A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

When It Comes to Justification by Faith, How Protestant Was John Wesley?

I just finished reading William Abraham's book, Wesley for Armchair Theologians. I have been asked by several people over the years what I thought of the book; and even though I love Abraham's work, I didn't want to recommend something I hadn't read, so I decided to take up his book and read.

Abraham gives us a nice introduction to Wesley's theology. It is not a difficult read, but it is substantive. On Wesley and justification by faith he writes the following:

The crucial point to observe, surely, is that Wesley has abandoned the traditional Protestant position on justification by faith alone. He keeps the verbal and technical form of the original doctrine of the Reformation, but he has radically abandoned the substance of the tradition. His protests and denials are precisely what we would expect from a hair-splitting, competent logician, such as Wesley clearly was. They do nothing to ease the theological shift he has made.

We see here the drive to holiness that animated Wesley's theology as a whole. He is totally opposed to any vision of justification that will open a door to the denial or neglect of the moral law. Clearly, unwary doctrines of justification by faith alone have paved the way for views of the Christian life that downplay, if not reject completely, the quest for virtue and the struggle against vice. After all, if all I need is faith, then it ultimately does not matter what I do.

Now, it must be said that Wesley is not promoting justification by works. He is not remotely suggesting that salvation is something to be earned, but for Wesley our works express the reality of our justification. Thus grace is a transforming thing. It is not something that we receive passively with no response on our part. As Abraham says of Wesley, "there was no standing still; one either moved forward or backward."

There is no doubt that Wesley's account of justification by faith has been viewed suspiciously by Protestants of other theological stripes. So, here is my question for discussion: Was Wesley's account of faith and his view of its relationship to works a rejection of the hallmark doctrine of Protestantism, or an affirmation of the best of the Protestant Reformation. Why or why not?

All are welcome to comment.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is true that faith will allow "anything". But, it is also true that one that subscribes to Wesley's view will be judging another based on some assessment of works. Which work will suffice? Who determines what the "good work" is to be? ETC.

Whenever we prescribe morality, we get into endless discussions of ethical questions, because each of us will place value on different things. Even those who prescribe that God is to be our "ultimate value", then, must have some set of standards of measurement.

It has been assumed by literal biblicists that scripture is the standard (and I think this was Wesley's view, too)and scriptures say that the poor, the destitute, and the outcast were the ones that are to be the "Christian good work".

Fine, but then, is one to determine who, what, where and when another individual is to accomplish that task and how it is to be done? This is not liberty but bondage to moral judgments of another person, or group.

The individual if he is to be a responsible moral being must determine for himself what, who, when and where he will "do" what he does. And our country's "Protestant work ethic" is also a means to the end of prosperity, self-discipline, and success in one's work.

Maturity, as a human being, has nothing to do with or without faith, necessarily, it is coming to terms with and taking responsibility for one's choices and actions. I personally, find it de-meaning, patroninzing and arrogant for another to "lord it over" another, as great crisis can come out of trusting another's invincibility or 'perfection". And yet, I also know that representation is an important part of growing up as a child. (So, maybe those of faith must ask themselves if they need therapy and not another spiritual experience.)

Bruce said...

Wesley's context differed from the contexts of Calvin and Luther. Wesley's issues with Rome differed from the issues Luther pursued. So it is not a surprise to see Wesley thinking and living a protestant faith different from the classic form. The subjects of the discussion, Luther/Calvin, Wesley, and the Roman Catholics have dynamic theologies, complex thoughts, and wonderful biblical foundations that do not lend themselves to easy interpretation and simple comparison. For me, there has always been a comfortable conversation between Roman Catholics and United Methodists. At times it has been easier to engage in theological discourse with Roman Catholics than with the children of Luther and Calvin. I do not know why this is so.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Bruce, Nice point!

Do you think that Wesley's focus was his context of the American frontier. Empirical science (one sees evidence), pioneer spirit of entenpenuership (equalizing class opportunities, preaching to those in the fields), and basing his sermons in reasoned faith, not ethusiasm...? What do you see of his context?

BTW, "context" takes for granted that the "message" of scripture remains "true", just re-interpreted. I just have a problem with religious language being used for 'natural or normal ends". I would much prefer a direct "business" or "non-profit" appeal to their "cause", instead of "sanctifying it" by using 'God's will", etc. (And I believe this is "OUR" context, secularization, which doesn't necessarily mean atheism.)

Allan R. Bevere said...

Bruce, I think it is because there is a real catholicity in Wesleyan theology.

Good insights!

Bruce said...

Angie, all those things you listed as context are accurate. I would add that the context Wesley worked out of is theological in the sense that most of his thought and work comes out of relationship with God through public worship and personal devotion. As for context meaning re-interpreting scripture for the current culture, this is always the task of a preacher. The danger is that the task runs the risk of using culture as the lens through which we see faith and scripture. Secular may not mean atheism, but it certainly does not mean Christian in that the history, tradition and foundations of Christianity are foundational. Secularism, in my opinion, attacks the traditional norms, values and hopes of Christianity. Secularism fails to appreciate the thought and superb contributions to society of Christianity. Perhaps I am mixing secularism with American media.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thank you for your response.

Secular is useful to distinguish the Chruch from the rest of society. But, should the Chruch be distinct?

This is a question of fundamentals or what defines the church and that will differ according to one's personal conviction and the pariticular denomination one is a member of.

I believe that the only thing that has separated the church and society has been a false dichotomy of knowledge. There is no 'special knowledge". All knowledge is true knowledge and is found in the academic disciplines.

Therefore, as Wesley said, "the world was his parish"...meaning that all of life is "sacred" ground, if one wants to "sacrilize" life....

Bruce said...

Indeed, all life and knowledge is sacred due to all that we know and experience in life, and can ever know and experience, flows from God. You seem to be saying then that knowledge and life that does not understand its source and foundation is limited and diminished. If we come from God, and are going to God, but live now without knowledge and experience of past and future, we live and know a seriously flawed existence.