John Wesley and the Anglicans: The Question of Methodism Part 2

Continuing my posting of my comprehensive exam answers. What follows is the second part of the second question from my comp exam on Church history. You can see part 1 here.

In a lot of ways, Wesley’s prioritizing of a transformed life that is empowered through the Spirit echoes the Quaker themes. However, Wesley strongly rejected the Quaker interpretation of Scripture (which by the time of Wesley really had devalued Scripture more as a secondary source). He also strongly disagreed with their rejection of church tradition and liturgy, including their rejection of baptism and Eucharist. Wesley was a strong supporter of an ordained clergy and a very clear proponent of a well ordered, even hierarchical church structure. In this way, he was very much in line with the Church of England. Yet, his support of the hierarchy did not mean he was limited by such a support. For him, it was more than a convenience but it was not wholly authoritative. He respected the role but included the tradition and structure of the church as one influence among many.

Albert Outler has focused the attention on Wesley’s overall interpretative model as having four elements: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. With these elements in mind, there is a tendency to try to figure out what was Wesley’s defining interpretive model. Like with the history of Puritanism and the industrial revolution, it is important to not be reductionistic when dealing with Wesley, as he was much more than the apparent sum of his parts. Indeed, his parts illustrate that he was both very much a man of his age as well as being a very capable and imaginative theologian able to integrate seemingly disparate influences into a coherent approach to life and church.

As a man of his age, he was extremely influenced by a wide variety of literature, readings that reflect a significant engagement with early church Fathers, Puritan and Anglican writers closer to his era, philosophical treatises and just about anything else that was available in his time. Indeed, this was probably a family trait, as his family were all extremely well read. His mother, for instance, who was a woman of her era in terms of role and lifestyle, was also an educated daughter of an influential clergyman. In her letters, she freely and easily interacts with a wide variety of religious, philosophical and devotional literature, sharing her negative opinions on a Kempis, relating her interactions with Baxter and Locke, and otherwise keeping up conversations with her children that are at the same time maternal and intellectual.

She was strongly influenced by Locke and others in her own approach to life, and passed this learning on to her children, who then, through sermons and a whole new renewal movement, passed it on to those who heard the sermons. The influence of the philosophers and religious leaders is not limited to those who encounter them directly or who quote them, but were widely dispersed through indirect means.

Like his mother, Wesley did not blindly accept the readings from any group, but subjected them all to his own interpretations, which were given a curious contrast before and after 1738, one that reflects what might be seen as an earlier conflict in Puritanism. Prior to his Aldersgate experience, Wesley could be understood as a nomist, expressing a goal to holiness pursued through legalistic embrace of a holistic piety. He sought to spread this understanding through communities of others, though he found mostly discouragement and distress. One might say that he saw his own salvation being related to the expression of his sanctification, much as Winthrop and his compatriots viewed it. His inability to live up to his own standards of holiness, however, made him constantly despair of his salvation.

This until that evening in 1738 when he felt his heart strangely warmed, he knew that God had saved him, that God loved him, that his works were not sufficient but God’s grace was now wholly with him, assuring him of his salvation. Wesley, at that moment, expressed the Hutchinson side of the debate, arguing that sanctification is not a proof of salvation, but instead God testifies to a person’s heart, with holiness being an expression of the salvation and love rather than a proof. First God works, then a person can work. First, God works, then a person must work.

God’s grace is the impetus to a changed life, a life that is now sanctified through a free expression of holistic participation with the world, for and with others. The almost Christian, the one who talks the rhetoric of Christianity and often performs the morality, becomes the altogether Christian through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, transforming the person into truly being a man or a woman who reflects Christ. This distinction, curiously enough, is very similar to the distinction that Roger Williams made in a letter to his wife, in which Williams discussed the trials of a Christian life, tempting towards hypocrisy at every step, and always pushing for the person to embrace in full the call of God in every part of life.

Wesley saw this work of God as going well beyond the point of salvation. Indeed, in many respects his emphasis of the life with God was more reflective of an Eastern Orthodox rather than traditionally Western conceptions of sin. Sin was a corruption and sickness that required healing, and with healing came an increasing restoration towards the likeness of God in each person’s life, this theosis he called sanctification, and while he suggested it was thus possible, in the power of the Spirit, to be perfect in avoiding active sins even in this life, he did not know anyone who had achieved it nor did he claim this for himself.

This orientating concern, this promotion of a responsible grace, was ecumenical in its influences, drawing from a wide variety of sources and as such was more resistant to separatist tendencies. Indeed, while Wesley indeed could have very strong opinions, it seems his interest in unity was equally as strong, given evidence in his continued demand that the Methodists remain a part of the Church of England as well as his continued, even if sometimes troubled, relationship with George Whitefield and the Calvinist expressions of Methodism.

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