John Wesley on Scripture as the tutor of our conscience:
This is a lantern unto a Christian’s feet, and a light in all his paths. This alone he receives as his rule of right or wrong, of whatever is really good or evil. He esteems nothing good, but what is here enjoined, either directly or by plain consequence, he accounts nothing evil but what is here forbidden, either in terms, or by undeniable inference. Whatever the Scripture neither forbids nor enjoins, either directly or by plain consequence, he believes to be of an indifferent nature; to be in itself neither good nor evil; this being the whole and sole outward rule whereby his conscience is to be directed in all things. (From “The Witness of Our Own Spirit“)
I wonder what would happen if we were to apply this system to our own values. If we took the list of things that we call “good,” how many of them would we find named as such in Scripture?
I suspect a great many of the the things we call good could rise to no more than indifference in Wesley’s system. Some would fall into the “evil” bin. And some of the things we consider bad or evil might very well show up on the “good” list. (I am thinking here of suffering after reading 1 Peter this afternoon.)
Of course, it is hard to know how to apply Wesley’s proposed system. The key verbs are “enjoin” and “forbidden.” The second we probably know, but the first one may not be as familiar. Indeed, two of the three meanings of the word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary are negative. The definition that makes sense of Wesley’s words is this one: “to direct or impose by authoritative order or with urgent admonition.”
So, what is good for us to do are only those things expressly directed upon us in Scripture. What is evil are only those things that are directly forbidden.
But immediately we must modify things. Wesley taught — along with a huge number of other Christians — that in Christ the “ceremonial” laws of the Old Testament were no longer binding. Neither were the “civil” laws. Only the “moral” laws and commands are still in force. Exactly which Old Testament commands go in each category is not always crystal clear, though.
Neither is it always clear that Wesley himself clung tightly to this system.
Take slavery, for instance. Scripture neither demands that God’s people acquire slaves nor does it forbid it. It appears that slavery — in the abstract — is an indifferent thing by Wesley’s system. But, of course, Wesley was a vehement critic of slavery as it was practiced in his day. He found it so outrageous that it offend even sub-biblical morality. I am aware of no place that he takes up arguments about the biblical witness on slavery.
I am left with the conclusion that his system was not so simple and may not have been internally consistent. And yet I find myself drawn to the idea that we would benefit in our day — as Christians — if we at least tried it out more seriously.
As a start, perhaps, we might turn to the Sermon on the Mount and begin to draw up there a list of good and evil actions.