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, December 22, 2011

What Does It Mean to Be Wesleyan?

Somewhere in one of his books, Methodist theologian, Stanley Hauerwas writes that when one is a Methodist, one's theological background is quite doubtful. There is some truth to that. While we Methodists have more than our fair share of excellent theologians, such helpful theological reflection has not seemed to trickle, let alone permeate, to the pastoral and lay leadership in our churches. The answer I usually hear from my colleagues as to what it means to be Wesleyan is a response that always includes the word "inclusive." And while it cannot be doubted that the Wesley brothers understood God's grace as being generously inclusive, it is my view that simply to equate Wesleyanism with inclusivism fails to get to the heart of what it means to be Wesleyan; for popular Methodist understandings of what it means to be inclusive are less Wesleyan and more a product of 20th and 21st century pop culture in which inclusivism is defined in ways that are too broad and too shallow.

So then, what does it mean to be Wesleyan? The question assumes, of course, that there is something distinctive about being a Wesleyan. Of course, we have much in common with other Christian traditions-- Wesley agreed quite often with Martin Luther and John Calvin et al. So in answering the question of being Wesleyan we are not interested in what we have in common with other Christian traditions, though we must affirm that we hold much in common with the church universal. If we did not, it would raise the serious question as to whether the Wesleyan tradition is Christian.

So, again, what does it mean to be Wesleyan? What is distinctive about the daughters and sons of John and Charles Wesley?

Let me suggest that what I am about to put forward is not a complete answer to the question, but rather I am offering a center around which other Wesleyan affirmations orbit. It is not a new or innovative answer, but it highlights what in some ways is distinctive. Moreover, the answer must entail a central focus of Wesley's practical divinity.

What it means to be Wesleyan is to focus our attention on holiness of heart and life. Every United Methodist ordinand answers Wesley's historic questions he asked of his preachers. One of those questions is, "Are you going on to perfection?" Wesley states that his use of the word "perfection" is to be understood synonymously with holiness. Wesley believed that the Christian life was one of progress, one of moving forward in and toward holiness of heart and life. Following Jesus was a movement toward being fashioned in the image of Jesus Christ who is in the image of God. John Wesley wholeheartedly embraced the Orthodox notion of theosis and Athanasius' claim, "God became man, so that men might become a god." This did not mean that human beings could become divine, but in Jesus God intends for women and men to, in the words of 2 Peter, "partake of the divine nature" (1:4).

Though Wesley less uses the terminology of theosis, nevertheless, the implications of his understanding of perfection are obviously connected. Thus, for Wesley, God's grace is transformative. Too many Protestant accounts of grace are unduly passive, where it is God who does all the giving and there is little to no response on our part. To be sure, for Wesley, like the other major Protestant thinkers, in grace it is God who takes the initiative. Salvation and sanctification are a work of God, but we must respond in willingness to move on toward perfection, toward holiness of heart and life.

It is important to note that it is holiness of both heart and life. To emphasize one at the exclusion of the other will not result in perfection. One's own spiritual disciplines of the heart (e.g. Bible study, prayer, fasting) are ineffective if they do not lead to holiness of life (e.g. works of service, feeding the poor, seeking justice). In the same way, works of service and seeking justice have no kingdom direction without the cruciform change of heart that accompanies such work and by its witness encourages others to seek both the holiness of heart and life.

John and Charles Wesley firmly believed that Jesus did not come to this earth to leave us unchanged. Unlike the modern theologian, Paul Tillich, who suggested in a famous sermon that the heart of the gospel was forgiveness, Wesley knew that forgiveness was one of the critical ingredients necessary in order to move us toward perfection. Jesus died not just to get us "off the hook," but to enlist us as his disciples who are being changed that God might bring change-- salvation-- to this world.

It is my hunch that such holiness of heart in life is not emphasized in more than a few Wesleyan circles because holiness has gotten a bad rap from those who think holiness is nothing more than a synonym for "sour Christians," believers walking around with their noses up in the air, carrying their Bibles with black covers, and looking as if they have been sucking on sour lemons. Moreover, I also think we have failed to place much importance on holiness of heart and life simply because it is not an easy road to walk. It requires discipline to be a disciple in such a fashion. And it may also be that we fail to speak much of holiness of heart and life because we are afraid to ask too much of other disciples in the fear that we will scare them away. On this we must heed the words of Bishop William Willimon who said (somewhere in one of his books) that during his ministry Jesus turned off as many people as he attracted.

So, what does it mean to be Wesleyan? Whatever else it may mean, it must mean striving toward being made perfect in love in this life. And whether or not we get there, we must travel on that road to perfection in this life.

To do anything less would not be very Wesleyan.


Rick said...

I appreciate this post.

Question though, your definition of Wesleyan would differ from the Wesleyan denomination, such as those at Wesley Seminary.

You use Wesleyan more as Methodist, while they would see distinctions. One would be in regards to your comment:
"...what does it mean to be Wesleyan? What is distinctive about the daughters and sons of John and Charles Wesley?"

Ken Schenck, dean of the school wrote, in regards to the study of Wesley:
"most potent expression from Keith Drury--"John Wesley was not the father of our church. He was more like our great-grandfather, and Phoebe Palmer more like our grandmother."...Wesley was a great man. His practices were full of great insights. His theology is full of potential. But he did not found the Wesleyan Church or the Nazarene Church or the Free Methodist Church. We have the freedom and I hope the profundity to think greater thoughts than he did. After all, we have 200 more years of good stuff to integrate and evaluate with. For example, he was a pre-modern biblical interpreter. His interpretations may end in truth, but he would not have received good grades in an inductive Bible study class. Don't fawn over grandpa. He was good. But if we can't be better today, we're mediocre."

Should not such a distinction be made between Wesleyan and Methodist?

John Meunier said...

I wonder if getting poor grades in an inductive Bible study class is a sign of his limitations or a comment on inductive Bible study classes?

I really do not have an answer to that. I read Wesley's sermons and see the ways his use of Scripture would be frowned upon today, but I cannot discern whether that is a strike against him or us. I am wary of presuming that the mere fact that we were born after him makes us wiser than him.

As for the heart of Wesleyan theology and practice -- which is what I take to be Allan's question -- I agree with him that holiness is the starting point. Inward and outward holiness was for Wesley the very meaning of salvation. It was nothing less than loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as our self. This was the aim of religion for him.

And it was a target that could be hit, with God's help, not an impossible ideal for a future state of glory.

Rick said...


I agree that we may need to look at ourselves in the mirror in regards to Wesley and Bible study classes.

I have appreciated how Wesley really looked at the church fathers in helping his theology (theosis, but not calling it that). I can see why Oden, and his paleo-orthodoxy, has strong ties with Wesleyan tradition.

In regards to holiness, how much does Wesley see it as something we work towards, and how much of it is fruit of the Spirit? How much does he stress "abiding", which brings forth holiness, over just doing good things?

Bruce Hitchcock said...

Thanks for the good post Allan. I like the context you begin with and the distinctions you draw out. This holiness of heart and life is how I see and experience Christianity. I have also noted over the years that Wesley and St Francis share many thoughts and habits of life. I appreciate not having to debate our brothers and sisters in Calvinist and Lutheran traditions. That grows tiresome quickly.

PamBG said...

I think I largely agree with you.

If I was going to express myself concisely, I'd say to be Wesleyan is to be Arminian and devoted to spiritual development (theosis).

I do think that the Arminian and inclusive is an important thing. Wesley was, undoubtedly, fighting against double-predestination in his day, although we should note that he did not de-church Calvinists. I really do believe that, in historical context, the Arminianism (inclusiveness) was a huge impetus for the popularity of Methodism.

And theosis? Forget about it. I've found that in North East Ohio within a certain "outcast" segment of the Roman Catholic community. I don't see any Protestants around here who particularly interested in it.

PamBG said...

I don't see any Protestants around here who particularly interested in it.

I should probably correct myself because I know you're interested in it, Allen.

I don't see any Protestant communities who are interested in putting in the time, effort and learning into this. The UMC certainly isn't going to get there if it's mainly interested in backsides in the pews.

And the Catholics I've connected with are not "official" communities, for the most part. They simply bring their centuries of wisdom regarding spirituality (which includes outworking!) to the table. These are all loose, informal networks of people. I'm not sure the formal church (Protestant or Catholic) has the ability to accommodate this.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. I passed this along to some of my key leaders here at Asbury. The key words we are focusing on here at Asbury are Graceful, Evangelical, and Wesleyan. Grace = all loved. Evangelical = all call to conversion. Wesleyan = all called to a transformed lifestyle.

PamBG said...

So we're back to:

All need to be saved,
All can be saved,
All can know they are saved,
All can be saved to the uttermost.


Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks to everyone for the good discussion.

Rick, I would echo John M's point on the issues of a pre-modern reading of Scripture. While the historical critical method has done much to help us understand Scripture, those pre-critical folks often had much insight in interpreting the biblical text. Moreover, it is not a matter of "fawning over grandpa." It is a matter of drawing from a rich Wesleyan heritage which often we fail at doing.

Pam, yes, the inclusive thing is important as I mentioned, but I think so often contemporary Methodist understandings of inclusiveness are tantamount to saying "whatever." So what I'm rejecting is what I believe is a superficial inclusiveness that undermines Wesley's understanding of grace as transformational.

PamBG said...

but I think so often contemporary Methodist understandings of inclusiveness are tantamount to saying "whatever." So what I'm rejecting is what I believe is a superficial inclusiveness that undermines Wesley's understanding of grace as transformational

Yep, Grace is not about "whatever". We need a more robust understanding of it, I think. "Transformational" is a good word.

I'm also tired of people hearing words like "grace" and "love" as soppy, sentimental things without substance. Because then it becomes too easy to dismiss them with a wave of the hand.

Allan R. Bevere said...

The soppy and sentimental are enemies of sound, substantive theological reflection.