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NEITHER MIST NOR MUD

 

NEITHER MIST NOR MUD

In the summer of 1976 I was visiting professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. A nearly-retired clergyman who had been in Newfoundland all his life commented on Newfoundland churchmanship of yesteryear: “The Presbyterians had scholarship, while we Methodists had religion”. The disjunction he spoke of is non-biblical, since, for one, God is to be worshipped with the mind, and for another, to worship one-knows-not-what is simply to worship an idol. I cannot comment on turn-of-the-century Methodism in Newfoundland. But I can tell you what Wesley’s reaction would have been if such a disjunction had been attributed to him: he would have considered himself falsified, even maligned.

There is no doubt concerning the theological dilution of the largest Methodist body which formed the larger part of The United Church of Canada in 1925; i.e., no doubt concerning the doctrinal flaccidity of this branch of the Wesleyan family. As I have sought to find out why and how the largest segment of the Wesleyan family in Canada could unravel theologically so very badly I have heard countless references to Wesley’s sermon, “Catholic Spirit”. It is often suggested to me that Methodism is characteristically theologically indifferent, even suggested that Wesley himself was — as “Catholic Spirit” is referred to (but not quoted unless quoted out of context) again and again.

The truth is Wesley himself knew that doctrine has to do with the truth of God; that doctrine is essential to the soundness of anyone’s faith and essential to the soundness of the church. Then what of his sermon, “Catholic Spirit”? Did he lapse momentarily in this one sermon and unwittingly sow the seeds of the very distortion which has haunted at least the larger North American bodies which bear his name?

In fact Wesley never jettisoned — or thought could be jettisoned — what he held to be the core, the essentials, of the Christian faith. At the same time, to be sure, he deplored what he deemed to be unnecessary quarrelling among Christians. For instance, while he remained enormously indebted to Puritan thinkers of the preceding century, he thought Puritan disputants themselves unnecessarily contentious. Wesley stood opposed in equal measure to dogmatism with respect to non-essentials and indifference with respect to essentials. Then does his “Catholic Spirit” atypically support the cavalierness to the substance of the faith which the sponsors of the chair I am to occupy rightly resist as surely as other denominations with a Wesleyan root have not resisted?

The text for “Catholic Spirit” is 2 Kings 10:15 (KJV). “And when he [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him. And he saluted him and said, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. [Jehu said], If it be, give me thine hand.” We know that Wesley preached on this text on November 23, 1740; September 8, 1749; and November 3, 1749. Likely he preached on it on other occasions as well. The sermon was first published in 1750, then republished in 1755 and 1770. Evidently Wesley deemed its subject-matter important. The latter two editions were graced by the addition of Charles’s forty-two line hymn, “Catholic Love”, one stanza of which is

Weary of all this wordy strife,

These notions, forms, and modes and names,

To Thee, the Way, the Truth, the Life,

Whose love my simple heart inflames,

Divinely taught, at last I fly,

With thee and thine to live and die.

Then did Charles support the notion that any attempt at doctrinal precision is but “wordy strife”? In order to answer this question we must probe the sermon itself.

Wesley’s first point is that “love is due to all mankind” — including, he is careful to add, those who curse us and hate us. Yet there is a “peculiar love” which we owe fellow-believers. All Christians know this and approve it; and just as surely all Christians fail here. Wesley adduces “two grand general hindrances”; Christians “…can’t all think alike, and in consequence of this…they can’t all walk alike”. He admits that differences in opinions or modes of worship may prevent “entire external union”; but “need it prevent union in affection?….May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

As he ponders the text Wesley notes that it “naturally divides itself into two parts”: Jehu’s question to Jehonadab, and Jehu’s welcome to Jehonadab following the latter’s positive reply. Wesley immediately notes that Jehu’s question concerns Jehonadab’s heart, not Jehonadab’s opinion. And to be sure Jehonadab had opinions unusual in Israel, impressing as he did upon his children and grandchildren the Rechabite vow which eschewed wine, and forswearing the security of farms and homes for the landlessness and tents of nomads. Jehu, for his part, so far from being offended or contemptuous, was content to “think and let think” — and a good thing too, says Wesley, since as we “see in part” (1 Cor. 13:12) we shall not all see things alike. Then he adds a comment which all Wesleyans (indeed all Christians) must note carefully. Our not all seeing things alike is a consequence of “the present weakness and shortness of human understanding”, to be redressed only in the eschaton. Our not all seeing things alike with respect to opinion is not the consequence of that darkened, foolish mind which is a predicate of human depravity. Culpable ignorance of God, on the other hand — always to be distinguished from differences of opinion — is the product of the darkened mind of the depraved, as Wesley acknowledges throughout his works.

Concerning opinion Wesley mentions modes of worship. Some Christians are convinced of the virtues of the Anglican Prayer Book while others are convinced of the virtues of the Free Church tradition. We “think and let think”. However, he adds immediately, a churchless Christian is a contradiction in terms. One is a Christian only as one worships with fellow-Christians in a particular congregation. Plainly the mode of worship is of the order of opinion, while corporate worship is of the order of essential.

Jehu’s question, “Is thine heart right…?” has to do not with opinions but with essentials. What are they, or at least some of them?

The first, according to Wesley, is, “Is thy heart right with God? Dost thou believe his being, and his perfections? His eternity, immensity, wisdom, power; his justice, mercy and truth?….Hast thou a divine evidence, a supernatural conviction, of the things of God?” Obviously our belief in God’s attributes and activity does not concern opinions but essentials; and just as obviously Wesley is careful to balance the objective and the subjective, head and heart. Judiciously he avoids identifying Christian experience (“Hast thou …a supernatural conviction…?”) with mere doctrinal assent; and just as judiciously he avoids identifying Christian experience with normless subjectivism.

The next aspect in Wesley’s delineation of what it means to have one’s heart right is, “Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘God over all…’?” The doctrine of the Incarnation is bedrock-essential. Nothing less than the most elemental apostolic confession, “Jesus is Lord”, will do. There is no suggestion in Wesley of a crypto-Arianism or crypto-unitarianism. And then once again there is that careful balance, typical of Wesley, between objective truth and the believing subject’s appropriation of the person of him whose truth it is: “Dost thou know ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’?….Is he ‘formed in thy heart by faith’?” Then Wesley adds what he, a son of the Reformation, will always insist on; namely, justification by faith. “Having absolutely disclaimed all thy own works, thy own righteousness, hast thou ‘submitted thyself unto the righteousness of God’, ‘which is by faith in Christ Jesus’?” And lest those rendered righteous (i.e., rightly related to God) by faith think that anything but lifelong struggle and discipline await them Wesley comments, “And art thou through him [Jesus Christ] fighting the good fight of faith, and laying hold of eternal life?” Justification by faith is non-negotiable, as is vigorous, rigorous discipleship.

Next Wesley discusses matters which force his readers to search their hearts, as he sounds like a spiritual director, having inherited the seventeenth century Puritan tradition of spiritual direction. Puritanism abounded in those who were especially adept at helping others discern the movement of grace within them and helping them discern and deal with impediments to this movement. Here Wesley is brief and blunt: “Dost thou seek all thy happiness in him [God] alone?….Has the love of God cast the love of the world out of thy soul?” And then he zeroes in: we must love God for no other reason than God is who God is. We are not to love God instrumentally (that is, because we need something from God); neither are we to love God primarily to avoid the perils of judgement. “Art thou more afraid of displeasing God than either of death or of hell?” — otherwise, Wesley knows, our fear is still an excrescence of that self-preoccupation from which we need to be delivered.

Lastly he asks, “Do you ‘love your enemies’?”

The foregoing has nothing to do with opinion, everything to do with essentials. Therefore, says Wesley, he will extend his hand to anyone whose heart is right in the sense of what has been outlined above.

It remains for him to tell us what it means to give one’s hand to another. It does not mean that the two shaking hands will hold the same opinion. Nevertheless, it will mean that they genuinely love each other. Lest such “love” be nothing more than sentimental rhetoric Wesley pleads, “Love me with a very tender affection…as a friend that is closer than a brother.” In case we still fail to understand him Wesley amplifies this: “Love me with a love…that is patient if I am ignorant and out of the way, bearing and not increasing my burden…”. And if you, a believer, find me, a believer too, sinning, says Wesley, love me so as to recognize that I sinned “in sudden stress of temptation”.

To give one’s hand to another, Wesley informs us briefly, is always to pray for one another and to encourage one another in love and good works.

Then what does Wesley say a catholic spirit is not?

It is not “speculative latitudinarianism”. Christians are not indifferent to opinion. The baptist is as sincere, convinced, in fact, in espousing believer’s baptism as the paedobaptist is in espousing the understanding associated with this practice. Since a catholic spirit is not even indifference to opinion, how unthinkable that it could ever be indifference to the essentials of the faith! “A man of truly catholic spirit…is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.” Those who boast of possessing a catholic spirit “only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist”; those people, Wesley insists, don’t even know what spirit they are of! To sit loose to the substance of the faith is simply to display a mind of mist and mud. These self-deluded people think they “are got into the very spirit of Christ” when in fact they are “nearer the spirit of anti-Christ.” Wesley’s assertion here must be allowed its full weight: theological indifference reflects the spirit of anti-Christ.

In the second place a catholic spirit is not “practical latitudinarianism”. Here Wesley repeats his earlier insistence concerning public worship and “the manner of performing it”, as well as his insistence that all Christians must be intimately bound to a congregation which is so dear to us that each of us “regards it as his own household”.

Wesley’s last admonition to us in his sermon, “Catholic Spirit”, is for us to remember that the true catholic spirit is manifested in the daily exercise of catholic love, until that day when faith gives way to sight and we behold that love which God is. Until such time, Wesley advises, “…keep an even pace, rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints [for him there could never be any other root] and grounded in love, in true, catholic love, till thou art swallowed up in love for ever and ever.”

If any doubt remains as to Wesley’s doctrinal orthodoxy and the spiritual rigour required by, because first facilitated by, the One whose truth doctrine apprehends, such doubt is dispelled by one reading of Wesley’s sermons. Not all one hundred and fifty need be perused; consulting the first four will suffice. They are “Salvation By Faith”, “The Almost Christian”, “Awake, Thou That Sleepest”, and “Scriptural Christianity”.

The first, “Salvation By Faith” (1738), Wesley delivered at Oxford University following his Aldersgate awakening, when he flew his evangelical colours. Here he declared himself one with the sixteenth century Reformers.

The second sermon, “The Almost Christian” (1741), isn’t so much about those who are about to enter the kingdom (or about not to enter to it) as it is about the disparity between nominal Christianity and genuine faith in a living Lord. This was not a new theme in British Christendom, the Puritan divines before Wesley having expounded it many times. Still, here Wesley publicly declared himself one with the seventeenth century Puritans. When Wesley was about to preach this sermon (also at Oxford) he was told that Oxford’s theological hostility would find his address without credibility. “I know that”, he had replied, “however, I am to deliver my own soul, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear.”

The third sermon, “Awake, Thou That Sleepest” (1742), was actually written by Charles and endorsed without qualification by John; it too is a throbbing evangelical statement.

The fourth, “Scriptural Christianity” (1744), Wesley delivered on August 24, the anniversary of two dreadful persecutions visited on people of gospel-conviction: the St.Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris (1572) and the Great Ejection in England (1662) in which both Wesley’s grandfathers suffered cruelly. By this time Wesley knew the price to be paid for adhering to that faith attested by apostles, church fathers and reformers. In his journal he wrote on August 24, 1744, “I preached, I suppose, for the last time at St.Mary’s [Oxford]. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have fully delivered my own soul”.

And yet it is still heard in some areas of the contemporary church that Wesley had a shallow view of human depravity, that his view of Total Depravity was less “total” than that of the reformers. This is not true. In his sermon, “Salvation By Faith”, Wesley insists that humankind’s “heart is altogether corrupt and abominable”, that salvation is always and everywhere “an unspeakable gift”. “Of yourselves”, he continues in the same article, “cometh neither your faith nor your salvation…. that ye believe is one instance of grace; that believing, ye are saved, another.” Two hundred plus years earlier John Calvin had spoken of faith as an “empty vessel”, meaning that our faith does not contribute to the substance of our salvation, and therefore we cannot boast that we have, however slightly, saved ourselves. In the same vein Wesley writes, “…faith is…a full reliance on the blood of Christ, a trust in the merits of his life, death and resurrection, a recumbency upon him as our atonement and our life…”. Then he adds, “…in consequence hereof a closing with him and cleaving to him as our ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption…’.” His citing 1 Corinthians 1:30 here is surely telling, since this text was Calvin’s favourite! Wesley did not have a diminished understanding of human helplessness before God; he was not less profound than his reformation predecessors. In a pithy aphorism reflecting the style of Puritan thinkers dearer to him than even most Methodists grasp, he comments tersely, “…none can trust the merits of Christ till he has utterly renounced his own.”

Wesley had no truck with a gospel-less Pelagianism or a Christ-less Arianism or a Trinity-less unitarianism; neither did he have any truck with that for which he is blamed often, a degenerate Arminianism. His theology was as soundly apostolic as his spirit was truly catholic.

On behalf of all who have supported the Chair of Wesley Studies at Ontario Theological Seminary, and on behalf of the same people who have supported my appointment to it, I want only to hold up before students, and through them before the wider church, John Wesley himself, in order that they and I, learning together from him, might ever reflect the same passion for the apostolic confession of Jesus Christ and the same catholic spirit which renders our faith ever that faith which works through love. (Galatians 5:6)

 

Victor A. Shepherd
Chair, Wesley Studies
Ontario Theological Seminary
26 September 1993