Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 8th, 2015 by Joel Watts

John and Charles Wesley lived by the Creeds

English: Charles Wesley

I don’t always quote doctrine, but when I do, it is Creedal // English: Charles Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is this constant rumor John Wesley thought the creed a weak source or somehow unnecessary. I cannot find this in Wesley’s works (via Logos). Charles, John’s forgotten brother but very much one of our founders, cannot be said to be foreign to the creeds.  What follows is a brief synopsis of the Wesleys’ view on the Creeds — usually three in number, those being the Apostles’, the Nicene (381), and one attributed to St. Athanasius.

An aged gentlewoman here testified that she had long denied that article of her creed, “forgiveness of sins,” but was yesterday experimentally convinced of it, under Mr. Hall’s ministry. Others I meet with, who have passed from death unto life, in hearing our brother Whitefield. Our brethren of Fetter-lane deny the fact, that any soul has been justified by our ministry, since “no one gives what he has not himself.” – Charles Wesley, 12 May 17401

How many today would believe in the Creeds if they but listen to a proper ministry?

In a poem styled an epistle, Charles counsels his brother,

…The Church whose cause I serve, whose faith approve,
Whose altars reverence, and whose name I love.

But does she still exist in more than sound?
The Church—alas! where is she to be found?
Not in the men, however dignified,
Who would her creeds repeal, her laws deride,
Her Prayers expunge, her Articles disown,
And thrust the Filial Godhead from His throne…

He goes on,

Then let the zealous orthodox appear,
And challenge the contested character:
Those, who renounce the whole Dissenting tribe,
Creeds, Articles, and Liturgy subscribe;
Their parish church who never once have miss’d,
At schism rail, and hate a Methodist;
“The company of faithful souls” are these,
Who strive to ’stablish their own righteousness,
But count the faith Divine a madman’s dream?
Howe’er they to themselves may pillars seem,
Of Christ, and of His church they make no part;
They never knew the Saviour in their heart.

I dare say, many of those who have already passed their BOOM should feel unjustified in doing so. To dare to denounce the creeds, the articles — those things as the bedrock of orthodoxy (and yes, it is real) — is to separate oneself from Christianity.

Stop using our name!

Wait! I have found something to extinguish my hope in a creedal Wesley!

They both say, “Creeds and books can nothing do!”

Except, there is more:

1 FATHER, Son, and Spirit, hear
Thy apostate creature’s groan,
Languishing to find Thee near,
Worshipping a God unknown,
Light till in Thy light I see,
Know eternal life in Thee.

2 Creeds and books can nothing do,
Unaccompanied by grace;
Grace must form my soul anew,
Give me to discern Thy face,
Bring my faithful heart the power
God in persons three to’ adore. – From the Hymns to the Trinity, IV

Let us now move forward to John alone. In several letters, he recommends besides the bible, Bishop Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed.

In order to be well acquainted with the doctrines of Christianity, you need but one book, (besides the Bible,)—Bishop Pearson on the Creed. This I advise you to read and master throughly: It is a library in one volume. But above all be much in prayer, and God will withhold no manner of thing that is good. — J. Wesley, 1767

For Wesley, believing in Christ is the same as assenting to the Creed:

To believe in Christ was the very thing (Whitefield) supposed wanting; as understanding that term believing to imply, not only an assent to the Articles of our Creed, but also ‘a true trust and confidence of the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ – J. Wesley, 1738

And then, later in life,

“You now heap together ten paragraphs more, most of which require very little answer. In the first you say, ‘Your foolishness is become the wonder and admiration of the public.’ In the second, ‘The public blushes for you, till you give a better solution to the articles demanded of you.’ In the third, you cite my words, I still maintain ‘the Bible, with the Liturgy, and Homilies of our Church; and do not espouse any other principles but what are consonant to the Book of Common-Prayer.’ You keenly answer, ‘Granted, Mr. Methodist; but whether or no you would not espouse other principles, if you durst, is evident enough from some innovations you have already introduced, which I shall attempt to prove in the subsequent part of my answer.’ Indeed you will not. You neither prove, nor attempt to prove, that I would espouse other principles if I durst. However, you give me a deadly thrust: ‘You falsify the first Article of the Athanasian Creed.’ But how so? Why, I said, ‘The fundamental doctrine of the people called Methodists is, Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the true faith.’ Sir, shall I tell you a secret?—It was for the readers of your class that I changed the hard word Catholic into an easier. — J. Wesley, 1760

Note what he said.

‘The fundamental doctrine of the people called Methodists is, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the true faith.”’

That repeated line is from the Creed commonly attributed to St. Athanasius. We cannot separate “true faith” from the Creeds, because Wesley never did.

Granted, none of that matters, at least to the United Methodist Church. Our Book of Discipline says that Wesley’s Sermons (not his letters and journals) are part of our doctrinal standards. I didn’t understand this, but then while reading Wesley I kept seeing that the Homilies of the Anglican Church could not be denied either.

These are quotes from his sermons.

In Sermon 7, Wesley says that one can have all of the orthodoxy there is available, but in denying the requirement of good works is nothing before God. I agree. And, this is where I would differ with the Reformed. Faith is not an intellectual only assent, but must be assented through our actions – actions based on that intellectual assent. This is the same concept in Sermon 18. These actions is what Wesley calls “religion.”

Wesley goes on in Sermon 55 to clarify his stance on that dastardly line in the Athanasian Creed:

It was in an evil hour that these explainers began their fruitless work I insist upon no explication at all; no, not even on the best I ever saw; I mean, that which is given us in the creed commonly ascribed to Athanasius. I am far from saying, he who does not assent to this shall without doubt perish everlastingly.” For the sake of that and another clause, I, for some time, scrupled subscribing to that creed; till I considered (1.) That these sentences only relate to wilful, not involuntary, unbelievers; to those who, having all the means of knowing the truth, nevertheless obstinately reject it: (2.) that they relate only to the substance of the doctrine there delivered; not the philosophical illustrations of it.

Returning to the notion of “religion?”

The foundation of true religion stands upon the oracles of God. It is built upon the Prophets and Apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles! And how is it possible without it to understand the essential truths contained therein? a beautiful summary of which we have in that which is called the Apostles’ Creed. – Sermon 70

Reason, then, is to properly understand… including the Apostles’ Creed.

And finally, in Sermon 132, Wesley gives you the foundation of Methodism,

In the four or five years following, another and another were added to the number, till, in the year 1735, there were fourteen of them who constantly met together. Three of these were Tutors in their several Colleges; the rest, Bachelors of Arts or Under-graduates. They were all precisely of one judgment, as well as of one soul; all tenacious of order to the last degree, and observant, for conscience’ sake, of every rule of the Church, and every statute both of the University and of their respective Colleges. They were all orthodox in every point; firmly believing, not only the Three Creeds, but whatsoever they judged to be the doctrine of the Church of England, as contained in her Articles and Homilies. As to that practice of the Apostolic Church, (which continued till the time of Tertullian, at least in many Churches,) the having all things in common, they had no rule, nor any formed design concerning it; but it was so in effect. and it could not be otherwise; for none could want anything that another could spare. This was the infancy of the work. They had no conception of anything that would follow. Indeed, they took “no thought for the morrow,” desiring only to live today.

At some time in the future, I would like to go and dig through Wesley’s works and see what he says about various lines of the Creed(s). For now, however, we can see the Wesleys — from beginning to end — held high the Creeds and orthodoxy. Indeed, “true religion” is rooted to the “true faith.”

Be sure to read Dr. David Watson’s piece as well. Andrew Thompson has chimed in as well. I have a follow-up sort of too. Drew McIntyre has a post up on this, suggesting that we look closer at Wesley’s “Letter to a Roman Catholic.” Dr Rankin has a post on pietism and the creeds. Dr. Kevin Watson has one up on “John Wesley and the Creeds.”

  1. Interesting enough, these one lines can be found throughout the Wesleys works — I may do a search later — and in their immediate ecclesiastical descendents. Bishop Thomas Coke uses a line as a life guide.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

6 Responses to “John and Charles Wesley lived by the Creeds”
  1. Keith Caldwell says

    Each line of the creeds can be substantiated by Scripture. When reason and philosophy are applied these articles become even more plausible. The experience is relative to Christ and many others conquering death with Christs resurrection, Matthew 27: 51-54 and the tradition of the creeds has lasted 1700 years.
    Blessings, Keith

  2. Know More Than I Should says

    At least as rare as an honest politician!

  3. Really helpful, Joel. Thanks for this.

    As I have also asked over on David Watson’s blog, the problem I see is what John (at least) did with the creeds when he was developing the Articles and the ritual for their use.

    He deleted the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds from the ritual entirely, leaving no creed in use at all in the one service he (and Asbury) required his elders to lead weekly (Holy Communion).
    He kept the Apostles Creed in morning and evening prayer and a version of it in the baptismal ritual.
    He deleted the Article on the Creeds (Article 8) from the Anglican Articles.

    This left early Methodists with no doctrinal commitment to any creeds, and limited if any exposure to only one of them on any regular basis.

    And John didn’t say a word about why he did all of this– none that I can find, anyway.

    So, what do you make of that? And, as I noted on David Watson’s blog, this is an honest question. I really want to hear what you think about this.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: