As I spent my first few months as part of the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews in 2017, I began to engage with a form of theology that had both of a sense of familiarity and a sense of newness to it in the form of analytic theology. I was simultaneously intimidated but yet felt a sense of understanding about what analytic theology is about. I had more of a natural predilection to Biblical Studies, so when I would hear NT Wright lecture, I felt at home. But my early engagement with analytic theology was quite ambiguous, not being sure if I did or didn’t understand what was happening.
Upon further reflection in the later months, I came upon a realization: what analytic theology attempts to do is somewhat similar to what John Wesley did in his developing theology. To be clear: no analytic theologian would read John Wesley and think: this is an analytic theologian. However, as I compared what I read and knew about John Wesley in comparison to other theologians such as Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, Luther, etc. I though that Wesley’s style is much closer to the analytic style that many other theologians of the past two millenia.
By analytic style, I appeal to the definition of the analytic style by Michael Rea:
P1. Write as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated.’
P2. Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence.
P3. Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.’
P4. Work as much as possible with well-understood primitive concepts, and concepts that can be analyzed in terms of those.
P5. Treat conceptual analysis (insofar as it is possible) as a source of evidence.1
Of these five prescriptions for analytic theology, I would suggest that Wesley best embodies the spirit of P2. In additional, his theological discourse often comes into alignment with P3. Finally, while he does not engage in conceptual analysis on a wide scale, he shows a familiarity behind the different uses of words.
It is important to consider that Wesley studied logic at the University of Oxford. He was quite at home and comfortable with engaging in discussion and logic and epistemology. For instance, he wrote a somewhat review/somewhat commentary to John Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding. I present for reading, however, a paragraph from his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.”
32. You know, likewise, that before it is possible for you to form a true judgment of them, it is absolutely necessary that you have a clear apprehension of the things of God, and that your ideas thereof be all fixed, distinct, and determinate. And seeing our ideas are not innate, but must all originally come from our senses, it is certainly necessary that you have senses capable of discerning objects of this kind: Not those only which are called natural senses, which in this respect profit nothing, as being altogether incapable of discerning objects of a spiritual kind; but spiritual senses, exercised to discern spiritual good and evil. It is necessary that you have the hearing ear, and the seeing eye, emphatically so called; that you have a new class of senses opened in your soul, not depending on organs of flesh and blood, to be “the evidence of things not seen,” as your bodily senses are of visible things; to be the avenues to the invisible world, to discern spiritual objects, and to furnish you with ideas of what the outward “eye hath not seen, neither the ear heard.”2
While this paragraph would never pass as part of a treatise in modern, analytic epistemology, one can not how Wesley is at pains to be precise in what is happening in how one’s knowledge of God emerges from sensations, but of a spiritual kind. Meanwhile, his usage of non-decorative metaphor is relatively limited to references to the “hearing ear” and the “seeing eye.” I would contend that this passage exhibits characteristics of P2 and P3.
Meanwhile, a few paragraphs beforehand, Wesley shows an awareness regarding word usage and clarification
28. We join with you then in desiring a religion founded on reason, and every way agreeable thereto. But one question still remains to be asked, What do you mean by reason? I suppose you mean the eternal reason, or the nature of things; the nature of God, and the nature of man, with the relations necessarily subsisting between them.
Why,this is the very religion we preach; a religion evidently founded on, and every way agreeable to, eternal reason, to the essential nature of things. Its foundation stands on the nature of God and the nature of man, together with their mutual relations. And it is every way suitable thereto; to the nature of God; for it begins in knowing him: And where, but in the true knowledge of God, can you conceive true religion to begin? It goes on in loving him and all mankind; for you cannot but imitate whom you love: It ends in serving him; in doing his will; in obeying him whom we know and love.3
Here, Wesley begins to introduce a topic on which he will identify himself in a way that is distinct from his audience on the meaning and understanding of reason. However, it needs to be pointed out that Wesley is probably engaging in a little bit of a rhetorical ploy here. He initially “supposes” that they mean the same thing that Wesley holds to as an attempt to present his own theology as built on reason. Then in paragraph 30, Wesley shifts focus from reason as order/nature to reason as thinking, which serves as a segue for him to present his theological epistemology of the spiritual senses as a form of reason as thinking.
Now, most of Wesley’s works, such as his journal articles and sermons, do not take on such a logical, analytic style. But even if his sermons are not so rigorous, his sermons evidence that analytic style in the ideas he presents.
Consider sermon 85: “On Working Out Your Own Salvation.” He starts of the sermon in describing the truths about God that have been known in “heathen world.” From that point, however, he presents two key doctrines that serve to distinguish the uniqueness of the Christian faith from a heathen faith:
those which relate to the eternal Son of God, and the Spirit of God: To the Son, giving himself to be “
a propitiationfor the sins of the world;” and to the Spirit of God, renewing men in that image of God wherein they were created.4
He describes these truths as not available to the heathen world, but only known through revelation, which he describes through the metaphorical language of “light by the gospel.”5 This sermon starts off on establishing a clear foundation for understanding salvation based upon the distinctive elements of Christian faith, the work of the Triune God. Wesley goes on to describe briefly the example of Jesus Christ based upon Philippians 2.6-11. From there, Wesley expounds upon Phillippians 2.12-13 elaborates on describing the ongoing movement towards of God’s works towards salvation.
His description of this work of God is described in II.1 as made up of three elements: preventing grace, convincing grace, justification, and sanctification.6 Preventing and convincing grace relate to God’s action on behalf of people prior to the works of justification and sanctification, which correspond to the two doctrines he mentioned of the Son of God and of the Spirit of God. In describing these four steps in God’s work, Wesley engages in an analytic-like engagement with
In the midst of the sermon, Wesley has an underlying structure to his ideas his sermons presents. His introduction presents what we might term of pre-revelatory and post-revelatory truths. From that point, Wesley’s reading of Phil. 2.12-13 is understand to state that God is at work during each of these stages of human
The thought structure beneath the sermon’s rhetorical structure is very systematic in nature, with clear, yet simple distinctions. While Wesley has been critiqued for not being a systematic theologian, this isn’t because Wesley isn’t a systematic thinker. He is very systematic, but his systematic thinking is typically embedded in discussing the actual modes of thinking and human experience as to relate to the work and nature of God, rather than focuses on God as an object of knowledge. While much systematic theology engages with God qua God, Wesley peculiar focuses
However, my hope is that I have presented to you some reasons to consider that John Wesley was a theologian who might rightly be called proto-analytic and that he contained a systematic impulse in his thinking.
I present this to make the following suggestion about the beneficial relationship that has
It is important to qualify what I mean here: Wesleyan ideas, as with any other idea, can be extracted from one context and appropriated for another context. The specific ideas that we label “Wesleyan” can be used in a variety of manners. This is because Wesley exhibits characteristics of both logical and social/relational thinking. One does not have to particularly think in a logically rigorous way to understand and use Wesley’s more social/relational ideas. When one extracts Wesley’s ideas from the logical structure that provides the contours of his theological reasoning, they become more free-floating ideas that can be used in circumstances that Wesley would not have applied them to.
Therefore, to be authentically Wesleyan, at least as I understand it, I would suggest that one needs to be able to engage in Wesley’s logical, proto-analytic style to fruitfully use and reason things out from a Wesleyan perspective to strengthen the connection of Wesleyan theology and orthodoxy. This doesn’t mean we need to reproduce Wesley’s logical education which was principally grounded in Aristotle: I would say there are many warranted reasons for considering more modern forms of reasoning, without necessarily abandoning Aristotelian logic entirely. Rather, it means that Wesley’s theology did have an undergirding, systematic structure that can only be satisfactorily understood
My hopes for the future is that the emerging field of analytic theology will find a greater home in the Wesleyan tradition. Scholars like William Abraham and Tom McCall, two of the bigger names in analytic theology, paint a way of how Wesleyans can do analytic theology in service of orthodoxy. While I don’t consider myself an analytic theologian as much as an aspiring Biblical scholar with
Such a fusion of Wesleyan and analytic theology will be very important for the coming challenges that United Methodists who are Wesleyan orthodox are facing and will continue to face regarding questions surrounding sexuality, the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. And if the Wesleyan orthodoxy is going to define itself more on its own terms rather than the American evangelical theology it has been often related to, it will need analytic thinkers who can a) distinguish the Wesleyan distinctives from evangelical theology and b) communicate these effectively to people without the training in logic and analysis.
This is not to say that analytic theology will solve all the future challenges of Wesleyan theology. As Wesleyan theology is increasingly part of the movement of world Christianity, analytic frameworks are often left without the necessary resources to engage in the forms of reasoning that
- Michael Rea, “Introduction” in Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology by Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea. (Oxford: New York; Oxford University; 2009)
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 8, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 13.
- Ibid., 11–12.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 6, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 506.
- Ibid., 507.
- Ibid., 509.
- Ibid., 508.