Systematic Theology in a Wesleyan Mode

, posted by Kevin Jackson

Systematic Theology in a Wesleyan Mode

From the Wesleyan Theological Journal
H. Ray Dunning

In analyzing our topic, it becomes apparent that there are two issues which need to be addressed at the outset. There is first of all the matter of doing systematic theology. We do not need to give an extensive elaboration here but it is of the utmost importance that we understand what it is we are about. I am interpreting the phrase to refer to an activity which should be distinguished from both Biblical theology and historical theology, and-perhaps depending on definitions-dogmatics as well. I personally would subscribe to the view of Biblical theology which defines it as “an inductive descriptive discipline, synthetic in approach, which on the basis of a grammatico-historical study of the Biblical text seeks to set forth in its own terms and in its full structural unity the theology expressed in the Bible.”1 This is to distinguish the discipline from a theology which is Biblical. In that sense, all theology ought to be Biblical theology, but that is where the rub comes.

I am also distinguishing systematic theology from historical theology in the sense that, in our context, it is something different from scrutinizing the documents with an intellectual microscope to determine what Mr. Wesley himself taught on various and sundry topics. That is not to say that this is either unimportant or irrelevant to our task. In fact, I would suggest that it is indispensable. The work of the historian provides a substantial backdrop for the theologian, especially when his work is wholistically integrated and interpreted. It is important for the Wesleyan theologian what Wesley said in detail, but not ultimately important.

If we define dogmatics as the study of creeds or denominational articles of faith-and I grant this is probably not your definition-then “systematic theology” is different from this discipline as well. Such an enterprise is certainly worthy as is all study of tradition as a resource for “theologizing” but finally tradition must be brought under the judgment of theological adequacy and the Biblical Word. We must avoid falling into the trap so delightfully described by Helmut Thielicke as guarding the ashes rather than tending the flame.2

Let me suggest a tentative definition of systematic theology as “the attempt to interpret the faith in a wholistic way in continuous dialog with the authoritative sources of wisdom on the one hand and with the contemporary situation on the other, seeking constantly to be true and faithful to the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) while addressing man and his need in an idiom which communicates.” This is methodologically different from the understanding expressed in some quarters that systematic theology is a logical task of organizing propositions divinely revealed in a disorganized form.

In connection with attempting to define the discipline of doing theology it seems pertinent to me to note here that in a Wesleyan setting this is not a task for a “lone ranger.” Given the Wesleyan understanding of the communal nature of the Christian faith, I am committed to the conviction that “doing theology” is a dialogic enterprise carried on within the community of faith including both scholars and laymen. It is, in other words, not an autonomous discipline where the theologian does his work in independence of the checks and balances which the community provides. On the other hand, neither is it heteronomous in the sense that certain “authoritative” theologians or ecclesiastics impose their ideas upon that community. Within this limiting context the scholar must be free to pursue his explorations without fear of reprisal so long as he is properly committed to the sources of theological authority. I should perhaps qualify this by saying that I respect implicitly the authority of the scholar vis-a-vis technical questions.

Further exegesis of the topic reveals the second issue: that of a Wesleyan mode or perspective. This idea raises a couple of questions: (1) the matter of perspectival theology and (2) the question of the substance of a Wesleyan mode of thinking. Why not approach the Biblical data objectively? Is it not the case that one should cast aside his presuppositions and approach the Biblical text in an objective manner? Even to raise these questions reminds one of the ghost of Leopold von Ranke whose 19th century school of historiography chased the will-of-the- wisp of writing history “as it really is.”

Apropos to this point is the incisive analysis of Robert K. Johnson in his hard-hitting book, Evangelicals at an Impasse. He here calls attention to the fact that “Evangelicals, all claiming a common Biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they address….”3 This highlights the significant truth that the crisis of evangelicalism is the task of transplanting Biblical authority into practice in one’s constructive theology. The chief issue is hermeneutics rather than some particular theory of Biblical authority. This is the point Donald Bloesch is hammering home when he reiterates that Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christadelphians, the Mormons and the Unitarian Pentecostals all contend for Biblical inerrancy.’

The ideal of a study of scripture without the coloring of a pre-understanding is challenging and should be constantly pursued. However, we must recognize it as-an “impossible possibility” and strive to avoid allowing our pre-understanding to pervert the meaning of the text in the task of exegesis. We should determinedly seek to bring the light of scripture to bear upon those presuppositions with which we read the scripture in a relation of reciprocity between premise and data. The most crucial danger is from the possibility of our not being aware that we have presuppositions.

As I often tell my students, the truly educated person is not one without presuppositions, but one who knows what his presuppositions are. We are conditioned by our own perspectives but not imprisoned by them.

John Jefferson Davis, in a perceptive essay on “contextualization and the nature of theology” has pointed out that “the very variety of theological systems within the evangelical tradition alone, all claiming an equally high regard for the authority of scripture, is in itself an indication that there are factors beyond the text itself which shape the gestalt of the system.”5 He concludes that there is an inescapable element of personal judgment which shapes the theologian’s vision, as it does the artist’s or scientist’s.

The bottom line of all this is to suggest that it is legitimate to posit a particular point of view and recognize that there is and for us perhaps ought to be a Wesleyan way of reading Scripture and that it should be a self-conscious undertaking. The “Catholic” side of Wesley would support this positive evaluation of the role of tradition in the theological task.

The question to which we must now address ourselves is the substance of such a perspective. I am suggesting that we are here concerned with something more comprehensive than a Wesleyan teaching on this or that particular doctrinal item, but more profoundly, a distinctive point of view which will serve as a norm for the entire spectrum covered by systematic theology. The assumption here is that systematic theology is only possible when it is developed in the light of a controlling “norm” (Tillich).

The central focus of Wesley’s own teaching was soteriology, all his work was laid in tribute to this one end. That might lead one to think that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was his distinctive teaching and this is not altogether wide of the mark as we will soon see. Wesley’s conservative successors have commonly given their attention to this aspect of his thought thus leaving the impression of a fairly general consensus about the centrality of this complex of doctrines.

However, the disturbing thing to me is that the Wesleyan soteriology (with different nuances of development perhaps) has been grafted onto significantly non-Wesleyan theological trees. Timothy Smith, in Called Unto Holiness has pointed out the wedding of Wesleyan perfectionism with a Disciples’ ecclesiology in one group that eventually became a part of the Church of the Nazarene (p. 154). Donald Dayton, if I properly interpret some of his work is at least suggesting that the combining of Wesleyan holiness with the Oberlin theology is a somewhat mismatched union. Clearly that was Paul Bassett’s point in a paper on the development of Holiness Theology in the 19th century published in the Methodist History, A.M.E.-Zion Review some years ago. I, myself, pointed out in a paper to this society the incongruity of the widely prevalent joining of Wesleyan theology with Dispensationalism. An interesting case in point where this “coincidence of opposites” operates in reverse has recently come to my attention. Daniel Fuller, in his book Gospel and Law has worked his way, via painstaking exegesis of relevant passages, out of both Dispensationalism and Covenant theology to a thoroughly Wesleyan position on the relation of gospel and law. But in the latter part of the work, he still clings to Reformed presuppositions, apparently unaware that they are logically incompatible with the first part and theologically cancel out his exegetical findings there. It occurred to me that while the careful exegetical work could be received gratefully by the Wesleyan as supporting his point of view, nonetheless if the Biblical text had been read originally from the Wesleyan perspective, any adequate English translation would have appeared naturally and easily to teach the understanding to which Dr. Fuller had apparently struggled manfully from another perspective.

The list of mixed marriages could doubtless be multiplied many times over. This phenomenon highlights the need for identifying a distinctively Wesleyan norm which will provide the perspective from which we can develop a full-orbed, consistently integrated, coherently developed, systematically adequate Wesleyan theology.

My proposal for such a norm would look something like this: At the center would stand, as previously suggested, the doctrine of salvation conceptualized as justification by grace through faith and sanctification by grace through faith related as “two foci of an ellipse.” I think this imagery most adequately captures the relationship between the two basic themes of Wesley’s teaching.

In an address presented to the Drew Conference celebrating the commencement of the publication of the Oxford Edition of the Works of John Wesley, Professor Albert C. Outler argued much the same point. His thesis was that Wesley’s place in the Christian tradition was vouchsafed by his “distinctive undertaking to integrate ‘faith alone’ with ‘holy living’ in an authentic dialectic.”6

If justification is interpreted as the center of a circle, the practical consequence tends to be antinomianism as Wesley perceived to be the case with Luther; if sanctification is seen as the center of a circle, the result tends to be moralism or legalism as Wesley felt was the case with William Law.7

Wesley, himself, it seems to me, consistently maintained a balanced relation between the two, a balance epigrammatically embodied in his favorite scriptural formula of “faith working by love” with which he opposed the Thomistic-Catholic formula of “faith formed by love” and balanced the Lutheran formula of “faith formed by Christ.” This seems to be the upshot, on the positive side, of Cell’s famous analysis that Wesley’s position was a unique synthesis of the Protestant ethic of grace and the Catholic ethic of holiness.

This balancing of justification and sanctification also provides a clue to something I have felt for some time but have not felt competent to assert, something which Professor Outler in his paper insisted on also, namely that Wesley stands in a via media relation to Eastern and Western Christian thought. Outler’s words are worth quoting in part: “Over the course of Christian thought about the mystery of salvation . . . one may see two great contrasting perspectives. They have always been in unstable tension and when either has succeeded in obscuring the other, the results have been debilitating. One has been more largely associated with what we have come to call Latin Christianity; the other is more characteristically Eastern and Greek. The code words, in Latin Christianity, have been ‘pardon,’ ‘acquittal,’ ‘remission,’ ‘final glory,’ etc.; in Greek Christianity: ‘forgiveness,’ ‘reconciliation,’ ‘participation,’ ‘perfection.’ Latin Christianity has been dominated by forensic images, metaphors from the law courts: Greek Christianity has been fascinated by visions of ontological ‘participation in God:’…” His observation on this fact was that “any Protestant theologian who, by intention and partial achievement has grasped the vital unity of both Pardon and Participation motifs is at least as relevant for our times as most other spokesmen for more disjunctive systems.” “Wesley, in my judgment,” he averred, “grasped this vital unity firmly.”8

It is my suspicion that perhaps due to the dominance of the Reformed tradition among conservative theologians in our culture, we have latched on to the Latin side of Wesley’s thought and attempted to develop our theology within this perspective which makes it oftentimes more Calvinist than Wesleyan, especially in our Atonement theories. Leo Cox is surely correct when he says that Wesley’s “ideas on sin, grace, justification and sanctification lead one to believe that a Wesleyan conception of the Atonement must differ somewhat from a traditional view.”9 It would suggest to me that a Wesleyan view of the Atonement would combine a balanced relation between the incarnation and the crucifixion, involving both in an organic interrelationship rather than stressing exclusively the crucifixion as Latin Christianity has tended to do.

When you combine this possibility with the fact that many Wesleyans have also been exclusively preoccupied with sanctification which in Wesley would be most at home in his Eastern side, you may have a clue to certain ambiguities which have developed. This is only a programmatic statement and I would propose it as a heuristic comment hoping to recruit some help in exploring this frontier (at least to me it is a frontier).

The putting of justification/sanctification at the heart of the Wesleyan perspective reflects Wesley’s own soteriological concerns and makes them the heart of theology into which all tributaries flow. Colin Williams and others rightly call attention to the point that Wesley was only peripherally concerned with speculative theology. The “fact” of the Divine-Human Christ, the “fact” of the Trinity, etc., were all secure but the particular “explanation” of the fact was a matter not to be preoccupied with-except, as Williams says, “where the true living knowledge of Christ (was) actually at stake.”10 This would not, it seems to me, require the Wesleyan theologian to be a “folk” theologian but it would provide him with a benchmark by which to evaluate the doctrinal formulations with which he concerns himself.11

Now we must enhance our proposed norm by adding an encompassing concept to provide the setting within which the dialect of justification/sanctification is developed. This would clearly be prevenient grace. To say that this is an important distinctive in a Wesleyan perspective would be an immense understatement. The whole work of salvation is carried on within the context of prevenient grace and even as thus limited, it provides the “hair” which divides Wesley from Calvinism. This aspect of his thought has been developed ad infinitum and needs no further elaboration on my part in its soteriological dimensions. However, what I would like to propose is that prevenient grace be extrapolated into an epistemological and an ontological principle. Wesley himself gave a few clues in this direction as Charles Rogers has pointed out in his Ph.D. dissertation on “The Concept of Prevenient Grace in the Theology of John Wesley” (Duke, 1967).

While I cannot give a fully developed treatment of all the ramifications of this proposal in this paper since that would be to present a systematic theology, let me suggest a few pointers. If Prevenient Grace is seen as such a principle, it would lead to the position that God is not only first in the ordo essendi of doctrines as traditionally accepted, but also first in the ordo cognoscendi. This would imply that knowledge of God is immediate rather than inferential and place Wesleyan theology in the philosophical tradition of Plato rather than Aristotle and in the theological tradition flowing from it which would include Augustine, Bonaventure, John Baillie, Paul Tillich and so on. Thus a Wesleyan theology would have no time for so-called “proofs” for the existence of God, since proof reasons from what is known or certain, to which is not known or uncertain. But in the Wesleyan perspective God is the Ultimate Reality which impinges upon our consciousness as the primary datum. In the words of Colin Williams, “God makes himself known directly; first in a preliminary way (through conscience) by prevenient grace, and then in a direct way (through the gospel) by convincing grace. ” 12

If this conclusion is valid, it would have ramifications for the concept of reason” with which Wesley was much concerned. The primary mode of reason” operative in such a gestalt would be akin to the concept of reason designated by Professor Tillich as Ontological in contrast to what he calls technical reason. This would emphasize the Platonic epistemological principle of “participation.” In his “Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” Wesley gives implicit approval to such a concept as is seen in these words: “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.”13 “Reason,” of course, is not to be conceived in this mode humanistically, i.e., as a natural function of man in his fallen state, but as a gift of prevenient grace.14

Such a structure would stand, logically, as a corollary to a properly developed understanding of the imago dei in which one aspect of this doctrine would affirm that the image is a relationship within which man stands perpetually. Within this context of grace the Wesleyan would affirm with the classical Christian tradition that man is essentially good, though existentially estranged since the essence of man is seen to be “man-in-relation- to-God.” I think we would probably have to jettison the time-honored term, natural image since from a logically consistent analysis based on this proposed norm, the imago dei would be a gift of grace in all its aspects and therefore not “natural.” My opinion is that Wesley was using this term as a traditional one and would heartily concur with this suggested alteration in terminology. After all, his concept of the “natural man” being a logical abstraction and no man being devoid of prevenient grace would entail such a reconstruction.

Furthermore prevenient grace would provide a clue to a distinctive doctrine of Revelation. While, true to Wesley, it would deny any possibility of a natural knowledge of God and thus a natural revelation (which is actually a contradiction in terms) it would be able to develop a view of General Revelation which would provide both a “point of contact” for the Gospel (contra the early Barth) and a ground of rapproachement with the non-Christian religions which would emphasize continuity rather than discontinuity.

John Allen Knight, in his Ph.D. dissertation on John Fletcher says that Fletcher was the first systematic theologian of the Wesleyan movement (p. 189, n.3). According to Dr. Knight’s analysis the unifying motif of Fletcher’s thought was his doctrine of dispensations which refers to various stages or facets of man’s knowledge of God. This doctrine is actually a spelling out of the implications-which Wesley himself never developed-of the doctrine of prevenient grace. This suggests significant support for giving this motif a dominant and widely pervasive place in a distinctly Wesleyan theology.

But we must now go one step further in rounding out our norm. Wesley both explicitly and implicitly grounded prevenient grace in Christology which would appear to give the whole of his theology a Christological focus. Or, in other words, the all encompassing determinant which embraces all the rest is Christology.

In his paper presented in 1972 to the WTS on Wesley’s Old Testament Notes, Dr. William Arnett demonstrated how this resource is developed with a Christological emphasis. Jesus Christ is the “new hermeneutic” in the light of which the Old Testament is interpreted. In Dr. Arnett’s words, “Wesley’s vision was filled with Jesus Christ, the eternal, incarnate, crucified, and risen Saviour. He sees his form and hears his voice from beginning to end in the Old Testament…. For Wesley, Jesus Christ is the very center of God’s revelation and man’s salvation.”15 Although, from our perspective, Wesley may have read some of the Old Testament witness to Christ in a non-historical and thus less than satisfactory way, the instinct is sound and illuminates our suggestion that Christology be the unifying element for a theological norm.

If this is a true perspective, it follows that every doctrinal development is to be ultimately interpreted Christologically, Justification and sanctification and Revelation and the Doctrine of God and the work of the Holy Spirit all. Without a doubt this would also serve a controlling function in the Wesleyan theologian’s use of his sources but I will need to leave that for another time.


1 John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), pp. 114-115.

2 The Evangelical Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub., 1974), I, 54.

3 Robert K. Johnson, Evangelicals at an Impasse (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), p. 71.

4 Essentials of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1978), I, 4, 20. 83.

5 The Necessity of Systematic Theology, J. J. Davis, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 177.

6 In The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition, ed. by Kenneth Rowe (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976).

7 See Colin Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (NY: Abingdon press, 1960), p. 78f and Harald Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification (London: The Epworth Press, n.d.), pp. 57-58.

8 Outler, The Place of Wesley, pp. 29-30.

9 John Wesley’s Concept of Perfection (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1964), p. 34.

10 John Wesley’s Theology, p. 92.

11 I am not using the term “folk theologian” in a pejorative sense but with the same connotation as Albert Outler in describing Wesley in this way.

12 John Wesley’s Theology, p. 42.

13 An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, ed. by Gerald R. Cragg (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 55.

14 Cf. Works, V, 211, “Compend of Natural Philosophy,” and John Deschner, Wesley’s Christology (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1960), p. 92.

15 William M. Arnett: “A Study in John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament ” Wesleyan Theological Journal 8, 1973, p. 21.