There is this notion that John Wesley somehow cared very little for “orthodoxy, or right opinions,” and yet, we see throughout his sermons (which are official doctrinal standards in the United Methodist Church) a sound footing placed not on experience of emotions and subjective ideas, but on these right doctrines as expressed best in the three creeds (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian).
If his sermons are doctrinal standards (and they are) then this means we should based our doctrine moving forward on these sermons. In as such, I want to focus on one in particular (for now). This one, True Christianity Defended, has the basis of Wesley’s vision for the individual Christian. What we see is not a turning, or loosening of, from doctrine to nothing but good works (i.e., recent definitions of Social Justice). Rather, what is seen is a concrete call to these right opinions as matters of the heart and practice.
This post will be done in two parts. One focusing on Wesley’s view of doctrine and the second, focusing on Wesley’s view of practice. You can find it here if you would like to follow along.
Wesley is distressed at the lack of sound doctrinal teaching. If you look at the collected sermons, you will not teachings on various doctrinal points — The Trinity, Justification, etc… — and not just good works. Anyway, this part really nails it, I think.
We have likewise cause to give thanks to the Father of Lights, for that he hath not left himself without witness; but that there are those who now preach the gospel of peace, the truth as it is in Jesus. But how few are these in comparison of those (hoi kapeleuontes) who adulterate the word of God! how little wholesome food have we for our souls, and what abundance of poison! how few are there that, either in writing or preaching, declare the genuine gospel of Christ, in the simplicity and purity wherewith it is set forth in the venerable records of our own Church! And how are we inclosed on every side with those who, neither knowing the doctrines of our Church, nor the Scriptures, nor the power of God, have found out to themselves inventions wherewith they constantly corrupt others also!1
That last line is a doozy, ain’t it? Those who know nothing of the foundation of the Christian Church make up things as they go along. (I honestly blame the seminaries here who seem more intent on teaching innovation and bureaucracy than Scripture, Tradition, and Reason). First, this should tell us Wesley understood well the reasoning behind Tradition. Second, it tells us Wesley did not care for “new” or “innovative” because they more often than not betray the lack of connection the inventor has with Christianity.
What had gotten Wesley so riled up is that he believed the Anglican Church (and perhaps the Church Universal) as infected with debasing doctrines. Just before this quote, he has harsh words for his community, words I dare say would never be uttered today by many United Methodists,
How faithful she was once to her Lord, to whom she had been betrothed as a chaste virgin, let not only the writings of her sons, which shall be had in honour throughout all generations, but also the blood of her martyrs, speak;—a stronger testimony of her faithfulness than could be given by words, even
By all the speeches of the babbling earth.
But how is she now become an harlot! How hath she departed from her Lord! How hath she denied him, and listened to the voice of strangers! both,
I. In respect of doctrine; and,
II. Of practice.
Honestly, though, imagine a pastor standing up in a local UMC congregation and telling it that we had gone astray because we had not listened to Scripture (writings of her sons) and Tradition (blood of the martyrs).
In what areas did we go astray, the Staff Parish committee would say, as they were preparing the letter to tell the Bishop the pastor had gone insane.
The pastor, watching the Trustees nominate from the congregation people who can only be bivocational bouncers-slash-pallbearers, says simply,
In doctrine and in practice.
Doesn’t that (the seemingly sole focus on Scripture) sound a bit… fundamentalist! Hardly. While we can imagine Wesley was a “man of one book,” Wesley did not discourage many others books besides — but actually recommended many, many books. He writes,
It cannot be said that all our writers are setters forth of strange doctrines. There are those who expound the oracles of God by the same Spirit wherewith they were written; and who faithfully cleave to the solid foundation which our Church hath laid agreeable thereto; touching which we have His word who cannot lie, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” There are those also, (blessed be the Author of every good gift!) who, as wise master-builders, build thereon, not hay or stubble, but gold and precious stones,—but that charity which never faileth.
Believe it or not, Wesley valued Tradition, albeit a firm — apostolic — Tradition. He knew that Scripture and Tradition could be expounded upon (the former) and expanded (the latter) — but when one dismissed either of them, substituting their own ideas and experiences for the Christian message, then this was what actually damaged the Church. “Babblings of the earth” are those things separated from Christian Tradition.
After detailing some issues with Bishops of the Anglican Church who had tried to focus more on works than on faith, Wesley concludes:
But why should we seek further witnesses of this Are there not many present here who are of the same opinion who believe that a good moral man, and a good Christian, mean the same thing that a man need not trouble himself any further, if he only practises as much Christianity as was written over the Heathen Emperor’s gate, — ” Do as thou wouldest be done unto;” especially if he be not an infidel, or a heretic, but believes all that the Bible and the Church say is true
Oh snap. You mean Wesley believed there was a difference between morality (of which anyone could have) and Christianity? In other sermons, Wesley went far to say atheists had better morality and works than Christians! Indeed, Wesley believed there was a difference between morality and Christianity, separated by doctrine. Notice the last line here. Wesley honors both Scripture and Tradition (that…the Church say is true). Fr. John is pointed here. It takes more to be a Christian than morality — it takes more to be a Christian and moral than to simply honor the “golden rule.”
I would not be understood, as if I despised these things, as if I undervalued right opinions, true morality, or a zealous regard for the constitution we have received from our fathers. Yet what are these things, being alone What will they profit us in that day What will it avail to tell the Judge of all) “Lord, I was not as other men were; not unjust, not an adulterer, not a liar, not an immoral man” Yea, what will it avail, if we have done all good, as well as done no harm, — if we have given all our goods to feed the poor, — and have not charity How shall we then look on those who taught us to sleep on and take our rest, though “the love of the Father was not in us” or who, teaching us to seek salvation by works, cut us off from receiving that faith freely, whereby alone the love of God could have been shed abroad in our hearts
Does this need explanation? Wesley honored the Tradition he received as needful, the doctrines he received as just and required, but demanded morality equally. In the next section of the sermon, he turns to practice (orthopraxy).
We are condemned if we consider ethics as equal to or primary to doctrine. Equally, we are condemned if we consider doctrine as unimportant.
If this is our (United Methodist Church) doctrinal standard, then why do we suffer through those who do the exact thing condemned herein?
Wouldn’t those who think that nothing exists outside of Scripture find a better home in the Southern Baptist Convention while those who think subjective experience and emotionalism reign find a better home in the UCC?
What makes us Wesleyan if Wesley would not recognize us?
- John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999). ↩