Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
November 2nd, 2016 by Joel Watts

Wesley’s explanation of “a slender part of religion.”

wesley-describes-the-churchMatt O’Reilly has written a response to an “opinion” piece on UMNS, an official organ of the UMC. I will not do much else except to add what Wesley wrote.

Wesley wrote,

“Orthodoxy, or right opinions, is never more than a slender part of religion; sometimes no part of it at all.”

I would wager that he came to hate that line and would hate it even more today given the continued misuse of it. He had to explain it several times across the years. I am reproducing them now.

To note, religion for Wesley was the life of the believer.

To the Bishop of Exeter:

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.”1

To the Bishop of Gloucestershire

I. The present question then is, (not what is Mr. Law, or what are the Moravians, but) what is John Wesley? And, (1.) Is he pure or not? “Not pure; for he separates reason from grace.” (Page 156.) A wonderful proof! But I deny the fact. I never did separate reason from grace. “Yes, you do; for your own words are, ‘The points we chiefly insisted on were four: (1.) That orthodoxy, or right opinion, is at best but a very slender part of religion; if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.’ ” (Page 157.)

After premising that it is our bounden duty to labour after a right judgment in all things, as a wrong judgment naturally leads to wrong practice, I say again, right opinion is at best but a very slender part of religion, (which properly and directly consists in right tempers, words, and actions,) and frequently it is no part of religion. For it may be where there is no religion at all; in men of the most abandoned lives; yea, in the devil himself.

And yet this does not prove that I “separate reason from grace;” that I “discard reason from the service of religion.” I do continually “employ it to distinguish between right and wrong opinions.” I never affirmed “this distinction to be of little consequence,” or denied “the gospel to be a reasonable service.” (Page 158.)2

To a Dr. Erksine,

2. But the present question lies, not between me and Mr. Hervey, but between Dr. E. and me. He vehemently attacks me for saying, “Orthodoxy, or right opinion, is at best but a very slender part of religion, if any part of it at all.” He labours to deduce the most frightful consequences from it, and cries, “If once men believe that right opinion is a slender part of religion, if any part of religion, or no part at all, there is scarce any thing so foolish, or so wicked, which Satan may not prompt to.” (Page 6.) And what, if, after all, Dr. E. himself believes the very same thing! I am much mistaken if he does not. Let us now fairly make the trial.

I assert, (1.) That, in some cases, “right opinion is no part of religion;” in other words, there may be right opinion where there is no religion. I instance in the devil. Has he not right opinions? Dr. E. must, perforce, say, Yes. Has he religion? Dr. E. must say, No. Therefore, here right opinion is no part of religion. Thus far, then, Dr. E. himself believes as I do.

I assert, (2.) In some cases, “it is a slender part of religion.” Observe, I speak of right opinion, as contra-distinguished both from right tempers and from right words and actions. Of this, I say, “It is a slender part of religion.” And can Dr. E. say otherwise? Surely, no; nor any man living, unless he be brimful of the spirit of contradiction.

“Nay, but I affirm, right tempers cannot subsist without right opinion: The love of God, for instance, cannot subsist without a right opinion of him.” I have never said anything to the contrary: But this is another question. Though right tempers cannot subsist without right opinion, yet right opinion may subsist without right tempers. There may be a right opinion of God, without either love, or one right temper toward him. Satan is a proof of it. All, therefore, that I assert in this matter, Dr. E. must affirm too.3

To Mr. Clarke,

7. Yet on one point I must add a few words, because it is of the last importance: I said, “Orthodoxy, or right opinions, is never more than a slender part of religion; sometimes no part of it at all.” And this I explained thus: “In a child of God, it is but a slender part of religion: It is no part at all in a child of the devil.” The religion of a child of God is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Now, if orthodoxy be any part of this, (which itself might admit of a question,) it is a very slender part; though it is a considerable help both of love, peace, and joy. Religion is, in other words, the love of God and man, producing all holiness of conversation. Now, are right opinions any more (if they are so much) than a very slender part of this? Once more: Religion is the mind that was in Christ, and the walking as Christ walked. But how very slender a part of this are opinions, how right soever!

By a child of the devil, I mean, one who has no true religion at all; one who neither loves, nor fears, nor serves God. But it is certain, such a man may still be orthodox, may entertain right opinions; and yet, it is equally certain, these are no part of religion in him that has no religion at all.

Permit me, Sir, to speak exceeding plainly. Are you not an orthodox man? Perhaps there is none more so in the diocese. And yet possibly you may have no religion at all. If it be true that you frequently drink to excess, you may have orthodoxy, but you can have no religion. If, when you are in a passion, you call your brother, “Thou fool,” you have no religion at all. If you even curse, and take the name of God in vain, you can have no other religion than orthodoxy; a religion of which the devil and his angels may have full as much as you.4

What, perhaps, is Wesley’s view of orthodox? I would say “the three creeds,” although there is admittedly some issue with the Athanasian’s final stanza.

6. I say of the heart. For neither does religion consist Orthodoxy, or right opinions; which, although they are not properly outward things, are not in the heart, but the understanding. A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever-blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God; he may assent to all the three creeds,—that called the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian; and yet it is possible he may have no religion at all, no more than a Jew, Turk, or pagan. He may be almost as orthodox—as the devil, (though, indeed, not altogether; for every man errs in something; whereas we can’t well conceive him to hold any erroneous opinion,) and may, all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.5

Wesley knew that salvation was because of Christ, not “right opinions” but likewise, that wrong opinions drew souls away from God:

15. When things of an indifferent nature are represented as necessary to salvation, it is a folly of the same kind, though not of the same magnitude. Indeed, it is not a little sin to represent trifles as necessary to salvation; such as going of pilgrimages, or anything that is not expressly enjoined in the Holy Scripture. Among these we may undoubtedly rank orthodoxy, or right opinions. We know, indeed, that wrong opinions in religion naturally lead to wrong tempers, or wrong practices; and that, consequently, it is our bounden duty to pray that we may have a right judgment in all things. But still a man may judge as accurately as the devil, and yet be as wicked as he.6

For a man who is accused of not caring about “right opinions,” Wesley fought the wrong ones:

6. But though I aver this, am I “quite indifferent as to any man’s opinion in religion?” Far, very far from it; as I have declared again and again in the very sermon under consideration, in the “Character of a Methodist,” in the “Plain Account,” and twenty tracts besides. Neither do I “conceal my sentiments:” Few men less. I have written severally, and printed, against Deists, Papists, Mystics, Quakers, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Calvinists, and Antinomians. An odd way of ingratiating myself with them, to strike at the apple of their eye! Nevertheless, in all things indifferent, (but not at the expense of truth,) I rejoice to “please all men for their good to edification;” if haply I may “gain more proselytes” to genuine, scriptural Christianity; if I may prevail upon the more to love God and their neighbour, and to walk as Christ walked.

So far as I find them obstructive of this, I oppose wrong opinions with my might; though even then, rather by guarding those who are yet free, than by disputing with those who are deeply infected.7

To this latter end, see this post by Dr. Kevin Watson.

Finally, Wesley said that one can only be a holy if they are orthodox, although orthodox does not make one a Christian.

And this Church is ‘ever one.’ In all ages and nations it is the one body of Christ. It is ‘ever holy’; for no unholy man can possibly be a member of it. It is ‘ever orthodox’; so is every holy man, in all things necessary to salvation; ‘secured against error,’ in things essential, ‘by the perpetual presence of Christ; and ever directed by the Spirit of Truth,’ in the truth that is after godliness. This Church has ‘a perpetual succession of pastors and teachers, divinely appointed, and divinely assisted.’8

  1. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (vol. 9, Third Edition.; London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 56–57.
  2. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (vol. 9, Third Edition.; London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 126.
  3. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (vol. 10, Third Edition.; London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 347–348.
  4. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (vol. 13, Third Edition.; London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 215–216.
  5. Sermon 7, John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).
  6. Sermon 120, John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).

    It also included the Articles of Religion

    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.[7. Sermon 132, John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).

  7. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (vol. 13, Third Edition.; London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 214–215.

    Finally, Wesley disappeared of doctrinal apathy:

    III. 1. One inference we may make from what has been said. We may learn from hence, what is a catholic spirit.

    There is scarce any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied, than this: but it will be easy for any who calmly consider the preceding observations, to correct any such misapprehensions of it, and to prevent any such misapplication.

    For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.[9. Sermon, 39., John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).

  8. John Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley (ed. Nehemiah Curnock; vol. 4; London: Robert Culley; Charles H. Kelly, 1909–1916), 436.
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 “Wesley’s explanation of “a slender part of religion.””
  1. Thomas McCann says

    I find some value in both viewpoints. Yes, I agree with Mr. O’Reilly’s view that Wesley was an adherent to Christian orthodoxy. EXCEPT…

    Not in all matters. First, let’s recall that Wesley was not far removed (as far as we are today) from the reformation of Luther. The questions of orthodoxy and heresy raised by the reformation were still very much in play, as we see by the substantial anti-Catholic sentiment at the time. And, if we assume that the Anglican Church regarded themselves as an orthodox group, we have to acknowledge that Wesley discarded some of that orthodoxy when he helped for the Methodist Church in the U.S. So, I’m not sure I can say that either Rev. Womack or Mr. O’Reilly has truly captured the orientation of Wesley toward Christian orthodoxy.

    What I can say, as strongly as possible, is that Rev. Womack is a retired elder in the United Methodist Church. That alone earns him a modicum of respect. More importantly, he seems to be a faithful and thoughtful Christian, which gains him even more. Mr. O’Reilly’s public flogging of him, including not just his viewpoint but his writing capabilities, is completely out of line. There is absolutely no reason for one Christian to launch a personal attack on another based on a difference in theological view.

    ” Are there no standards? Can any badly argued, literarily destitute, and historically inaccurate attack on our denominational teaching be published on the website? Inquiring minds would like to know. I, for one, expect better from our official denominational agencies. ”
    I agree. Mr. O’Reilly’s paper does not qualify for publication in a Christian journal.

    • I find the idea that Wesley’s missionary support of Methodists in America is a rejection of orthodoxy to be a nonsequitor. We may be working from conflicting definitions of orthodoxy, so I don’t know how to respond.
      As to the primary matter, Mr. Womack’s article demonstrates a profound ignorance of Wesley’s work that is common among our clergy. It is generally the result of reading books about Wesley and not studying the works of Wesley. Joel has made it clear that Wesley rebuked those who used that qoute in precisely the manner as Mr Womack did. His errors are not a matter of divergent opinions but of misrepresenting facts.
      And no, one is no longer entitled to a modicum of respect because one is a retired elder. Events since GC 2016 have revealed what has long been the case: There are no consistent standards for attaining or maintaining that title. One may participate in and promote a variety of carnal lusts and licentiousness, may deny the fundamentals of the Trinitarian faith, and still be an elder in good standing. The tone of Mr O’Reilly’s paper is appropriate.

  2. After listening to a myriad of voices across the UMC for four years, I was stunned at the range of beliefs an understandings that populate the denomination; collectively, we believe nothing in particular. I was also amazed at what all the UM News Service passes on with a “straight face”; the most notable being a report that a local UM Church is against freedom of religion because it promotes discrimination against the LGBTQ community–they even included a photo of the outdoor sign that contained a statement to that effect. Evidently the only criteria for publication is that it comes from within the denomination!

  3. “Orthodoxy, or right opinions, is never more than a slender part of religion; sometimes no part of it at all.”

    Concerning “slender”, I can’t resist thinking of…

    John Wesley’s “Primitive Physick”.

    “Nothing conduces more to health than abstinence and food with due labor,” Wesley wrote in his 1747 book, “Primitive Physick: or An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Disease.”

    “It sold more books than anything that he ever wrote,” said Randy Maddox, a John Wesley specialist who teaches at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/wesleys-diet-exercise-tips-promote-health

    Except, does it pay to obsess about this, as it relates to our present day “religion”, “orthodoxy”, “health”, or views on sex? From both left or right. Clearly Wesley was wrong on some things.

    An excerpt at

    http://thornber.net/medicine/html/primitive_printable.pdf

    To cure Baldness.
    Rub the Part Morning and Evening, with Onions, ’till it is red; and rub it afterwards with Honey.

    • To be honest, if I hadn’t seen the UMC.org reference, I would have thought that John Wesley’s “Primitive Physick” was actually a Monty Python joke, especially after reading a little more of the book. But…I guess it was legit!

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