Tapping the Riches

THE THEOLOGY OF JOHN WESLEY was not created in a vacuum. His experience, understanding and practice of the Christian faith were influenced by many expressions of its historic development. His theological heritage was shaped by the views of his parents, formal education, extensive reading and study, and constant reflection. By these means he became familiar with a wide variety of personalities, movements and schools of thought whose theological positions informed his life and beliefs.

Wesley was not reluctant to appropriate any portion of Christian tradition which he considered reputable and suitable to undergird Christian commitment. If it passed his critical scrutiny, he was ready to adopt it for his personal use and for the guidance of the Methodist societies. Without disparaging his creativity one must acknowledge that he was a skillful borrower and synthesizer of ideas from many sources.

An outstanding example of Wesley’s ability to use some of the breadth of Christian tradition and to incorporate its riches was the publication of A Christian Library. Between 1749 and 1755 Wesley carefully assembled and published this fifty-volume collection of devotional nourishment for the Methodist people and their preachers. It contained what Wesley judged to be the best tracts of “practical divinity. ” Included were selections from the early church fathers, Pietism, mysticism, the Puritans and Church of England authors. This ambitious project illustrates Wesley’s willingness to draw instruction and inspiration from different eras of Christian history.

A comprehensive and definitive account of the influences on Wesley’s life and theology has yet to be written. We can mention, however, a few of the principal sources which provided a context for his beliefs and molded his theology. Although they seem to be listed as individual threads, Wesley hardly considered them in isolation from each other. For him they were parts of the whole fabric of a lively and dynamic Christian faith.

John Wesley was a Church of England man. He was born and reared in an Anglican environment. His home, academic training, ordination, missionary service, and the remainder of his ministry to the day of his death were related to the Church of England. It was never his intention to form a new church. We should not be surprised, therefore, to learn that the theological heritage of the Church of England was the first major ingredient in his perception of Christianity. It was the bedrock of Wesley’s theology. He highly esteemed and learned much from the writings of classical Anglican thinkers such as Chillingworth, Hooker and Laud. His profound respect for scripture, reason and tradition as authorities for Christian thought and practice was rooted in standard Church of England theology.

Yet the Church of England and its glorious legacy which Wesley loved so much were not above his critical examination. He was troubled by a cold rationalism which threatened to hold it captive. The church’s apathy and its inability to minister to the moral and spiritual needs of eighteenth-century England seriously distressed him. He therefore set out to renew the church he loved, and he was prepared to employ any appropriate material from the whole history of Christianity to do it.

The convictions and piety of the early church fathers impressed Wesley. They were represented in A Christian Library by Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, all part of a first- and second-century body of Christian literature known as the Apostolic Fathers. Also included was material from Macarius the Egyptian whose understanding of Christianity was formed by Gregory of Nyssa, the great eastern Christian teacher of the fourth century. Through the writings of Macarius, Wesley became acquainted with the treasures of Byzantine spirituality. His concept of Christian perfection as a process owed much to this ancient eastern tradition. Patristics, the study of the lives and writings of the early church fathers, was very important to Wesley.

Of course, John Wesley was also indebted to the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century. Chief among them were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Like them, Wesley was persuaded that scripture, grace and faith were of the highest importance in one’s knowledge of the faith and the Christian conduct of one’s life.

There is more than a casual similarity between Wesley’s early (pre-1738) attempt to please God and earn divine favor and Luther’s endeavor to do the same about two hundred years earlier. It does not seem strange that the events of Aldersgate on May 24, 1738, the date of his transforming, heart-warming experience, were drawn to a climax as he listened to someone’s reading from the preface to Luther’s Commentary on Romans, the fruit of Luther’s spiritual pilgrimage. But Wesley was not uncritical of Luther. He found the great Protestant reformer particularly deficient in his conception of sanctification and the Christian life.

Likewise, Wesley respected the work of John Calvin. He agreed with Calvin’s emphasis on the seriousness of original sin and its infection of every person. Furthermore, Wesley found himself in accord with Calvin on the matter of salvation by God’s unmerited grace. But he could not accept the Genevan reformer’s position that God unconditionally decreed salvation for some and damnation for others. Rather, God’s grace was free and available for all and the benefits of Christ’s atoning death were free for all. Contrary to the teachings of Calvin’s later disciples, Wesley held that divine grace could be rejected; it was not irresistible. And a believer could “fall from grace, ” lose salvation; there was no necessary “perseverance of the saints. ”

Wesley read with profit the noted American preacher Jonathan Edwards, but could not accept his Calvinism. He also argued with his friend, George Whitefield, about the latter’s commitment to Calvinistic predestination. Wesley preferred to be known as an Arminian to denote his disapproval of predestination Calvinism. Although Wesley appreciated both Luther and Calvin, he was unwilling to give assent to every aspect of their doctrines.

Mysticism also made a significant contribution to Wesley’s theology. He was attracted to the mystic’s quest and achievement of genuine religious experience and their views on the nature of inward religion and holiness. A Christian Library included representatives with a mystical inclination such as Blaise Pascal, Antoinette Bourignon, Don Juan D’Avila and Miguel de Molinos. Wesley also displayed a liking for the mystics Madame Guyon, Francois Fenelon and Jean-Baptiste de Renty. Alas, in Wesley’s opinion there were also weaknesses with mysticism. He was especially disturbed by its tendency to withdraw from the world and its too frequent disparagement of the eucharist, scripture, attendance at public worship and service to others as a means of grace.

The English Puritans also figure in the construction of Wesley’s theology. Their role may be traced, first of all, to his family background. In both of his parents’ ancestry there was a predominent Puritan presence. His maternal and paternal great-grandmothers and grandfathers had strong ties to Puritanism, even though his parents, Samuel and Susanna, had cast their lot with the Church of England. The large number of Puritans in A Christian Library attests his admiration for Puritan devotional literature.

There is little doubt that some of Wesley’s ideas about worship were formulated in light of Puritan thought and practice, especially his use of extemporaneous preaching and free, spontaneous prayer. There is also an affinity between his views on education and those of the dissenting Puritan academies. Furthermore, Wesley shared with the Puritans a major commitment to relate the gospel to the daily life of the believer.

Continental Pietism was another force which made its mark on Wesley, particularly through the Moravians. During his struggling missionary months in colonial Georgia and immediately thereafter contacts with the Moravians were critical. From them he gained new insight into the importance of supportive group fellowship, Bible study, hymn singing, and a quiet personal trust in God for salvation. The 1738 heart-warming experience occurred in a meeting in London on Aldersgate Street in which there was a notable Moravian presence. Wesley’s connections with the Moravians probably reached their zenith when he visited Herrnhut and Merienborn, their famous settlements on the continent. At Hermhut he conversed with their celebrated leader, Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Wesley was not entirely satisfied with the Moravian way. Among other things he found their view of the church and sacraments lacking and he criticized what he deemed their neglect of holiness.

There have been critics of John Wesley, living and dead, who have accused him of promoting shallow emotional religion and theological ignorance. That labeling may apply to some persons who have called themselves Methodists, even Wesleyans, but it certainly does not pertain to Wesley himself. Quite the contrary. John Wesley was an accomplished theologian. He was a scholar-evangelist-organizer whose reading and reflection spanned his entire adult life. He was acquainted with Christian history and tapped its riches. In the words of Albert Outler, one of the premier interpreters of Wesley in this generation, John Wesley was “one who had glimpsed the underlying unity of Christian truth in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions and who had turned this recognition to the services of a great popular religious reform and renewal. ”

By Dr. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #2 in 1983]

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