Sunday, June 22, 2008

John Wesley on Genesis

Alice C. Linsley

In reviewing what various Christian leaders and theologians have said about Genesis, we have considered Martin Luther’s sermons and, not surprisingly, we find that he employs the text polemically in support of justification by faith. Likewise John Calvin’s sermons on Genesis are polemical in tone and he extracts support for his Reformed doctrine.

John Wesley’s Notes Upon the Old Testament (1765) are refreshing by virtue of the man’s humility and non-polemical tone. In the Preface, he states that his intention “is not to write sermons, essays or set discourses upon any part of Scripture. It is not to draw inferences from the text, or to shew what doctrines may be proved thereby. It is this: To give the direct, literal meaning, of every verse, of every sentence, and as far as I am able, of every word in the oracles of God. I design only like the hand of a dial, to point every man to This: not to take up his mind with some thing else, how excellent soever: but to keep his eye fixt upon the naked Bible, that he may read and hear it with understanding. I say again, (and desire it may be well observed, that none may expect what they will not find) It is not my design to write a book which a man may read separate from the Bible: but barely to assist those who fear God, in hearing and reading the bible itself, by shewing the natural sense of every part, in as few and plain words as I can.”

Wesley’s approach to Genesis is closer to that of John Chrysostom and Basil the Great. He reads the text through the lens of Jesus Christ, finding His form and hearing His voice in the creation narratives and in the lives of the Patriarchs. In reference to Genesis 3:15, he writes, “Christ as the deliverer of fallen man from the power of Satan.”

William M. Arnett (Asbury Theological Seminary) encourages his students to read Wesley’s Notes “for he loved God with a holy passion; he bowed in adoring wonder before a Redeeming Saviour who died for him and who had strangely warmed his heart; and he loved the souls and bodies of all men, and especially the common man to whom his lifework was given. I can well imagine that some present day scholars who are preoccupied with critical problems would be impatient with Wesley's efforts on the Old Testament. But if there are such who hear or read these lines and are tempted to undue impatience, I beg you to remember the purpose for which Wesley wrote and the people for whom he wrote. Really, I stand in awe before the monumental labors of this man, and particularly his Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament when I recall the abundance of his travel and preaching in the months in which he produced it. It is amazing grace and an amazing achievement!”

Wesley’s remarkably fresh commentary was undertaken with a great deal of reluctance, which he explains in the Preface:

“About ten years ago I was prevailed upon to publish Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. When that work was begun, and indeed when it was finished, I had no design to attempt any thing farther of the kind. Nay I had a full determination, Not to do it, being throughly [sic.] fatigued with the immense labour. . . of writing twice over a Quarto book containing seven or eight hundred pages.

But this was scarce published before I was importuned to write Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament. This importunity I have withstood for many years. Over and above the deep conviction I had of my insufficiency for such a work, of my want of learning, of understanding, of spiritual experiences, for an undertaking more difficult by many degrees, than even writing on the New Testament, I objected, that there were many passages in the Old, which I did not understand myself, and consequently could not explain to others, either to their satisfaction, or my own. Above all, I objected the want of time: not only as I have a thousand other employments, but as my day is near spent, as I am declined into the vale of years. And to this day it appears to me as a dream, a thing almost incredible, that I should be entering upon a work of this kind, when I am entering into the sixty third year of my age.”

One should remember that Wesley was preparing his notes on the Old Testament while he was itinerating as an Anglican priest and by his estimate preaching “eight hundred sermons a year.”

Because Wesley holds the Bible in such high regard and does not attempt to use it polemically, his Notes on Genesis seem almost “scientific” in the quality of observation. For example, regarding the Flood, he remarks that “The six hundredth year of Noah's life was 1656 years from the creation.” Yet, he recognizes that there is a problem with young earth dating because he observes: “The mountains were covered - Therefore there were mountains before the flood.” He knows that mountains are the result of volcanic activity and geologic forces that require thousands, indeed, millions of years.

From Wesley’s Notes on Genesis

On the Location of Eden
The situation of this garden was extremely sweet; it was in Eden, which signifies delight and pleasure. The place is here particularly pointed out by such marks and bounds as were sufficient when Moses wrote, to specify the place to those who knew that country; but now it seems the curious cannot satisfy themselves concerning it. Let it be our care to make sure a place in the heavenly paradise, and then we need not perplex ourselves with a search after the place of the earthly paradise.

On the Authorship of Genesis
Wesley accepted the Jewish tradition that Moses was the author of Genesis. He wrote, “A description of the garden of Eden, which was intended for the palace of this prince. The inspired penman in this history writing for the Jews first, and calculating his narratives from the infant state of the church, describes things by their outward sensible appearances, and leaves us, by farther discoveries of the divine light, to be led into the understanding of the mysteries couched under them. Therefore he doth not so much insist upon the happiness of Adam's mind, as upon that of his outward estate. The Mosaic history, as well as the Mosaic law, has rather the patterns of heavenly things, than the heavenly things themselves, (Heb 9:23).

Wesley regards Moses as a divinely inspired writer. However, he refers at least 3 times in his Notes on Genesis to the Holy Spirit as the author of particular narratives.

On the Serpent
Whether it was only the appearance of a serpent, or a real serpent, acted and possessed by the devil, is not certain. The devil chose to act his part in a serpent, because it is a subtle creature. It is not improbable, that reason and speech were then the known properties of the serpent. And therefore Eve was not surprised at his reasoning and speaking, which otherwise she must have been.

That which the devil aimed at, was to persuade Eve to eat forbidden fruit; and to do this, he took the same method that he doth still. 1. He questions whether it were a sin or no, (Gen 3:1,2). He denies that there was any danger in it, (Gen 3:4). 3. He suggests much advantage by it, (Gen 3:5). And these are his common topics.

And this is part of the serpent's curse: A perpetual reproach is fastened upon him. Under the cover of the serpent he is here sentenced to be, (1.) Degraded and accursed of God. It is supposed, pride was the sin that turned angels into devils, which is here justly punished by a great variety of mortifications couched under the mean circumstances of a serpent, crawling on his belly, and licking the dust. (2.) Detested and abhorred of all mankind: even those that are really seduced into his interest, yet profess a hatred of him. (3.) Destroyed and ruined at last by the great Redeemer, signified by the bruising of his head; his subtle politics shall be all baffled, his usurped power entirely crushed.

A perpetual quarrel is here commenced between the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of the devil among men; war proclaimed between the seed of the woman, and the seed of the serpent, (Re 12:7). It is the fruit of this enmity, (1.) That there is a continual conflict between God's people and him. Heaven and hell can never be reconciled, no more can Satan and a sanctified soul. (2.) That there is likewise a continual struggle between the wicked and the good. And all the malice of persecutors against the people of God is the fruit of this enmity, which will continue while there is a godly man on this side heaven, and a wicked man on this side hell.

A gracious promise is here made of Christ as the deliverer of fallen man from the power of Satan. By faith in this promise, our first parents, and the patriarchs before the flood, were justified and saved; and to this promise, and the benefit of it, instantly serving God day and night they hoped to come. Notice is here given them of three things concerning Christ. (1.) His incarnation, that he should be the seed of the woman. (2.) His sufferings and death, pointed at in Satan's bruising his heel, that is, his human nature. (3.) His victory over Satan thereby. Satan had now trampled upon the woman, and insulted over her; but the seed of the woman should be raised up in the fulness of time to avenge her quarrel, and to trample upon him, to spoil him, to lead him captive, and to triumph over him,(Col 2:15).

On Cain and Abel
Adam and Eve had many sons and daughters, (Gen 5:4). But Cain and Abel seem to have been the two eldest. Cain signifies possession; for Eve when she bare him said with joy and thankfulness, and great expectation, I have gotten a man from the Lord. Abel signifies vanity.

…at some set time Cain and Abel brought to Adam, as the priest of the family, each of them an offering to the Lord; for which we have reason to think there was a divine appointment given to Adam.

…Abel brought a sacrifice of atonement, the blood whereof was shed in order to remission, thereby owning himself a sinner, deprecating God's wrath, and imploring his favour in a Mediator. But the great difference was, Abel offered in faith, and Cain did not. Abel offered with an eye to God's will as his rule, and in dependence upon the promise of a Redeemer. But Cain did not offer in faith, and so it turned into sin to him.

On Cain’s Wandering
And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt on the east of Eden - Somewhere distant from the place where Adam and his religious family resided: distinguishing himself and his accursed generation from the holy seed; in the land of Nod - That is, of shaking or trembling, because of the continual restlessness of his spirit.

On Lamech
We know not whom he slew, or on what occasion: neither what ground he had to be so confident of the Divine protection.

On Lamech’s Daughter, Naamah
Why Naamah is particularly named, we know not: probably they did, who lived when Moses wrote.

Editor’s Note: Naamah is named because she is the bridge between the line of Cain (Gen. 4) and the line of Seth (Gen. 5)
On the Location of Noah’s Ark
And the ark rested - upon the mountains of Ararat - Or, Armenia, whether it was directed, not by Noah's prudence, but the wise providence of God.

On Noah’s Drunkeness
And he drank of the wine and was drunk - 'Tis highly probable, he did not know the effect of it before. And he was uncovered in his tent - Made naked to his shame.

On Peleg
The reason of the name of Peleg, (Gen 10:25), because, in his days, (that is, about the time of his birth) was the earth divided among the children of men that were to inhabit it; either when Noah divided it, by an orderly distribution of it, as Joshua divided the land of Canaan by lot, or when, upon their refusal to comply with that division, God, in justice, divided them by the confusion of tongues.

Related reading:  About Commentaries on Genesis; Hermann Gunkel on Genesis; John Calvin on Genesis; Martin Luther on Genesis; John Wesley on Genesis; Giovanni Pico della Mirandola on Genesis; Jacob Böehme on Genesis


FrGregACCA said...

It is, of course, no accident that Fr. Wesley should resonate with Basil and Chrysostom, since he was steeped in these and the other early Fathers of the Church.

On another topic, here is a quote from Fr. Wesley that I dearly love:

"Let everyone therefore who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God and consult the good of his own soul by communicating every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the CHRISTIAN SACRIFICE was a constant part of the Lord’s day’s service. ...Accordingly those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the BLESSED SACRAMENT." - Sermon 101, written 1787. Emphasis added.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thank you, Fr. Greg. What a wonderful quotation!

Anonymous said...

Might as well read Matthew Henry's commentary. He seems to say the same thing as Henry.

Alice Linsley said...

Wesley and Henry do say some of the same things, but Wesley doesn't make as many mistakes as Henry.