The Substance of John Wesley’s Trinity

To be fair, this is not the whole of John Wesley’s view on the trinity, but I will only examine the 55th sermon in which Wesley comes close to what I have seen expressed in modern-day Methodist communions. (You can find the 55th Sermon here.)

Wesley begins by discussing the ‘absurd’ opinions of both the Calvinists and the Catholics while noting that even among those who hold such opinions, he can find ‘burning and shining lights.’ While both sets have their various opinions, which are wholly unWesleyan, John is not able to go the distance which many do today, and declare them all unChristian and hellbound. He even dismisses the idea of the need to hold to a set of fundamentals which was even quarreled over, however, he would rank among those core beliefs these words,

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. (1st John 5:7 KJV)

While he doesn’t care much for explanations of the Trinity, even citing a contemporary which accuses those who attempt an explanation as hurting ‘the cause which they intended to promote.’ He is harsher, actually, on those who attempt to explain the Trinity than those who simply do not believe it, understanding the difference between the ‘substance of the doctrine there delivered’ and the ‘philosophical illustrations of it.’

Wesley shows the pastoral and very Christian role of caring little for proper words, which he admits aren’t biblically based. For him, Trinity and Person are the best words which he can use to describe his view of God. The only thing that he would insist on, at the very least, are those words found in the sacred text, which is where we run into problems with Wesley’s thought. His text is 1st John 5.7, or the Johannine Comma. It has been debated for centuries, on whether or not it belongs in the Sacred Text. Here, John gives three reasons, one of a logical fallacy, and two of erroneous history. His first, is that the great majority of texts include it, which is both wrong and against the science of textual criticism. While the majority of something may exist – it doesn’t – that doesn’t solidify the argument being made. His second point is that it was quoted from the time of ‘St. John to that of Constantine.’ Hardly, as there is no evidence of a direct quotation except by a Spanish heretic, and the fact that it is a quotation and not gloss is only circumstantial. His final point is that it was Constantine’s successor, ‘an Arian’, who may have squashed it. It would be difficult for Wesley, if this verse was a later addition, to continue with the idea that 1st John 5.7’s statement stand as the substance of the statements delivered about the Godhead.

He moves on, however, debating an opponent who insists on no mysteries, relying only on the senses to explain the reality around him. No doubt, this is the plight of the Unitarian at the time, in that he viewed all of creation and theology through the lens of the science. Wesley masterfully shows that not all things have to be understood to be believed. As a matter of fact, Wesley notes, one doesn’t have to believe in the mysteries found in the text at all, just in the manner – just the plain fact. No one, he says, has to believe the mystery of how light came to be at the First, just that God said ‘Let their be light.’ The same is said about John 1.14. Believe the text is John’s message, not the mystery nor post-biblical developed philosophies, although for him, they are believable as well. For him, still relying on 1st John 5.7, he believes the fact that ‘God is Three and One’ (emphasis mine). He goes on to state that he believes just what God has revealed, and not what is not revealed. He has no concern for speculation and philosophy, not in determining how something is, but simply residing in the fact that it is.

For him, it is ‘vital religion’ to see the Three as One. Why? Because, as we draws an illustration of Socinus, the Son must be honored the same as the Father, and how could they not be the same God? He does admit, however, that he doesn’t understand how one can be a Christian until he recognizes the interplay of the Three. He goes on to recognize, as Tertullian did, that most Christians do not believe in the great theological boundaries of the Trinity, but encourages a few questions to be asked to settle the matter that they believe that the Three are One. Further, he doesn’t question their salvation (unless they are Heathens) but that they come to the ‘knowledge of the truth.’

Wesley would not qualify as a Christian Theology among many that I have met today because he doesn’t force upon others a strict set of theological phrases, but allows for salvation outside of those things. Instead, Wesley sees how he believes and understand why others wouldn’t. He has no problem using biblical language – although he finds Trinity and Person his choice words – as long a they remain textual. He does, however, base this textual choice on a faulty foundation. Perhaps the allowance for Christians to grow together, regardless of theological knowledge, understandings, and phrases, helped to further the Methodist vision, not only in the well schooled England, but in the backwoods of the New World.

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7 Replies to “The Substance of John Wesley’s Trinity”

  1. I have come to discover recently that some Christians while they most definitely believe in Three in One / Three are One, to them it has the same meaning as One in Three. So is Wesley still right, to settle on “believe that the Three are One”, or doesn't this (to me a somewhat) mixed-up belief matter?

    “Perhaps the allowance for Christians to grow together, regardless of theological knowledge, understandings, and phrases,”

    I wonder if that could happen today.

  2. The Wesleys are pastors not theologians. They cared more about saving souls and proclaiming the gospel than debating the minutiae of philosophical theology. They left the academic heavy-lifting to the ivory tower scholars. They were instead circuit riders traveling up and down the American continent during the second great awakening, ministering outdoors to the masses. Indeed their early converts were ridiculed by the more established churches (episcopalian and reformed) for their so-called “superficial” faith. The Wesleys and their cohorts innovated revivalism and popularized holiness living and arminianism. What they lack in intellectual rigor they made up for with enthusiasm, and in the end successfully evangelized the US.

    Of course, as a dyed-in-the-wool UMCer I might be a tad biased. 😉

  3. Q, it's a good thing you aren't a non-believer… 🙂

    You are correct, I believe, in everything you said. Can you imagine how much better we might be if we focused on reaching others and doing good instead of properly phrasing theological concerns?

  4. I am sorry but your sentence “Wesley notes, one doesn’t have to believe in the mysteries found in the text at all, just in the manner – just the plain fact” is not correct. In paragraph 15 he says that we should not concern ourselves with the manner (the how) but simply believe in the mystery (the fact). You have it the other way around. You may want to revise it.
    Blessings

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