It is well known that Wesley gave a privileged place to what he called primitive Christianity, and most who have studied him accept this as fact, but little seems to have been done on the reasons and motivations as to why. To address this deficiency, I humbly offer some observations upon sermon 132 and what it reveals to us about Wesley’s rationale and reasoning for not only giving primitive Christianity a privileged place in his theological thinking, but also to provide a rationale for why it is not only important for today, but vital to the Christian faith moving forward.
Wesley was often questioned about Methodism, being asked often what it was and why there was a need for a new religion. His responses varied, but the idea behind them remained the same. Methodism was not a new religion, but rather a very old one. In sermon 132, he addresses the question in this manner: ” Such was the rise, and such has been the progress, of Methodism, from the beginning to the present time. But you will naturally ask, “What is Methodism What does this new word mean Is it not a new religion” This is a very common, nay, almost an universal, supposition; but nothing can be more remote from the truth. It is a mistake all over. Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England.” The first thing that we must understand is that for Wesley, primitive Christianity was not a part of the faith, it was the faith. The early fathers were not sources for us to read to form our own theologies, bu rather were the sources that revealed true theology. While it is known that Wesley started a reform movement within the Church of England, in all reality, it was trying to start a reform movement that went much further back than that. It is absolutely vital that we understand that primitive Christianity was not something that influenced Wesley’s faith, it was Wesley’s faith. Any proper understanding of his theology must begin with this. Any statement of Wesley, whether from a sermon, a letter, a journal, or some other source, must be weighed against this and should be examined in light of this. To understand Wesley, we do not need 21st century eyes, but rather 1st century eyes.
Having established this, we then must ask why it is that Wesley is so attached to primitive Christianity. The answers seem to be contained in sermon 132 as well. “This is the religion of the Bible, as no one can deny who reads it with any attention.” So then, the very first reason that Wesley found primitive Christianity to be the faith of the church is simply that it is the faith contained in the scriptures. Wesley is known to be a ‘man of one book, but we also know that he was very well read. While some have pointed to this being an apparent contradiction, the reality is that all things read were examined in the light of that ‘one book’ (the Bible) and that one book examined in the light of primitive Christianity. Wesley, and for that matter, the very first Discipline of the Methodist church, warned often and harshly about speculative latitudinarianism, and the reasons for this are illuminated when we understand that Wesley held primitive Christianity to be the religion of the Bible, and as such, was firm and unchanging. While we are entitled to our own thoughts and opinions of course, the reality is that if we view primitive Christianity as anything other than the religion of the Bible, then we have not, in the words of Wesley, read it with any attention. To drive the point home, consider the words of Wesley’s rather famous Catholic Spirit sermon: “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.” We all to often read Wesley and try to examine his theology as something other than it is. His theology is not, nor was it, a new thing, it was a very old thing, in fact being the very religion of the Bible itself, according to him.
If we are being honest with ourselves, we do indeed live in a post-Christian society in America. While we can spend time longing for what was, we must be able to focus on and realize what is. There is a push by many in the church to find new ways to explain Christianity, new messages to reveal, new meanings to discern, but if we actually want to engage with culture, then we must recognize that there is a longing in culture for ancient wisdom. We see this reflected in the rise of popularity of ancient mystic faiths, the rise of Celtic paganism, the rise of witchcraft, divination, new age movements (which are based in very old thoughts and ideas), and more. From a purely branding and public relations standpoint, this is good news for a church which claims that it seeks to make disciples. Those we are seeking have a craving for the ancient wisdom that we can offer them. It only makes good sense to make use of it. From a faith and truth standpoint, it is not only within the Methodist tradition, it actually, in the words of Wesley, IS the Methodist tradition. Why is it then that we are trying to reinvent a faith that is as ancient as the days themselves? Why would we try, especially in a world that is craving ancient wisdom in nearly every aspect of life from entertainment, to decision making?
So then, as Wesleyans today, what message is there for us here? What wisdom is there that we may glean from the understanding of Wesley? The answer seems rather simple. We should be looking to primitive Christianity, as Wesley understood it, to find the ancient wisdom and meaning that it contains and then accept that wisdom and meaning as the proper understanding of the faith. This does not mean that we do not examine and weigh new ideas, but it means that we must weigh them against what is, as Wesley said, the religion of the Bible that we might properly discern truth. Just as Wesley did, we must align our understandings and motivations with what he termed primitive Christianity so that we might properly be able to express the understanding of faith that Methodism was intended to. Remember that Wesley himself said that this was the faith of Methodism, and not only Methodism, but the entire church. If we want to be Wesleyan, and have a desire to read the Bible with any attention, then we must, as Wesley did, turn to primitive Christianity, not as the spotlight that blinds us with it’s brilliance, but as the lamp that illuminates our path as the scriptures have promised it would. This is what Wesley understood, and the first reason why he understood it so. By departing from primitive Christianity, we are, in Wesley’s understanding, departing from the faith of not only Methodism, but of the Bible itself. We do so at our peril, and, more importantly, at the peril of those whom we seek to make disciples.