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Asbury Bible Commentary – Right Belief
Right Belief

Right Belief

Wesley regarded himself and the Methodist movement to be within the mainstream of Christian beliefs derived from Scripture and classical orthodoxy. In a somewhat biased account, Wesley traced the lineage of Methodism through the “religion of the Church of England” and “the primitive church” to the “religion of the Bible” and that which Wesley called “old religion.”See “On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel” (1777, sermon 112), II.3, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 3:585-86. This “old religion” predated Scripture, and it consisted of “no other than love: the love of God and of all humankind.”“An Earnest Appeal,” §2, Works (Oxford ed.), 11:45, quoted by Wesley in “On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel” (1777, sermon 112), II.1 Works (Bicentennial ed.), 3:585.

At the start of the Methodist revival, Wesley did not articulate a confession of right beliefs. He did not see the need because he considered Methodism to be firmly within the orthodox succession of the Church of England. Wesley's earliest doctrinal publication was entitled The Doctrine of Salvation, Faith and Good Works, which he extracted from the Homilies of the Church of England.See “The Doctrine of Salvation, Faith and Good Works,” John Wesley, ed., Albert C. Outler (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), 123-33. As the Methodist movement grew, however, a growing need arose for Wesley to address specific questions raised in the context of the ministry. Wesley met with the Methodist preachers at annual conferences, where question of doctrine and polity were decided and then published in the Minutes. Wesley designated these Minutes “our doctrines” long before other standards of doctrine were established.Oden, Doctrinal Standards, 25.

Standards of Doctrine. In time, Wesley recognized the need for more formal standards of doctrine. In 1746, he published the first of four volumes of Sermons, which came to serve as the foremost standard of doctrine in Methodism. Anglicanism had a long tradition of setting forth distinctive doctrinal positions in the form of sermons. To Wesley sermons were not inferior to other modes of theological writing. On the contrary, he intended to write ad poplum (to the bulk of humanity), designing “plain truth for plain people,” and abstaining “from all nice and philosophical speculations.”Introduction, 2-3, “Sermons on Several Occasions,” Works (Bicentennial ed.), 1:103-4. For this reason, Albert Outler describes Wesley as “a folk-theologian: an eclectic who had mastered the secret of plastic synthesis, simple profundity, and common touch.”Outler, John Wesley, 119.

One of the most distinctive ways in which Wesley communicated Christian beliefs in a practical way was through hymns. Both John and Charles Wesley made use of popular British tunes in order to communicate scriptural truths to people, utilizing the evangelistic, instructional, and devotional dimensions of hymnody. Charles was prolific in his musical creativity, writing more than 6500 hymns. John also wrote hymns, but was most influential in publishing A Collection of Hymns of the Use of the People Called Methodists. The Collection of Hymns was so filled with scriptural, experimental (experiential), and practical theology that John claimed, “In what other publication of the kind have you so distinct and full an account of scriptural Christianity?”Preface, §5, “A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists,” Works (Bicentennial ed.), 7:74.

Although Wesley may have been practical in his approach to theology, his theology was not inferior in quality. Wesley never intended to write a systematic theology, so readers of his writings should not evaluate him by such standards. Rather than being concerned with the formulation of a system of beliefs, Wesley was concerned about the way in which people approached theological issues and how they lived in response to those decisions. Again, Wesley resembled the Anglican tradition in which he was raised. Anglicans distrusted theological systems, and consequently focused more upon the methodology one followed in reaching theological decisions than upon reaching any finality in systematic content. Paul More suggests, “What we have to look for in the ecclesiastical literature of England is not so much finality as direction.”Paul E. More, introductory essay, Anglicanism, ed. Paul E. More and Frank L. Cross (Milwaukee: Morehouse-Gorham, 1935), xx. Thus, the spirit of Anglicanism and Wesley's theology reflects more of a methodology than a system of belief.

Theological Method. The methodology Wesley inherited was distinct from that of Continental Protestantism. Anglicans conceived of themselves as within the mainstream of Reformation theology, but as incorporating tradition and reason into their theological method. They fancied themselves to be a via media between the ecclesiastical authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church and tendencies toward the exclusivistic authority of sola scriptura. By introducing reason as a mediating source of religious authority, Anglicans believed they would find the right balance theologically between the truths of Scripture and the exegetical contributions of church history. Henry McAdoo explains, “If the distinctiveness of Anglicanism lies not in a theology but a theological method, the distinctiveness of the method lies in the conjunction of these elements [Scripture, tradition, and reason] in one theological instrument.”McAdoo, Spirit of Anglicanism, vi.

Just as Wesley accepted the orthodoxy of the Church of England, he accepted the theological method consisting of Scripture, tradition, and reason. The addition of experience was not an attempt at innovation but at clarifying that which he perceived to take place in all theological processes. In so doing, Wesley affirmed and enhanced the via media, producing a more inclusive and integrative approach to dealing with both the doctrinal and practical issues that arose in the context of the Methodist movement.

The methodology Wesley employed was largely inductive in character. He let Scripture speak for itself. Yet his induction extended beyond the study of Scripture. Wesley argued that theological decisions should draw inductively upon exegetical data found in the annals of orthodox church history, that all relevant data should be critically and logically integrated into one's beliefs, and that experience reveals essential insights into the confirmation, illumination, and application of biblical truths. Wesley's references to Christianity as “experimental religion” relates to his inductive approach to Scripture and theology.For example, see Preface, §6, “Sermons on Several Occasions,” Works (Bicentennial ed.), 1:106. The experimental dimension primarily referred to the felt experience of God's Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, but it also referred to the fact that the investigation of relevant data for theology extended beyond an inductive study of Scripture to life itself. One could constructively investigate tradition, reason, and experience in complementing one's interpretation of Scripture. Wesley felt compelled to do so in order to develop a sufficiently integrative understanding of Christian faith and practice. It was an understanding that Wesley considered representative—consciously or unconsciously—of all Christians who preceded him.

Although he was more concerned about method than finality in how one considered theological issues, he provided more than the Minutes and Sermons as standards of doctrine. Eventually, Wesley formulated the Twenty-five Articles as the doctrinal summary of the early Methodists. The Articles were not in themselves unique, being an edited form of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Wesley thus affirmed the great classical doctrines of church history and the greater Protestant Reformation. These doctrines include orthodox positions on God, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Holy Spirit, and the church. The standards of doctrine distinctive of Methodism, however, continue to reside in the Minutes, Standard Sermons, and Notes. In particular, Wesley considered it incumbent upon Methodists to revive from Scripture several crucial doctrines that had been neglected or ignored in Christendom. Those doctrines included salvation by faith, with an Arminian concern for the universal scope of the gospel (Mk 1:15; Jn 3:16); assurance of salvation, with an emphasis upon the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (Ro 8:16); and entire sanctification, with an unremitting belief in the power of God to perfect one's intentions to love God and one's neighbor (Mt 5:48).

After Wesley, the Methodists largely affirmed those standards of doctrine established by him. As the nineteenth century progressed, both British and American Methodist churches placed more emphasis upon the Articles than upon the other historic standards of doctrine. Oden notes that the Methodist churches continued to affirm “established standards of doctrine” derived from Wesley, but that the more convenient and catholic articulation of doctrinal articles won precedence in church disciplines.See Oden, Doctrinal Standards, 65-66. This trend was also characteristic of splinter groups from Methodism, such as the black and Holiness churches, which developed their constitutional articles of religion based upon the Twenty-five Articles. The result was that Scripture maintained its place of primacy, while tradition, reason, and experience became less important in the articulation of theological method.

During the twentieth century, little changed in Wesleyan denominations concerning the affirmation of Scripture, articles of religion reflective of the Twenty-five Articles, and other “established standards of doctrine.” The most notable exception pertains to the statement on doctrinal pluralism that emerged in the United Methodist Church. The statement has been widely praised and condemned in terms of its continuity with the spirit of Wesleyanism. Those who praise it maintain that United Methodism has recaptured many of the catholic elements in Wesley, while those who condemn it maintain that pluralism is an affront to scriptural authority and an accommodation to culture.

Catholic Spirit. Since the time of Wesley, a “catholic spirit” has characterized the tradition. Wesley first referred to the “catholic spirit” as universal love toward others—an obvious outgrowth of Jesus' command to love.See “Catholic Spirit” (1750, sermon 39), Works (Bicentennial ed.), 2:94. Such love extended beyond love for God and neighbor to include, more specifically, toleration toward differences in theological opinion. Wesley made a distinction between “essentials” of Christian belief and “opinions.”For example, see “Catholic Spirit,” (1750, sermon 39), I.1-6, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 2:82-85; “On Patience” (1784, sermon 83), §11, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 3:177; and “On God's Vineyard” (1787, sermon 107), IV.4, V.7, Works (Bicentennial ed.), 3:514, 517. He held to a minimum those doctrines that are essential to scriptural Christianity; most are a matter of opinion. Opinions, however, should not preclude fellowship and cooperation, particularly in the ministry. Wesley's spirit was one of openness rather than antagonism toward other Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike. A unity of doctrinal opinions was less important to Wesley than a clear conscience with regard to a unity of love. This unity of love provided the foundation for ecumenical concerns unique to his era. Wesley did not naïvely expect ecclesiastical barriers to disappear, but he did expect that Christians could avoid contention on the one hand and “provoke one to another to love and good works” on the other.“A Letter to a Roman Catholic,” §16, Works (Jackson ed.), 10:85.

In the twentieth century, Wesleyan denominations have been involved with a variety of ecumenical activities both among themselves and with other traditions. To begin with, a number of mergers have occurred among Methodist-related denominations. For example, several denominations merged to form The Methodist Church in 1939, which experienced further mergers in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. Among evangelical denominations, the Wesleyan Church merger also occurred in 1968.

With regard to ecumenical relations outside the Wesleyan tradition, the United Methodist Church has led the way in ecumenical dialogue. Methodist leaders such as Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam (1891-1963) and Frank M. North (1850-1935) served important roles in establishing the National Council of Churches, and John R. Mott (1865-1955) helped to form the World Council of Churches. Among evangelical Wesleyans, Holiness denominations served as charter members of the National Association of Evangelicals. Bishop Leslie R. Marston (1894-1979), a Free Methodist, served as the second president of the organization. Evangelical Wesleyans also became involved with the World Evangelical Fellowship. Dialogue and cooperation between liberal and evangelical Wesleyans occurs primarily within the World Methodist Council. However, cooperation at the Council-sponsored conferences seems less effective than in other ecumenical associations.