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John Wesley: A Parent to be Honoured


The following paper first appeared in The United Church Observer (Toronto) in
September of 1984.



I:– Wesley is “all the rage” these days. After having been neglected for so long in The United Church of Canada he has been dusted off and hailed as someone whom our church should hear and heed. While the meetings of the Canadian Methodist Historical Society usually attract only a handful of Wesley enthusiasts (and even among them a significant portion belong to the Free Methodist Church), this year the national office of our own church advertised and commanded the meetings. Several of our Conferences decreed Wesley and his theology to be the theme of their annual meeting. In August, General Council referred again and again to Wesley’s Quadrilateral.(although one cannot be sure how much understanding met the references: one man told me he was sick and tired of hearing about the quadrangle.) And too often people have been treated to the spectacle of the Methodist circuitrider appearing on his horse, or even a black-coated couple in period costume arriving in a buggy, looking for all the world as sour and miserable as the supposed Calvinists whom Canadian writers like Hugh MacLennan and Robertson Davies relish depicting. The occasion of this recrudescent interest was, of course, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in North America, and the 100th Anniversary of a major union of Methodist Churches in Upper Canada.

The celebrations are entirely appropriate, including this one. After all, the God who frees us from any and all bondage is the God who frees us to obey him; and frees us, in today’s context, to honour our parents. As a parent of The United Church of Canada Wesley surely merits being honoured.

At the same time, it is easy for children who now regard themselves as grownups to forget their aged parents. Accordingly, a year or two from now, when the anniversaries are behind us, will Wesley himself be behind us once more? I think not. Even before the most recent events drew attention to the little man and his work, 1 had noticed a nascent interest in him. Many different people, occupying many different spaces, had looked to him because they thought they saw in him someone who had anticipated their particular interest in or interpretation of the Christian life, and who felt he could lend illumination, encouragement and direction. As a matter of fact, someone with the gifts and insight and experience of a Wesley can do a great deal for different people with different interests. At the same time, we must be fair. We should not pretend that he is merely a catalyst who can enhance the development of our theological chemistry. To look upon Wesley in this manner is not to hear him and heed him, but is rather to use him as a handy grab bag into which we can reach whenever we want our ‘,thing” illustrated, even if it means ignoring him when we find something else in the grab bag which contradicts our “thing”.

The point I am making is this: while I have rejoiced in the rediscovery of Wesley today, I have also become alarmed at the manner in which he is being co-opted. On the one hand, we ought not to pretend that we live in the 18th century, speak its vocabulary, share its mind-set, and ask its questions. We don’t live in the 18th century. On the other hand, we ought not to trifle with Wesley — and thereby demean him — by rewarding him as a handy tool for reinforcing our theological or philosophical or social or personal agenda, which agenda breathes a logic bearing little resemblance to the logic of Wesley himself.

I have noticed a parallel situation in the way our own church approaches scripture. Virtually all preachers make reference to scripture. If many biblical passages are cited in the course of the sermon, the preacher is said to be an expository preacher. And if the sermon has to do with the passages of the day set by the ecumenical church, the same person is said to be a lectionary preacher. Yet even with lectionary preaching (a new wave among younger ministers,

I have found) there is still an almost universal tendency to use the Bible as a handy compendium of illustrations for the sermon, instead of allowing the logic of scripture to be the logic of the sermon. A case in point. One Sunday the sermon has to do with forgiveness. The logic of the sermon arises from the preacher’s own mind-set, her own self-understanding. Nevertheless, the fragrance of orthodoxy hovers around the sermon as illustrations are pulled from Joseph, who forgave his brothers, from David, who spared Saul, from Peter, who learned to forgive seventy times seven. Yet the logic of the sermon is not the logic of the passage on which the sermon is supposedly based. In other words, scripture has been co-opted to reinforce the preacher’s self-understanding or pet peeve; but scripture does not correct the preacher’s understanding of herself, her depraved heart, her God.

It is a similar development in the rediscovery of Wesley which alarms me. Wesley is co-opted in order to reinforce our theological or social world-view; but rarely is Wesley allowed to correct us. Our first responsibility, then, is to gain an appreciation of Wesley’s thought, for only as we do this shall we truly hear him and profoundly heed him. Only as we do this shall we obey the command of God to honour our parents.


II.– My first concern, then, is with the different special interest groups who wish to co-opt Wesley.

(i) Like the charismatic movement. It is easy to see how this could happen. Wesley spoke of the Spirit; of the Spirit of God, and the spirit (humankind as related to God). He maintained that the Spirit of God must bear witness to our spirit that we are God’s child. In view of the spiritual inertness which Wesley saw in so much of the church catholic, he knew and appreciated the difference between lifegiving Spirit and dead letter, between a heart set on fire with the truth of God and cold assent to cold orthodoxy. He knew that joy is a fruit of the Spirit. He knew that where the command of God is not obeyed cheerfully it is not obeyed at all.  And with St. Paul Wesley certainly insisted that “the signs of an apostle” had mainifested themselves wherever there had been apostolic ministry (“the signs of an apostle” being chiefly men and women coming to a lively faith in Jesus Christ).  It is but a short stop from “the signs of an apostle” to the “signs following” of which both the New Testament and our charismatic friends speak.  It cannot be questioned that in the course of the evangelical revival in 18th century England there were occurrences which are reflected in the charismatic movement today:  some people were overcome and did fall unconscious.  There was effusive, excited utterance.   Wesley knew that when the Spirit acts, people are either mad, sad, or glad.   The “mad” (i.e., angry) he came to know first-hand when authorities opposed him and mobs assaulted him.  The “sad” (i.e., wistful) he spoke of as “almost Christians”, under conviction of sin and loging for the assurance of salvation.  And the “glad” burst forth with a joy which he never tried to suppress and which Wesleyan hymnody captured as little else has.  At the same time, Wesley was not uncritical of religious effusiveness.  He insisted that the test of the Spirit’s activity was love.  It was love which distinguished a genuine work of the Spirit form the counterfeit work of a spirit which was less than holy. Wesley never agreed that any bizarre behaviour which claimed the Spirit of God as its genesis and rationale was to be received as such just because of the claim. Love ever remained normative as the test of the work of God.

While there were some behavioural similarities between Wesleyan communities and the charismatic movement today we should not assume that Wesley was the 18th century progenitor of this movement. He should not be co-opted by it. His logic and its logic do not square at all points.

(ii) Neither can he be co-opted by the pietists. Pietism was a movement which developed in Europe as a reaction to the cold, sterile barrenness of Protestant scholasticism or Protestant Orthodoxy as it is called. Both Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism emphasized, in fact overemphasized, the objective truth of the gospel. Moreover, in scholasticism the truth of the gospel, truth in the sense of reality, as John’s gospel makes clear, evaporated as the notion of the truths of the gospel took hold. Mind was divorced from heart. Theology became a highly abstract jigsaw puzzle of no little subtlety, and it exercised and preoccupied minds given to this kind of reasoning. In effect, the Christian reality ceased to be the total person bound to Jesus Christ in faith and to the neighbour in love. The Christian reality became mental assent to doctrinal propositions whose convolutions and correctness had been worked out as finely as the links in a gold necklace. Concomitant with this overdeveloped objectivism was often a spiritual (and moral) indifference which many people found as unacceptable as it was certainly undeniable. Pietism was the reaction of the heart — always the heart — to all of this. Wesley encountered a pietism significant -Lor him in the person of Peter Bö hler and the Moravians. In the midst of a north Atlantic storm, when the early Wesley’s anxiety level was out of sight, he marvelled at the equanimity of the Moravians. He marvelled and wondered. Subsequently one of them said to him, “Do you know Christ as your Saviour?” “I know him to be the Saviour of the world”, replied Wesley. “That’s not what I asked. Do you know him to be yours?” “I said I did,” he wrote in his journal, “but alas, I did not.”

Wesley came to appreciate very much the leading Pietist hymnwriter, Count Nicolas von Zinzendorf. In 1738, in the Aldersgate episode, he spoke of having his own heart “strangely warmed”. Certainly the hymns of the Wesley brothers abound in references to the heart: “0 for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free. . . ” Stanzas such as the following were not at all atypical:

Open, Lord, my inward ear
And bid my heart rejoice,
Bid my quiet spirit hear
Thy comfortabel voice.

Another hymn began, “Show me, as my soul can bear, the depth of inbred sin. . . ”
And another, “My heart is full of Christ and longs for its glorious matter to
declare. . . ” In the wake of the influence of Pietism upon him Wesley would surely have found fresh force in the words his dying father spoke to him: “The inward witness; don’t forget the inward witness.”

Pietism, however, was a mixed blessing. In reacting against the abstract frigidity of Protestant scholasticism it tended to regard the heart as the measure, the canon, of Christian truth and reality. That is, Christian truth was what happened to speak to my heart, and the reality of Jesus Christ was what my heart could grasp. The believer’s standing in grace, indeed her/his total spiritual condition, was what the heart could discern of itself. Pietism was obviously highly introspective, a movement which fostered despair in those who found in their heart what made them ashamed, a movement which fostered self-righteousness in those who found in their heart what incited self-congratulation. Wesley came to see this side of Pietism. In addition, he was unhappy with its disdaining of the sacramental side of the church, as well as with an emphasis on inner heart-experiences which was not matched by outer cross-bearing.

After his Aldersgate awakening Wesley put Pietism behind him. From this point on he insisted, in concert with the Reformers, on justification by faith: believers are justified (rightly related to God) as they entrust themselves to the provision God has made for them in the ever-righteous Son. Wesley never surrendered his conviction on this point, and in him and his people it would always check any drift toward Pietism. Faith in one’s own inferiority, the Achilles heel of Pietism, Wesley recognized as psychologically unhealthy and spiritually erroneous. Like the Reformers, he knew that faith, genuine faith, is determined by the author and object of faith, Jesus Christ. Faith is always faith in Christ, not confidence in one’s own religious capacity, sensitivity or achievement. And like the Reformers, Wesley knew that it is Jesus Christ who not only determines who I am but also acquaints me with who I am. No amount of inner inspection can disclose my spiritual standing or condition.

It cannot be denied that Wesley had some affinities with Pietism. When the Protestant Orthodoxy of his day spoke chiefly of transaction (Christ has done something “out there” on my behalf so as to alter my status before God), Pietism spoke chiefly of transformation (Christ has done something “in here”, within me, so as to alter my nature). Certainly Wesley appreciated the force of transformation and eagerly commanded it as part of the whole counsel of God. At the same time, his eyes were open to the pitfalls of Pietism. Any doubt concerning the distance Wesley put between it and himself is dispelled when we remember the importance Wesley ascribed to theology and to church tradition. While Pietism did develop some significant devotional literature, it was woefully deficient in theology. And its jettisoning of the tradition of the church catholic never sat well with the man who knew patristics like the back of his hand.

North American pietism has always claimed Wesley as one of its major facilitators and spokespersons. Wesley would have rejected the claim. At several critical places he indicated that he stood much closer to the catholic substance of the faith.

(iii) Perhaps the area of contemporary life and churchmanship where Wesley is most likely to be co-opted is the area of social criticism. Unquestionably Wesley was appalled at the social situation of his day and the human wreckage it produced. (We ought not to assume that anyone of his era would have been appalled; all too many leaders in church and society, in fact, were not appalled at all.) Not only was he upset, he did something about it. He worked indefatigably to reflect the light of the gospel into such dark corners as the slave trade, child abuse, gambling, drunkenness, bear-baiting, lasciviousness, factory conditions, prisons, and so on. The positive side of his protest Wesley sought to implement in his classes and societies as well as in a social amelioration effected by those who heard him even if they never became followers.

Those in The United Church of Canada whose focus is social dismantling and social reconstruction latch on to Wesley at this point and herald him as the patron saint. Overlooked in this, however, is a crucial matter which must be given full weight: Wesley never reduced the gospel, without remainder, to an ideology of social transmutation. He was unsparing in his opposition to the social oppression whose victims looked at and lived with (and loved, we might add) day after day. Nevertheless, his gospel was not a leftist programme which merely borrowed religious trappings as a convenient (if dishonest) vehicle while ignoring the unique content of the faith once delivered to the saints. Wesley spoke of the slave trade as “the most execrable villainy in the world”. When others argued that the abolition of slavery would deprive Britain of cheap labour, thus plunging everyone into material misery as the economy collapsed, he insisted that he did not care what price had to be paid: slavery was an abomination which stank in the nostrils of God and would have to be eradicated. Yet Wesley always regarded the cause of abolition and other expressions of social protest as an implicate of the gospel, not as an ideology for which the “gospel”, so-called, merely provided the primitive and picturesque dress which sophisticated people had grown beyond.

Admirers of Wesley are fond of saying that his gospel was so effective in altering social conditions that Britain was spared a revolution as bloody as that which racked France in 1789. Whereupon leftwing historians snort, “That’s just the trouble!” The point is, Wesley did not aim at revolution. He wanted only to allow Jesus Christ to stand forth in the totality of his reality, that he might bring forth a new creature and a new earth.

Today, in our church, Wesley is most readily co-opted and misinterpreted right here. Nevertheless, an unbiased reading of Wesley himself will disclose, unarguably, that his gospel cannot be reduced without remainder to an ideology of social reconstruction. And a reading of his l9th century descendants who shared his vision will disclose the same: Wesleyan theology is the God-ordained reflection of believing men and women upon the reality of Jesus Christ and upon the actuality of God’s world.

(iv) In the fourth place Wesley is in danger of being co-opted by those who incorrectly suppose him to be theologically or intellectually indifferent. When I was visiting professor in Newfoundland a United Church minister, commenting on the difference between Methodists and Presbyterians on the island, said, “The Presbyterians had scholarship, but we (i.e., the Methodists) had religion.” His remark may have reflected with some accuracy the state of affairs, historically, in Newfoundland. But his remark does not at all reflect the value Wesley himself placed on learning in general and on theological learning in particular. A current myth, as unedifying as it is false, is that the Reformed Church had a coherent theology while the Methodist had an amorphous “blob”. Not so for Wesley! My own research has turned up many instances where Wesley reflects almost word for word significant passages in Calvin’s Institutes. This is not to deny important distinctions between Reformed and Wesleyan theology. It is to insist, however, that Wesley was thoroughly acquainted with the riches of the Christian tradition, and recognized where Christian truth had been articulated ably, even as he retained his own critical independence. It is simply not the case that the Presbyterian inheritance in The United Church of Canada represents theological rigour, while the Methodist inheritance represents vacuity.

Think of the literary formation of the Wesley brothers, not the sufficient condition but certainly a necessary condition of their hymn-writing. At Charterhouse school, where John went at age eleven, the lower form boys wrote an English prose pré cis of Sunday’s sermon; the middle form boys a Latin prose pré cis, and the upper form boys a Latin verse pré cis. We should not overlook the fact that among the dozens of books Wesley wrote one is newly reprinted, The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion. John knew early in life the learning required of the clergy. A study of the scriptures presupposed mastery of Greek and Hebrew, in addition to ancillary Semitic tongues. Added to these were disciplines which we would scarcely regard as essential to the intellectual formation of ministers yet which were almost self-evidently so to Wesley: logic, history, law, pharmacy (!), philosophy, geography, mathematics, poetry, and music. William Law, from whom Wesley parted company after 1738 (Aldersgate), disdained this emphasis on the mind. He demeaned Wesley’s programme as “empty babble, more suited for someone who has grown bleary eyed from mending dictionaries than for one who has tasted the age to come.” (1)

The first item in Wesley’s programme of study, we should note, was logic, which he regarded as “the gate of the sciences”. At Oxford he had lectured in logic. In’ 1788, at age 85, his diary informs us that he had read logic on four successive mornings. Neologisms and slang he had no use for at all, just as he had no use for high flown language: ‘I could. . . write floridly and rhetorically … but I dare not … let who will admire the French frippery. I am still for plain, sound English.” (2)

Wesley insisted that his preachers spend several hours in study every day. He did so himself. To suggest that Wesleyanism was the refuge of the intellectually effete is simply to confess ignorance of the man himself. And to think that he can be co-opted as a support for a religiosity whose zeal is not according to knowledge is simply to insult him. For he knew, as much as any other Christian leader, that God was to be loved with the mind.

Today, as Wesley is hailed by so many as their spokesperson and inspiration, we must not allow him to be co-opted by lobbyists whose view of Christian faith and life is less than whole. We must not regard him as a ready-to-hand storehouse of illustrations and rationales which reinforce our religious predilections. He must be heard for himself, in the catholicity of his mind and heart, or we shall forfeit the riches which he can yet give us.
III:(i) —  Having seen where we should not distort Wesley we should now endeavour to understand where he can help us.  Wesley can help us as we struggle to develop a folk theology and as we struggle to become a folk church.

When we ponder Wesley’s background and upbringing — son of an English Anglican clergyman (that is, born into the professional class in a society where class distinctions meant more than we in North America shall ever imagine), educated at Oxford University, ordained to the ministry of the established

church — when we ponder this we are amazed that Wesley’s ministry unfolded so largely among people who did not remotely share his situation: working class poor, widows, orphans, miners and so on. We are even more amazed that he wanted to. It required no little grace and effort for him to speak to these people and to be loved and trusted by them. (In passing we might note that while Wesley was moving down the social scale, another leader of the Evangelical Awakening, George Whitefield, was moving up. Whitefield was the bastard son of an English barmaid — a long way from Oxford University — spent much of his evangelistic endeavour among the upper classes, with people such as the Countess of Huntington. Wesley spent very little time with these people, insisting that too many hours had to be frittered in the 18th century equivalent of a cocktail party. The returns were far too meagre for the colossal amount of time invested, Wesley explained.)

Wesley was a folk theologian in the best sense of the word, the sense used first by Professor Albert Outler of Perkins School Theology. Folk theology reflects upon and addresses, in the light of the gospel, the concerns and questions of where people live. Folk theology, as the name implies, leaves to someone else the task of confronting the issues raised by academic enquiry. When we speak of “folk theology”, then, we are using “folk” in the sense of “folk music”. Folk music is not bad music; neither is it music written by semi-competent people; neither is it “music” which aims at unleashing the “superid” in us. Folk music, rather, is music which expresses the aspirations, apprehensions and pain, even the tragedies and triumphs of people on the street, of people where they live. Traditionally, seminarians concentrate on theological issues raised by colleagues in other university departments. Think, for instance, of the concern to develop a theological response to questions raised by Heidegger’s metaphysics, by Hegel’s

philosophy of history, or by Sartre’s existentialism. Wesley would not slight this at all. He would insist, however, that this approach be balanced by another approach which grapples with whatever worries and elates, angers and excites people who are not academic philosophers.

Quite frankly, I am surprised that our church has paid so little serious attention to the sociologist, the anthropologist, the statistician. I am not suggesting for a minute, as Wesley would never suggest, that the sociologist et al supply the content of the church’s preaching and teaching. Standing as he did within the Reformation Wesley knew that scripture is the primary source and norm of the church’s proclamation. At the same time, the social scientist does provide a description of the world which the church engages and which the church must address. A description — not a definitive understanding — a description, yet a description we cannot afford to ignore.

When the sociologist tells us that churchgoing, from his professional standpoint, is simply part and parcel of middle class culture, like the ballet and the B.A. degree; that virtually no one with an income below $20,000 bothers with the church, its message and its witness — do we thoughtlessly dismiss the remark as another attempt at a naturalistic reduction of faith? Or do we ask ourselves if there might just be some substance to the remark? Why is it that we have virtually no credibility with people of lower incomes?

This question has haunted me for some time now. We know that that segment of the socioeconomic spectrum from which The United Church of Canada draws its people is getting narrower and narrower as The United Church constituency becomes more and more affluent. That is, we attract people from a smaller base demographically, and the fewer people whom we do attract have more of this world’s goods. Now the effect of rampant inflation is that the economic middle class, especially the mid-to-upper middle class, is precipitated

downwards, towards the poorer people in our society. Throughout economic crisis the rich remain rich and the poor remain poor, but the middle class is accelerated downward economically. In other words, rampant inflation would tumble our church’s constituency into those people with whom we have, at present, no credibility whatsoever. Have we pondered with sufficient seriousness how vulnerable our church support base is economically? How do we begin now to exercise a credible ministry among people who are not economically privileged? Do we care? Wesley cared!

Yet we must not equate economic disadvantage with human impoverishment. The suburb immediately adjacent to me in Mississauga is Meadowvale West. It is the planned community. It is advertised as an edenic or paradisaical situation. Implied is the notion that to live there is to transcend the contradictions and disruptions which afflict everyone else. Nevertheless, Meadowvale West has one of the highest, if not the highest, incidences of child abuse in the greater Toronto region. An ambulance attendant told me that on Friday evenings his ambulance picks up people who have managed to get the week in at work but who are facing an unendurably lonely weekend. They overdose on pills. Recently, one ambulance crew, on one Friday evening, picked up twelve such persons. How do we deal with such loneliness, isolation, alienation? Wesley wanted to do something for the dislocated of his era who had moved from rural villages to the high density slums of industrial cities and who found themselves bereft. He developed a vehicle through his class, band and society. Genuine care was evident and effective. What are we to do to keep people from falling between the cracks? Folk theology, remember, is not amateurish theology or fad theology or secularized theology. Folk theology is that articulation of the gospel which hears the heartbeat and feels the anguish of where people live.

Related to folk theology is ethos. Ethos is the characteristic spirit of a community. While most discussions of Wesley have to do with formal distinctions between his theology and someone else’s, I have come to think that a major dimension of the entire Wesley phenomenon is the Wesleyan ethos, the spirit or soul of the community of those people whom he had been given to serve and love. While Wesley himself said, on one occasion, that there was but a hair’s breadth between him and Calvinism, for me a question which merits greater investigation is this: was there more than a hair’s breadth between the ethos of a Calvinist church-community in a mercantile city of continental Europe and the ethos of a Wesleyan church-community in an industrial “Satanic mill” of England?.

Wesley can help us in our quest for a folk theology.

(ii) A second area where Wesley can help us today is sanctification. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance the doctrine of sanctification held for early-day Methodism. “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists,” wrote Wesley, “and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up.” (3) By “sanctification” or “Christian perfection” he meant genuine human transformation, by the grace of God, together with the absence of limits to that transformation. In other words, God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it.

Contrary to the opinion of those whose understanding of Wesley is shallow, Wesley never maintained that grace divinizes us, that as we are sanctified we leave our humanity behind and become semi-divine. Similarly, he never maintained that the grace-wrought transformation overcame all the marks of the Fall so as to render us flawless. Neither was Wesley semi-Pelagian, thinking the human will to be so slightly impaired by the Fall as to allow us to move unaided toward God. For Wesley the Fall was as severe in nature and scope as for Luther and Calvin. Like the Reformers Wesley upheld the notion of Total Depravity; i.e., there is no one area or aspect of our humanity which is unaffected by sin and which can, of itself, save other areas or aspects. Indeed, concerning Total Depravity Wesley wrote, “Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a heathen still.” (4) To be sure, he did replace predestination with prevenient grace. Yet he insisted that the human awareness of sin, of the need for repentance, was a predicate of grace, not a predicate of natural human ability. Wesley’s emphasis on the reality of human transformation, then, does not presuppose a shallow view of the Fall.

Like the Reformers, Wesley espoused a pessimism of nature. He went beyond them, however, in his espousing an optimism of grace. God could change people profoundly, such change should be sought, and an ever-deeper work of grace welcomed and lived out. This, Wesley maintained, was the secret of what God was doing in the Methodist societies.

In our own milieu there is great longing for human transformation. People implicitly ask one question of our church, our theologies, our programmes: “What difference does it all make?” While never using the vocabulary, they ask, in their own way, “How does the heart of stone become the heart of flesh?”

Sadly, where and when the historic churches do speak of human transformation too often we run after something which glitters but is not gold, like the human potential movement. But such movements deny the Fall (that is, their view of human nature is naive), they confirm people in their narcissism, they repudiate grace and the need for grace. In a word, they reinforce precisely what needs to be dealt with: concupiscence, humankind’s being turned in on itself, willing itself and its self-understanding as the centre of all that is. In other words, the “transformation” held up, in this regard, is simply an intrapsychic movement within naturalistic limits. Wesley held up something much better. He avoided both the Deistic notion that people were cast upon their own resources, since God was remote, and the mediaeval “ladder of merit”, whereby people achieved sanctification by climbing (God ordained) steps and stairs. He brought sanctification where it belongs, under the Reformation truth of salvation by grace through faith.

Admittedly, in places Wesley’s teaching on Christian perfection is difficult to sort out. He makes an assertion, qualifies it, amplifies it, alters it, and then picks up a fresh approach to the same topic. And in fact nuances in his doctrine have given rise to various schisms within Methodism. Nevertheless, the lineaments oil his teaching are clear:

-Christian perfection is not sinlessness in the sense of faultlessness;
-it is not a rising above human finitude;
-the sanctified never possess sanctification in such a way as to be independent of Jesus Christ, and they always stand in need of forgiveness; they do continue to grow in grace; they are on the road, as Wesley said one hundred times, to perfection in love.

To be overwhelmed by the love of God is to be infused with love for God’s creation. The sanctification or perfection of which Wesley speaks has nothing to do with the self righteousness whose superiority is imagined, or with the neuroticism whose inferiority is distressing. Wesley’s sanctification has everything to do with genuine transformation as earnest believers are taken out of themselves, for they live in Christ through faith and in their neighbour through love, as Wesley’s friend, Luther; said before him.

Obviously we shall not necessarily use Wesley’s vocabulary or share his mind-set in all respects. Yet as we and others groan in anticipation of the revealing of the sons and daughters of God, we shall have to learn from the little man, and learn something profound about sanctification, or else we shall abandon our people and our needy society to sectarian churches which continue to speak of the work of God in the human heart, or to a secular version of the same which is less than helpful, or to an ideological programme of social wrenching. Needed so very sorely is a vision of perfection in love as the worthy goal of followers of him whose crucified arms denote love without measure and without end.

(iii) A third area where Wesley can help us is spirituality. As I have indicated, Wesley gained much from the Reformed tradition. His mother came from Puritan stock.. Again, he profited from exposure to it while distancing himself from it at several points. It is certainly significant that he espoused an evangelical Arminianism. It is significant too that while Roman Catholics claimed apostolic succession to be unbroken continuity with the apostles through the church’s hierarchy, and while Reformed Christians claimed apostolic succession to be continuity with apostolic doctrine, Wesley insisted that it meant continuity with apostolic witness and sprit in the Christian community. He was aware of the
distinction between conformity to doctrine and oneness of spirit with those Christians whose witness is normative for all others.

Unquestionably there is in our church today a hunger for spiritual formation. Candidates for the ministry (whom I interview on behalf of presbytery) tell me that they often feel, upon completing their formal course in theology, as though they are equipped to become religious functionaries while being underdeveloped spiritually. I have found many students and non-students-attempting to remedy such a deficiency by informing their quest with a Roman Catholic content. To be sure, there are riches here. At the same time, there is much that is puzzling and even off-putting. Their quest would be aided immeasurably if they knew how and where Wesley had anticipated them.

We should not forget that from 1725 to 1738 Wesley was much influenced by mystics and moralists. Under their inf1uence his aspiration left him psychologically burdened and theologically warped. It was after 1738, when ‘justification by faith’ (“It is the first principle and can never be enforced too much”) came to the forefront of his theology that his quest became a reality which he could enjoy, in the biblical sense of this word.

In other words, while Wesley knew of and borrowed from a variety of traditions — Reformed, Roman, Puritan, mystical — Wesleyan spirituality came to have its own unique shape. Members of our church today, and especially candidates for the ministry, will be helped as they are apprised of a sprituality which avoids some of the starker aspects of the Reformed tradition, and which also checks a flight into mystical religiosity by its conviction of the scriptural norm.

There remains one important dimension of Wesley’s spirituality which we must not overlook. Wesley was aware that humankind thinks imagistically as well as conceptually. Concrete symbols affect us as well as abstractions. The Roman Catholic tradition emphasizes a seeing of the gospel, while the Reformed tradition emphasizes a hearing of the gospel. With respect to spiritual direction the Reformed tradition magnifies understanding. While not denying the necessity of understanding Wesley magnified the role of the imagination. While his images are not always those which you and I would find helpful (we cannot pretend that we are equipped with the imagistic tools of the 18th century), we do need to recover, once more, the logic of Wesley’s position. We need to grasp not the specific images which he and his brother hung up in the imaginations of their people; rather, we need to grasp the fact that humankind is image-oriented. Something besides theological or doctrinal correctness (always in danger of becoming an ideology which happens to employ a religious vocabulary) is needed to foster spiritual formation. How this is done, how the imaginative is used to assist spiritual formation, is something to be distilled from a sensitivity to Wesley and a sensitivity to the contemporary mind-set. (One case in point. Many modern hymns in our red hymn book are splendid. But one, which I forbear to mention, is replete with imagery which is consistently ugly)

In short, Wesley saw enough of sterile Protestant scholasticism to convince him that the body which is beautifully attired may yet be a corpse. At the same time his concern with spiritual development did not betray him into confusing religiosity with maturity of discipleship. Religiosity he knew, from his experience with it, to be sub-Christian, self-serving, and subtly self-righteous. The danger of a similar confusion is with us today, but just as surely a similar opportunity awaits us.

You may be wondering why there has been so little exposition of Wesley’s works in this address. No attempt, for example, has been made to speak the next-to-definitive word on his notion of prevenient grace or on his eucharistic understanding. In preparing this material I was aware that I would not be addressing academics chiefly or those for whom Wesley scholarship is a preoccupation. I wanted to say something which would incite hearers to read Wesley for themselves, while not giving the impression that Wesley himself now need not be read.

I admit that if we are to be informed by the logic of Wesley’s thought and not simply “dip” into him to illustrate a sermon or two per year, then our acquaintance with him must be more than cursory. But then, dilettantism, which is nothing less than defiance of God’s command to love with our mind, is something from which we must ever be saved.




1. quoted in E. G. Rupp, Just Men, 117
2.      Wesley, Preface to Sermons on Several occasions (1778); in Works, vi, 186-7
3. Wesley, Letters, VIII (15 September, 1790)
4. Wesley, Sermons (Burvash edition.), No. 44, “On Original Sin”


The Reverend Dr. Victor A. Shepherd
October, 1984