John Wesley (Great Time Series)

Obviously the Wesleyan tradition has something to do with John Wesley.  At the same time, Wesleyanism has not stood still.  Parts of the United Methodist Church today, for example, have become open to many ideas and practices that Wesley himself would never have accepted.  But even the dozens of smaller Wesleyan denominations that arose in the 1800s and 1900s each have their own flavor.  Generations of Wesleyans, Nazarenes, African-Methodist Episcopals, and many others may have little or no sense of who John Wesley was at all.  In many respects, we are more like his grandchildren than his children.

Nevertheless, while we are not bound to Wesley, numerous aspects of his thinking and practice ring true to the heart of the Wesleyan tradition today.  We do not worship Wesley, and we probably should not even hang on his every word.  But he provides an excellent starting point for defining what we mean in this book when we talk about a Wesleyan or the Wesleyan tradition.

He was, of course, orthodox in his faith, by which we mean he affirmed the common creeds of Christendom.  He believed that God really existed and that God had created the world out of nothing. [1]  Wesley believed in the Trinity, that the one God existed as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He believed that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  He believed that Jesus physically rose from the dead.  He believed that Jesus would literally return to earth one day.  These beliefs do not distinguish Wesley from other Christian groups.  They are what he held in common with other groups.

Wesley was a Protestant, but he was an Anglican Protestant, and the Anglican tradition in general remained closer to catholicism than many other forms of Protestantism.  For example, Wesley affirmed the “Scripture only” principle of the Reformation.  But in practice he drew heavily on tradition, reason, and experience to make his arguments.  Albert Outler described his actual method of finding God’s will as a “quadrilateral” of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. [2]  As we will see, this openness to experience and tradition are part of what makes this a great time for the Wesleyan tradition.

But despite the many things Wesley had in common with other believers, we are most interested in some of his most distinctive aspects, the ones that resonate the most with where we are at this point in history.  I’ve boiled it down to four: his 1) orientation around the heart, 2) optimism about life-change, 3) quest to change society, and 4) sense of the priority of mission over method.  Each of these relates to one of the chapters in this book.

Wesley’s focus on the heart has proved to be right on target not only biblically but also psychologically and philosophically.  He once wrote that religion does not “consist in orthodoxy or right opinions… A man may be orthodox in every point… He may be almost as orthodox as the Devil… and may, all the while, be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.” [3] So while Wesley clearly valued orthodoxy, he rightly recognized that it was far more important to have things straight in your heart than in your head.

Another one of Wesley’s great sermons was called, “On a Catholic Spirit.”  In this sermon, Wesley explored the kinship that Christians should have with one another.  He applied the words of 2 Kings 10 to believers, “‘If thine heart is as my heart,’ if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: ‘give me thine hand.'”  While Wesley cared deeply about ideas, a much higher priority was that a Christian’s heart not only was full of the love of God, but also with love of one’s neighbor and enemy…

[more next week, D.v.]

[1] Some in the broader Wesleyan tradition today are “panentheists,” who believe that the world is part of God, evolving along with God.  Wesley would not have accepted their thinking, and the burden of proof is on them to justify their place in the Wesleyan tradition.

[2] Outler

[3] In his sermon, “The Way to the Kingdom.”