Dennis F. Kinlaw
A discussion of how John Wesley did theology should begin by asking whether he actually merits that attention. A consideration of the present state of theological discourse and the marginal role that Wesley plays in that discussion makes the question inescapable. Yet interest in Wesley as a theologian will not go away. And in recent dialogue, both in evangelical and conciliar circles, his work has drawn renewed attention.
Few would question Wesley's importance as an evangelist, a revivalist, a social reformer, and an organizer. But was he a serious theologian? Does his method of doing theology interest us? Few of the accepted authorities on the history of Christian thought consider him that important. Not many, however, would now agree with Edward Caldwell Moore, the Parkman Professor of Theology at Harvard and Adolf Harnack's first American pupil, who wrote in 1912:
Methodism of the earlier age had as good as no intellectual relations whatsoever . . . This evangelical movement in the Church of England manifested deep religious feeling, it put forth zealous philanthropic effort, it had among its representatives men and women of great beauty of personal character and piety. Yet it was completely cut off from any living relation to the thought of the age. There was among its representatives no spirit of theological inquiry.E. C. Moore, An Outline of the History of Christian Thought Since Kant (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), 194.
The prevailing tendency has been to see Wesley as unoriginal and marginal. I challenge that assumption. For obvious reasons he has largely been ignored as a theologian. If we examine his writings, we will find a theological mind of excellent quality and a way of doing theology that can be helpful for us today.
It has been easy for scholars to ignore Wesley as a theologian because of the style and format of his work and because he preached to a nonscholarly audience.
First, a consideration of the form of his work. Nowhere in his writings did he make any serious attempt to present a systematic theology. A survey of his output will reveal that in this corpus a substantive treatment of almost every subject a systematician addresses can be found. But he never tried to pull it all together. One looks in vain for anything like Calvin's Institutes, Melanchthons' Loci Communes, or Aquinas' Summa Theologica. His approach to the most serious theological questions was occasional and particular. Yet the subjects specifically addressed by him cover a veritable catalogue of responses to major theological questions. His sermons, tracts, pamphlets, treatises, letters, and hymns cover all significant subjects. But the form of address was not that employed by the systematician.
On occasion he did write in a careful and extensive manner on the weighty matters. An example of this is found in his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” (1743) and “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” (1745). These articles fill 245 pages in the Jackson edition of Wesley's works (8:280; in the Oxford/Abingdon edition, Vol. 11). Albert Outler considered this the most important single essay left to the church by Wesley. In this work he indicates both his concern to see England revived and his confidence in the fitness of the Methodist message to produce such revival. Outler describes its treatment of Methodist doctrine as “the plain, old doctrines of the Henrician reformers, the ancient Fathers, and the apostles.”Albert C. Outler, The Wesleyan Theological Heritage, ed. Thomas C. Oden and Leicester Longden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 49.
Of similar size is his “The Doctrine of Original Sin according to Scripture, Reason, and Experience.” This fills 273 pages in the Jackson edition (Vol. 9). It is a significant work that presents the classical orthodoxy of the early Fathers and the most widely accepted tradition of the church through the centuries, particularly as he learned it from Anglican tradition.
Similar comments can be made about his “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” (Vol. 11, Jackson edition). In this, Wesley addressed the most controversial part of his theology. His position in this work brought him into sharp conflict with many of his peers, and many regarded him as outside the pale of orthodoxy.
The reality, however, is that Wesley was picking up and developing a legitimate theme found both in the Scriptures and in the tradition of the church. John L. Peters claims that Wesley's theology here represents a hope found in writers as diverse and as scattered through the history of the church as Clement of Alexandria, Macarius the Egyptian, Augustine, Tauler, à Kempis, François de Sales, Juan de Castaniza, Madame Guyon, Molinas, Fénelon, the Cambridge Platonists, Pascal, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law.John L. Peters, Christian Perfection and American Methodism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 20.
It is rather difficult to write this off as a Wesleyan idiosyncrasy. Any serious look at the hymnody of the church will reveal that here Wesley was addressing the deep cry of many Christians. His knowledge of Scripture, Christian literature, and experience was extensive. He would not drop his concern for this aspiration of grace.
Wesley had a sophisticated knowledge of biblical and Christian thought. He had wrestled his way through Christian faith with its presuppositions and implications, and had brought into an integrated whole his own intellectual response to them. But he seems never to have felt the need to put it in writing.
A second reason why Wesley may have been overlooked as a serious theologian is his style. He did not write primarily for academics and erudite persons. He wrote mostly to common people. If he had to choose between the rich and the poor, the educated or the uneducated, the noble or the commoner, his preference was always the poor, the uneducated, and the commoner. In 1757 he wrote to a friend, “I love the poor; in many of them I find pure, genuine grace unmixed with paint, folly, and affectation.”John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (1872; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 12:200. The common folks were his people and when he wrote, he wrote primarily for them. This affected his style. But his purpose and goals included everyone.
It was not that he did not have the intellectual gifts or the philosophical and theological training needed to address these subjects as a scholar. His education and natural gifts made him a master of the classics as well as Scripture. He was at home in the history of philosophy and that of Christian theology. More than 1400 different authors are referred to in his works and some 3000 different items ranging from pamphlets to twelve-volume sets are mentioned. In the sermons alone are more than 2500 quotations and allusions to source materials that are readily identifiable. But when he quotes, whether from the classics, the Scriptures, or the Fathers, he does so “carelessly from memory (who was there to check his texts?) and yet rarely off target.”Outler, Wesleyan Theological Heritage, 113.
A third factor that has contributed to the neglect of Wesley by the systematicians and historians of Christian thought is more subtle. It may be that it is the best indicator of his genius. I speak of his openness, the way he viewed the working of God's Spirit of grace in human history and how he felt we should respond to that working past and present. Here is the best opportunity to see the creativity with which he believed theology should be done.
A central aspect of his thought here is classically expressed in what is known as the Vincentian Canon: What has been believed everywhere, always and by all.Vincent of Lérins, Commonitoria, 2:1; Fathers of the Church, 7:270.
The best test of orthodoxy in Vincent's opinion was whether a dogma has been “believed everywhere, always, and by all.”
The assumption is that God in no age leaves himself without a witness, that if one will look far enough and hard enough the true seeker will find in any age those whose faith is continuous with that of the prophets and apostles, a faith that has been maintained in an unbroken line by the Spirit of God from Abraham's day to one's own. Wesley believed in that royal line of faith and passionately wanted to stand as close to the center of it as he could. Therefore, his work reflects a profound interest in continuity with Christians in all ages and in true catholicity. His concern is diachronic and synchronic. He had little interest in special pleading or idiosyncratic particularities. He wanted to know what the Spirit was saying to the world and to the church. He believed in the unity of God's truth and that what God was saying in one day and place would be consonant with what he was saying on everyday and in every place. Wesley felt that the more we could know of the working and the speaking of the Spirit diachronically through history and synchronically now currently, the more confident we could be of our understanding of God's Word for our particular day and place.
Wesley did not feel that all of the Spirit's speaking and working was of equal value. Some was normative and some illustrative and confirmatory. The normative part is that which is found in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is the special gift to the church from the Spirit of God. It was inspired by him and is the standard by which everything else is to be measured. Here Wesley was completely one with the Reformers. Sola Scriptura was as much an item of faith for him as it was for Calvin and Luther.
The practical seriousness with which Wesley took the claims of Scripture is revealed in “A Short History of the People Called Methodists,” published in 1781, in which Wesley tells how Methodism got its name.
In November 1729, Wesley and three other students at Oxford began to meet regularly to read their Greek New Testaments. Over the next six years other students joined them. The discipline of their lives caused them to be pejoratively tagged “Methodists.” But from their perspective one thing alone bound them together: “...it being their one desire and design to be downright Bible Christians, taking the Bible, as interpreted by the primitive Church and our own for their whole and sole rule.”Wesley, Works, 8:348.
In 1738, Wesley, just returned from Georgia, found himself in a similar group, all of whom were “resolved to be Bible Christians at all events; and, wherever they were, to preach with all their might plain, old, Bible Christianity.”Ibid., 349.
In 1766 he looked back across more than a third of a century and said that it was in 1729 that he “began not only to read, but to study, the Bible as the one, the only standard of truth and the only model of pure religion.”Ibid., 11:367.
In 1746 Wesley published the sermons that he had been preaching over the previous decade. In the Preface to those sermons he opened his heart in a revealing passage:
I am a spirit come from God and returning to God; just hovering over the great gulf, till a few moments hence I am no more seen—I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, the way to heaven—how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book].John Wesley, Wesley's Standard Sermons, ed. E. H. Sugden (1921; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 1:31-32.
For Wesley the Bible was God's Word, the special work of the Spirit who had inspired it. As such it was completely normative for Wesley. God had given it for that purpose. The extent to which he believed this is revealed in a letter to Thomas Whitehead about possible revelations from the Spirit apart from Scripture.
The Scriptures are the touchstone whereby Christians examine all, real or supposed, revelations. In all cases they appeal “to the law and to the testimony,” and try every spirit thereby.
. . . though the Spirit is our principal leader, yet He is not our rule at all; the Scriptures are the rule whereby He leads us into all truth.John Wesley, The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A. M., ed. John Telford (London: Epworth, 1931), 2:117.
The Scriptures were God's infallible guide in all things eternal, the ultimate test of all in faith or practice, the gift of the Spirit to the church.
A second gift of the Spirit to the seeking heart was found for Wesley in the historical witness of the church. He believed that God's Spirit was at work in every age, that everywhere there was a recognizable consistency in the way the Spirit worked, and that the history of the church illustrates and confirms that normative witness given in Scripture.
In his “A Short History of the People Called Methodists,” he speaks of his discipleship group: “. . . it being their desire to be downright Bible Christians; taking the Bible, as interpreted by the primitive church and our own, for their whole and sole rule.”Wesley, Works, 8:348.
Early Methodists felt the need for the help that the primitive church and their own could give them to protect them from any private interpretations of Scripture. Wesley had no interest in individual and idiosyncratic interpretations. He wanted to be a part of that common faith believed “everywhere, always and by all.” In fact, he wanted to be as close to the center of that as he could get. So a knowledge of what the Spirit had done or was doing anywhere, evaluated against the Scriptures, could serve as a primary help in enabling him to break out of the limitations inherent within his own private understanding and experience.
In this Wesley was very much an Anglican. He was part of a theological tradition that included Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and others who had guided the English church into that “middle way” between Rome and European Protestantism. They recognized the supreme authority of the Scriptures, but knew the value of the work of the Spirit in the life of the church through the centuries in enabling true seekers after God to understand more fully the truths revealed in Scripture.
Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was easily the most influential of these, recognized as the greatest of Anglican theological writers. The reality, though, is that he never fully outlined a theological system. Primarily he gave a method of doing theology. A key element in this was proper consideration of the teaching and practice of the “primitive” church, the undivided church of the first five centuries. There Hooker and Anglicanism found a guide second only in importance to the Scriptures.
Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) expressed this in his famous five finger exercise: “One canon, two testaments, three creeds [Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian], four [ecumenical] councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period.”Lancelot Andrewes, Opuscula (Oxford: Library of Anglo Catholic Theology, 1841-63), 91.
In other words, the basic character of historic orthodoxy had been established in the first 500 years of the church. Wesley and his friends were not about to deprive themselves of any enlightenment to be found in the Spirit's working in those early centuries. In this they found themselves identifying with Eastern Orthodoxy and with Roman Catholicism as well as with their own Church of England. However, their commitment to Sola Scriptura, a perspective shared by the primitive church and their own, forced them to dissociate themselves from many of the traditions that developed later, which they found incompatible with Scripture and with the faith and practice of the primitive church.
Here we find Wesley's position differing a bit from many European Reformers. Their break with tradition was more radical than his. In their revolt against Rome, the Reformers found far less in the church of the Middle Ages with which they could identify. The result was an effort on their part at repristination, which is not so characteristic of Wesley.
Perhaps the point at which this is most obvious is in Wesley's work on Christian perfection. Grateful for the Reformed emphasis on justification by faith, Wesley found himself unwilling to divorce this from biblical teaching on the necessity of personal holiness. He was concerned not only for God's work for us, but also for God's work in us. He believed the Scriptures promised a real change as well as a relative change in the coming of grace to the human heart. In this he found himself at one with an emphasis found in the literature of the medieval church. This is why George Croft Cell can speak of Wesley's theology as a “necessary synthesis of the Protestant ethic of grace with the Catholic ethic of holiness.”G. C. Cell, The Rediscovery of John Wesley (New York: Henry Holt, 1935), 361.
Here we get what is perhaps the best indication of how Wesley did theology. From his reading of Scripture, years before he came to understand the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith, Wesley was convinced that the Scriptures taught the necessity of holiness of heart. When he came to personal justifying faith, he found great freedom. But the biblical demand for holiness continued to haunt him. With his brother Charles and his colleagues he conducted a study of Scripture, the witness of the church through the centuries, and the working of grace within their hearts and the hearts of those to whom they ministered. The account of this is contained in his “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, As Believed and Taught by the Reverend Mr. John Wesley, from the year 1725 to the year 1777.” It is a remarkable story of how a group of seekers after God submitted to the Scriptures, learned from the witness of the church and from their peers, and then gave more definitive explication of Christian perfection as presented in Scripture than had previously been done.
This illustrates for us Wesley's method and philosophy. The fact that he believed the canon was closed did not preclude his confidence that more could be learned about the work of God and his Spirit. There was an openness in Wesley that permitted him to explore further implications of “the faith once delivered.” He was convinced that new insights would not contradict central convictions of orthodoxy but that they would amplify our understanding of the grace given in Christ. Thus he explored possibilities of grace that Luther and Calvin would have declared beyond the concern of the orthodox.
In all that has been said here, it is obvious that Wesley was a traditional Anglican in both his theology and in how he theologized. On one occasion William Laud, seventeenth-century archbishop of Canterbury and a major force in the development of Anglicanism, was challenged by a Jesuit on his view of authority and the reasons for his view that Scripture was to be accepted as authoritative. His response identifies the major elements in Anglican theology. There are four:
First, there is “the testimony and witness of the Church, and her tradition.”
Second, there is “the testimony which the Scripture gives to itself.”
Third, there is “the inward testimony which by its nature is subjective, so that hence can be drawn no proof to others.”
Fourth, there is “natural reason.”H. R. McAdoo, The Spirit of Anglicanism (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1965), 341.
Wesley would have placed these elements in a different order, but the basic factors in his theological method were remarkably Anglican. Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience were the essential ingredients.
In recent years Wesleyan scholars have seen in all of this what is identified as the “Wesleyan quadrilateral.” They usually identify experience as the unique element that Wesley introduced. But the quotation from William Laud indicates that Wesley was not the first to introduce personal experience and the subjective into theological debate. Yet experience was a crucial concern to Wesley. This was for him a third gift from the Spirit, a personal and immediate authentication that moved Christian truth from information about God and faith in the Gospel to an existential personal apprehension of that truth for oneself. He had no question about the intellectual importance of dogma. But he believed that the rationale needed a pneumatological confirmation and that such pneumatological confirmation was the privilege of every believer. Thus truth could and should involve both intellection and personal experience.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is Wesley's own experience of the biblical truth that sinners are justified by faith alone and that it can happen in an instant. A careful reading of Wesley's Journal for the early months of 1738 will reveal the step-by-step progress of the work of the Spirit in his heart and mind as he submitted himself to the Scriptures and exposed himself to the witness of Peter Böhler and his friends. The result was that an intellectual concession became a life-transforming passion. A. Skevington Wood explains it:
Words were translated into realities, and the doctrine came alive for him. The cardinal tenet of the Protestant Reformation, which is the root of all truly Christian belief, now not only seized his mind but touched his heart. The kindling was to be felt throughout the land as a consequence. It was indeed a strange warmth, as Wesley so accurately analyzed it, for he was not a man given to emotional impressions. That this should happen to him of all people was sufficient to attest it as a work of supernatural grace.A. Skevington Wood, The Burning Heart: John Wesley, Evangelist (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 67.
When Wesley included experience as an appropriate element in doing theology, he was not speaking of human experience per se. He was speaking of human experience that was the result of the operation of the Spirit of grace in one's life. That subjective work, he believed, was consonant with, and in its own way, authenticated existentially the more objective work of the Spirit present in Scripture and found in the best of the spiritual life of the church.
This means that Wesley's interest was primarily soteriological. The Bible was not given only for cognitive purposes. He was never content with just a rational orthodoxy. He was an evangelist first, last, and always. He wanted to see truth translated into life. So good theology should change more than one's thought. It should transform one's life and destiny.
A fourth element in Wesley's understanding of how the Spirit works in the believer and in the church was his understanding of the role of human reason.
Here again Wesley was obviously debtor to his Anglican heritage in which human reason, along with Scripture and tradition, played a crucial role. He believed that human rationality was part of the image of God imparted to humankind at the Creation. It was a key factor in human superiority to the rest of the creation. Therefore human reason was to be respected and used.
This was a crucial corollary of his doctrine of creation. Wesley was a monotheist. He believed that there was one God and one alone from whose hand all that exists came, that God is a God of truth, eternal truth. As there is a unity in the universe there is also a unity in truth. There is an internal consistency, an inner coherence in truth as there is in nature. Therefore, wherever one finds truth, that truth is consistent with all truth since it all comes from a single Source, and that Source preserves his own integrity. The truth found in tradition is consonant with that revealed in Scripture. And truth found in human experience is consonant with that found in Scripture and tradition. Human reason is God's special gift to his creature to detect, pursue, test, and systematize that truth.
In Wesley's “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” he speaks of this. His question is: “What do you mean by reason?” His answer is as follows:
I suppose you mean the eternal reason, or the nature of things; the nature of God, and the nature of man, with the relations necessarily subsisting between them. Why, this is the very religion we preach; a religion evidently founded on, and every way agreeable to, eternal reason, to the essential nature of things. Its foundation stands on the nature of God and the nature of man, together with their mutual relations.Wesley, Works, 8:12.
Human reason is a reflection of divine reason. It was a gift from the Creator to the creature, put within him to enable him to perceive, understand, and interpret the nature and significance of reality as it relates to eternal truth. Thus, it is God's greatest natural gift to enable us to grasp the truth that comes to us in Scripture, history, and human experience.
Wesley recognized the greatness of this divine gift, though he realized that it had its limitations. These were at least twofold: human reason is finite, and human reason is fallen.
Wesley concurred with Job (Job 11:7) that human beings by searching cannot fathom the mysteries of God nor find out his limits. He is infinite and we are finite. He is eternal and we are creatures of time. Therefore, it is appropriate that our searchings and our findings should be marked by humility and a profound sense of awe.
But our problems are more than just our finitude. We are fallen. Equipment that was perfect when it came from the hand of the Creator has been damaged. Our sin has left its scars. Luther said that in the Fall man became incurvatus in se, “bent in upon himself.” Reason given originally to know and glorify the Creator has now become subject to the self-interest of the creature who is “curved in upon himself.” The result is a state of blindness, what Wesley would identify as “nature's night.” Note his brother's hymn:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
So a tool given to apprehend truth degenerated into an instrument used to justify our own rationalizations and self-interest.
But there is help. The same Spirit who spoke in Scripture and history can quicken the human spirit and release it so that its reason can be free to perceive and follow the truth of God. Here again we do not understand Wesley if we miss the pneumatological and the soteriological notes.
Thus, we see the basic elements to which Wesley turned to do theology. In recent years, as note above, these have been referred to as “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”Donald A. D. Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). We must be careful not to think of these as equal. The priority is with the Scriptures. They alone are infallible. They alone are the norm. Then tradition, experience, and reason become priceless instruments to pursue eternal truth.
Two further notes must be sounded if we are to understand better the way Wesley did theology. Wesley believed in “prevenient grace” and was open to the Spirit that works in that grace. He believed firmly in man's fallenness as did Calvin and Luther. He accepted without question Paul's teaching that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. We are incapable in ourselves of any movement toward God. But our hope is not in an eternal decree. A quickening Spirit is at work in every person. This is the basis of the biblical “whosoever will.” That Spirit will sometime, somewhere quicken every person to respond to grace. The quickening does not save. It simply brings a ray of light into our darkness and so touches our spirits that we are able to pursue that light. This is the prevenient grace of God. It has cognitive as well as soteriological implications. Thus, the central key to theological understanding is pneumatological. The rational element is subordinate to this.
The second note in Wesley is his openness to God's Spirit. He believed that the canon was closed. We do not wait for further revelation similar to that found in Scripture. In that sense revelation is complete. But our understanding of that revelation is another matter. Wesley demonstrated this in his willingness, with his colleagues, to define further their understanding of Christian perfection. This may be one reason that he felt no great urgency to produce “the complete systematic.” One has the feeling that he neither felt it was possible nor particularly relevant. What we do know is that his handling of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience was the means whereby millions came to a remarkably full and creative understanding of human possibilities in grace and enlarged understanding of the ethical implications of the gospel. It is time for the church at large, that “holy catholic church,” to look more carefully at one whom theologians have tended to ignore.
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
Try Bible Gateway Plus, a brand-new service that lets you experience Bible Gateway free of banner ads! It also gives you instant access to over 40 Bible study and inspirational devotional books, including the NIV Study Bible. With Bible Gateway Plus, you can experience and understand God's Word in life-changing new ways, without the distraction of ads. Try it free for 30 days—you can cancel at any time. Following your 30-day free trial, Bible Gateway Plus is only $3.99/month.
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.