The Nature of Wesleyan Theology
From the Wesleyan Theological Journal
J. Kenneth Grider
Theology, when it is entered into by us Wesleyans, takes on a certain nature, in relation to other theologies: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Calvinist. It is of the very nature of Wesleyan theology that it has (1) an experiential interest, (2) an existential element, (3) a large-scoped biblical character, (4) a dynamic quality, (5) a catholicity, and 6) a homing instinct for the moral.
Its Experiential Interest
John Wesley (1703-91) himself was much interested in such. It is well known from his Journal that, on May 24, 1738, after he had been at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and heard an anthem on the evangelical, “Pauline” 130th Psalm, he attended a meeting place on Aldersgate Street in London and felt his heart “strangely warmed.” But not just that. He started the Methodist Societies to foster in others the warmed heart-and the kind of Christian life which is its fitting outflow.
At a time when England was suffering from a dearth of experiential faith, when religion in this sense was often a laughing matter, John Wesley became the most strategic catalyst in effecting a revival of religion which transformed culture in basic ways and gained wide respect for experiential Christian faith. J. R. Green, in his Short History of the English People, as he introduces the treatment of the period immediately following 1742, says that “. . . never had religion seemed at a lower ebb.”1 Yet it is even felt by many historians such as J. Wesley Bready in his This Freedom Whence,2 that the Wesleyan revival contributed more to the social and political freedoms of Britons than the French Revolution did-and that it was the experiential religion promulgated by Wesley, essentially, that brought about so drastic a change in human rights and human life generally in England.
Wes1ey’s theology, which was not presented in sustained, systematic form, but in sermons and treatises and Bible comments (and even in a journal and letters) as issues arose, had perhaps four main sources, one of them the experiential. It is true that his theology was biblical, and I will discuss that a bit later. It is also true that reason figured importantly in it. Besides, and somewhat as an overlap with his experiential interest, he respected very much the tradition of the church. But importantly, and distinctively, and in some ways dangerously, he stressed the importance of experience as a source for one’s theology. George Croft Cell says that Wesley’s theology is actually a theology of personal experience.3 Harald Lindstrom says similarly, “In its general structure, Wesley’s view of Christianity has been described as a theology of experience: his affirmation of Christian experience is considered his main characteristic.”4 Wesley has also been called a “… zealous proclaimer of individual, experiential religion.”5 He even tended at times to give a precedence to experience, over Scripture – although he states at other times that Scripture has primary authority. Mullen finds what I myself do, and writes that “. . . in practice he judged the validity of biblical and religious claims by experience, not experience by dogma.”6 In this same vein John M. Moore says, “John Wesley received an experience that night [at Aldersgate] that made him the greatest moral, social, and religious force of his century. That is the testimony of the historians…. Aldersgate Street led out into the fields where men lived, and he took the road and never grew weary of it.”7
One special aspect of Wesley’s emphasis on religious experience was his teaching on the witness of the Spirit. In a sermon on this subject, and otherwise, he stresses this matter. He taught that there is a direct witness, in which the Holy Spirit inwardly assures us of our acceptance with God in justification and of our entire sanctification; and that, also, and later, indirectly, the Holy Spirit witnesses to us of such matters by reminding us that, in our lives, the fruits of justification or of entire sanctification are evident.
Wesley was wise, in his stressing the importance of experience-Christian experience. The ancient Apostles’ Creed does not read, “I believe that,” but “I believe in God the Father,” etc., which means that the early Christians were guided to express not simply their knowledge about God and other aspects of Faith, but their experience of such. So it was with Wesley, and so it is with us Wesleyans of the Holiness movement today. We seek to foster not simply knowledge about God, e.g., but the knowledge of God including reverence for Him and obedience to Him.
This is why, in Wesleyan churches today, the one most significant prerequisite for church membership is an experiential one-the experience of conversion. A person is not a member because he was born, physically, to parents who are. He is usually given at least a little specific instruction about the official teachings of the denomination he is about to become a member of, but it would not be sufficient if he simply expressed agreement with those teachings. For this reason, most Holiness denominations have not developed catechisms as such, as the Lutherans have done, to drill into the young the “correct” understanding of the Christian faith. Actually, we have done so little of this that we would not stray significantly from our proper moorings if we were to do much more teaching of our specific doctrines than we do. It could even be argued, and sometimes is, that we should develop something similar to the Lutheran catechisms.
But we have not done so, because our stress is upon conversion. We conduct revival campaigns, and personal evangelism efforts, and Sunday- by-Sunday evangelistic services in local churches, to secure conversions-and once a person is converted, he becomes a possible candidate for church membership. He is not expected, necessarily, to witness to the experience of entire sanctification, the second work of grace, when believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit and freed from Adamic sin. It is usually only needful that a person express belief that the second work of grace is a possible experience.
Often, a point of strength, in a given kind of theology, is at the same time a possible point of weakness. This is to say that, sometimes, right when a point of strength is being maintained and emphasized, a teaching, at that very point, is vulnerable. Wesleyanism’s emphasis upon experience is like this: the emphasis is proper but, if not guarded, it can get one into trouble.
For one thing, it can incline one to respect a person’s statement that he has experienced such and such-when that experience would be contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Also, such an experience might be contrary to the guidance the church has given Christians across the centuries. An example of this might be a theft. If a person were to say the Lord impressed upon his mind that he should take a good overcoat from a restaurant’s coat rack, and that he felt good about having taken it-the experience of feeling he was guided, and of feeling good about what he did, would be incongruous with Scripture and the church’s stored up wisdom. A popular song has it implied that sexual intercourse outside of marriage cannot be wrong because it seems so right to both parties. It is wrong, however, regardless of the feeling of, the experience of, its being right. Scripture says so, as does the church’s sophia.
Besides such matters as these, a Christian might find the Spirit- witness to his conversion, or to his entire sanctification, at low ebb-and he might deduce, from this, that he is not sanctified wholly or that he is not justified. The experience of being inwardly assured, by the Spirit, ebbs and flows, somewhat according to outward circumstances in one’s life. Often, a serious physical or psychological illness produces a feeling of depression, at which times a Christian experiences the feeling that God has departed from him and does not hear his cries for help. Intense physical pain, especially when it continues for a period of days, can also produce in a Christian this experience of feeling that God has departed from him-that he is not God’s child, after all. In instances such as these, the physical pain, or the psychological depression, has a way of spilling over into the area of our consciousness of a good relationship with God-and we tend to think God has forsaken us. Actually, if we have not willfully disobeyed God, He has not cast us off-assuming we have been justified. If we have not sinned willfully, we likewise are still sanctified wholly-assuming, again, that God had earlier granted us this second work of cleansing and empowering grace.
Again, while experience of God’s grace is so all-important, it is accompanied by certain dangers-such as, as I have suggested, our experiencing a feeling of being forsaken by God, when, according to Scripture, we may be confident that He has not forsaken us when we have not willfully disobeyed Him.
A much more fundamental vulnerability of the Wesleyan stress on the importance of experience, in our theology, stems from the fact that, in experience we are engaging ourselves with ourselves, instead of with the objective matters of our faith: God himself; the historic deeds done for us at
Bethlehem and at Golgotha; Scripture as the written-down revelation of God- our holy Christian tradition, in which we learn about God’s stretched- out faithfulness to His people, and about the stretched-out responsive faithfulness of our Christian forebears. Actually, we Wesleyans are fond of claiming that we are evangelicals; and yet, in this stress on experience, taken by itself, we locate close to the modernists-who tend to deprecate Scripture, and even Christian tradition, and to carry the “experience” ball too far. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the father of theological modernism did this, in his The Addresses (1798, and in his The Christian Faith (182i). Indeed, his colleague on the faculty of the University of Berlin, Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who very much deprecated Schleiermacher’s stress on experience as the feeling of absolute dependence, saying that in that case his dog was the most religious of creatures, and who himself stressed reason instead of such a feeling of dependence, also stressed human experience-in the form of human reason. Both Schleiermacher and Hegel, as modernists of different types, overstressed experience-human experience. They both pretty much started their theologizing with human experience, instead of with the objective matters of our Faith: God, Scripture, tradition. I am meaning to say that the Wesleyan stress on experience has in it a certain vulnerability because it puts us right into what is the principal interest vein of the theological modernists in general.
A similar possible danger of such stress on the place of experience, not quite covered in the danger just discussed, is that it tends toward beginning one’s theology with man, and not with God; and that might be the wrong place to begin. This, because it is our doctrine of God which should determine what contours the other doctrines (such as that of man) are to take. It is God’s holiness that makes for, in contrast, unredeemed man’s sinfulness. It is God’s other characteristics, justice, love, faithfulness, mercy, etc., which set the standard for what man, in a relative sense, is to be like in these regards. We do not know what we are supposed to be like, except that we know what God is like. So, we can hardly begin by examining ourselves. We can only do that against the backdrop of what God has revealed to us that He is like-and what He has revealed to us that He wants us to be like. “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (I Pet. 1:16), we read; and that word “holy” is a sort of conglomerate word that includes many characteristics: all those mentioned just above, and more.
Still another kindred danger is that it might occasion our beginning by making judgments about Scripture, instead of with an openness to permitting it to make judgments about us. It fosters man’s criticism of the Bible. instead of the Bible’s criticism of man.
Also, if one begins with human experience, he might say that a particular doctrine is correct or not correct according to whether people testify to the experience of what the doctrine relates to. We need to exercise special reserve in declaring what we have experienced, and, say, speak of conversion, entire sanctification, answers to prayer, etc. But we might not always do that. Indeed, Christians do not always do that. They often talk, e.g.. about experiencing a phenomenon of speaking in unintelligible syllables-and are quick to say that such is the gift of tongues which Scripture clearly speaks of (I Cor. 12-14). Actually, millions of Christians in our century (and practically only in our century, since very early times) have felt a euphoria when they have followed the directions to let the lower jaw hang loose and to begin to say perhaps just a few syllables that do not consist of known words. I think that in the main they are well-meaning. I also believe the sense of euphoria they speak of issues from their realizing, by this unrational behavior, that they surely are willing to follow in ways they believe to be God’s ways even to the extent of doing (saying) what is unconventional. Their euphoria, then, their sense of having done what God wanted them to do, their feeling that they have exercised some strange gift that God bestows upon them, is subjective only, is a datum only of their experience, and surely cannot be in keeping with Scripture-where to so speak is a curse, at Babel (Gen. 11:1-5), and where the Holy Spirit is clearly portrayed as one who makes things clear (dreams, visions, calls, teachings), and not as one who would gift us with what is the opposite: the unintelligible.
Its Existential Interest
Akin to the experiential interest of theology, especially when it has Wesleyan moorings, is its existential interest. Although similar to the experiential because this interest, too, centers in our experience as humans-it is still somewhat distinctly a separate interest. With this interest, theology is not idealistic, in which ideas (or even ideals) or concepts would be the gravitating interest. Nor is it a form of positivism, in which the thing world is real-which we can definitely, in a scientific way, posit. In distinction from idealism and positivism, Wesleyan theology is interested in the human, existing situation. It is interested in Johns and Marys, in their lived-out human situations. It is interested, when John dies, in what Mary’s existing is like when she perhaps must rear two or three who are John’s, without John’s income, in this concrete world with its trauma- producing life circumstances. It is interested not so much in a clean, careful, accurate definition of what death is, but in the existence situation which death puts people into. It is interested not in fat globs of humanity, but in individual persons-and, as regards those individual ones, not so much in their thought life as in their lived life. It is interested, therefore, in truth as a way of life lived according to God’s will; in love, not as an eternal concept, but as agapeic, disinterested, caring acts done by one human being on behalf of another. It is interested not in goodness as an eternal concept that is unchanging and that is prototypal of good acts and even productive of them; but in goodness as consisting of acts which produce a kind of life that fulfills one’s proper potentials and that assists others to do the same.
A theology that is properly existential in its interests, also, will not affirm only what is good, in our world, and deny what is evil, as in some way not actually real; it will admit the reality of what frustrates or tends to frustrate the needful fulfillments of human life. It therefore admits the reality of what occasions anxieties, dreads, guilt, etc. Not being rational in its interests and not believing that reasons can always be produced to give sense to the sources of anxieties, it is content to live with what is rationally muddy. It is content not to figure out reasons for everything that happens, and not to say that it is all for the good of itself; and not to say that God directly (and perhaps not even indirectly) orders everything that happens. It s content at times not to resolve what produces anxieties, but to let God change for us anxiety-producing situations-and, perchance, to help us to live victoriously in the midst of such situations.
Much more will be said of theology’s proper existential interest later, when the proper perspective for doing theology is discussed. But, at least, it needs to be said, here, that theology, Wesleyan theology, is characterized by this type of interest.
Its Wide-Scoped Biblical Interest
To be biblical, also, is important to the very nature of the theological enterprise. This is so, of course, for evangelical theologies of varying kinds: Calvinistic, Lutheran, Wesleyan, etc. Even Neo-Orthodox theology as represented by Karl Barth (1886-1968) is in basic, declared ways interested that theology be biblical. It is because of that basic interest that Barth, who had earlier denied Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection, came to teach both those “kindred” doctrines as of profound significance for our Christian faith.
The Wesleyan interest, however, in theology’s being biblical, has about it a few peculiarities-or, at least, a few specifics. For one thing, it is widescopedly biblical: it intends to be biblical, not merely according to this or that specific biblical passage, but when specific passages are compared with each other and interpreted in the light of all other related passages-including the ones which, on the surface, might seem to be contradictory.
Wesleyan theology is interested in the Bible’s plain and literal sense. But it does not stop there. It is interested that that plain and literal sense be interpreted in the light of Scripture as a whole: in the light of Scripture’s bottom-line teachings; and in the light of its meaning for us, but only after allowances are made for the differences between Bible times and our own. If Scripture tells us, for example, that our religion is invalid (as in James) if we do not help the poor right on the spot, we realize that the times were different then than now, and that we might or might not now help just any and every needy person we see. Our Christian practice of mercy toward the needy now has governmental implementation, and we help the needy, in many countries, by paying our taxes, and permitting the needy to appeal for help to appropriate governmental agencies. We also contribute annually to the United Fund and other charities, helping the needy in those concerted ways. Through taxes and giving to charities, we help the needy. And we think this is an improvement upon the way it was done in century one of our era: through giving to a beggar on a street corner. We do some transposing, therefore, of the meaning of the biblical injunctions to give to needy individuals we meet. We might or might not shell out to the rare (in America) street-corner beggar, and still, no doubt, by taxes and giving to charities, share our funds with those in economic need.
The same is so with the matter of slavery: we do some transposing of what the Bible’s teaching on that matter means to us. The New Testament talks about slavery. But, then, it was not that a given race was enslaved because its skin color was such and such. Slavery was more political than racial; and it was often temporary, and not for life. So, when the New Testament speaks of slavery, we need to realize that to be a slave then was not the same as to be one in Britain until 1806 or in America until 1865.
Also, although there were some forms of slavery in New Testament times which, although often not as inhumane as later in Britain and America, were more or less condoned as by Paul in Philemon, there are other Bible passages which imply that it ought to be abolished (injunctions to love agapeicly, to prefer others to oneself, to do to others what one would like done to himself, etc.). John Wesley himself considered all the Scriptural data, and opposed slavery vigorous1y, his very last letter being written to Wilberforce to encourage the latter in his opposition to slavery in Britain.
Likewise, in America, the Holiness Movement was in the vanguard of the opposition to slavery. In 1842 the Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded, partly to emphasize the doctrine and experience of entire sanctification; but probably mostly to work for the abolition of slavery. An 1836 official decision which permitted Methodists to hold slaves was what mostly occasioned the split in American Methodism that gave rise to that denomination.
At about the time of Methodism’s decision of 1836, the Congregational- Presbyterian wing of America’s Holiness Movement began a special surge for abolitionism. After Lane Theological Seminary officially decided not to support abolitionism in clear-cut ways, the next fall, in 1835, Presbyterian Asa Mahan became president of Oberlin College in Ohio, and Congregationalist Charles G. Finney its first systematic theologian-importantly, to be an “abolitionist” school. (They did not teach Holiness until a few years later.) Oberlin admitted black students, harbored runaway slaves, and supported state legislation to make harboring them legal. All this, because the American Holiness Movement, in both its wings, interpreted Scripture widescopedly, as opposing the s1avery then practiced in America.
At the same time, the Calvinistic evangelicals used various specific biblical texts, such as the brief epistle to Philemon, to support the practice of slavery. Right when Oberlin was so abolitionist, Princeton exegetes were hard at work in guiding non-Wesleyan evangelicals in a crusade supportive of slavery-based on their narrow-lensed interpretation of Scripture.
Numerous Scripture passages can indeed be fled to, if one is searching for its permission to hold slaves. It does, in places, exhort Christian slaves to be good slaves and Christian masters to be good masters. But this is because the basic philosophy of Christianity’s first Apostles was not to be revolutionaries, but to work within the social structures of the time-and, at the same time, to teach basic principles that would one day be seen, as by Wesley and the American Holiness Movement, as fundamentally opposed to slavery.
The same is so, in the matter of Scripture’s teaching about the place of women Specific passages can be found, and are, by fundamentalist evangelicals which suggest that they are not nearly the equals of males (e.g. I Cor. 11:3 ff). They are to keep silent in church services I Cor. 14:34-36), they are to obey their husbands (Eph. 5:22), etc. Again, this is because the Apostles were willing to work with society as it was then structured, until it could be changed in basic ways. And in order to obtain, one day, a change, they taught principles regarding women that would finally incline the Wesleyan Holiness people to be the first to ordain women- Antonette Brown, an Oberlin graduate, being ordained in 1853 by Wesleyan Methodist Church co-founder, Luther Lee. Lee, in what might be the first instance ever of ordaining a woman, used Galatians 3:28 as his text, where Paul says in the KJV, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ.” Within the sermon, Lee argued that women are supposed to preach, in part, because, whereas Paul exhorts them to be silent in First Corinthians 14:34-36, in the same epistle (at I Cor. 11:5-6) he exhorts them to keep their heads covered when they prophesy.
Wesleyan theology is biblical, but not narrowly so; not rigidly so. It views Scripture through this wide-angle lens I have been talking about, as it applies the meaning of Scripture to a given time and to a given culture.
Its Dynamic Quality
Another important aspect of the very nature of theology, as I see the matter, is its dynamic quality. It never quite gets the fiddle tuned. To change the analogy, it is never able to shut up shop.
Theology is indeed rooted in Yesterday. Not in just any and every yesterday, but in certain ones. Its “yesterday” rootage includes, of course, a New Testament and an Older Testament. And while I do not intend, here, to make a special point of the biblical character of a proper theology, I am taking it for granted that we understand each other at that point, and that our theological enterprise is to assume the authority of Scripture. But most theological orientations purport to be rooted in Scripture. My own particular yesterday rootage is Arminian-Wesleyanism-or just Wesleyanism, since Wesley was so avowedly Arminian-and it is outlined in the fifteen “Articles of Faith” of my denomination, the Church of the Nazarene. But not just in Wesley is our rootage. He himself /and Arminius before him, and Wiley in our century) understood that in the main, and especially in their distinctive doctrine of human freedom, they were teaching what had been expounded by the Greek and Latin fathers in general prior to the fifth- century Augustine. It was respect for the church’s good past that caused Arminius to write a 250-page treatise on Romans chapter seven by giving careful research into interpretations of that chapter all through the course of Christian history. Respect for the Church’s tradition inclined Wesley to remain Anglican all his life; and to speak disparagingly of the mystics of his day, who were loners, trying to contact God and serve Him without the help of the church’s traditions and sacraments. It is respect for the church’s past that influenced Wiley to write a systematic theology which is importantly a study of historical theology.
With all such said, however, about my own feeling of a rootage in yesterday, in particular yesterdays, it needs to be underscored that the theological enterprise, especially when it has Wesleyan credentials, is dynamic.
This is in part because we take seriously the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as Indweller and Guide, who pours Himself into living experience. He inclined men to write the Holy Scriptures, which contain sufficient revelation for our salvation. But the selfsame Spirit continues to reveal the Father’s will to specific persons in specific situations. This makes for dynamic in our theological enterprise.
Also figuring in theology’s dynamic is the fact that it must often find its way by faith, there being no clear Scriptural directive on myriad supplementary doctrines-examples being why Christ was born of a virgin, the extent of biblical inerrancy, the mode of baptism, end-time events.
The theological enterprise is dynamic, further, because of changes in the milieu in which the church functions. Obviously, a theology for a time of prosperity is to have at certain points a different complexion than one designed for depression times. Its say will not be the same if a Ronald Reagan is president as it would be if a Jimmy Carter were, or a Ted Kennedy. It will talk more about what is moral, now, than it would have before we devoured the writings of J. A. T. Robinson and Joseph Fletcher; more about hope than in the eras prior to Jurgen Moltmann; more about the nature of the church than in eras prior to the Ecumenical Movement- perhaps even more about being born again than in eras before being born again became a household term in America; more about abortion than before the 1973 Supreme Court decision that largely legalized it in America.
New opposition movements arise, doing battle with the Faith, and theology cannot say simply the same old things it was saying in an earlier time, for in that case it had just about as well say nothing at all. It answers questions which people are asking. It speaks to issues of the day. If the gates of hell construct new and divergent bulwarks against the church’s terrible onslaught against sin, theology moves to where the battle is on and there declares God’s counsel.
Moreover, theology is dynamic because new discoveries are being made in fact (science) and artifact (archaeology), and require to be interpreted. Theology must respond to what the scientists are doing in outer space and to what psychiatrists are doing in “inner space.” If the decipherment some years ago of a certain script found in Crete does indeed indicate a common culture in the pre-Mosaic Palestinian and Grecian areas, theology must account for the wide divergence by the time you get to the era of the Hebrew seers in Palestine and the somewhat later Plato in Greece. With the Gnostic finds in Upper Egypt, and with their recent full translation, theology discourses on what it all means in Christology and in our understanding of Christian theology during the early centuries. The same is so with the Dead Sea Scrolls: they get all wound up with theology. Since, e.g., Isaiah wag unified quite a while before the time of Christ, does this suggest that perhaps it always was-and if it was, did a man named Isaiah predict with precision in the case of Cyrus?8
Certain steps science is taking just now, and is about to take, will also occasion dynamic in theology. On transplants, we need to be dead sure that people are fully deceased, before we cut out their hearts and eyes and kidneys, to install them in other persons. Safeguards are needed to protect the donor against a too hasty extraction from him since such is desirable for transplant tissue. And if we become able to transplant the brain, we will need to figure out who this really is that is surviving, and the ethical involvements of that decision. In cloning, we will need to theologize about whether or not it is ethical to make a clone human being and simply keep him around, perhaps frozen stiff, so that we can be kept alive by using parts from him as ours wear out.
In the area of race relations, the fairness of affirmative action programs, or of not permitting them, needs to be considered theologically and biblically.
In these days of the popularity of the electronic church, theology needs to consider such matters as whether a person may say to millions in television land, “I love you,” or “We love you.” We can proclaim, via TV, that God loves the millions, but, perhaps, not that we do, since the millions are oblivious to us as individuals.
Connected with the Church Growth Movement in the fields of evangelism and missiology, we have a new development which occasions dynamic in theology. There is the question of whether it is theologically and biblically sound to maintain, say, local churches as homogeneous units, even though homogeneous ones might grow more rapidly than the others which are mixed racially or otherwise.
Also, small is beautiful too, not just bigness. A minister in America’s mountainous West wrote to the editor of Christian Century to say this. He drives up a treacherous mountain road for many ledgy miles to minister to twelve people, and passes, along the way, a memorial to a predecessor who had lost his life driving up there to minister to that small group. He made his point.
Besides this, there are various ways in which local churches need to grow, besides just in numbers. They need to grow in the intellectual understanding of their faith; in commitment to Christ; in the actual, lived – out costliness of their discipleship. And, perhaps, when such a preoccupation obtains, as in the Church Growth Movement, with the one kind of growth, numerical, theology needs to complain that the growth is not full – orbed, but, instead, is mere obesity.
Besides, when whole books can be written on church growth without any reference to the place of preaching in growth, as they are, theology needs to point out that we have, here, an unacceptable omission from a New Testament perspective.
The words with which creeds are written, too, change in their meaning with the passing of the years, and that in itself makes for dynamic in theology. Even as the U. S. Supreme Court must continuously interpret America’s Constitution, so theologians must interpret to each new generation the official doctrines of their denominations.
Besides all this, the theologian himself does some deepening, or ought to, and this too makes for dynamic in his theologizing. He knows perhaps more surely than any other grouping of Christ’s disciples that he is never what he ought to be; but he knows just as well as the others do that he is not what he was prior to his crisic encounters with grace and prior to his growth in grace at any stage on life’s way. He himself develops in his reflections upon aspects of the Christian faith, and so, theology has about it a dynamic quality.
Speaking of his twenty years of work on his three-volume Christian Theology, H. Orton Wiley said, “I was constantly discovering new truth.”9
And so was Wesley, as is well known.10 And so was Arminius, the quiet Dutchman who taught in a Reformed University and who, while not teaching what was altogether novel in Holland, taught what was later suppressed by civil law as being divergent from Reformed theology.
If one carried around his theology in a briefcase; or worse, if he tucked it away within yellow folders in a filing cabinet-well, it would be there, neat and static, and worth almost nothing. If theology is for God and for the church at large and for the denomination and for the preacher and for the layman-it has to be as dvnamic as it has to be.
The theological enterprise is also properly characterized by a catholicity, which could also be described as a spirit of tolerance (not simply tolerance). Much data, in Arminian-Wesleyan theological history, shows that this is historically warranted.
James Arminius (1558-60-1609) was “. . . a peace-loving man who taught tolerance and forbearance in the midst of religious dissension.”11 He wanted not that all would agree with him on his “unregenerate” interpretation of Romans chapter seven, for example, but simply that his interpretation be allowed to flourish, along with the other. The same was so on the more crucial matter of his teaching of conditional predestination. So tolerant and peace-loving was he, in fact, that he even shrank from defending his views when they were misrepresented. He wrote his “Apology Against Thirty-one Defamatory Articles”12 only after fourteen articles had been joined with seventeen, which had appeared two years earlier, in which thirty-one articles he and a Peter Borrius were misrepresented and suspected of novelty and heresy.
John Wesley, too, was of tolerant spirit. He wrote, “For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath.”13
While it must be remembered that Methodism in Britain was only a society, and not a denomination as such, when he wrote in 1788 his tract on “The Character of a Methodist,” the tract’s liberality at least reveals the catholicity of Wesley’s spirit. He is willing to distinguish Methodist teaching from that of “Jews, Turks, and Infidels,”14 and from “the Romish Church . . . and . . . the Socinians and Arians.”15 Yet he does not here include the Calvinists as persons from whom the Methodists are distinguished- although he does do that in other writings. He implies that the matter of conditional versus unconditional predestination is in the area of what he calls “opinion,” and not in the area of Christian doctrine. After asking, in this tract, “Who is a Methodist?,” he gives more than four pages of answer-altogether about the experience of God’s grace, not mentioning one doctrine as such. Then he adds, “These are the principles and practices of our sect; these are the marks of a true Methodist.”16 On the last page of the tract he writes, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no further question. If it be, give me thy hand.”17
Holiness denominational theologians and exegetes and administrators would not urge tolerance to the extent that Wesley did. Being members of actual denominations, we function within specific official doctrinal parameters-even if, as in the case of the Church of God (Holiness), there is only an unwritten agreement of belief; and even if, as in that group and the Church of God (Anderson), there are no written down membership rolls. Yet, within the Wesleyan-Holiness Movement, there are considerable theological differences.
Whereas both Calvin and Arminius taught God’s foreknowledge of free acts, some Holiness scholars have taught what I would consider to be a Socinian-Brightmanian-influenced view: that God chooses not to foreknow our free acts. But we are all Holiness people.
Some Holiness scholars teach what I would consider a Calvin-inclined view in suggesting that a saint’s death by lightning is an act of God, while I myself would want to restrict in certain ways what I would mean if I were to admit even that God permits such as this. I would not want to use “permit,” here, in the sense that a parent would “permit” a child’s death by giving the child permission to cross a busy thoroughfare.
The solar day theory of creation is held by some Holiness scholars, while others of us agree with Wiley and others that each of the days of creation was a geological age of indefinite duration. Some Holiness scholars teach a Pelagian-Knudsonian view of freedom, that it is “the power of contrary choice,” whereas Arminius and Wesley both taught, I think correctly, that fallen natural man, unaided by grace, is not free to do good things – but, as the Nazarene Articles of Faith state, “is inclined to do evil, and that continually.”
We differ on what may be called sin, some of us agreeing with Wesley that willful disobedience is sin “properly so-called,” but that Scripture sometimes designates, as sin, acts that are not done in willful disobedience. Some teach that an unpremeditated willful disobedience to God’s known will, if confessed immediately, does not cause a break in our sonship to God,18 while others of us think that it does. We think that whether or not a sin is premeditated is not the crucial matter, but whether it is willfully done against God’s known will.
Some have taught, with John Fletcher, that one can lose the experience of entire sanctification (e.g., for not testifying to it, as in Fletcher’s case), without losing justification. But others of us understand that one can only lose entire sanctification by an act of willful sin, in which case one would also lose his justification. The Nazarene Articles of Faith, actually, imply my own kind of understanding, as I read them.
I am quite sure that by “old man” Paul meant the old unregenerate life characterized by both acts of sin and original sin), whereas most of my theological colleagues have said that it is a synonym of original sin.
Many Holiness people agree with John Miley and A. M. Hills that original sin is transmitted by our parents (Genetic Mode), whereas I am quite sure that Arminius and Wesley and H. Orton Wiley are Pauline in saying that we enter into the world with original sin because Adam the First (as W. B. Godbey called him) was a representative of the race and represented us badly by sinning-and causing a fall in the race.
If one believes the Representative Mode Theory, he surely ought to see that the Virgin Birth of Christ has a different raison d’etre than to get Christ born free from original sin. Christ is the Second Adam, another representative of the race, and He hag no original gin because the first representative, Adam, did not represent Him, but only all the rest of us. So you do not have to say that the male carries the sin taint, instead of the female, and that, having no earthly father, Christ escaped original sin. Christ’s being somehow sired by the Holy Spirit, and mothered by Mary, figures, I am sure, in His deity, in His being, as Karl Barth says, ‘founded in God,” but not in His sinlessness. This, as I myself see the matter.
Even the late and great H. Orton Wiley wag expressly Apollinarian, in his Christian Theoloy; and he taught that the Jehovah of the Old Testament was Christ. On both of those issues I had disagreeing but amiable discussion and correspondence with him. But on a thousand points, Wiley is helpful. Importantly, he helped me to see that the Penal Theory of the Atonement fits Calvinism, and not Arminianism; but still, the majority of Holiness people (judging from my students) think that Christ paid the penalty for us instead of that He suffered on our behalf.
Its Homing Instinct for the Moral
Christian theology, as I myself enter into it (as a person persuaded of the basic scriptural validity of Wesleyanism) also has a homing instinct for the moral. That is, it is a theology of human freedom. It is not Pelagian, since it admits original sin and teaches a human freedom in the context of that racial detriment. Nor is it semi-Pelagian-for that compromise Massilian position (locating in between Augustine [354-430] and Pelagius [354-after 418]) denied the need of prevenient grace for our turning to God. Instead, Wesleyan theology is Arminian: it inherits the views of James Arminius on human freedom.
It happens that Arminius was accused of being Pelagian, in his time. Yet he was not. He believed profoundly in original sin. And he was not even semi-Pelagian, for he also believed profoundly in prevenient grace-in the necessity of God’s drawing to Himself the unregenerate who, by reason of original sin, would otherwise be inclined only to evil.
John Wesley was an “Arminian” and taught similarly. We have no record that he ever read any of Arminius’ own writings. Although he even took a trip to Holland in part to study Arminius, his journal reporting does not state that he did so. And while he edited and published many writings by others, in his Christian Library, nothing of Arminius was included. We only have a record that he read Simon Episcopius, the principal Arminian writer just after Arminius’ death; but not that he read Arminius’ own writings.
Even so, Wesley named the magazine he started rather late in his life (1778) the Arminian Magazine. This, because he meant to advertise the fact that, in distinction from Calvinism, he promulgated the kind of theology advanced by “the quiet Dutchman.”
In this theology, predestination is taught, since Scripture teaches some form of it. But the presdestination taught by Arminius, and re-taught later by Wesley, is of the conditional sort. In this form of the teaching, God predetermines each individual’s destiny. Yet, this predetermining is based on God’s knowledge of our free acts, and it is of a conditional sort: it is conditioned on whether or not we, who are all aided by prevenient grace, freely respond to God’s offer of forgiveness-and repent and believe, and keep on believing and obeying.
Arminius was careful to teach that there is no merit in our free response to God’s offer of forgiving grace. This, because we cannot make this free response to grace except that God enables us.
Arminius also properly taught another key doctrine which has to do with human freedom: that after a person has been saved, he can reject God and be eternally lost. Arminius used an ingenious device to teach this, so as not to seem to oppose Calvinism’s eternal security doctrine head on and recklessly He admitted that believers cannot lose saving grace; but then he would add, quickly, that Christians can freely cease to believe, and that then they will lose saving grace. So, in a sense, believers cannot backslide; but Christians can cease to believe, and then, as unbelievers (but only as unbelievers), they lose their salvation.
This belief in human freedom that is actual, and determinative, includes a way of defining what an act of sin is-in the case of sins of the serious sort. Arminius himself, who died at age 49, had not as yet seen the implications his view of human freedom had for one’s doctrine of what an act of sin is. So, he defined an act of sin in the broad, legal, Calvinistic way: as simply any act which does not measure up to what God’s perfect will for us is. But Wesley later saw how the Arminian understanding of freedom should figure in one’s definition of what an act of sin is. Wesley said that an act of sin, a proper act of sin, is any willful violation of the known law of God.
We Arminian-Wesleyans have also taught, at various points, in our theology, doctrines that are peculiarly suited to our homing instinct for the moral. One of them is that the Scripture writers were freely left to themselves to explain, according to their backgrounds and their interests, the thoughts which the Spirit inspired them with. This, in distinction from any doctrine even resembling a dictation to them of the words of Scripture.
Another is that, at least according to some Arminian-Wesleyan theologians, such as S. S. White, Christ could have sinned-but did not because He would not do so. Many of us, too, like S. S. White, believe that Christ freely chose the Father’s will in going all the way to the Cross for us-whereas He perhaps had the power not to do so. A Cross freely chosen means more to many of us than one which was necessitated all the way along. Many of us feel, actually, that, before that, the Father freely chose to send His Son to the world when the Father might have chosen not to offer us any redemption (as in the case of the fallen angels).
Still another important element of this Wesleyan instinct for the moral is the interest in our actually and freely implementing God’s will in the world. In Wesley’s time, Calvinism was advancing antinomian notions: that, for those under saving grace, the keeping of God’s laws does not matter that much-that the Christian is Christ’s and that it is enough that Christ has kept God’s laws, and that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. Wesley’s main theologian, John Fletcher, wrote his Checks to Antinomianism, major theological work, against that Calvinistic view. Wesley and Fletcher, believing in human freedom, taught that, as God helps us, we really can-indeed, we really must-keep God’s known laws. We have therefore had this keen interest in a freely-chosen and grace-aided Christian life of discipline.
These are at least several of the elements in this homing instinct for the moral which characterizes Wesleyan theology. It is an aspect of the very nature of the Wesleyan theological enterprise, along with such matters, discussed above, as (1) its experiential interest, (2) its existential element, (3) its large-scoped biblical character, (4) its dynamic quality, and (5) its catholicity.
1 J. R. Green, Short History of the English People (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1893), p. 735.
2 J. Wesley Bready, This Freedom Whence (New York: American Tract Society, 1942), p. 340-341.
3 George Croft Cell, A Rediscovery of Wesley (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1935), p. 731. See also Robert W. Burtner (ed.) and Robert E. Chiles, A Compend of Wesley ‘s Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 17.
4 Harald Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification (Stockholm: Nga bokforlags aktiebolaget, 1946), p. 2.
5 Wilbur H. Mullen, “John Wesley and Liberal Religion,” Religion in Life, Autumn, 1966, p. 561.
7 John M. Moore, Methodism in Belief and Action (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1946), p. 32.
8 See Ross E. Price, “The Book of the Prophet Isaiah,” Beacon Bible Commentary, edited by Albert Harper, et. al. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1966), V. pp. 190-191.
9 H. Orton Wiley, “Preface,” Christian Theology, I, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1941), p. 3.
10 See John Wesley, op cit., V, p. 5, where he writes, “Are you persuaded you see things more clearly than I . . .? Then . . . point me out a better way than I have known.”
11 Carl Bangs, “James Arminius: Christian Scholar. III Basic Principles of Arminius,” Herald of Holiness, edited by W. T. Purkiser (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House), Oct. 5, 1960, p. 7.
12 See James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, trans. by James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker), II, pp. 276-380.
13 John Wesley, “Preface” to sermons. The Works of John Wesley (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1872 edition), V. 6.
14 John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” op. cit., VIII, p. 340.
16 Ibid., p. 346.
17 Ibid., p. 349.
18 See W. T. Purkiser, Conflicting Concepts of Holiness (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press. 1953).