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Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings: Volume 1, God and Providence.


Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings: Volume 1, God and Providence

Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 2012.  Pp. 240 Paperback US$22.99  ISBN 978-0-310 32815

Volume 2, Christ and Salvation. Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 2012.  Pp. 320 Paperback US$22.99  ISBN 978-0-31049267-2.

Oden’s scholarly versatility is noteworthy: see, for instance, his three-volume systematic theology, his multi-volume exploration of pastoral theology and practice, his study of the church in Africa, his examination of the Early Fathers, and his Patristic commentaries on Scripture. His current project, John Wesley’s Teachings, will eventually include volumes three (pastoral theology) and four (ethics and society). Reflecting the order of Wesley’s adherence to classic consensual Christian teaching, the work is an expansion of Oden’s earlier John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (1994), albeit four times longer.

Always unashamed that his ‘home’ is the Methodist tradition; always cognizant of Wesley’s catholicity, substance and particular gift to the Body of Christ; always unapologetic in the face of the weighty contributions of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, Oden has once again expounded the angle-of-vision on theology, discipleship and community embedded in Wesley’s astute fusing of the riches of Anglicanism, Puritanism, and Pietism – with all of this enlivened by the Spirit-infusion characteristic of Methodists and their charismatic descendants.

Oden’s stated purpose is to forefend the oft-heard criticism that Wesley did not think systematically; to render Wesley’s vast patrimony available to the non-professional contemporary reader; and to increase accessibility through reducing archaisms and ambiguities.

Sternly Oden exposes the ignorance of those who think Wesley soteriologically shallow: “There is not a shred of Pelagianism in Wesley.” (v.2, p.240) Emphatically he refutes those who regard the Methodist movement as mawkish: “Especially odious to Wesley was a sentimental hymnody….” (v.2, p.95) Relentlessly he supports Wesley’s insistence that theological novelty is eo ipse heresy, since the truth and reality of the gospel is found in the apostolic confession of Jesus Christ and in the ecumenical, consensual affirmation of it found in the following four centuries. Judiciously he insists that while Wesley is a child of the West (i.e., unambiguously Protestant, ‘justification by faith’ never compromised), Wesley’s Protestantism is rooted in the Eastern Fathers no less than in the Western. Realistically Oden reminds the reader that while some might regard Wesley’s descendants as merely one more family among the dozens in the universal church, in fact Wesley’s understanding is proving at this moment to be the theology of evangelization globally: in Latin America (albeit with a Pentecostal infusion), in Continental Europe and, not least, in Russia. Profoundly Oden highlights Wesley’s theology as neither one-sided nor shallow; while rooted in antiquity it is more readily acknowledged and owned today than are the ersatz theologies that marry modernity only to find themselves widowed shortly.

Oden warns readers that “Only two subjects in the Wesley literary corpus place serious intellectual burdens on the ordinary reader, and this [i.e., predestination] is one of them (original sin being the other).” (v.2, p.157) Wesley’s articulation of original sin is his longest treatise, while Oden’s discussion of predestination is the longest chapter in the two volumes under review. Sidestepping no biblical issue, Oden develops, without discomfiture or defensiveness, Wesley’s protracted discussion of angels (parenthetically noting that Wesley’s angelology intrigues audiences more than anything else Oden says about Wesley.)

Unerringly Oden highlights Wesley’s accentuation of sanctification as transformation in this life, emphasizing the difference now in those who embrace the Saviour who releases believers from sin’s power or grip no less than from sin’s guilt. In such a judicious balance of justification and sanctification Oden points out Wesley’s insistence on the equilibrium of Christology and Pneumatology, or what God does for us in the Son and what God effects in us through the Holy Spirit; for a one-sided elevation of Christology issues in “formalism” (a frigid orthodoxy that fills the mind yet freezes the heart) while a one-sided elevation of Pneumatology issues in “enthusiasm” (an inflamed subjectivism that welcomes irrationalism). Wisely Wesley upholds the Spirit-invigorated restoration of reasoning’s integrity while eschewing philosophical rationalism.

Thanks to his extensive and intensive knowledge of Wesley, Oden can direct readers to documents wherein are found ready-to-hand deposits or concentrations of key themes. For instance, all of Wesley’s major points concerning the Holy Spirit are stated summarily in his “A Letter to a Roman Catholic” (1747); the quickest route to Wesley’s Christology is found in his “Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper” (1784); and the foundational documents for Wesley’s understanding of justification by faith (he never disagreed in the slightest with the Magisterial Reformers on this point) are the “Doctrinal Minutes,” the distillate of the first three Annual Conferences (1744-1746).

Christians of Pentecostal persuasion will profit from Oden’s thorough discussion of Christian Perfection. Oden points out that ‘perfect’, in Wesley’s understanding, is informed not by the Latin perfectus (faultless, admitting no development) but by the Greek teleiosis (a self-abandoned aspiration to self-forgetful love of God and neighbour).

Since Wesley names double-predestination “the very antidote of Methodism,” nothing less than a “lie” that renders God satanic, Oden patiently explores the nature and logic of prevenient grace, the merciful activity of God that ‘comes before’ sinners are even aware of their need of grace and only by means of which they can respond to saving grace. In this regard Oden faithfully reflects Wesley’s attentive reading of his Patristic mentors and the logic of prevenience at every stage of the Ordo Salutis.

Oden has performed a fine service in appending helpful bibliographies at the conclusion of each section of each volume, thereby directing readers to books and articles that amplify or situate any one item of Wesley’s theology. Since Wesley’s theology is entrenched in sermons, letters, journals, diaries and numerous tracts, footnotes indicating where corroboration of Oden’s interpretation can be found, especially in the lesser-known repositories of Wesley’s thought, are invaluable. An appendix paralleling the Jackson Edition (1829-31) and the Bicentennial Edition (1975-) of Wesley’s Sermons will save serious students no little time and spare them much frustration.

Victor Shepherd, Tyndale University College & Seminary, Toronto.