Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
May 27th, 2014 by Joel Watts

Was Wesley against the middle way? #UMC

Stripped image of John Wesley

Stripped image of John Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The sermons of John Wesley are a part of the foundational documents of the United Methodist Church. As such, we are required to look to them for guidance. Lately, via media has been criticized, either by people who don’t know much about their Wesleyan heritage or by those who are afraid of the voice of the middle. Yet, when Wesley reached an impasse between two extremes — and that is what we have now, two extremes — he found the middle.

But is it not possible to find a medium between these two extremes? Is there any necessity for us to run either into one or into the other? If we set human laws out of the question, and simply attend to the oracles of God, we may certainly discover a middle path in this important matter In order thereto, let us carefully examine the words of the Apostle above recited. – Sermon 97, On the Obedience to Pastors

But is there any necessity laid upon us of running either into one extreme or the other? May we not steer a middle course?—keep a sufficient distance from that spirit of error and enthusiasm, without denying the gift of God, and giving up the great privilege of his children? Surely we may. In order thereto, let us consider, in the presence and fear of God, – Sermon 10, The Witness of the Spirit, Discourse 1.

This image of existing between error and enthusiasm is found in more of Wesley’s sermons,

Above all, they come with an appearance of love. They take all these pains, only for your good. They should not trouble themselves about you, but that they have a kindness for you. They will make large professions of their good-will, of their concern for the danger you are in, and of their earnest desire to preserve you from error, from being entangled in new and mischievous doctrines. They should be very sorry to see one who means so well, hurried into any extreme, perplexed with strange and unintelligible notions, or deluded into enthusiasm. Therefore it is that they advise you to keep still, in the plain middle way; and to beware of “being righteous overmuch,” lest you should “destroy yourself.” – Sermon 32

In sermon 83, Wesley considers the middle way as suffering with God, allowing him to work. Here, it is neither “holigorountes, despising our sufferings, making little of them, passing over them lightly, as if they were owing to chance, or second causes; nor, on the other hand, ekloumenoi, affected too much, unnerved, dissolved, sinking under them.” His fear was always the Christian rushing between two extremes — sin and self-righteousness. Perhaps this is why he said schism can only come if he was forced to either omit something found in Scripture or add to. In suffering for the Gospel’s sake, Wesley wouldn’t allow schism because of wounds, pains, and hurt — only if the Church of England forced him to withdraw from preaching the full Gospel.

I note Wesley was even favorable of the middle when it came to Scripture.

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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

5 Responses to “Was Wesley against the middle way? #UMC”
  1. Joel, I don’t believe for a minute that Wesley would arbitrarily choose a middle path between two extremes that wasn’t itself in harmony with the clear commands and teachings of Scripture simply because it was a middle between two positions that are antithetical to each other. You know yourself, or you should, that Wesley had to defend himself against charges of enthusiasm, in other words extremism. Being true to the tenor of Scripture was what was most important and he said himself that one clear command of Scripture is enough for a believers wholehearted obedience. If you just go back and read the rest of either of the sermons that you quote from you will find biblical teaching there that many in Wesley’s day and ours would find extreme.

    • not sure you get what he means by extreme. you cannot simply redefine terms according to your needs, cliff.

      wesley does say you have to draw sides when it comes to christ, etc… but he also allows for the middle way BETWEEN error and enthusiasm – or, between sin and self-righteousness for a great many things, it seems.

      extremes, then, are the two far sides interpreting the doctrine, etc… he allowed for disagreement and, when it came to a few things, even to think and let think. i mean, this was a protestant guy who believed in the perpetual virginity of mary and an intermediate state of perfection. he allowed for thinking.

  2. Know More Than I Should says

    As with any nation or organization that has become politically divided, the fate of the United Methodist Church (UMC) will not be determined by more cerebral thought processes. Instead, as one sees with mostly Republican negative campaign ads loosed upon the public during this upcoming political season, the most irrational minds will dominate the process.

    Some individuals are more gifted than others in appealing to visceral concerns. Correspondingly, there are those for whom intellectual appeals take a backseat to fear. If one lived through it, one saw this when AIDS first emerged in the white Western populace. Some of the tales told about the disease made it appear as the new Black Death (the infamously deadly 14th century plague).

    Likewise, as Republican strategist Karl Rove proved during the 2000 presidential election cycle, churches are ripe for anti-intellectual manipulation. One reason is that religion in American life is at least as much emotionally driven as it is intellectually grounded.

    In the end, the future of the UMC will be less determined by “let us reason together” persuasion than it is by seeds of fight-or-flight panic. The latter need not even be a majority. It need only be enough to disrupt congregational harmony.

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