The shape of understanding of my faith is Wesleyan. The appreciation of the Wesley taxonomy of prevenient, convicting, justifying, and sanctifying grace I take to be the closest to the Pauline understanding of grace of all the traditional Protestant theological frameworks.1 I furthermore appreciate how Wesley does endeavor to incorporate human experience under the purview of theology, attempting to understand the specific experiences of Christian conversation and transformation in light of the Scriptures.
However, where I find myself pushing back against the Wesleyan theology is the understanding of what faith is. In his correspondence with a “Mr. John Smith” regarding Wesley’s views assurance and witness of the Spirit, Wesley explains his definition of faith: “The term ‘faith’ I likewise use in the scriptural sense, meaning thereby ‘the evidence of things not seen.’2 There are a couple problems with this definition of faith.
Firstly, this definition of Wesley seems to be too overly constraining, assuming that every usage of faith in the Scriptures always is employed with this evidential sense. Wesley, the student of logic, had a logician’s tendency to fix certain, specific definitions to key terms and treat all uses in a univocal way. Logic is averse to equivocation, whereas most communication has some degree of equivocation. But this is not the only sense of faith in the New Testament, including the very passage he pulls that definition from.
Secondly, The very definition of faith is problematic. Wesley avers this is a Scriptural definition, no doubt knowing it as a quotation from Hebrews 11:1. The translation of ἔλεγχος as “evidence” assumes as the preacher/author of Hebrews was describing faith as something epistemic as if faith is about the degree or nature of confidence one has in things they can not see. The Enlightenment had swept over Western Europe and with it a certain skepticism about dogma and tradition that lead to beliefs having to be epistemically justified based upon reason, whether of the more rationalistic or empiricist varieties. The end result is that Wesley, living in England where a Lockean evidentialist-empiricist epistemology had influenced the intellectual landscape, was inclined to understand faith as pertaining to an epistemic confidence in what one believes about the invisible God. Later in the same letter to Mr. John Smith, Wesley avers: “That a rational assent to the truth of the Bible is one ingredient of Christian faith.”3 Then, in his next corresponds XXXX later, Wesley attempts to address in what way the witness of the Spirit is infallible, he observes: “When they have this faith, they cannot possibly doubt of their having it; although it is very possible, when they have it not, they may doubt whether ever they had it or no.”4 In the end, Wesley finds that faith is something is absolutely sure and convicted of, without doubt. Beyond just epistemic culture of the Enlightenment, this also echoes Wesley’s own struggle with certainty and confidence in his spiritual formation.
This definition is a problem because Hebrews 11:1 is not providing an epistemic definition of faith. The first sense of faith is as “ὑπόστασις of what is being hoped for.” Hebrews uses ὑπόστασις three times: 1:3, 3:14, and 11:1. In 1:3 it is employed in an ontological sense of God’s own nature. Obviously, 11:1 is a bit different usage as it is describing faith and not God. But 3:14 is closer to the usage, as it pertains to something that believers have. Many translations render this confidence, as if the concern is about people assurance of the things the hold to. But this doesn’t appear to be the exact issue at hand at this point, although it was a bit sooner in 3:6. Rather, the issue is, put in modern terms, about the cognitive contents of what they believe. In 3:12-13, the concern is that through the hardness of heart they would not believe in God but be taken in by deception. It is thus more likely that ὑπόστασις in 3:14 is about fundamental ideas one believes; more so it is probably about the faith one has in the ὑπόστασις of God, which Jesus himself has as the exact imprint of God’s ὑπόστασις. It would be a better fit both contextually and semantically to translate ὑπόστασις as “essential beliefs,” as expressing the most fundamental convictions. This usage probably holds over to Hebrews 11:1, as both 3:14 and 11:1 talking about ὑπόστασις and a future hope/realization. In that case, faith is being described as that which pertains the central apprehension of what one is to receive from God. Thus, the first sense of faith is about cognitive beliefs believed, not an epistemic, meta-cognitive confidence about that belief.
This leads to the second sense of faith, which Wesley refers to: “ἔλεγχος of things that are not seen.” ἔλεγχος is a New Testament hapax legomenon, with no other uses elsewhere to compare this usage to. However, both the LSJ and the BDAG lexicons suggest the meaning of the word is related to the evaluation and the arguments made on behalf of something or someone. But is prototypical usage is as a term of rhetorical argument based upon a particular idea, which is known as stasis in ancient rhetorical theory. This aligns with the usage of ὑπόστασις as a basic belief that is being evaluated. However, Hebrews 11 isn’t about aligning rhetorical arguments about what one believes, but rather the examples of people in Israel’s history whose faith pushed them to act when there was no immediate proof or confidence that would obtain what was promised to them by God. Allowing this rhetorical term to be reappropriated in this context, faith is being portrayed as testing God’s promises by believers acting upon it themselves. In other words, faith is putting God’s faithfulness to His promises to the test by acting according to it. Faith is an opportunity to understand discover God’s faithfulness, which entails acts of interpreting what God is doing rather than epistemic evaluations of that.
In neither instance sense, then, is the author of Hebrews referring to a meta-cognitive confidence that rules out any questioning or doubt. Rather, faith is about people who act on the most fundamental convictions in God’s promises, allowing God to be faithful. Thus, Wesley’s understanding of faith as being about an absolute inner assurance about what one believes is a bit misplaced, echoes his own struggles with confidence in his faith than the NT’s concern about the content of who and what one has faith in and the way one’s actions put that faith into action. While certainly, Paul places an important emphasis on the witness of the Spirit, Paul does not address issues of confidence but the issues of content: one recognizes oneself as a child of God as recipients of the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises of the inheritance to the descendants of Abraham through THE descendant Jesus Christ, THE Son of God; the witness of the Spirit was a way in which one made sense of one’s life and experience as signifying something about one’s relationship to God in a hermeneutical fashion. But the Enlightenment shifted the question from content to epistemic justification, thus influencing Wesley to read the New Testament as centrally focused upon epistemic concerns rather than hermeneutical ones. While Paul occasionally addresses epistemic considerations, such as in 1 Corinthians, Paul is more hermeneutic than epistemic, in contrast to the Enlightenment’s and Wesley’s epistemic orientation.
In summary, then, my critique from within the Wesleyan tradition is an overemphasis on the individual’s meta-cognitive confidence in one’s belief. This has made the Wesleyan movements susceptible to the erosion of the core doctrines of Christian faith into a mass of pluralistic ambiguity, fostered by an epistemic faith that is susceptible to erosion if one simply forgets the confidence Wesley ascribes to faith that comes from the witness of the Spirit. At that point, skepticism begins to intrude more and more into the sense of faith, question all that one believes with equal veracity. If faith is defined epistemically, then subtle alterations of the epistemic framework alters the entirety of the way people relate to the content of what they believe. Meanwhile, a hermeneutic conception of faith would allow for degrees of epistemic skepticism about various things, but would not be defined by a specific epistemic outlook. Instead, a more hermeneutic conceptualizing of faith would be more cognitive, rather than meta-cognitive, focused on putting into action what one believes rather than being focused upon searching for certainty or tearing down what is not certain.
And perhaps this is simply a reflection of my own experiences, much as I spoke of Wesley’s. My own experience is one who combined a flair for epistemic skepticism with Wesleyan theology produced a deep spiritual struggle that I experience in the midst of some very difficult moments amongst the rest of my life. The result is a person who was looking for epistemic confidence for what I thought or believed, rather than a hermeneutical ability to make sense of the leading of God, but never able to find that confidence because of my epistemic skepticism. In that, I feel a resemblance to Wesley’s spiritual development, but I break with Wesley’s formative pattern into a person who sought to find absolute confidence based upon an experience of the Holy Spirit. I rather move to a shift with a better balance between hermeneutics and epistemology, in which I trust that the Spirit will provide the eyes to see and ears to hear if I am faithful, but still retaining a healthy caution, although not impassioned skepticism, towards the excesses of overexuberant ‘spiritual’ confidence.
- My main criticism of this taxonomy of grace is it is as with many of the Protestant soteriologies are too influenced by trying to understanding God’s saving work in a linear, sequential, orderly manner, as is salvation is an assembly line. This sequential, orderly process has a tendency to misconstrue various Biblical narratives of God’s saving work as outlining specific stages of the salvation process. While the sequence is sometimes considered important, particularly Paul, developing an ordo salutis is not the overriding concern it was with early Protestant theologies.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 12, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 58.
- Ibid., 60.
- Ibid., 66.