen interest in natural philosophy (the 18th century term for science). He conducted his own experiments (especially on electricity) and published both a multi-volume book that outlined the latest scientific findings of his day10 and one of the most popular medical texts of the 18th century.11
The Wesleys also believed that God has equipped us for discerning God’s revelation in Scripture and nature. As empiricists they believed that we gain much of our knowledge—including knowledge of God’s Word—through our physical senses (especially sight and hearing).12 They also believed we have been given a kind of “sixth sense”—a spiritual sensibility for discerning things otherwise invisible to us, such as God’s saving love. In addition to sensory ways of knowing, God has created us with the capacity to reason. Our minds are tools to help us understand our world and discern truth from error.
However, the Wesleys also recognized that we face a serious problem. We are sinful creatures whose physical senses and spiritual sensibilities have been dimmed and whose capacity for reason has become distorted by sin. In such a condition, while still capable of correctly ascertaining mundane facts about the physical reality around us, we cannot discern the Word of God, either through Scripture or nature. Without faith in Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Scripture is merely an historical artifact and nature is nothing more than the matter and processes that make up the physical world. Neither on its own reveals the Word of God to us.13
But there is good news. We never exist purely in our natural, sinful state, but instead always in the gracious presence of the Holy Spirit, who continually seeks to enliven our senses, enlighten our minds, and invigorate our hearts. The illuminating power of the Holy Spirit is present to all persons, so that even non-believers may perceive the truth about Jesus in Scripture or look up at the stars at night and discern the handiwork of the Creator (Ps 19:1). Otherwise saving faith in Christ would not be possible, for our ability to repent of our sins and turn to God relies entirely upon the faith inspired by God’s presence to us in the enlivening, enlightening, and invigorating work of the Holy Spirit.14
For those who do repent and come to saving faith in Christ, a whole new way of seeing things becomes possible.15 John Wesley spoke of the enlivening of our spiritual sensibilities that occurs in the new life of faith as similar to that which happens with the physical senses at the birth of a baby. Our “spiritual” eyes and ears are opened and our capacity to reason and understand is restored so that we can truly see and comprehend the truths of God in Scripture as well as the handiwork of God in nature. Scripture becomes for us the Living Word of God through which the Holy Spirit teaches us, guides us, and directs us to growth in holiness. Nature becomes the handiwork of God whose grandeur, majesty, and love are manifest in the vastness of interstellar space or the infinitely subtle intricacies of a single human cell.
The Confirming Witness of the Spirit: The Wesleys believed that the Holy Spirit bears witness to God’s saving work in our lives in both indirect (or mediated) and direct (or unmediated) ways. The “indirect” witness comes through the enlivening of our physical senses through which we observe God at work in both our own lives and the lives of others. Wesleyans thus often speak of the fruit of the Spirit as observable confirmation of the truth of the promises of Scripture and assurance of the reality of God’s transforming grace.
The Wesleys also believed that, with the enlivening of our spiritual sensibilities through faith in Christ, we develop a greater capacity for discerning and appropriating the love and will of God, especially in matters pertaining to our salvation. This is the “direct” witness of the Holy Spirit to our own spirits in which we are personally assured of God’s love and acceptance as children of God. Wesleyans understand that the witness of the Spirit frees us from the slavery of doubt and despair and empowers us to live in confident assurance of God’s presence and peace.16
We speak of such experiences as confirming because they must always be tested by scriptural teachings and promises. This is why it is vitally important for believers to be active in and accountable to the Body of Christ. We are more likely to discern correctly which experiences testify truly to the Word of God when in community with other Christians.
The Instrumental Role of Reason: Wesleyans believe, as noted earlier, that restored human reason can contribute significantly to our understanding of God’s Word. In affirming this, John and Charles Wesley were aligned with both ancient Christian teachings and what is now referred to as the “Spirit of the Enlightenment.”17 If God is the Creator of an ordered and fundamentally rational universe, God is also the source of rationality. And since human beings are created in the divine image, we have the capacity for rational reflection as well. This is not to say that reason on its own can lead us to knowledge of God. Rather, with the Wesleyan tradition we prefer to speak of reason as an instrument or tool granted to human beings which, when restored by faith in Christ and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, can contribute to our understanding of God’s Word in Scripture and nature.
The Guiding Role of Tradition: As Wesleyans we recognize the authority of the historic teachings of the Church (especially the early Church) in knowing God’s Word, Jesus Christ, in Scripture and nature. We believe that God, through the Holy Spirit, has worked in and through the Church as it has sought to be faithful to the witness of Scripture by affirming “rules of faith,” including especially the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition. These creeds continue to guide and assist the Church today in seeing and hearing God’s Word in Scripture and nature. For PLNU tradition also includes the Articles of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene.18
To speak of tradition as a guide is to recognize that God’s Word in Scripture and nature is properly understood when informed by the wisdom of the historic Church and under the direction of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that the Church through history has spoken with a variety of voices, and that the Church continues to wrestle with and further develop its understanding of the deep theological mysteries and core tenets of Christian faith. As we continuously seek to be faithful to the gospel of Christ, Wesleyans affirm that the Holy Spirit will continue to use the voice of the Church to help us properly understand God’s Word in Scripture and nature.