John Wesley on Animal Salvation

I must apologize for the lack of recent activity on this blog.  I’ve been quite busy writing lectures for two new courses this fall, as well as preparing a paper for the recent “New Creation” conference, jointly sponsored by Northeastern Seminary and the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association.

This post is adapted from one section of my paper at that conference, which focused on John Wesley’s mature theology of “new creation” – a central strand in his later thought, which brought together the personal, social, and cosmic dimensions of salvation.

Wesley Statue at the New Room Bristol via Bob SpeelJohn Wesley had a lifelong interest in animal life, and it is well-known that he was an advocate for the protection of animals against abuse from humans.   But in the final decade of his life, the issue of animal suffering came increasingly into his view as a theological problem, and formed an integral part of his mature theology of the new creation.

Thus he begins his remarkable sermon “The General Deliverance,” written in 1782, with a quotation from Psalm 145:9 in the Book of Common Prayer: “his mercy is over all his works.”  Yet, Wesley asks,

“If the Creator and Father of every living thing is rich in mercy towards all; if he does not overlook or despise any of the works of his own hands, if he desires even the meanest of them to be happy according to their degree –how comes it to pass that such a complication of evils oppresses, yea, overwhelms them?” (Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,” §1-2)

He answers the question by arguing that all animal suffering, including that which various species currently inflict upon one another to ensure their own survival, is the result of the fall.  Thus, before the fall, animal creation was “happy” and enjoyed a kind of “perfection” according to their kind, which was seen in their loving obedience to humanity, who as God’s vice-regents, were God’s appointed conveyors of blessings to all other creatures.  The obedience of animals to humanity, therefore, could be seen as bearing “some shadowy resemblance of even moral goodness” (§I.5.). In short, animals in the original creation were, Wesley suggests, at peace with humanity and with one another.

Yet, as a result of the fall, humanity’s relationship to God was disrupted, and therefore the blessings of God no longer flow through human stewardship to God’s creatures (§II.1).  After the fall, then, animals came to be at war with one another. It is because of sin that “an immense majority of creatures, perhaps a million to one, can no otherwise preserve their own lives, than by destroying their fellow-creatures!” (§II.3)  Moreover, humanity’s loving and kind stewardship of animal creation has been turned into an exploitative domination, and humanity has become such an enemy of animals that his cruelty surpasses that of a shark hunting its prey (§II.6). Wesley is unwilling to grant that such animosity and brutality is part of God’s original design for his creatures.

Peacable Kingdom by Edward Hicks via wikimedia commonsWhy would God allow animals to be subject to such vanities?  Surely, he reasons, God will one day restore animal creation to a state which is superior to that of the original creation. As they have been subjected to a degree of the corruption brought on by the fall, so also will they be liberated to experience “a measure of “the glorious liberty of the children of God”” in the new creation (§III.1).  This will entail a greater strength, swiftness, and understanding than each creature in its kind has possessed in the original creation, and, like human creatures, they “will be delivered from all irregular appetites, from all unruly passions, from every disposition that is either evil in itself, or has any tendency to evil” (§III.3). Therefore, as they had originally been able to evidence “a shadowy resemblance of even moral goodness” (§I.5), so in the new creation, “No rage will be found in any creature, no fierceness, no cruelty, or thirst for blood” (§III.3).

Working on the assumption of creation as a “great chain of being,” with humanity occupying a higher place in the chain, and creatures proceeding downwards in accordance with their likeness to the creator, Wesley speculates that all creatures might “move up” one level in the chain, and that some animals might therefore even join humanity in becoming “capable of God.”

“May I be permitted to mention here a conjecture concerning the brute creation What, if it should then please the all-wise, the all-gracious Creator to raise them higher in the scale of beings? What, if it should please him, when he makes us “equal to angels,” to make them what we are now, — creatures capable of God; capable of knowing and loving and enjoying the Author of their being? If it should be so, ought our eye to be evil because he is good?  However this be, he will certainly do what will be most for his own glory” (§III.6).

Lest we think this was a one-time indulgence on Wesley’s part, he ventures the same speculation in his 1785 sermon “The New Creation” (§17).

As I said, these reflections on the place of non-human creatures in God’s plan of redemption are one important aspect of Wesley’s late thinking about the “new creation.”  Some of these ideas might seem strange at first, but in fact they cohere well with Wesley’s overall concern to defend the character of God as just, merciful and loving.  In that sense, we can see deep connections here between how he resolves the issue of animal suffering and his rejection of the Calvinist understanding of predestination: both are rooted in his understanding of the character of God (see my earlier posts about predestination and the character of God here and here).

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John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 6: the new creation

In the later years of John Wesley’s life, the new creation became a dominant theme in his thinking and writing.  To a large extent, he embraced an integrated view of God’s creation, avoiding the typical spirit vs. matter dualism that so often lies beneath the surface of Western Christian thought.

This meant that Wesley did not treat issues relating to the physical world as unimportant, because all of creation was created good in its very physical reality, and because God’s plan of salvation includes the deliverance of creation (not its destruction, as some believe).

These convictions are reflected in a number of ways, including Wesley’s interesting reflections on the suffering of animals (see Sermon 60) and on the original state of creation before the fall (see Sermon 56, §I.1-14).

But it becomes especially clear as Wesley thinks through issues of eschatology, where it becomes clear what he thinks “the new creation” means – not disembodied souls floating in the clouds, but a new heavens and a new earth.

His sermon bearing the title “The New Creation” makes this clear, as he tries to think cautiously but imaginatively about what the new heavens and the new earth will be like.  For example, he suggests that there will be no more comets (§8), no more hurricanes or destructive storms (§9), no polluted water (§12), no volcanoes (§15), and no animal suffering (§17).

But the climax of his vision of the new creation comes in the closing paragraph, where Wesley discusses the deliverance of human beings to “an unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise.”  He concludes that,

…to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him! (Sermon 64, “The New Creation,” §18)

This category of “new creation,” of course, was not just about the future restoration of all things, but was very important to Wesley’s understanding of salvation itself.  Of course, 1 Cor. 5:17 uses this same big-picture concept of new creation in relation to the salvation of the person – “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”   The problem is that many Christians never see the big picture implied in this verse – that is, that their participation in the new creation is part of the bigger picture of God’s restoration of all creation.  The goal of God’s work of redemption is not to take disembodied souls out of creation, but to bring about a new heavens and a new earth, which includes resurrected and transformed human beings.  Therefore, for human beings, salvation means not only “continual enjoyment of the Three-One God” but also “of all creatures in him!”

This has two obvious implications for mission.

First of all, if our vision of salvation is a physically resurrected humanity, where all physical ailments and infirmities are healed, then meeting physical needs in the present is not irrelevant to the church’s mission.  God obviously values the physical well being of his creatures.  Therefore, our own work of physical healing, and meeting the basic needs of human beings can be an anticipation of God’s own final restoration.  Meeting physical needs can be a witness to the future new creation.  It is not surprising, then, that John Wesley was very interested in physical health and healing, as well as preaching the gospel.

The second implication is that our mission should include care for the created world.  God’s plan of salvation includes the restoration of the earth, as well as the resurrection of human beings.  Humanity was originally created in the context of creation as a whole.  It is not surprising then, that God’s new creation will also put humanity in the context of a transfigured creation, which will include not only a physical earth, but – we have every reason to expect – a new and transformed ecosystem, including and plant and animal life.  Because of this, proper stewardship of the present creation can be a witness to and participation in the new creation which has begun in the resurrection of Jesus.

[If you are interested in looking into this second implication at greater depth, I recommend the new book by Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed.]