Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
September 21st, 2016 by Joel Watts

Wesley, “right opinions” and assurance (Re: Exeter)

John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism liked "right opinions"

“Exeter can go jump off a cliff”

I was reading some of Wesley’s works the other day, finding in them a complete and easy rebuttal to the latest diatribe that Methodists are somehow opposed by nature of the community to orthodoxy. How ironic, these statements, given that by their insistence, they are forming a set of “right opinions.”

By chance (and a purposed searching for “orthodox” among Wesley’s works) I found a letter written by Fr. John to the Lord Bishop of Exeter, George Lavington. I may post other excerpts as I find them highly pointed in how to deal with errant bishops. Wesley held little regard for those holders of episcopal titles who misused the office.

In one part of the letter, Wesley provides us to an outstanding method in dealing with the charge that the Methodists held little regard for orthodoxy (or, “right opinions” as he sometimes called it.(1. There may be something to the use of “orthodoxy” vs. “right opinions” as in, one is used when Wesley is railing against the supposition that orthodoxy is all that is required, but when discussing the necessity of orthodoxy, he switches to “right opinions.”]) as well as this notion created by ignorant readings of Albert Outler regarding “experience.”

A Seventh argument you ground on those words in the “Plain Account of the People called Methodists:” “It is a point we chiefly insist upon, that orthodoxy or right opinions is a very slender part of religion, if any part of it at all.” “The plain consequence whereof is,” (so you affirm,) “that teaching and believing the fundamental errors of Popery, with the whole train of their abominations and idolatries, are of very little moment, if any.” Strain again, Sir; pull hard, or you will never be able to drag this conclusion out of these premises.

I assert, “(1.) That in a truly righteous man, right opinions are a very slender part of religion. (2.) That in an irreligious, a profane man, they are not any part of religion at all; such a man not being one jot more religions because he is orthodox.” Sir, it does not follow from either of these propositions, that wrong opinions are not an hinderance to religion; and much less, that “teaching and believing the fundamental errors of Popery, with the whole train of their abominations and idolatries.” (practised, I presume you mean, as well as taught and believed,) “are of very little moment, if any.”

I am so far from saying or thinking this, that, in my printed letter to a Priest of that communion, (did you never read it, or hear of it before?) are these express words: “I pity you much, having the same assurance, that Jesus is the Christ, and that no Romanist can expect to be saved, according to the terms of his covenant.” (Vol. I. p. 220.) Do you term this “an extenuation of their abominations; a reducing them to almost a mere nothing?”

Note that Wesley affirms two things in his negative assertions:

  1. That to be of the Christian religion one must lead a certain life.1
  2. That wrong opinions do hinder the life required of the Christian.

In essence, if you were to imagine Wesley doing a powerpoint, he would have a flow chart. In this, he would a small box on the left labeled “right opinions.”  On the right, he’d have a small box labeled “justifying grace.” Perhaps this box sits a little higher, so that we know Wesley does not intend to conflate salvation with “right opinions,” although they are necessary. From here, like an organizational structure, Wesley would have flowing from that the necessities of the sacraments, prayer, social holiness, and more aspects of the Christian life. However, because Wesley knew that -praxy/pathy informs/corrects us, everything would lead to a box labeled “true religion”  perhaps with a larger arrow (and this would be animated via powerpoint) labeled “sanctifying grace.” In this box, there is a fraction, like a pie chart. About 25% is given to “right opinions” with 75% going to “righteousness.”

I image the powerpoint would be finely detailed and very long.

In regards to “experience” as something subjective, Wesley writes,

You argue, Eighthly, thus: “The Methodist doctrine of impressions and assurances holds equally for Popish enthusiasts.” This needs no answer; I have already shown that the Methodist doctrine in these respects is both scriptural and rational.

Say what… I generally refuse to use the word “experience” and I openly detest the Quad. Rather, I would use the word “assurance” and suggest Wesley followed Hooker’s three-legged stool. Assurance is grounded not in the individual’s experiences, but in Reason — the rational (God-inspired) part of us that allows us to hear God’s call (i.e., prevenient grace).

I would almost wager to say that Wesley’s greatest theological treatises comes not from a positive presentation, but from his defense.

  1. Religion for Wesley was different than “the faith” but included the very idea of an active life – social holiness.
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

3 Responses to “Wesley, “right opinions” and assurance (Re: Exeter)”
  1. “Assurance is grounded not in the individual’s experiences, but in Reason — the rational (God-inspired) part of us that allows us to hear God’s call (i.e., prevenient grace).”
    … But Reason is grounded in our individual experiences.

    Thus,
    1). Lord Bishop of Exeter, George Lavington, Anglican
    2). “Plain Account of the People called Methodists:” Methodist
    3). “that teaching and believing the fundamental errors of Popery, with the whole train of their abominations and idolatries, are of very little moment, if any.”
    ““I pity you much, having the same assurance, that Jesus is the Christ, and that no Romanist can expect to be saved, according to the terms of his covenant.” Catholic

    So, what, exactly, separates Anglican, Methodist, and Catholic?

    I would tend to say, each, their individual experiences!

    • As supporting material, if reason rules, then there would be only one group, not three. Just like 2+2 = 4, reason would make only one answer. But experience creates one reasoning group of Catholics, one reasoning group of Methodists, and one reasoning group of Anglicans, all with their own orthodoxy.

  2. Tom McCann says

    It seems to me that you have reversed the cause and effect of Wesley’s comments.
    Wesley:
    “(1.) That in a truly righteous man, right opinions are a very slender part of religion. (2.) That in an irreligious, a profane man, they are not any part of religion at all”
    Watts:
    “1. That to be of the Christian religion one must lead a certain life.
    2.That wrong opinions do hinder the life required of the Christian.”

    I have not read Wesley’s entire letter to Exeter, so there may well be more text that supports your thoughts. But just from these two statements, I take away the beliefs that Wesley’s starting point is a man who is either truly righteous, or a man who is irreligious and profane. From that, we get the importance of orthodoxy to that man’s life. A truly righteous person doesn’t really need much orthodoxy, because he more naturally does the righteous things in life. Whereas the irreligious cannot use the orthodoxy, because it is meaningless to him. The man is the cause, and the need for orthodoxy is the effect.
    In your statements, I get the idea that “right ideas” are important in shaping the righteousness of the man, and that wrong ideas can interpose themselves between a man and becoming a true disciple of Christ.

    As an example, the Nicene Creed says ” we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins”. I think we would agree that that statement is fundamental Christian orthodoxy. But, do we really believe that a second baptism will prevent a person from being a true disciple of Christ? I believe that what Wesley is saying is that the truly righteous disciple doesn’t really have much need of that statement. He is, by nature and through free will, a dedicated follower of Christ. A second or third baptism isn’t going to stand in the way.

    If this is indeed the case, it somewhat diminishes the place of orthodoxy in our faith. You are righteous or not; if you are, then the elements of orthodoxy are kind of secondary to your worship of Christ. If you are not righteous, all the correct conduct of baptism won’t make any difference to you anyway.

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