Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

John Wesley (1703-1791)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

John Wesley was born in the rectory of Epworth, Lincolnshire to Samuel and Susannah Annesley Wesley on June 17, 1703.  Several sources overwhelmingly indicate him as being the 15th child out of the total 19 conceived from this union. (Green; Heitzenrater; Tuttle; Tyerman; Edwards; Cell; Doughty).  However, two sources suggest that he was the “13th or 14th child and the second of only three sons to reach maturity of the Reverend Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), rector of Epworth, Humberside, and his wife Susannah.” (Cross and Livingstone; Rack).  Both of the grandfathers of Wesley were clergymen, but distinguished themselves as Puritan nonconformists having been ejected from their pulpits in 1662.  Conversely, his father became a Tory in politics and a high-church Anglican.  Wesley’s mother also provided him with instruction and spiritual guidance in the Epworth refectory, followed by her letters and constant advice, making her a formidable influence in his formative and subsequent years.

At six years old, he was saved when angry parishioners set fire to the rectory.  This is the most famous incident of his childhood, and one which was seen as having a decisive impact on what would become his life-long career (Heitzenrater, 38-43).  Years later (specifically by 1737), he adapted the biblical phrase “a brand plucked from the burning”, and the phrase for him indicated not only “his providential deliverance from the fire but also a divine dispensation pointing to some extraordinary mission for him” (Rack, 57).  In 1714, he entered Charterhouse School in London, and in June 1720, Christ College (Oxford).  While attending the latter, he received the Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in 1724 and 1727, respectively.  He did not decide “to make religion the business of his life until 1725”, the year that he was ordained a deacon (Tuttle, 13).

In 1726, he was elected a Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford and a priest in 1728.  During these years, he maintained constant correspondence with his parents who urged him “to study the language which would give him mastery of the original text of the Bible, and Susannah advised him to read “practical divinity” (Telford, 45).  Hence, Wesley began to read Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and Holy Living and Dying by Jeremy Taylor. These texts were major factors which shaped his theological views and he became convinced of the inwardness of true religion and of the need to be wholly devoted to God.  Moreover, he was led to read other mystical writers and to follow their counsel in cultivating a spiritual inner life. Of special importance were William Law’s Christian Perfection and Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

In September 1726, Wesley returned to Oxford from Epworth and nearby Wroot, where he had been preaching and assisting his father in two parishes (“curate”).  His rising reputation was such that he was chosen as a lecturer and moderator for a Greek precept.  In the former capacity, he lectured weekly on the Greek New Testament and instructed the undergraduates in divinity.  As moderator, he presided over the daily “Disputations”, at Lincoln College and further developed his talent for logic.  His studies were abruptly interrupted between August 1727 and November 1729; during this time he spent more time in Epworth and Wroot than in Oxford to visit his father who was becoming increasingly infirm and wished that he succeed him. However, Dr. Morley, rector of Lincoln College issued Wesley a letter on October 21, 1729 saying:  “The interests of the College and the obligations of the statutes require your return”(Clarke, 8).

When he returned, he joined the “Holy Club” of which his brother Charles had founded.  Charles Wesley reflected:

My first year at College I was lost in diversions; the next I set myself to study.  Diligence led me into serious thinking; I went to the weekly sacrament, persuaded two or three young students to accompany me and to observe the method of study prescribed by the Statutes of the University.  This gained me the harmless name of Methodist.  In half a year after this, my brother left his curacy at Epworth and came to our assistance.  We then proceeded regularly in our studies and in doing what good we could to the bodies and souls of men (Wesley 1948, 14). 

The death of his father on April 23, 1735 signaled a turning point for John Wesley.  His father had been one of the first supporters of the colony in Georgia, founded for debtors and named after King George II. The governor of this colony, namely James Oglethorpe, invited Wesley to be its chaplain and to spread the gospel to the natives and colonists.  He frankly confessed that the chief reason for going to Savannah, Georgia was to save his own soul:  “I hope to learn the true sense of the gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathen” (Curnock, II: 15). The project proved a fiasco part due to disillusionment over the lack of spiritual discipline among his parishioners and part due to his failed love affair with a young woman named Sophia Hopkey. When he returned to England in 1738, he reproached himself over and over again declaring that he was “carnal, sold under sin” in a “vile, abject state of bondage to sin”, and altogether corrupt and abominable”.  He further said:  “I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh, who shall convert me?”(Telford, 56).

On the journey to America, he met a company of twenty-one German Moravians whose simple faith made a considerable impression on him.  On February 7, he met Moravian Peter Bohler, who encouraged him to “preach faith until you have it.” During a meeting of a small group at Aldersgate on May 24, 1738 he was converted during the reading of Luther’s “Preface” to the Epistle to the Romans.  He wrote:

In the evening, I went very unwilling to a society in Aldersgate Street were one was reading Luther’s “Preface” to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (Rack, 144).

That summer he visited the Moravians in Germany and met Count Nicholas Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf who had founded the pietist community generally known as the “Herrnhuter”, named after the German village of Hernnhut.  Alienated from what he regarded as the “arid rationalism and barren orthodoxy of his time, Zinzendorf stressed the importance of a “religion of the heart’, based on an intimate and personal relationship between Christ and the believer (McGrath, 74).  He later rejected Moravian teaching and separated from the Fetter Lane Society of which he was associated.

Influenced by reading Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative, Wesley agreed to succeed George Whitefield in preaching to the miners near Bristol in April 1739.  In that year, he preached on “Free Grace” at Bristol and for the first time at the Foundry in London, which became the Methodist headquarters.  United societies were organized also in 1739 and the first official Methodist society was formed in July 1740 with the first annual conference in June 1744.  The “Articles of Religion” were drawn up at this conference and were based to a considerable extent on the “Thirty-Nine Articles” from the Church of England.  In the spring of 1739, Wesley began field preaching or preaching in the open air.  George Whitefield began preaching in the field to the miners at Kingswood, near Bristol.  Leaving for America, he asked Wesley to take over his work.  Wesley wrote:  “The idea was repugnant to the correct and proper presbyter of the Church of England, who declared that he had not been so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church” (Journal, March 31, 1739, II: 167). Nevertheless, on April 2, 1739, he began his work.

In words to become immortal he said:  “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city to about three thousand people” (Journal, II: 172).  Wesley was referred to as “the soul that over England flamed” (Tuttle, 187). For fifty years, he rode over England, averaging 4, 000 miles annually, and preached more than 40,000 sermons.  Yet, the real genius of his work was in his ability to enlist, organize, and develop the spiritual talents of others, both men and women.  When he died in 1791, Methodism had spread all over the United Kingdom and had nearly 75,000 “members in the society” in 115 circuits.  However, this movement did not greatly influence either the upper classes or the agricultural laborers.  Success was chiefly in the Northeast, the West Country, and Cornwall.  Wesley’s greatest influence was with the miners of Kingswood, Cornwall, and Newcastle.

Methodism also included a huge following of artisans, small tradespeople, and workers flooding into the new industrial areas of Lancashire.  To conserve the gains of evangelism, Wesley formed societies in the wake of missions.  The organization of Methodism was thus a direct outcome of his success in preaching the gospel.  London, Bristol, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne represented the three points of a triangle as far as his evangelism in England was concerned.  He soon extended his journeys to include Ireland and Scotland.  His other published writings consist of sermons, letters, expositions, treatises, tracts, translations, histories, and abridgements.

The text of his last sermon was “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near.”  The next day (February 24, 1791), he stayed at Balham, and fought off his sickness sufficiently to write to William Wilberforce:  “Go on in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it” (Letters, VIII: 265).

He returned to his house at City Road Chapel in London and the night before his death is recorded to have said:  “How necessary is it for anyone to be on the right foundation.  We must be justified by faith and then go on to full salvation (perfection)” (Tyerman, 575). He cried out twice, “The best of all is that God is with us.” During his last night, “he frequently tried to repeat Issac Watts’ hymn, ‘I’ll praise my maker, while I’ve breath’, but his last word is said to have been simply ‘Farewell’” (Rack, 532). He wrote in one of his journals an epitaph to be written on his tombstone:  “Here lieth the body of John Wesley, A brand plucked out of the burning…” (Bowmer, no. 91, 115).  

2. Works (Selected List)

A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1725-1777), Journal (1735-1790), Sermons on Several Occasions (1771), Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible (1754-1765), A Collection of Hymns for the use of the People Called Methodists (1780)

3. Themes

Wesley's theology revolves around the issue of salvation. Wesley's theological life was dynamic. His theology did not just come about from somewhere. Wesley's concept of salvation as the hub of his thought had underwent dialectical development. Young Wesley (1733-38), the middle Wesley (1738-65), and the mature Wesley (1765-91) (Maddox 1994, 20). To put it in dialectical terms, young Wesley (thesis), middle Wesley (antithesis), and mature Wesley (synthesis) (Grassow in Maddox 1998, 187). Thesis (1733-38) emphasized the "moral rectitude" characterized by radical obedience to God and commitment to Christian holiness. Antithesis (1738-65) stressed a deeper application of Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace (Maddox 1994, 20). With the impact of the Moravians in 1738, Wesley's preaching shifted dramatically to salvation by grace. Synthesis 1765-71, his theology moved to seek balance on faith initiated by divine grace and confirmed by works (Grassow in Maddox 1998, 18). This shows Wesley's mature integration of the primacy of grace into his enduring concern of Christian holiness including the issue of Christian perfection related to social concerns (Maddox 1994, 20).

Doctrine of God

Wesley's doctrine of God is embedded in his theological discussion on salvation. Wesley affirmed his Anglican doctrine of God as spirit, eternal, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. God is loving, forgiving, pure, holy and gracious. Wesley joined the long tradition of Christian understanding of God including the "assumption that God's moral attributes convey two central virtues: justice and goodness (love)." God's goodness is defined in terms of love (Maddox 1994, 55). God's holiness is not only a moral attribute but is tied up with his redemptive acts founded on "responsible grace."

Wesley’s position regarding the various aspects of the doctrine of God provides a theological base for his notion of the ordo salutis. The major focus of Wesley’s reflection on the doctrine of God was the nature of God’s sovereignty.  His main point, directed at Calvin (as he understood Calvin) was that “God’s sovereignty should always be related to the other divine attributes.” (Works, X: 220) Failure to make this relation would ultimately lead to an “abstract and deterministic view of sovereignty which undermined both God’s justice” (Works, X: 216, 363) and God’s love” (X: 229).  It would also destroy human responsibility.

Furthermore, Wesley provided several constructive proposals for understanding the nature of God in a way that held divine sovereignty, mercy, and justice together.  In the first place, he refused to follow the Nominalists in making a distinction between “God’s will and God’s nature” (V: 440-441).  This removed the possibility of vindicating God’s sovereign decisions by placing God above the divinely-established moral law.  In the second place, Wesley located the primary expression of God’s sovereignty in the bestowal of mercy rather than in the abstract concept of self-sufficiency and freedom.  This move purged the notion of sovereignty of its frequent overtones of arbitrariness and domination.  Finally, Wesley argued at length that a conception of God wherein God could interact effectively and providentially with human beings while still allowing a measure of human free agency, does not detract from God’s glory.  On the contrary, it “immeasurably deepens our sense of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy” (X: 230-4; VI: 317-18) without undercutting human responsibility, at the same time.

This basic stance regarding God’s nature as loving and just finds expression in Wesley’s judgments regarding several related issues.  For example, he opted for a conception of divine foreknowledge that does not imply determinism.  Wesley found such a conception in the notion of eternity as above time.  From this perspective, matters related to personal salvation do not take place because God knows them. Rather, God knows them because they take place (VI: 227).  Wesley’s judgments concerning the nature of God are congruent with his idea of responsible grace, as having a decisive role, albeit often implicitly, in arriving at judgments. As evidence of this assertion, he notes the Calvinist conception of God’s sovereign predestining will:

It destroys all (God’s) attributes at once:  It overturns both His justice, mercy, and truth…You represent God as worse than the devil; more false more cruel, more unjust.  But you say you will it by Scripture.  Hold! What will you prove by Scripture?  That God is worse than the devil?  It cannot be…better to say (Scripture) has no sense at all, than to say it had such a sense as this…No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that His mercy is not over all His works. (VII: 383)

Here, his convictions about the mercy and justice of God become criteria for determining the meaning of Scripture. Moreover, this quote must be balanced by Wesley’s claim that his convictions about God’s justice and love are “thoroughly grounded in Scripture” (X: 211).  Nevertheless, it is a clear illustration of at least one area where Wesley’s basic convictions about responsible grace were a decisive influence in his determination of issues of Christian doctrine and practice.

Theological Anthropology

Wesley derived his doctrine of human beings both from Eastern and Western traditions. Eastern and Western Christianity thought that humanity was created in God's image, which signifies an original state of complete perfection in the likeness of God. However, man is a fallen being and in need of salvation (Wesley 1987, 13-21). Wesley's doctrine of original sin was derived from the Western understanding that humanity inherited the guilt from the Fall. Sin is universal experience. Human beings can do nothing to redeem themselves from sinfulness. This is where the doctrine of grace comes in. Wesley picked up Eastern and Western doctrine of salvation and coined then to formulate his own soteriology. Wesley integrated the Western juridical emphasis on salvation as pardon, particularly the Reformation tradition, and the Eastern understanding as therapeutic. Thus, Wesley's understanding of salvation is both pardon and healing. Healing as salvation is the restoration of the corrupted humanity to its incorruptible original state. However, Wesley's real interest is focused on the restoration of the fallen humanity into the likeness of God through God's restoring grace (Maddox 1994, 67).

Doctrine of Grace

Fallen humanity is blessed with God's restoring grace. Wesley referred God's restoring grace primarily as "prevenient grace." Prevenient grace implies God's first activity in the restoration of fallen humanity. Wesley's overall understanding of grace resonates strongly with the Eastern understanding of uncreated grace. Prevenient grace is uncreated grace. Grace is essentially God's loving personal presence at work in our lives. It is the accompanying effect of God's initial move towards restoration. Prevenient grace is responsible, it inspires, and empowers our response but does not coerce that response (Maddox 1994, 86). "From this, center he developed the central emphasis of his soteriology, beginning with repentance, salvation was established by justification, affirmed by assurance, found it embodiment in holiness, and reached its final goal in eternal life with God. And all of this was built upon the reality of God's" prevenient, justifying, "sanctifying and perfecting grace" (Langford in Maddox 1998, 38).

Wesley's sermon on "Free Grace," is designed against predestination. Wesley contended that the doctrine of predestination is a dangerous doctrine that jeopardizes the integrity and credibility of the Christian faith. Predestination nullifies the Christian doctrine of salvation, preaching, holiness, good works, Christian virtues and the comfort of religion and the Christian hope. Wesley stressed, "The sense of all is plainly this: by virtue of an eternal, unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, one part of humankind are infallibly saved, and the rest infallibly damned; it being impossible that any of the former should be damned, or any of the latter should be saved. But if this be so, then is all preaching vain. It needless to them that are elected. For they, whether with preaching or without, will infallibly saved. Therefore the end of preaching, 'to save souls' is void with regards to them and it is useless to them that are not elected. For they cannot possibly be saved. They, whether with preaching or without, will infallibly be damned. The end of preaching will therefore be void with regard to them likewise. So that in either case, our preaching is vain, as your hearing is also vain" (Wesley 1987, 52). Free grace and free will were the dominant theological issues during the early years of the revival. Free grace was central as it had to do with the availability of salvation for all people. The issue of free grace has a lot to do with God's mode of relating to human beings. "God was not a despot who arbitrarily choose some for life and others for death." Wesley's doctrine of grace had a lot to do with the anthropology of the Enlightenment. "The theme of grace was in sharp contrast with the Enlightenment sense of self-sufficiency" (Langford in Maddox 1998, 38-9). Wesley emphasized that humanity is sinful and in need of the divine grace for them to be free from that fallenness.

Christology

Wesley's theology on salvation by grace through faith is related with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Salvation and christology are inseparable. Wesley's doctrine of Jesus Christ is located in the context of salvation coined with the theme of grace. Christ is the initiative of responsible grace. From this perspective, Wesley's Christology is a combination of the Western and Eastern understanding of Christ. For the work of Christ, Wesley adopted the Western concept. For the nature of Christ Wesley employed the Eastern thought. The Western doctrine of the work of Christ related to the doctrine of the atonement is juridical, which is pardon/forgiveness. The Eastern Christological tradition is focused on the Incarnation that emphasized (theosis/deification) human beings partaking in the divine nature (Maddox 1994, 114-5). To relate Christology with soteriology, it means that Wesley integrated both the juridical (West) and the therapeutic (East) dimension of salvation. With regards to Wesley's emphasis on the divinity of Christ was an affirmation that God is the one who takes initiative of our salvation (Maddox 1994, 117).

Salvation: Justification-Sanctification-Christian Perfection

Wesley's doctrine of salvation is three-dimensional: as pardon-salvation begun, holiness-salvation continued, heaven-salvation completed.

At the most basic level, Wesley’s view of soteriology is expressed in his definition of terms.  He defines salvation as not merely deliverance from hell or going to heaven, but a “present deliverance from sin” (VIII: 47).  “Grace” is taken to include not merely one’s free acceptance by God, but the power of God at work in humanity, both to will and to do according to God’s good pleasure (IX: 103).  Faith is understood to be more than mere assent.  It is a “disposition wrought in the heart that is productive of good works.” (V: 12, 168, 205).  Accordingly, in Wesley’s terms, salvation by grace through faith can never be understood in an antinomian sense.  Neither can it be understood as self-salvation, for Wesley is quite clear that the love which transforms our lives is a “gift of God” (V: 39-40).

Lindstrom notes that the tension between grace and responsibility is expressed structurally when the possibility of growth in Christ-likeness (sanctification), is made contingent on God’s gracious acceptance (justification), while the continuance in God’s acceptance (justification) is made contingent on growth in Christ-likeness (sanctification) (Lindstrom, 37). It is this dual tension that allows Wesley to integrate “faith alone” with “holy living” in an authentic dialectic (Rowe, 15).  A logical corollary of this tension is Wesley’s affirmation of the third use of the law—to guide Christian life (V: 443).

Wesley shared with the Reformation doctrine that justification is by grace through faith, which means divine pardon. The Reformation tradition understood justification as pardon to show that God's justifying grace is independent of any merit on human part. The ground of the whole doctrine of justification is God's free grace through the redemption of Jesus Christ (Wesley 1987, 114-5). Wesley's doctrine of justification by faith is tied with his doctrine of free grace and Christology. The ground of justification by faith through grace is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and it shows that justification is a divine act and not on human effort. It is never something that we merit or earn, it is a gift of God. The foremost reason in affirming justification by faith is to preserve the nature of salvation as fundamentally by grace (Maddox 1994, 150). Salvation by grace is "co-operant" relationship. Faith is a necessary condition of justification. Wesley made it clear that without faith as the expression of human being's cooperation there would be no justification (Wesley 1987, 118-9). With regards to John Wesley's Aldersgate heart-warming experience, which culminates in the claim that Christ had "taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death," implies that he has received salvation from both the penalty and the plague of sin (Maddox 1994, 144).

Salvation emphasizes responsible grace. God did not just pardon us and stop there. Wesley broadened salvation beyond justification. In addition to imputing righteousness in justification, God imparts righteousness to us through sanctification. Wesley has an enduring concern about and never wanted to nullify the essence of holiness in the Christian life. He integrated the doctrine of sanctification to incorporate the significance of holy living as an essential part of salvation experience. Sanctification implies human beings active participation in the transformation purpose of salvation.

Wesley's important concern in integrating sanctification, as part of salvific experience is to put holiness/good works in its proper perspective. The relationship of justification and sanctification as interrelated is to affirm the inherent relationship of grace and human responsibility. Our potential for growth in the likeness of God in Christ is dependent upon God's pardoning grace (justification) while the continuing salvific experience with God is contingent upon our responsive growth in Christ-likeness (sanctification). Wesley emphasized that to "preach salvation on justification by faith only is to preach against holiness or good works." He contended that when we speak of faith, it should not be separated with holiness or good works. Faith is necessarily productive of good works (Wesley 1987, 44).

In Wesley's sermon, "Christian Perfection" clarified that Christian Perfection is another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus everyone that is perfect is holy, and everyone that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, is perfect (Wesley 1987, 73). Perfection is the dynamic goal of the process of sanctification. Sanctification is dynamic. Perfection meant above all to be filled with the pure, perfect love of God transforming the whole person. Perfection is the highest goal by which the fullness of love is attained becoming full of the love of God (Lee in Maddox 1998, 205). Wesley's doctrine of sanctification was aimed to clarify to the Moravian pietists that faith and works are inseparably connected with salvation experience. He put the concept of holiness in the right perspective and good works in its proper place with regards to salvation experience. A saved person justified by God's grace through Christ's redemption is expected to do good works. Thus holiness/good works proceeds justification.

Wesley's soteriology has a lot to do with social issues. That is why Wesley emphasized that "there is no holiness but social holiness." Wesley's doctrine of holiness is not separated from his practical divinity. Theology is intimately related to Christian living. Salvation is intended for "transforming purposes both individual and social relations." Wesley's theology is connected with the social gospel. Wesley's approach to theology grounded in the gospel maintained by tradition is intended to "transform life in its social, intellectual, cultural, political, ecclesial and economic conditions" (Langford in Maddox 1998, 35-7). Wesley's sermon, "Circumcision of the Heart," which implies a truly transformed life, a life living in holiness is understood as a life living in perfect love of God and neighbor (Wesley 1987, 233).

The most distinctive element in Wesley’s doctrine of salvation is his affirmation of the possibility of entire sanctification (Outler, 58).  This affirmation has been the focus of numerous critical evaluations, but a “careful reading proves them to be ungrounded” (Lindstrom, 117-119). Wesley states that the experience of entire sanctification, if ever obtained, is a gift from God, not a product of human effort (V: 164).  At the same time, he stresses human responsibility in relation to entire sanctification.  In the first place, he considers the possibility of entire sanctification to hinge on a prior (typically long) period of responsible growth in grace which includes progressive victory over the sinful inclinations that remain in the life of a believer (sanctification in the larger sense of the word) (VI: 45-46; Lindstrom, 134). In the second place, Wesley stresses the element of human responsibility within the state of entire sanctification itself by emphasizing the continuing need for growth in Christ-likeness even here (VI: 5; VII: 202), the absence of which would ultimately lead to the loss of experience (VI: 419). Indeed, it is characteristic of Wesley that the first advice to those who claimed entire sanctification was to provide pride, enthusiasm, and antinomianism. It is, also, of little wonder that he chose as a motto for the Methodists the phrase, “not as though I had already attained” (VIII: 339).

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: Life in the Spirit

Wesley's discussion of salvation is not complete with dealing with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Wesley's pneumatology can be traced back in its Patristic roots in Eastern Christian tradition, particularly from Macarius, a Syrian mystic. Wesley's spirituality and practical theology is focused on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Life in the Spirit is entirely connected with Christian perfection/holiness. A sanctified life is sanctified through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the immediate cause of holiness. Holiness is the work of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Wesley's theme of sanctification is connected with "deification" (theosis) of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, which means that the life of God in the human soul is participation of the divine nature. Holiness as the work of the Holy Spirit is sanctifying and perfecting the creation. For Wesley, perfection is to be filled with the pure perfect love of god. Perfection is the dynamic goal by which the fullness of love is attained by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The believer is "indwelt and led by the Spirit rather than possessed by the Spirit as if some irresistible force controls the believer" (Lee in Maddox 1998, 205).The doctrine of perfection/holiness is perfecting perfection, which means is a process of growth and maturity in the life of the Spirit. To be perfect means to be perfect in love. To be perfect in love is to be perfect in God's love. We can be perfect in God's love if God works in us. God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is experienced when the believer lives the life in the life of the Spirit. Living in the Spirit means life in union with the life of God, which is participation in the divine nature in the perfect love of God.

Scripture

There is no doubt whatsoever that Wesley received the Bible as the written word of God and regarded it as the supreme court of appeal in all matters of faith and conduct.  The strategic importance of the Scripture in the economy of Wesley’s theology may be gauged from this assertion:  “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, and herein distinguished from the Jews, Turks, and Infidels.  We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice” (VIII: 340).

In much the same vein, he expressed his high esteem for Scripture in a letter to a friend, to whom he wrote:  “If by Catholic principles, you mean any other than scriptural, they weigh nothing with me.  I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures” (Journal, II: 217).

It is apparent from these references that Wesley’s position is in line with the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation.  Further confirmation that this is so is provided in his Explanatory Notes of the New Testament, where, for instance, in stating his conviction that the words of the Bible comprise a most exact record of the word that God gave to God’s messengers, Wesley quotes approvingly the comment of Luther:  “Divinity is nothing but grammar of the language of the Holy Ghost” (“Preface”, Notes, section 12).

It is clear that Wesley tended to relate Scriptural passages by spiritual association, giving little attention to questions of date and authorship, or to such matters as literary form and historical context.  For the most part, he treated the Bible as a uniform pattern of divine truth.  Referring to the whole Bible, Wesley affirms that “every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess” (“Preface”, Notes, section 10).  Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Wesley was by no means averse to textual criticism (“Preface”, Notes, section 7) and insisted that Scriptural references should be interpreted in the light of the message of the entire Bible (Works, “An Address to the Clergy,” X: 482). Further, his regard for reason and tradition, though subordinate as authorities to the Scriptures, together with the stress on experience, guarded him against a static, unintelligent literalism, and gave a balanced, informed, and dynamic character to his biblical exposition.

Reason

The role of reason is also important to Wesley.  He refers to reason as “this precious gift of God” (“The Case of Reason Considered”, Works, VI: 359) and contends that Christ and the apostles “never failed to prove every doctrine that was taught by clear Scripture and cogent reason.” (“A Farther Appeal”, Works, VIII: 235). In his “An Earnest Appeal”, he affirms:  “We join with you…in desiring a religion founded on reason, and every way agreeable thereto.  This is the very religion we preach; a religion evidently founded on, and every way agreeable to, eternal reason, to the essential nature of things.  Its foundation stands on the nature of God and the nature of man, together with their mutual relations” (VIII: 11).

Wesley advocates a medial position between those who “despise and vilify reason” and those who “overvalue it” (VI: 351).  He believes it to be a legitimate and necessary aid, even though limited, not only in the common affairs of life, but also in comprehending and evaluating revealed truth.  Yet, he is in doubt that Christian virtue and doctrine come from revelation rather than from reason.  Reason is thus conceived, not as a source of revelation, but as the logical faculty by which the evidence is ordered.

Wesley regarded for the proper place of reason in religion brought a sense of coherence and to his biblical interpretation.  It also manifested itself in his strong emphasis on the law of God as expressing the eternal nature of things, or, to use more personal terms, as a “transcript of the divine nature” (Sermons, II: 47).

Tradition

In Wesley’s theology, the tradition of the Church was an important, even if subordinate, criterion in determining matters of doctrine.  He explicitly avowed his particular regard for the patristic period when he wrote: “I regard no authorities but those of the ante-Nicene Fathers; not any of them in opposition to Scripture” (Letters, VII: 106, February 22, 1782).  However, this statement cannot be accepted as descriptive of Wesley’s real position without some qualification for he showed a true appreciation for the continuing tradition of the church.  This is suggested, for instance, in his affirmation, “I still maintain the Bible, with the liturgy and homilies of our Church; and do not espouse any other principles but what are consonant with the Book of Common Prayer” (Journal, IV: 424, December 20, 1760).

In his sermon “On Sin in Believers”, Wesley’s respect for the full-orbed tradition of the Church appears in the elucidation of his argument.  While he insists that “no doctrine can be right, unless it is the very same “which was from the beginning”, that is, based on Scriptures, Wesley’s appeal to the full gamut of tradition in church history indicates his recognition of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church following apostolic times.  While he does not hesitate to point out that the church councils not only “may err”, but have “erred, he is prepared to cast well-established tradition slightly aside (Journal, I: 275).

The perspective of Wesley’s view is concisely stated in his “A Short History of Methodism”, where he contends that it is the Methodists’ one desire and design to be downright Bible Christians; taking the Bible, as interpreted by the primitive Church and our own, for their whole and sole rule” (Works, VIII: 348).

Experience

The place accorded to experience by Wesley is one of the most valuable to his theological understanding.  In his work, The Spirit of Methodism, Henry Bett goes so far to say:

At the Reformation, Catholicism took its final stand on the authority of the Church, and Protestantism took its first stand on the authority of the Bible. Methodism, without altogether realizing what it was doing, shifted the ultimate authority in religion to the last place and the right place—to religious experience (35).

The ultimate authority in religion for Wesley, as for the Reformers, was “unmistakably the testimony of Holy Scripture” (Hildebrandt, 20). Yet, the founders of Methodism discerned with a deeper perspicacity than possibly any theologian since apostolic times the indispensable, confirmatory character of experience in relation to Scriptural truth.  Thus, though Wesley accepted the statement that “experience is not sufficient to prove a doctrine unsupported by Scripture”, he hastened to express his conviction that “experience is sufficient to confirm a doctrine which is grounded on Scripture” (Sermons, II: 357). In this manner, Scripture as the source of authority in religion was conceived as intimately and inextricably related to the experiential appropriation of that authority in the life of the believer.

Wesley never lost sight of this close relationship, carefully guarding against the extremes, on the one hand, of a formal orthodoxy that gave little place to vital, Christian experience, and on the other, of a subjectivism that virtually denied the objective revelation of Scripture by making the experiencing subject the measure of religious truth.  In the light of standpoint, Wesley opposed the mystic writers, for, though, he admitted that there were “excellent things”, in most of their writings, he argued that in studying them, “you will find as many religions as books; and for this plain reason, each of them makes his own experience the standard of religion” (Letters, VI: 43). Yet, throughout his works, he stressed the need for “plain, practical, and experimental religion”.  He even went so far as to maintain that, were it possible “to shake the traditional evidence of Christianity, still he that has the internal evidence (and every true believer hath the witness or evidence in him/herself) would stand firm and unshaken” (Works, X: 76). While it is true that “in Wesley’s experience is not the test of truth, but truth the test of experience,” Wesley’s emphasis on the role of experiential religion gave his theology a dynamic drive and life-relatedness which was absent in Protestant scholasticism and generally missing from the church of his day.

Social Concern

Wesley’s social concern stems basically from the twin doctrines of creation and redemption.  Put briefly, this means that all people are made in the imago Dei and through Christ, act for the salvation of others—no human person falls outside the ambit of Christian concern and responsibility (grace).  The complementary nature of the relationship between the order of creation and the order of grace as forming the basis for a Christian’s concern for all people, however degraded and disreputable, is apparent in Wesley’s following statement:

A poor wretch cries to me for alms: I look, and see him covered with dirt and rags.  But through these I see one that has an immortal spirit, made to know, and love, and dwell with God to eternity.  I honour him for his Creator’s sake.  I see through all these rags, that he is purpled over with the blood of Christ.  I love him for the sake of his Redeemer.  The courtesy, therefore, which I feel and show toward him is a mixture of the honour and love which I bear to the offspring of God; the purchase of his Son’s blood, and the candidate for immortality. This courtesy let us feel and show toward all and we shall please all men to their edification” (“On Pleasing All Men”, Works, VII: 145).

In similar fashion, in his prayer for the slaves, “these outcasts of men”, Wesley expressed his concern in the light of the concepts of creation and redemption, “Are not these also the work of thine hands, the purchase of thy Son’s blood?…Thou Savior of all, make them fee, that they may be free indeed!” (“Thoughts Upon Slavery”, Works, XI: 79).

Wesley as a Practical Theologian

Wesley's social situation helped explain Wesley as a practical theologian. Wesley lived "at the beginning of economic crisis in the era of modern industrial capitalism that created severe hardships and exploitation of working classes. Wesley was aware of his oppressive social condition that eventually led him to criticize the establishment" (Grassow in Maddox 1998, 186). This situation helped shape his political theology tied up with the doctrine of grace and practical divinity.

Wesley lived in the context of the growing ethos of the positive anthropology of the Enlightenment. The enlightenment was a great intellectual movement in Europe represented in Great Britain by Isaac Newton, the Lockean empiricism, Hume's skepticism, Rousseau's political philosophy, and Kant's philosophy, which put religion to the limits of reason. Enlightenment mentality questions the establishment and authorities, and the intelligibility of the Christian faith. Human beings were declared autonomous because of the power of reason. Wesley's classical doctrine of grace was set in opposition to the positive anthropology of the Enlightenment of self-sufficiency (Langford 1998, 38). This intellectual setting had a lot to do in shaping Wesley's "practical divinity."

In terms of religious setting, Wesley was a product of the long history of the Christian tradition of the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianity, the Reformation soteriology, and his Anglican tradition including the pietistic disciplines. Anglicanism shares a tradition of doctrine, polity, and liturgy stemming from the English Reformation of the sixteenth century. Anglicans preserved the Catholic substance of liturgy and claimed a Catholic heritage of faith and order, but classified themselves as Protestants. Wesley held his faith and theology in between the Catholic and Protestant traditions (Encyclopedia of Religion, 289).

Wesley as a practical theologian can be traced from his childhood training and the reading of the religious books on practical divinity. The approach to theology as a practical discipline was a pre-century Christian setting and remained influential until the eighteenth century. Anglican tradition, the academic setting and the cultural context of the age shaped his thought as a practical theologian (Maddox 1994, 16). Wesley believed that theology was intimately related to Christian living aimed to transform personal life and social conditions. The message of the gospel is located in the context of people's lives. (Langford 1998, 37).There is a significant relationship of theology with particular human life situations so as to make it practical.

The (UMC) quadrilateral method of doing theology can be traced in Wesley's Anglican setting to the apologetic work of Richard Hooker (1554-1600) of the "Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity” is still influential with its appeal to Scripture, church tradition, reason and experience (Encyclopedia of Religion). Scripture is the basic authority for Christian faith and life. Tradition helps enlighten and apply Scripture but in return must be tested by the Scripture. Reason is a gift of God to give light and understanding and appropriate revelation. It helps promote reasonable interpretation and application of God's gracious revelation in nature and Scripture. The appeal to experience serves primarily to test understanding of scripture; however, it must have Scriptural warrant (Maddox 1994, 36-46).

4. Outline of Major Works

 [Forthcoming]

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

[Forthcoming]

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Bett, Henry. 1943. The Spirit of Methodism. London: Epworth Press.

Bowmer, John C. 1961. The Lord’s Supper in Methodism, 1791-1960. London: Epworth Press.

Cell, George Croft. 1935. The Rediscovery of John Wesley. New York: H. Holt and Company.

Clarke, Adam. 1923. Memoirs of the Wesley Family:  Collected principally from original documents. London: Printed by J & T Clark and sold by J. Kershaw.

Cobb, John Jr. 1994. Grace and Responsibility: A Wesleyan Theology for Today. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone. 1997. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Curnock, Nehemiah. 1903. Journal of John Wesley. London: Charles Kelly.

Davis, Angela K. 1884. Wesley and Early Methodism. New York: Phillips and Hunt.

Doughty, W.L. 1955. John Wesley, Preacher. London: Epworth.

Edwards, Maldwyn L. 1933. John Wesley and the Eighteenth Century: A Study of His Social and Political Influence. New York: Abingdon Press.

Encyclopedia of Religion. 1987. Vol. I. Mircea Eliade, ed. London: Macmillan Company.

Green, V. H. H. 1961. The Young Mr. Wesley: A Study of John Wesley and Oxford. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Heitzenrater, R.P. 1984. The Elusive Mr. Wesley.  2 volumes. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Hilbebrandt, Franz. 1956. From Luther to Wesley. Lincoln: Epworth.

Langford, Thomas A. 1998. "John Wesley and Theological Method," in Randy Maddox, ed., Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism. Nashville Tennessee: Abingdon Press.

Lee, Jung Hoo. 1998. "Experiencing the Spirit in Wesley and Macarius," in Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press.

Lindstrom, Harald Gustaf. 1950. Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation. London: Epworth Press.

Lindstrom, Harald. 1946. John Wesley and Sanctification. London: Epworth Press.

Maddox, Randy L. 1994. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville Tennessee: Abingdon Press.

Maddox, Randy L., ed. 1998. Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press.

McGrath, Alister E. 1994. Christian Theology:  An Introduction. Oxford, United Kingdom; Cambridge, MA:  Blackwell.

Outler, Albert C. 1964. John Wesley. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rack, Henry D. 1993. Reasonable Enthusiast:  John Wesley and the Rise of British Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Rowe, Kenneth. 1976. The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Telford, John. 1898. The Life of John Wesley. New York: Eaton & Mains; Cincinnati:  Jennings and Pye, 1898).

Wesley, Charles. 1948. Letters of Charles Wesley. Edited by Frank Baker. London: Epworth Press.

Wesley, John. 1754. Explanatory Notes of the New Testament. New York: Eaton and Mains.

Wesley, John. 1829-1831. The Works of the Rev. Mr. John Wesley, A.M. with the Last Corrections of the Author. Edited by Thomas Jackson. 3rd Edition. 14 volumes. London: Wesleyan-Methodist Book-Room.

Wesley, John, and Edward H. Sugden, ed. 1921. Wesley’s Standard Sermons. 2 volumes. London: Epworth Press.

Wesley, John, and John Telford, ed. 1931. The Letters of the Rev. Mr. John Wesley, A.M. 8 volumes. London: Epworth Press.

Wesley, John, and Percy Livingston Parker, ed. 1952. The Journal of John Wesley. Chicago: Moody Press.

Wesley, John, Albert Outler, and Heitzenrater, eds. 1987. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press.

7. Internet Resources

Wikipedia Article, “John Wesley

Biography, Selected Works, and works about John Wesley at Christian Classics Ethereal Library

John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life

The John Wesley Society

John Wesley at Epworth, BBC article on Wesley’s Life

8. Related Topics

Cobb, John B., Jr. (1925- )

 

Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Echol Lee Nix, Jr. (2000) and Wilfredo Tangunan (1998)

 

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