John Wesley On the Origins of Evil

, posted by Kevin Jackson

John Wesley On the Origins of Evil

From the Wesleyan Theological Journal
Barry E. Bryant

One of the more important questions ever confronted by Christian theologians has been how to reconcile the idea that God is loving, good, and just with the presence of evil in the world. The Greek Epicurus summarized the issue well when he asked, “What is the cause of evil?” In answering this question he concluded:

God. . . either wished to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does He not remove them?2

Epicurus maintained that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent, and self-contradictory with the Christian belief that God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.3 That, in brief, is the issue of theodicy, which literally means “the justice of God.”4 The presence of evil in the world appears to place the Christian doctrine of a just and loving God into a no-win situation.

Wesley had a long interest in theodicy,5 often asking, “Whence came evil?”6 Without any semblance of impiety, Wesley sought to “justify the ways of God to man”7 and ultimately saw theodicy as an important test of God’s ability “to extract good out of evil.”8 What this essay will attempt to show is how Wesley answered the question, “Whence came evil and why?” To look at Wesley’s understanding of the origin of evil, the subject will be divided into two sections. The first section will deal with what I shall call Wesley’s aesthetic theme. It will consider topics such as the goodness of God, the goodness of creation, the “chain of being,” good and bad angels. The second section will treat his moral theme, which will show how Wesley accounted for evil, and how he defined it. This theme will be developed within the context of his reaction to the neo-Augustinians of his day, the eighteenth-century optimists. How Wesley answered this question had profound consequences for the remainder of his theology. Finally, I will suggest what I think is a resulting major implication.

1. The Aesthetic Theme

We will begin looking at Wesley’s theodicy by considering his aesthetic theme. By this I am referring to Wesley’s appreciation of the beauty, grandeur, and wonder of creation, both before and after the fall. The pronounced aesthetic theme in Wesley’s doctrine of creation is perhaps one reason that some have been able to argue for a connection between Wesley and English Romanticism.9 Wesley’s was the day in which Locke and Newton reigned supreme as two of the more innovative and boundary-pushing thinkers of the age. This resulted in a new science that caused others to look at the world differently. Instead of solving most of the mysteries of creation, for Wesley this new science only deepened the mysteries of creation by providing answers to questions, answers that led to even more profound questions.10 As the questions became more profound, so did Wesley’s appreciation for the wonder of creation.

The Goodness of God. While all of this is true, the aesthetic theme of creation as an important part of Wesley’s understanding of the origins of evil is not the starting point. The aesthetic theme must begin with the goodness of God. Wesley began his search for the origins of evil by applying to God the moral attributes of justice and goodness,11 while maintaining that God is all-powerful,12 all-knowing,13 and all-wise. A God with such attributes could only create something filled with goodness. The goodness of God was thus the presupposition behind the aesthetic theme and the goodness of creation. He came to this conclusion by observing creation and developed these observations into a natural philosophy. That the wisdom and goodness of God could be seen in creation was reflected in the title of his natural philosophy, A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation.” or a Compendium of Natural Philosophy (1763).14

The Goodness of Creation. Wesley unequivocally believed in the total goodness of creation and that the sum of its goodness was greater than the goodness of its individual parts. He said, for instance: “as every creature was ‘good’ in its primeval state, so, when all were compacted in on general system, ‘behold, they were very good.’ “15 In the “very good” creation before the fall, Wesley was convinced that all was “the most perfect order and harmony,” no “volcanoes or burning mountains,” “no putrid lakes, no turbid or stagnating waters,” “no unwholesome vapors, no poisonous exhalations,” “no violent winter or sultry summer, no extreme either of heat or cold.”16 All this left Wesley to exclaim:

Such was the state of the creation, according to the scanty ideas that we can now form concerning it, when its great Author, surveying the whole system at one view, pronounced it “very good”! It was good in the highest degree whereof it was capable, and without any mixture of evil.17

Now the wisdom, as well as the power of God, is abundantly manifested in his creation, in the formation and arrangement of all his works, in heaven above and in the earth beneath; and in adapting them all to the several ends for which they were designed; insomuch that each of them apart from the rest is good, but all together are very good; all conspiring together in one connected system, to the glory of God in the happiness of his intelligent creatures.18

Here, the aesthetic theme clearly emerges. Wesley believed creation before the fall was “very good,” the best it could possibly have been. He was convinced that the goodness of creation was a firm foundation laid on which we may stand and answer all the cavils of minute philosophers; all the objections which “vain men who would be wise” make to the goodness or wisdom of God in the creation. All these are grounded upon an entire mistake, namely, that the world is now in the same state it was at the beginning. And upon this supposition they plausibly build abundance of objections. But all these objections fall to the ground when we observe this supposition cannot be admitted. The world at the beginning was in a totally different state from that wherein we find it now. Object therefore whatever you please to the present state either of the animate or inanimate creation, whether in general or with regard to any particular instances, and the answer is read: these are not now as they were in the beginning. Had you therefore heard that vain King of Castile crying out with exquisite self-sufficiency, “If I had made the world I would have made it better than God Almighty has made it,”19 you might have replied: “No: God Almighty—whether you know it or not— did not make it as it is now. He himself made it better, unspeakably better than it is at present. He made it without any blemish, yea, without any defect. He made no corruption, no destruction in the inanimate creation. He made not death in the animal creation, neither its harbingers, sin and pain. It was only [. . .] after man, in utter defiance of his Maker, had eaten of the tree of knowledge, that [. . .] a whole army of evils, totally new, totally unknown till then, broke in upon rebel man, and all other creatures, and overspread the face of the earth.”20

Wesley’s argument for the “best possible world” was a proposition that can be known to be true or false without any reference to experience, something that is inconsistent with his method of deriving knowledge from observation, or empiricism.21 He reached this conclusion only by imagining what the present world would have been without evil and sin.

Once he did he was convinced a better world could not have been created than this world without blemish, defect, corruption, or propensity to destruction. To have imagined otherwise would have been an affront to “the goodness or the wisdom of God in the creation.” God in divine goodness and wisdom, attributes of divine morality and omniscience, created from divine omnipotence the best world possible.

This did not prevent Wesley from appreciating nature even as it now has been marred by the fall. His, Natural Philosophy was a well developed celebration of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness even in a post-fall creation. He concludes that natural philosophy as a disciplined observation of even a fallen creation is still capable of demonstrating to its observers the existence of God,22 not replacing standing Revelation (i.e., Scriptures), but as support to it, subordinate to the Holy Spirit. There is implied by this a natural revelation, or a revelation through nature that can be seen in Wesley’s natural philosophy as a whole, all of which was presupposed by the aesthetic theme within his search for the origins of evil and the goodness of creation.

Wesley and the “Chain of Being.” The principle concept and structure beneath Wesley’s doctrine of the utter goodness of creation is what has been called by some the “chain of being,” or the “principle of plenitude.” Wesley described it in this way:

Every part was exactly suited to the others, and conducive to the good of the whole. There was “a golden chain” (to use the expression of Plato)23 “let down from the throne of God”—an exactly connected series of beings, from the highest to the lowest: from dead earth, through fossils, vegetables, animals, to man, created in the image of God, and designed to know, to love, and enjoy his Creator to all eternity.24

This entire concept was developed at great length in his Natural Philosophy.25 Wesley began this discussion by acknowledging Locke’s thoughts on the subject,26 but quickly proceeded to add: “This reflection upon the scale of beings is pursued at large by one of the finest writers of the age, Mr. Bonnet of Geneva, in that beautiful work, ‘The Contemplation of Nature.’ “27 From there he proceeded to extract Bonnet’s work. In the “chain of being,” referred to by Wesley as the “golden chain,” all the parts “are admirably connected together, to make up one universal whole.”28 There has never been a time in which such a variety of writers from such a variety of disciplines talked so much about the chain of being than in the eighteenth century. Writers such as Joseph Addison, William King, Lord Bolingbroke, Pope, Hailer, Thomson, Akenside, Count De Buffon,29 Goldsmith, Diderot, Kant, Lambert, Herder, and Schilier all drew from this theme new or previously evaded consequences.30 It was within this rich context that Wesley constructed his own understanding of the chain of being.

One aspect of his understanding was that in the paradise state this “chain of being” was used to convey the blessings of God as they “flowed through man to the inferior creatures; as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation; so when man made himself incapable of transmitting those blessings, that communication was necessarily cut off.”31 This based Wesley’s hierarchical construction of the chain on the role of mediation, not on function and usefulness. The implication is that, in the Wesleyan model, Adam and Eve were there to serve creation in a “quasi-sacramental” way—by being a means of God’s grace.

Another part of his understanding was that while the creation of human beings may have been the pinnacle of the Genesis creation account, man and woman were only the “via media,” the middle link in the chain of being.32 It must be noted, however, that in his comments on Psalm 8:5 (“Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels”) in Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, Wesley said,

the words more literally rendered are, Thou madest him a little less than God. And hence some have inferred, that man in his original state was the highest of all creatures.33

With this possible exception aside, we are still left with the question, “What is above humanity in the chain of being?”

“Chain of Being” and “Plurality of Habitable Worlds.” Many in the eighteenth century supposed that higher life forms on other planets were above humanity in the chain. As Lovejoy has shown, in 1764 Bonnet supposed there could be life on other planets, and on those other planets higher life forms could be found to fill the gaps in the chain of being between humanity and God, leaving angelic life forms to fill the gap beyond that.34

Bonnet was not the first to contemplate the plurality of habitable worlds. The plurality of worlds was a tradition of thought with a history in its own right, a tradition familiar to Wesley. It was suggested as early as Cicero in On the Nature of the Gods,35 a work well known by Wesley and quoted no less than eight times in his sermons alone.36

Additionally, Wesley displayed familiarity with at least three popular authors on the subject.37 Two make something of an obscure appearance in his A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation—Louis Dutens, Inquiry into the Origin of the Discoveries Attributed to the Moderns (1769) and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.38 The other, Christian Huygens (1629-95) and his work, Celestial Worlds Discovered, Or Conjectures on the Planetary Worlds (English translation, 1689), Wesley quoted in his sermon, “What is Man” (1787). Wesley first read this work in September 1759 and remarked:

I read Mr. Hygens’s [sic] Conjectures on the Planetary World. He surprised me. I think he clearly proves that the moon is not inhabitable; that there are neither “Rivers nor mountains on her spotty globe”;39 that there is no sea, no water on her surface, nor any atmosphere. And hence he very rationally infers that “Neither are any of the secondary planets inhabited.” And who can prove that the primary are? I know the earth is. Of the rest I know nothing.40

The important thing is what Wesley made of all this speculation about the plurality of habitable worlds. In the end, he called it

a very favorite notion with all those who deny the Christian revelation—and for this reason: because it affords them a foundation for so plausible an objection to it. But the more I consider that supposition, the more I doubt it. Insomuch that if it were allowed by all the philosophers in Europe, still I could not allow it without stronger proof than any I have met with yet [. . .]. “But,” you will say, “‘suppose this argument fails, we may infer the same conclusion, the plurality of worlds, from the unbounded wisdom, and power, and goodness of the Creator. It was full as easy to him to create thousands or millions of worlds as one. Can anyone then believe that he would exert all his power and wisdom in creating a single world? What proportion is there between this speck of creation and the great God that filleth heaven and earth! While

We know the power of his Almighty hand
could form another world from every sand!”41

To this boasted proof, this argumentum palmarium42 of the learned infidels, I answer, Do you expect to find any proportion between finite and infinite? Suppose God had created a thousand more worlds than there are grains of sand in the universe, what proportion would all these together bear to the infinite Creator? Still, in comparison of him, they would be, not a thousand times, but infinitely less than a mite compared to the universe.43

Here, Wesley anticipated an argument for the plurality of worlds because of the tremendous gap in the gradation between this creation (i.e., the empirical, observable world) and the “great God that filleth heaven and earth.’” Wesley’s own “argumentum palmarium” was that all the habitable worlds combined could still not compare to the “infinite Creator.” The plurality of worlds did not solve the gaps in the chain of being.

The Chain of Being and Angelology.

In Wesley’s view, higher up in the chain of being from humanity are angels, not extra-terrestrials.44 He said:

But the scale of the creation does not terminate at man. Another universe commences there, whose extent, perhaps, compared to that of this, is as the space of the solar vortex to the capacity of a nut. There shine the CELESTIAL HIERARCHIES, like glittering STARS.45

Although angels exist in the chain of being beyond empirical observation, we know through philosophy and Scripture that they exist. Wesley started his argument for their existence from Plato and Socrates. Ultimately, however, their existence can be understood only by revelation, which supplies the defect of philosophy. Only revelation “gives us a clear, rational, consistent account of those whom our eyes have not seen, nor our ears heard. . . .”46 Since the reality of angels exists beyond sensory perception, they can only be known by faith.47 Where empiricism (or experience) fails, philosophy (or reason) and revelation complete our knowledge.

Revelation and Greek philosophy alone were not enough to supply Wesley with what he knew about angels. Another source of influence was Milton’s Paradise Lost. This was by far the most significant source of influence on Wesley’s angelology. Not only did he quote Milton at least 77 times in his sermons alone, he also published An Extract from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1763), an attempt to popularize Milton for Methodists.48

His regard for Milton was such that he once said Milton’s account of the creation and fall was “not only simple, easy, and comprehensible, but consistent with the highest reason, and altogether worthy of God.”49

Fletcher’s thesis is that Milton’s doctrine of angels was partially influenced by the Scholastics who were decidedly Christian and non-Jewish. But mostly,

Milton has obviously used rabbinical material in developing his conceptions of individual Angels and in his whole idea of the order and arrangement of the Angels. His use of the quadrumvirate of Jewish angelology instead of the triad of Christian angelology is an indication of how greatly he depended upon rabbinical sources for his whole treatment of Angels.50

Fletcher presents a strong case, which has obvious implications for Wesley’s angelology, suggesting a second-hand connection between Wesley and Medieval Christian and Rabbinic angelology.

Whatever its historical connection, Wesley’s angelology was worked out in three sermons, “Of Good Angels” (1783), “Of Evil Angels” (1783), and “On Guardian Angels” (1726). In his “Introductory Comment” to the sermons on good and evil angels, Albert Outler writes:

He must have thought that he needed to say something about the place and role of angels in “the great chain of being” that, along with the Christian Platonists, Wesley conceived of as the general structure of creation. . . . But angelology was not one of his prime interests [. . . and] references to angels are few and scattered in his writings as a whole.5 1

Regarding angels, Wesley believed that sometime before the foundations of the earth were laid God created angels. “And what is the duration which has passed since the creation of angels to that which passed before they were created—to unbeginning eternity? to that half of eternity (if one may so speak) which had then elapsed!”52

As created beings, they were finite. When God created angels, they were God’s “first-born sons intelligent beings,”53 created as, “spirits, even the highest angels, even cherubim and seraphim, to dwell in material vehicles, though of an exceeding light and subtle substance.”54 Through an interesting exegesis of Psalm 104:4, he concluded that angels are

not material or corporeal beings; not clogged with flesh and blood like us, having bodies, if any, not gross and earthly like ours, but of a finer substance, resembling fire or flame more than any other of these lower elements. And is not something like this intimated in those words of the Psalmist, “Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire!”?55

The understanding, sight, knowledge, wisdom, holiness, and strength of angels are all beyond our human comprehension.56 After being endowed with these “super-human” traits, the moral law, written by “the finger of God” on the “inmost spirit,” was given to the angels.57 By the moral law they knew the perfect will of God, which they did willingly, perfectly, and continually.58 They were able to do this because…

As spirits he has endued them with understanding, will, or affections (which are indeed the same thing, as the affections are only the will exerting itself various ways), and liberty. And are not these—understanding, will, and liberty—essential to, if not the essence of, a spirit?59

All of which enabled even the angels to discern truth from falsehood, good from evil; and as a necessary result of this, with liberty, a capacity of choosing the one and refusing the other. By this they were likewise enabled to offer him a free and willing service: a service rewardable in itself, as well as most acceptable to their gracious Maséer.60

Because they were given a will, even the angels are said to be capable of sinning. Eventually this liberty became the cause of the heavenly revolt.

“How came evil into the world?” It came from “Lucifer, son of the morning”: it was “the work of the devil.” “For the devil,” saith the Apostle, “sinneth from the beginning”;61 that is, was the first sinner in the universe; the author of sin; the first being who by the abuse of his liberty introduced evil into the creation. “He, of the first, if not the first archangel,”62 was tempted to think too highly of himself. He freely yielded to the temptation, and gave way first to pride, then to self-will.63

This was reiterated in another sermon.

See how this was first planted [the general root of sin] in heaven itself by Lucifer, “Son of the morning”64 till then undoubtedly “one of the first, if not the first archangel.”65 “Thou saidst, I will sit upon the side of the north.”66 See self-will, the first-born of Satan!67 “I will be like the Most High.”68 See Pride, the twin sister of self-will. Here was the true origin of evil. Hence came the inexhaustible flood of evils upon the lower world. When Satan had once transfused his own self-will and pride into the parents of mankind, together with a new species of sin—love of the world, the loving the creature above the Creator—all manner of wickedness soon rushed in, all ungodliness and unrighteousness, shooting out into crimes of every kind, soon covering the whole face of the earth with all manner of abominations. . . . From the devil the spirit of independence, self-will, and pride, productive of all ungodliness and unrighteousness, quickly infused themselves into the hearts of our first parents in paradise.69

The abuse of liberty, penultimately caused evil. But the ultimate answer to “Unde malum?” had to be Lucifer’s self-will. Furthermore, he was not the only self-willed angel. When Lucifer fell, “He did not fall alone, but soon drew after him a third part of the stars of heaven; in consequence of which they lost their glory and happiness, and were driven from their former habitation.”70

In Wesley’s angelology, this fall occurred in spite of their existing without flesh and blood, and in spite of their being endued with superhuman traits of understanding, sight, knowledge, wisdom, holiness, and strength, many privileges not to be enjoyed by Adam. The angelic revolt occurred, and evil came about because of self-will, pride, and the abuse of free-will. The consequence of this revolt was that it divided the upper part of the chain of being between good angels and evil angels, creating two opposing moral forces in creation, those obedient to God, and those disobedient to God. God and the good angels are working for humanity, and against Satan and the evil angels.7 1 This struggle—what we shall call a cosmological dualism—was what preceded Adam’s temptation and fall.

Wesley’s aesthetic theme consists of these parts: (1) the goodness of God; (2) and the goodness of creation; (3) the ‘”chain of being” within creation which serves as a channel of God’s grace to the remainder of creation; (4) an angelology in which angels are seen as the pinnacle of the chain of being; (5) the angelic fall that brought evil into the world and divided the chain of being, resulting in a cosmological dualism.

2. Wesley’s Moral Theme

What begins to emerge from these points is that Wesley’s definition of evil is not derived from his aesthetic theme, but from a moral theme. His doctrine of an impeccable creation indicates that evil cannot be defined in those terms. He thought evil could be completely accounted for through the abuse of free-will, which was defined by Wesley as being “a power of choosing or refusing either good or evil.”72 How Wesley came to this conclusion can be seen particularly in his reactions to the works of William King, Soame Jenyns, two of the “optimists” and eighteenth-century heirs of the Augustinian tradition. It is now time to turn our attention to this moral theme for a closer investigation.

King, Jenyns, and the Eighteenth-Century Optimists. William King argued, like G. W. Leibniz, that when God created the world, God created the best world possible.73 Like Augustine, he also argued that because it was created from nothing it was by necessity imperfect. From the imperfection of creation King explained natural evil, saying it arose by necessity from matter in motion.74 not all of which is necessarily bad, as pain warns the soul against danger and thus operates to preserve life.75 To account for moral evil, King introduced his second main argument. Within this imperfect, but best of possible worlds, God created the first humans and endowed them with a will to choose between good and evil, saying that unless God had done so, “more arid greater evils would befall the universe from such an interposition, than from the abuse of freewill.”76 The universe simply required free-will to benefit the universe.77

Soame Jenyns, in A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1757), did not argue for free-will at all. He maintained

that natural Evils exist from some necessity in the Nature of things which no power can dispense with or prevent, the expediency of moral Evil will follow on course: for if misery could not be excluded from the works of a benevolent Creator by infinite power, these miseries must be endured by some creatures or other for the good of the whole. . . .78

All of this comes from the “Evils of Imperfection” which “‘are in truth no Evils at all, but rather the absence of some comparative Good.”79 This meant for Jenyns that:

The true solution then of this incomprehensible paradox must be this, that all Evils owe their existence solely to the necessity of their own natures, by which I mean they could not possibly have been prevented, without the loss of some superior Good, or the permission of some greater Evil than themselves; or that many will unavoidably insinuate themselves by the natural relations and circumstances of things into the most perfect system of Created Beings, even in opposition to the will of an almighty Creator, by reason they cannot be excluded without working contradictions; which not being proper objects of power, it is not diminution of omnipotence to affirm that it cannot effect them.80

Jenyns was clearly more radical in his assertion of the defective nature of creation as a result of his denial of free-will. This introduced a necessitarian strand in Jenyns’ thoughts. Nonetheless, Jenyns was confident his system could unlock

all the mysteries and perplexing doctrines of. . . all those abstruse speculations of Original Sin, Grace and Predestination. . . which the most learned have never yet been able to make consistent with Reason or Common-sense.81

Wesley’s Response to the Optimists. Wesley was aware of both works by King and Jenyns. He would have been familiar with King’s work as it appeared in Latin without Gay’s introduction, or Law’s copious footnotes. On December 11, 1730, Wesley wrote a letter to his father saying:

A week or two ago I pleased myself mightily with the hopes of sending you a fully satisfactory solution of your great question, have at last procured the celebrated treatise of Archbishop King, De Origine Mali. But on looking farther into it I was strangely disappointed, finding it the least satisfactory account of any given by any author whom I ever read in my life. He contradicts almost every man that ever writ on the subject, and builds an hypothesis on the ruins of theirs which he takes to be entirely few, though if I do not much mistake, part of it is at least two thousand years old. The purport of this is, “that natural evils flow naturally and necessarily from the essence of matter, so that God himself could not have prevented them, unless by not creating matter at all.” Now this new supposition seems extremely like the old one of the Stoics, who I fancy always affirmed, totidem verbis, that “all natural evils were owing not to God’s want of will, but to his want of power to redress them, as necessarily flowing from the nature of matter.”82

In his next letter Wesley revealed something of a better regard for King. He published it in the Arminian Magazine in 1780.83 It is a rather straightforward extraction with no critical notes inserted into the text, apart from this introductory remark:

Though some of the postulata upon which Archbishop King builds his hypothesis of the origin of evil be such as very few will admit of, yet since the superstructure is regular and well contrived I thought you would not be unwilling to see the scheme of that celebrated work.84

Wesley was aware that King asserted the necessity of imperfection of created beings, and also that King saw God and man both endued with a self-determining power. Of this latter point Wesley, in his extraction of King, said

That man partakes of this principle I conclude (1) because experience shows it [and] (2) because we observe in ourselves the signs and properties of such a power. We observe we can counteract our appetites, senses, and even our reason if we so choose; which we can not otherwise account for than by admitting such a power in ourselves.85

Wesley would certainly not have disagreed with this. However, the “postulata” upon which King built his “hypothesis” was what Wesley disagreed with and what initially led him to call King a “Stoic.” It was not because King denied free-will, but because he held that evil flows by necessity from the constitutive manner of matter’s existence. This point became more abundantly clear in Wesley’s objection to Jenyns, when he said

evil did not exist at all in the original nature of things. It was no more the necessary result of matter than it was the necessary result of spirit. All things then, without exception were very good. And how could they be otherwise?86

In another place, Wesley declared free-will alone was the

full answer to that plausible account “of the origin of evil” published to the world some years since, and supposed to be unanswerable “that it necessarily resulted from the nature of matter, which God was not able to alter.” It is very kind of this sweet-tongued orator to make an excuse for God!87 But there is really no occasion for it. . . .88

If evil did not arise from creation, “Unde malum?”, or “Whence came evil?” For Wesley, evil was caused only by the will. What followed in the quotation just above were these words:

God hath answered for himself. He made man in his own image, a spirit endued with understanding and liberty. Man abusing that liberty produced evil, brought sin and pain into the world. This God permitted in order to a fuller manifestation of his wisdom, justice, arid mercy, by bestowing on all who would receive it in infinitely greater happiness than they could possibly have attained if Adam had not fallen.89

We must put aside the last and perhaps the most provocative part of this quotation which says that if Adam had not sinned, Christ had not died.90 What should be pointed out is Wesley’s belief that evil can be accounted for entirely by the will.

This can been seen in his extraction of Humphrey Ditton.91 Wesley’s extraction of Ditton was published along with the one of King’s, Origin of Evil in the Arminian Magazine. It was concerned with two things:

(1) Ditton wished to deny that there were two gods, one good and the other evil, in order to account for evil; and, (2) account for the presence of evil by attributing it to the willful deviation from God’s “eternal rules and measures of fitness.”

Leading up to the point where Wesley started his extraction, Ditton argued that one cannot hold to a materialist’s view of creation and freewill at the same time.92 For Ditton, a denial of a mechanical explanation of the universe which is bound tightly to the rule of cause-and-effect had to be established before one could affirm free-will, in order to exonerate God of evil. As long as there was a view of creation being strictly cause-and-effect there could be no free-will. Once this point is established, free-will can account for the presence of evil in the world. In Wesley’s extraction of Ditton we read:

Farther, it no way derogated from any one perfection of an Infinite Being to endow other beings which he made with such a power as we call liberty; that is, to furnish them with such capacities, dispositions, and principles of action that it should be possible for them either to observe or to deviate from those eternal rules and measures of fitness and agreeableness with respect to certain things and circumstances which were so conformable to the infinite rectitude of his own will, and which infinite reason must necessarily discover. Now evil is a deviation from those measures of eternal, unerring order and reason—not to choose what is worthy to be chosen, and is accordingly chose by such a will as the divine. And to bring this about no more is necessary than the exerting certain acts of that power we call free will. By which power we are enabled to choose or refuse, and to determine ourselves to action accordingly. Therefore, without having recourse to any ill principle, we may fairly account for the origin of evil from the possibility of a various use of our liberty, even as that capacity or possibility itself is ultimately founded on the defectibility and finiteness of a created nature.93

Here evil is defined not in the Augustinian sense of being the absence of good, but as deviation from the perfect good, or by not choosing good. The defect was not material, but in the will. To say otherwise (as King had), Wesley thought, made God the author of evil.94

This position was further reinforced by one of Wesley’s later sermons, “The End of Christ’s Coming” (1781), part of which already has been referred to above. Says Wesley:

And God created man, not only in his natural, but likewise in his own moral image. He created him not only in knowledge, but also in righteousness, and true holiness. As his understanding was without blemish, perfect in its kind, so were all his affections But it cannot be doubted he might mistake evil for good. He was not infallible; therefore not impeccable. And this unravels the whole difficulty of the grand question, unde malum? “How came evil into the world?” It came from ‘”Lucifer, son of the morning”: it was “the work of the devil.” “For the devil,” saith the Apostle, “sinneth from the beginning”;95 that is, was the first sinner in the universe; the author of sin; the first being who by the abuse of his liberty introduced evil into the creation. “He, of the first, If not the first archangel,”96 was tempted to think too highly of himself. He freely yielded to the temptation, and gave way first to pride, then to self-will.97

The defectibility of the created nature was precisely located in the fallibility and imperfection of both the angelic and human wills. Their wills were not impeccable. The defect was not in the manner of creation, but in the will, which was located in the soul, an immaterial substance. All this seems to indicate that, for Wesley, the defect in creation was moral, not aesthetic; immaterial, not material. From here, Wesley attempted to unravel the entire question of the origin of evil.

From the abuse of free-will the different types of evil can be explained. In the sermon prepared by Wesley during the “Unde malum?” correspondence with is father, Wesley wrote:

It has indeed been well observed, that all evil is either natural, moral, or penal; that natural evil or pain is no evil at all if it be overbalanced with following pleasure; that moral evil, or sin, cannot possibly befall anyone unless those who willingly embrace, who choose it; and that penal evil, or punishment, cannot possibly befall any unless they likewise choose it by choosing sin. This entirely cuts off all imputation on the justice or goodness of God, since it can never be proved that it is contrary to either of these to give his creatures [the] liberty of embracing either good or evil, to put happiness and misery in their own hands, to leave them the choice of life and death.98

From this quotation it is clear that Wesley held to a traditional division of natural, moral, and penal evil. Moral and penal evil was thought completely contingent upon free-will. That he also thought natural evil was also is somewhat obscured. But he did believe that somehow the material world was affected by this defect of the will in the immaterial world. For example, he demonstrated how even natural evil is the consequence of Adam’s choice of evil, saying that after Adam’s sin,

man made himself incapable of transmitting those blessings, that communication was necessarily cut off. The intercourse between God and the inferior creatures being stopped, those blessings could no longer flow in upon them. And then it was that “the creature,” every creature, “was subject to vanity,” to sorrow, to pain of every kind, to all manner of evils. “Not” indeed “willingly”: not by its own choice, not by any act or deed of its own; “but by reason of him that subjected it”; by the wise permission of God, determining to draw eternal good out of this temporary evil. But in what respects was “the creature,” every creature, then “made to subject to vanity?” . . . The very foundations of their nature are out of course, are turned upside down.99

The chain of being was made dysfunctional by Adam’s sin. Adam had not suffered as the result of a defective creation. Creation had suffered as the result of a defective Adam. The human defect was located precisely in the

Wesley seems to have held to a mythological explanation of evil, which locates the origin of evil in a primordial rebellion of creatures (Satan, Lucifer, et al.) against their Creator. A more modern version of this view is put forth by N. P. Williams in Ideas of the Fall and Original Sin (1924). King’s presentation of the Augustinian view is more of a metaphysical one which ascribes moral evil to the nature of finite existence. A modem representative of this view is F. R. Tennant.100

3. An Implication

There is one significant implication from all this. Because Wesley held to a moral definition of evil, he was able to deny the concept of the “sinful body.” To Wesley, some may say,

“But surely we cannot be saved from sin while we dwell in a sinful body.” A “sinful body”? I pray, observe how deeply ambiguous, how equivocal, this expression is! But there is not authority for it in Scripture: the word “sinful body” is never found there. And as it is totally unscriptural, so it is palpably absurd. For no body, or matter of any kind be sinful: spirits alone are capable of sin. . . . Only the soul can be the seat of sin. 101

There was what appeared to be a disjunction between the body and the soul, where sin and even the origin of evil was concerned. Only the soul, which was the source of volition and free-will, could be ultimately responsible for sin since evil and sin were defined as choosing not to do God’s will. The body was morally neutral in Wesley’s view. To say otherwise would have jeopardized Incarnation theology. When Christ became flesh, or a whole person, he “united himself to our miserable nature, with all its innocent infirmities.”102 To speak of infirmities was the way in which Wesley discussed the moral neutrality of the body, all of which was the consequence of his aesthetic view of creation and moral account of the origins of evil. Only by maintaining the moral neutrality of the body, and a moral definition of evil, could Wesley argue for the possibility of entire sanctification in this lifetime.

How Wesley answered the question “Unde ma/urn?” determined much of what followed in his understanding of salvation. How one explains and defines evil has important theological consequences for the remainder of one’s theological system. What this also indicates is that Wesley saw practical consequences in what some wrongly consider insignificant theological trivia.


AM Wesley, John, Arminian Magazine (1778-97).

ANF Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, eds, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. Edinburgh: T&T Clark/Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.

BEW Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works. Nashville: Abingdon Press/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975- .

ENNT Wesley, John, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament. London: 1755.

ENOT Wesley, John, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament. Bristol: 1765).

Essay Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Peter Nidditch, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

]WJ The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., [. ..] enlarged from Original Manuscripts, 8 vols, Nehemiah Curnock, ed. London: Epworth Press, 1909-16.

JWL The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, 8 vols, John Telford, ed. London: Epworth Press, 1931.

NP Wesley, John, A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation: or a Compendium of Natural Philosophy, 3rd ed. 5 vols. London: J. Fry, 1777.

NPNF1 Schaff, Philip, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, first series, 14 vols. Edinburgh T&T Clark/Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.

PWHS Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society.

Works The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Thomas Jackson, ed., 3rd ed. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

WTJ Wesleyan Theological Journal.


1 This was the annual lecture of the Wesley Fellowship, Great Britain, and was read 12 September 1992 in Birmingham, England. Some alterations have been made to the conclusion. Apart from this, it appears as published by the Wesley Fellowship as Occasional Paper No. 7.

2 Lactantius, “A Treatise on the Anger of God,” xiii (ANF 7:271).

3 A.g., Antony Flew, God and Philosophy (London: Hutchinson Press, 1966), 48. Also see John Mackje, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Philosophy of Religion, ed. Basil Mitchell (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 92-3; and Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974).

4 The etymology of “theodicy” is derived from the Greek word for God, “theos,” and justice, “dikei.” The word appears to have been coined by Leibniz “in 1697 in a letter to Magliabechi . . . as the title of an intended work” (John Merz, Leibniz, London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1884, 101, in John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, London: Macmillan Co. Ltd, 1966, 6 ð.).

5 See BEW, 25:240-2 (Dec. 19, 1729), 25:258 (Dec. 11, 1730), 25:264-7 (Jan. 15, 1731); also see AM 3(1780):604-6, 607-11; BEW, “The Promise of Understanding” (1730), 4:285; BEW. “The End of Christ’s Coming” (1781), 2:476. A close inspection of Wesley’s “Sermon Register” reveals twenty-seven instances of preaching from this text (1 John 3:8) between 1742 to 1789, leading Outler to conclude, “This confirms the impression of Wesley’s serious preoccupation, both early and late, with the problem of evil, and especially moral evil (BEW, 2:47 1).

6 E.g., BEW, 25:240-2 (Dec. 19, 1729); BEW, 2:476, “The End of Christ’s Coming” (1781); AM 3(1780):604-6.

7 A slight misquote from Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.26, found on the title page of “Predestination Calmly Considered” (1752), which was later republished in AM 2(1779), 505 ff, 553 ff, 609 ff. The quote also appeared in “The Great Assize” (1758), BEW, 1:365; “God’s Approbation of His Works” (1782), BEW, 11:399; “On the Fall of Man” (1782), BEW, II:401; “The Promise of Understanding” (1730), BEW, IV:282-3; JWL VI: 137, (1775).

8 “On Mourning for the Dead” (1727), BEW, 4:239; cf. Augustine, “Enchiridion” (42 1-23), XI, XXVII (NPNF1, 3:240, 246).

9 See Richard Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (Gainesville, Florida: University Presses of Florida, 1984). For a critique of Wesley’s aesthetic theme in creation see Joseph Barker, “A Review of Wesley’s Notions Respecting the Primeval State of Man and the Universe” (London: 1848), 22.

10 See “The Imperfection of Human Knowledge” (1784), BEW, 2:568-86.

11 A.g., “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), BEW, 1:344-5; “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, IV” (1748), 1:538; “Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law” (1750), BEW, 2:12-3; ‘In the Fall of Man” (1782), 2:411; “God’s Love to Fallen Man” (1782), 2:424; “The General Deliverance” (1781), 2:449; “A Call to Backsliders” (1778), BEW, 3:211; “The Promise of Understanding” (1730), BEW, 4:285-6.

12 A.g., “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, VI” (1748), BEW, 1:589; “On Divine Providence” (1786), BEW, 2:540-1; “On the Omnipresence of God” (1788), BEW, 4:44; “The Unity of the Divine Being” (1789), 4:62; “Public Diversions Denounced’ (1732), 4:320-1; “Thoughts Upon God’s Sovereignty” (1777), Works, 10:361-3.

13 “The Unity of the Divine Being” (1789), BEW, 4:62.

14 This went through several editions, being expanded with virtually each edition: (1763)2 vols., 1st edn; (1770)3 vols., 2nd edn; (1777)5 vols., 3rd edn.

15 “God’s Approbation of His Works” (1782), BEW, 2:388.

16 “God’s Approbation of His Works” (1782), BEW, 2:390-1.

17 “God’s Approbation of His Works” (1782), BEW. 2:396-97.

18 “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels” (1784), BEW, 2:552.

19 See BEW, 2:397 note 43, part of which says, “The ‘vain king’ was Alphonso X, ‘El Sabio’ (1221-84),” and his ironic aphorism survives in many different versions. Cf. John Norris, “Sermon Preached Before the University of Oxford, Mar. 29, 1685,” p. 2, where mention is made of “that arrogant and peevish mathematician who charged the architect with want of skill in the mechanism of the world” saying he could have done better.”

20 “God’s Approbation of the His Works” (1782), BEW, 2:397-8.

21 Cf. Bruce Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 121.

22 NP (1777), 5:225-6.

23 “The ‘proof-text’ here is Plato’s Thaeatetus, 153C, where Plato cites Homer’s Iliad, viii. 19, as a proof-text for the phrase [. . .] ‘the golden chain,’” see Outler BEW, 396 ð. 40.

24 “God’s Approbation of His Works” (1782), BEW, 2:396-97. Cf. Locke, Essay, III. vi. 12, where he does not insist upon the necessity of plenitude, saying its existence is only probable.

25 NP (1777), 4:57 ff.

26 NP (1777), 4:58-9; cf. Locke, Essay, III 6.12.

27 NP (1777), 4:60.

28 “Of Evil Angels” (1783), BEW, 3:16.

29 For Wesley’s sound rebuke of Buffon’s Natural History, see “Remarks on The Count De Buffon’s ‘Natural History”, AM, 7(1782); in Works, 13:448-55.

30 Loíejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 183-4.

31 “The General Deliverance” (1781), BEW, 2:442.

32 Loíejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 189-95. An opinion also held by Locke (Essay,; Addison (Spectator, no. 621, Nov. 17, 1714); Bolingbroke (Fragments in Works (1809), VIII.44, 186; and Pope (Essay on Man).

33 ENOT, 3 vols (1st vol. 1765). The exact date of publication is disputed because of its being published in weekly installments. This was not a work by Wesley, but an extraction of Matthew Henry’s Exposition, and Poole’s Annotations.

34 Contemplation de la Nature, 2nd ed. (1769), 1:23-24, 84, in Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 194-5.

35 I.x.25, cf. I.xxxix.98.

36 BEW, 1:252; 2:473, 503,535, 536, 577, 578; 3:86. See 4:587.

37 See BEW, 2:503 note 20.

38 See, NP (1777), 5:3, 114.

39 Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.291 (see PWHS, 5:116).

40 JWJ, 4:354; cf. Aquinas, ST, Pt. I, Q. 47, Art. 3.

41 Cf. William Broome, “The forty-third Chapter of Ecclesiasticus Paraphrased,’” and Collection of Moral and Sacred Poems (1744), 11.99, BEW, 3:463 note 50.

42 An unanswerable argument.

43 “What is Man?” (1787), BEW, 3:462-3. But cf. NP (1777), 5:114-6.

44 For an interesting poetic comparison between angels and men see Charles’ hymn, “A Dialogue of ANGELS and MEN” in, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 3rd edn (1756).

45 NP (1777), 4:110. This was a part of his extraction of Bonnet.

46 “Of Good Angels”” (1783), BEW, 3:6.

47 “Oð the Discoveries of Faith” (1788), BEW, 4:31.

48 An Extract from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1763), 2nd ed. (1791). See Oscar Sherwin, “Milton for the Masses: John Wesley’s Edition of Paradise Lost,” Modern Language Quarterly, 12(1951):267-85; Samuel Rogal, “The Role of Paradise Lost in Works by John and Charles Wesley,” Milton Quarterly 13(1979):1 14-19.

49 “Remarks on Mr. H. ‘s account of the Gentoo Religion in Hindostan” in Lloyd’s Evening Post, Nov. 30, 1774; and Works, 13:403-8.

50 Carris Fletcher, Milton’s Rabbinical Readings (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1930), 255.

51 BEW, 3:3.

52 “What is Man?” (1788), BEW, 3:458.

53 “Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law” (1750), BEW, 2:6.

54 “The Unity of the Divine Being” (1789), BEW, 4:63. Cf. JWL. 6:2 14 (April 17, 1776), where he talks about paradise, and how “the soul will not be encumbered with flesh and blood; but probably it will have some sort of ethereal vehicle, even before God clothes us ‘with our nobler house of empyrean light.'”

55 “Of Good Angels” (1783), BEW 3:6. Cf. his comment on Psalm 104:4 in ENOT; cf. Aquinas, ST. Pt. I, Q. 50-51 on angels.

56 “Of Good Angels” (1783), BEW 3:6-8; “On Guardian Angels” (1726), BEW 4:228-9, 233.

57 “Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law” (1750), BEW 2:7.

58 “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, VI” (1748), BEW 1:583-4.

59 “Of Good Angels” (1783), BEW 3:6.

60 “Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law” (1750), BEW 2:6.

61 The “Apostle” was Isaiah, in Isaiah 14:12.

62 Milton, Paradise Lost, V:659-60.

63 “The End of Christ’s Coming” (1781), BEW 2:476.

64 Isaiah 14:12.

65 Milton, Paradise Lost, V:659-61. Notice how Wesley quotes Scripture and Milton side by side in such a way that only the scholars of the Bible or Milton could tell them apart.

66 Cf. Isaiah 14:13.

67 A phrase used by Polycarp, “The Epistles of Polycarp,” VII (ANF, 1:34).

68 Isaiah 14.14.

69 “The Deceitfulness of the Human Heart” (1790), BEW 4:152, 154.

70 “The End of Christ’s Coming” (1781), BEW 2:476.

71 “Of Evil Angels” (1783), BEW 3:16-29.

72 “The End of Christ’s Coming” (1781), BEW 2:476.

73 See comments of Leibniz on King’s work in “Observations on the Book Concerning ‘The Origin of Evil,’ in the “Appendices” of Theodicy (Huggard, 405-42).

74 King, Essay on the Origin of Evil, 9-15.

75 King, Essay on the Origin of Evil, 150-55.

76 King. Essay on the Origin of Evil, 356; cf. 340.

77 King, Essay on the Origin of Evil, 369.

78 Jenyns, Free Inquiry, 102.

79 Jenyns, Free Inquiry, 25.

80 Jenyns, Free Inquiry, 15.

81 Jenyns, Free Enquiry, 110.

82 AAW, 25:258.

83 BAW, 25:264-67, which appeared in AM 3(1780):607-1 1.

84 AAW, 25:264.

85 AAW, 25:266.

86 “God’s Approbation of His Works” (1782), BEW, 2:399. Note Wesley’s footnote as enhanced by Outler.

87 Perhaps this is an obscure reference to the fact that Jenyns was the elected MP for Cambridge (1742 and served until 1780).

88 “God’s Love to Fallen Man” (1782), BEW, 2:434. Cf. “God’s Approbation of the His Works” (1782), BEW, 2:397-8 as referred to in note 81 above.

89 “God’s Love to Fallen Man” (1782), BEW, 2:434. Cf. “God’s Approbation of the His Works” (1782), BEW, 2:397-8.

90 See “On the Fall of Man” (1782), BEW, 2:411 and note 60. This thought connects Wesley with the “felix culpa” tradition, which renders the entire controversy with Calvinists meaningless. If the fall resulted in the redemption, does it then matter whether or not God is responsible for the fall?

91 AAW, 25:240-2 (Dec. 19, 1729); cf. AM, 3(1780): 604-6. Ditton was responding to the materialism of Hobbes.

92 Ditton, Discourse, 474, 490 (the emphasis is his).

93 BAW, 25:241-2 (Dec. 19, 1729); cf. Ditton, Discourse, 424-7 (the emphasis is mine).

94 A position also held by Browne, Winnett, Peter Browne, Provost, Bishop, Metaphysician (London: SPCK, 1974), 30-49.

95 The “Apostle” was Isaiah, in Isaiah 14:12.

96 Milton, Paradise Lost, V:659-60.

97 “The End of Christ’s Coming” (1781), BEW, 2:475-6. Cf. the view of 4 Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata,” 1:17.

98 “The Promise of Understanding” (1730), BEW, 4:285.

99 “The General Deliverance” (1781), BEW, 2:442-3.

100 A similar contrast is made between King and Browne by Winnett, Peter Browne (1974), 35-6.

101 “On Perfection” (1784), BEW, 3:79-80.

102 ENNT, (1755), John 1:14.