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)

Monday, March 18, 2024

Plain Truth for Plain People: The Folk Theology of John Wesley (Introduction)

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was first and foremost a preacher. It is estimated that he preached over 40,000 sermons in his approximately 60 year career.

For two centuries, Wesley's published sermons have been an important source of theological reflection for all Methodists, in particular his 44 standard sermons that he published between 1746 and 1760. These sermons are considered to be "canonical" for understanding Wesleyan theology. In the standard sermons, Wesley provided the center of his doctrinal teaching. All the sermons after that were considered to be supplementary.(1)

That the sermon was intended to be the main vehicle for conveying theological discourse is not surprising given Wesley's own Anglican context in the 18th century. The sermon along with Scripture, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the patristic writings, and the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer, et. al. were seen as authoritative sources for theological reflection.(2) In other words, Wesley was simply using the main means of communication in his day, and for an itinerant preacher the sermon was central. The sermon was to convey the means of salvation and instruction on holy living. While Wesley was an extemporaneous preacher, his manuscripts were published mainly for the benefit of his lay preachers. They were publications after the fact of his own itinerant ministry. While it is likely not the case that Wesley actually preached these sermons per se, they are in Father John's own words, "the substance of what I have been preaching for eight and nine years past."(3)

To use such common means made Wesley, according to Albert Outler, an Anglican folk theologian.(4) He desired to reach the masses with his words and his teaching. In his words, he was speaking "plain truth for plain people." It is true that Wesley's 18th century prose does not lend to plain speech for twenty-first century Western Christians; but for Wesley plain truth meant speaking in a way that avoided the rhetorical elegance of quoting Latin and leaving it untranslated or alluding to thinkers of the past that required an educated populace in order to understand the connections. While Wesley's learning came through in his sermons (and he was a voracious reader), he avoided a kind of flourishing eloquence (most of the time) that required formal education. Wesley was deeply concerned that the message of his sermons remain accessible to all listeners. He writes,
I design plain truth for plain people. Therefore of set purpose I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations, from all perplexed and intricate reasoning, and as far as possible from even the how of learning, unless in sometimes citing the original Scriptures. I labor to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life; and in particular those kinds of technical terms that so frequently occur in bodies of divinity, those modes of speaking which men of reading are intimately acquainted with, but which to common people are an unknown tongue.(5)
With this in mind, I now begin a series that will look at Wesley's 44 standard sermons summarizing, outlining, and providing commentary on the main teaching of each. There are certainly Wesleyan theologians better equipped than I that have already dealt with these matters. So, one may ask why would I undertake something that others have already done? Four reasons:

First, because I can. Having a rather large social media presence and regular readers, it is something that I would like to offer to those who may not read the works that have already delved into this area. I am offering these reflections free of charge.

Second, within the last decade, my study and research have taken me in other directions and I am personally feeling the need to refresh myself on Wesley's theology. It is valuable to me personally to invite others to join me for this journey into Wesleyan doctrine.

Third, as a pastor for many years, the sermon has also been a primary means of theological communication for me and I find that the sermon today is still essential for passing along the central doctrines of the faith to the church. In twenty-first century America, sermons have centered too much on pop psychology promoting moral therapeutic deism. We need more deep theological reflection that gives coherence and meaning to the Christian faith. In good Wesleyan fashion, I believe that doctrine and practice are interwoven together. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are integrated. I reject wholesale the belief that what one believes does not matter. I also dismiss the idea that if one has the right beliefs, how one lives is irrelevant. Both misunderstand how faith and works operate together. Faith and faithfulness are of a seamless garment. For Wesleyans, the purpose of sound doctrine is not to hunt heretics, but to know how to live as the people of God.

Fourth, as an academic the need for offering the substance of the faith in the language of the people is essential if such scholarship is not to be viewed as somehow beside the point. Wesley's theology was indeed one of practical divinity; and his sermons are the most significant vehicle for conveying those truths.

While all of Wesley's 151 sermons are important, I will be focusing only on his 44 standard sermons. Once that is completed, if I have the gumption and if I am still breathing, I may indeed venture on to the rest. While I will be utilizing the sermons published in the bicentennial edition of The Works of John Wesley for its critical notes, I will be following the 1872 edition of Wesley's sermons as they are available online and can be accessed here.

As I post on each of these sermons, I hope that you will join me in this conversation. My goal is to post on a sermon every seven to ten days.

(1) Albert Outler, "Introduction," Volume I. The Works of John Wesley, Sermons 1-33. ed. Albert C. Outler. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), p. x.

(2) Cindy Wesley, "What have the sermons of John Wesley ever done for us? John Wesley's sermons and Methodist doctrine." Holiness: The Journal of Wesley House Cambridge (Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2015): p. 133.

(3) John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions in Three Volumes, Volume 1. The Works of John Wesley, Sermon 1:1-33. p. 103.

(4) Outler, "Introduction," Volume 1. The Works of John Wesley, p. 26.

(5) Quoted in Kenneth L. Carder, "Proclaiming the Gospel of Grace," in Theology and Evangelism in the Wesleyan Heritage. ed. James C. Logan. (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), p. 83.

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