Yesterday, I wrote out a few reasons why I greatly appreciate the Reformed tradition and how I feel they get certain things right that my Wesleyan and Methodist tradition miss. One might get the impression that I am somehow secretly Reformed in my theology. I remember being referred to as a “closet Calvinist” during my time at Asbury Theological Seminary, probably due to my willing to express questions and doubts on topics such as free will and my willingness to defend Reformed and Calvinist thinkers from what I felt were unfair criticisms from my Wesleyan friends and fellow seminarians. In some sense, I have always straddled the line between social boundaries we construct in theology, whether it be between Wesley-Arminian and Calvinist-Reformed, or between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodoxy1 However, despite this tendency live on the boundaries, I unreservedly say that I feel that authentic Wesleyan theology, and not necessarily the common theology prevalent amongst Methodists that only bears a basic family resemblance to Wesley’s teachings, is overall the closest to an overall understanding of the story of the Gospels, the theology of Paul, and the praxis of the rest of the epistles.2
What I have come to appreciate about it today is not exactly the same as what initially drew me to John Wesley’s theology and to becoming Methodist, so one might rightly say the Wesleyan framework has biased me to read this way. Fair enough, although I have always had a critical eye towards my tradition, so while I would not claim to be perfectly objective in my assessment of Wesleyan theology as more closely reaching the thrust of the New Testament, my desire to understand the New Testament and my Wesleyan background have frequently been in tension as well as in harmony with each other.
Firstly, I would say that John Wesley’s theology is much more experimental and focused on praxis, which I feel is more consistent with the overall thrust of the New Testament. The two intial Protestant traditions, both Lutheran and Reformed theology, found its inspiration from the Apostle Paul. Paul is a much more of a systematizing thinker than the rest of the authors of the New Testament, and as such, it seems to be the case that Lutheran and Reformed theology became much more focused on constructing theological systems of thinking. While there is a place for systematizing, the central locus of the New Testament, including even Paul, is much more “down to earth.” Thinking is in aid to trusting and living, rather than living and trusting being fully outlined by a clearly conceptualized system of thinking. It is for this reason that I think that while the Reformed traditions gets the right emphases in understanding Paul, the (over)systematizing tendency in the Reformed tradition leads to overlooking both the ambiguous complexity and experiential elements throughout the New Testament.
By contrast, Wesley was always more focused on how one lived out faith. His formation of the Holy Club that set about what we would today refer to as spiritual practice, a concern about justice in visiting prisoners, arguing against the evils of slavery, etc., and an acute awareness about the role of experience in the Christian life reveal Wesley’s experimental and practical focus; while he is perfectly capable of coming up with intellectual insights, Wesley was no systematizing thinker. While I feel this sometimes leave Methodism ill fit to clearly and adequately convey the core of their theological insights3 and thus a tendency towards theological and ethical chaos, at the same time it allows Methodists to much more fit to both a) living out the nature of their faith in deeply ethical and just ways, and b) appreciating the fuller contours of the meaning of the Bible.4 Furthermore, once one pushes back against the over-systematizing tendencies of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, it becomes much more plausible to connect the story of Jesus in the Gospels with Paul without the somewhat awkward and forced retrojections of Pauline concepts back onto the Gospels.
Secondly, the Wesleyan taxonomic description of grace under the terms of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace5 more appropriately approximates Paul’s understanding. In the Reformed tradition, there is a tendency to speak of grace given to the elect (saving grace) and then grace given to the world (common grace) in such a way that common grace has no real relationship to saving grace. However, Paul nowhere conveys any such a stark distinction between the loving, beneficent work of God amongst believers and then the world. The Wesleyan narrative of grace starting before faith in prevenient grace to enable a response of faith, justifying grace at the point of faith providing the forgiveness of sins, and sanctifying grace as the means by which Christians live are enabled to live holy lives is more consistent with Paul’s lack of differentiation of grace. While Paul does not conceptualize grace as something different than the actual life of Jesus Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit, whereas it is common to think of grace as an independent, reified entity in Protestant traditions including the Wesleyan tradition, the Wesleyan tradition gets closer to seeing how all the functions and effects of God’s gracious intentions in Christ and the Spirit work together: the coming of Christ into the world joined with the autenticating work of the Spirit operate akins to previent grace, leading to the justifying grace that comes from union to the Christ through the Spirit, setting up the condition of sanctifiying grace where the pattern of Christ is fully realized through the leading of the Spirit. When Wesleyan theology defines grace by Jesus Christ and the Spirit, rather than some abstract concept or vague, emotional force, it is much more capable of seeing the fullness of Paul’s theology in a way that the oversystematizing tendency of the Reformed traditions tends to overlook and conceptually split apart as entirely different work.
Thirdly, the doctrine of entire sanctification expresses an important Pauline theme: the totalizing work of Christ leading to the entire transformation of everything. The specific doctrine of entire sanctification itself is an overly individualized expression 6 and can have a tendency towards legalistic conception of perfection, but there is the strong conviction for Paul, particularly in the Deutero-Paulines of Ephesians and Colossian7 that the redemptive work of Christ affects everything. Whereas the Lutheran tradition has a tendency to normalize sin as a result of Luther’s simul justus et peccator, and the Reformed tradition through that Luthern influence, the Wesleyan tradition recognizes that Jesus did not die on the cross and rise from the dead simply to get us on the right side of judgment: God’s telos in redemption in Christ through the Spirit is a total impact on the very nature of the world in the present state of things. There is no simply long distant hope for some day in the eternal future where God will have us in a perfect world but in the mean time, things will always be the same. For Paul, there is the very present and very real transformation of the cosmos and world that is not contained by any power; instead, Christ is putting all his enemies and everything that opposes him under his subjection. As such, this entails the very real, entire transformation of the person in the present life, such as when Paul seeks to continue onwards to perfect in order to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.8 There are no impenetrable strongholds of sin and death that are not being sieged by Christ and the Spirit as often times expressed in a hopelessness of any personal (“I am just a sinner.”) or societal (“This is just the way things are.”) change. While there is much caution and concern about such a totalizing transformation when people believe they have the capacity to institute such dramatic changes by human power, either individually or corporately, that can be expressed in abusive legalism and oppressive progressivism,9 the all-pervasive, all-impacting work of Jesus Christ so that He becomes “all in all,” is approximately hit upon by John Wesley’s idea of entire sanctification.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I witness to the fact that love stands at the center of Wesley’s purpose. In his realization of God’s love and forgiveness of his sins at Aldersgate, the love expressed through life together in various clubs, bands, and societies, and the pursuit of justice for the poor, enslaved, etc. love increasingly stands as the center of any Wesleyan perspective, much in line with Jesus’ own prioritizing of the commandments and in the very pattern of his ministry and death. As opposed to the oversystematizing Reformed theology, which leads to an emphasis on power due to systematic thinkings reliance on parsimony, Wesley’s practical, experimental religious practice takes love of the center.
In the end, this final point blends into the rest It is Wesley’s focus on love that leads him to be more pragmatic and experiential rather than overly systematizing. It is the hedge against such systematizing that allows a deeper appreciation of the Gospels that are more about love and praxis than systematizing thought. It is this loving nature that allows not strict, intraversible boundary line be drawn between the elect and the rest of the world, but instead sees God’s gracious intention as being on behalf of the world. IT is this love that does not brook accepting the strongholds of evil and sin as impenetrable, but that Christ will overcome everything that holds back God’s People from living their God-given vocation in the creation God made. While love, when ill-defined by modern socio-political agendas, can become quite different than the Biblical concept of love, it is the Wesleyan emphasis on love that allows the comprehension of the center of the whole Biblical narrative that the Reformed traditions can sometimes overlook: God’s kindness, mercy, grace, and compassion stand at the center of his work in the history of salvation in creation, in calling Abraham, in calling Moses, in sending the prophets, in sending Christ, in sending the Holy Spirit. A narrative of love holds all the events of the Biblical narrative together in a way that the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on the all-surpassing power and glory of God does not quite explain, even as it is true to speak of God’s sovereignty; my learning in the Wesleyan tradition has trained me towards that understanding.
My Wesleyan and Methodist traditions has many flaws; it has a tendency towards both legalism and unrestrained humanism, it can overemphasize human free will at the expense of the will of God, it often loses the centrality of Christ through its emphasis on the concept grace, its lack of a strong, systematic expression of its central core leaves the churches ill-equipped to clearly and readily pass on an understanding of the faith, etc., etc. But at the end of the day, at the risk of expressing the bias I am sure that I do have, I unreservedly believe that it is Wesleyan theology that best expresses the whole of the New Testament message about Jesus Christ. There is much I value from other theological traditions, including the Reformed tradition, but it is through Wesley that I learned the really grapple and wrestle with the message of the Bible.
- Early in my time at seminary, I coined the term Procathodox to refer to myself.
- I do not feel Wesley is anywhere close to understanding Revelation, but that is largely because I am skeptical of most interpretations of Revelation including my own.
- On a whole, systematic thinking is much easier to pass on to others for understanding.
- It is no coincidence that many of the premier interpreters of the New Testament in current scholarship come from Methodist backgrounds: Ben Witherington, E.P. Sanders, Richard Hays, and James Dunn.
- Although, Wesley also referred to convincing grace, but this does not get referred to as much.
- Much as perseverance of the saints in Calvinism is a result of an over-individualized reading of God’s faithfulness
- which I do think are from Paul
- Phillipians 3:10
- It is here where the Reformed emphasis on the power of Christ as the center of redemption can hedge against such hostile and megalomanic ambitions.