Posts Tagged ‘John Wesley

06
Nov
15

Why Wesleyans shouldn’t frame salvation as a “choice”

From The Works of John Fletcher, vol II. 2nd American Edition. New York: John Wilson and Daniel Witt, 1809

In the endless discussions and debates between Calvinism and Wesleyanism, it is quite common for people on both sides to frame the Wesleyan position in terms of human choice. That is, people often say that Calvinists believe God determines who is saved, whereas Wesleyans believe God allows us to “choose” our salvation.  However, I don’t think this is a good way of stating the Wesleyan-Arminian position.

When we frame salvation as a “choice” we are leaving too much up to the human person; it is an anthropocentric way of discussing salvation. And it is not the way that Wesleyan theologians primarily frame the issue. You will not find John Wesley, for example, talking about salvation in terms of a human choice. What you will find is John Wesley talking about salvation being granted to all who repent and have faith in Christ; but repentance and faith are always framed as a response to God’s gracious calling and drawing of the sinner to himself. It is not that there is no choice involved at all, but that the word “choice” doesn’t begin to do justice to what takes place in new birth and justification.  Faith is primarily a response to God’s prior, gracious action, and the response is to submit and surrender to the Lordship of Christ, which is to confess our own utter sinfulness and helplessness, and accept that our salvation is found in Christ alone. It’s not that we have the power in and of ourselves to “choose God.” Rather, since Wesleyans believe grace is resistible, we have a “negative” power to resist God’s work in our lives, but a positive response is better discussed as a “yielding” to grace, rather than a “choice” of faith.

In that case, there is more common ground between Calvinists and Wesleyans here than is often presupposed. Both sides teach that people come to faith by God’s gracious work; Calvinists teach that it is God’s grace that brings us to faith and that it always does so effectively for those whom God has chosen; Wesleyans say God’s grace brings us to faith, only that such grace is actively working in all, and that it is resistible. As Wesley states it in his sermon “Salvation by Faith,” §III.3, “That ye believe, is one instance of his grace; that, believing, ye are saved, another.”  Again, I don’t think the language of “choice” does justice to this view of salvation.

Wesley's Notes on Romans 8:29

The same could be said of framing the Wesleyan position around “free will.” When we say “free will” most people assume we are talking about an innate, “natural” human freedom to “choose salvation.” Wesley did not believe that fallen humans were free to respond to God in faith without the working of divine grace. The reason to point this out is because it is a point on which Wesleyans and Calvinists agree. The difference, again, is that Calvinists believe salvation by grace is only available to the elect, who are irresistibly drawn to faith, whereas Wesleyans believe prevenient grace is working in all to draw them to Christ, providing a measure of freedom (not total freedom of the will) sufficient to enable a response to God’s offer of salvation. Grace is “free in all” and “free for all” from a Wesleyan viewpoint, but it is always resistible. So, if Wesleyans want to talk about human freedom, I think it’s best to emphasize that we are “freed by grace” to respond, rather than to assert that we have free will.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs there, but these distinctions are important, because the way the debate is often framed on the popular level exaggerates the differences and obscures the common ground.  I should also note that my own perspective is one that has been deeply shaped by engagement with other Christian traditions; so even though I am a Wesleyan, I am trying to state the Wesleyan position in a way which is responsive to the critiques of Reformed theologians (even though I also happen to believe what I am saying accords very well with what John Wesley himself taught).

10
Mar
15

A response to a Calvinist brother on predestination

NOTE: this post is in response to a lengthy comment from Jeff Kreisel on my previous post, “John Wesley on Predestination.”  See Jeff’s comment here.

*****

Jeff,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my post. I apologize for my slow reply.  I have been swamped the past few weeks with work, and didn’t want to reply too hastily to your comment.

I would also encourage others to read Whitefield’s response, and if they are serious about the debate, to study it in context.  Wesley’s Sermon, “Free Grace” is not one of his better theological writings.  It is very polemical and not as organized as it might have been.  A calmer and clearer statement of his views is found in the Sermon 58, “On Predestination.” A longer treatment of the subject is found in Predestination Calmly Considered. I don’t expect these writings will change your mind, but it is always good to engage with an opposing argument on its best terms.

I can’t respond to all that you’ve said, but let me offer a few thoughts and clarifications.

First, Wesley’s position was certainly not based on mere emotion; perhaps some Wesleyans base their theology on emotion, but I suspect that the same is true of people in every theological camp. Wesley’s view was based on scripture first and foremost, interpreting scripture by scripture in light of the whole “analogy of faith” (the overall biblical message).  It’s not that Wesley simply “felt” Calvinism presented God as unfair; rather, he believed the central message of Scripture is that God is love, as revealed in the gospel of Christ. You may disagree with his interpretations of scripture, but you can’t accuse him of not taking scripture seriously.

5952670-MRe: Calvinism and total depravity – there are some differences, to be sure. Some Wesleyans don’t use the term “total depravity,” though I think it can be applied to Wesley’s view.  My main point is that Wesley agrees with the Reformed tradition that unregenerate humanity is completely helpless and unable to save themselves. Without the grace of God we can only “add sin to sin.”  In our own power, we are not capable of not sinning. Wesley is quite clear on these matters.

One area of difference, however, relates to Wesley’s view of original sin and imputed guilt.  Wesley wholeheartedly affirms that all people are born totally corrupted at birth, and inclined to sin, such that they are not able to turn to God in their own power, as just noted above. He does not support, however, the idea that infants are counted guilty for Adam’s sin.  We are counted guilty for our own sins, which we will inevitably commit because of our inherited corruption. Therefore all are guilty, with the exception of infants and small children who have not reached an age at which they can be held accountable for their actions (though they are still totally corrupted).

Now, in relation to your charge that Wesley is inconsistent, and the question of those who do not have access to the gospel (these two issues are related): Wesley acknowledges that some people (such as himself) have significant advantages in that they have been raised in a Christian environment and have many opportunities to respond to the gospel. That is why he leaves such cases (those who have never heard the gospel) up to the judgment and mercy of God, and believes God will judge them according to the light they have received. And he would make such a case precisely on the basis of God’s justice and love for all. Those who have never heard the gospel would not be damned for rejecting the gospel, since they have never had opportunity to do so; therefore we are not sure how they might be judged, but we leave it in God’s hands. This is not grossly unbiblical, as you charge.  First, he is not saying that they will be saved apart from Christ or Christ’s work on the cross; Wesley was well aware of John 14:6. Rather he is saying that they will be saved by Christ, though they have not known Christ by name in this life (but have responded to the grace that was available to them). Second, in the sermon I noted, he explicitly appeals to Acts 10:34-35 as a scriptural example. We might also note the “holy pagans” or “pagan saints” of the OT as examples of God being mysteriously at work outside the visible bounds of the church (Rahab, Jethro, etc.).

Calvinists such as yourself say that it would be a “failure” of God’s grace if he was to draw someone to himself and yet leave them with the ability to resist God’s grace. We simply have a different understanding of divine and human action; it does not “take away” from God’s agency if human persons are able to resist grace. We cannot compete with God’s agency; this isn’t a tug-of-war.  We can only respond to God because he is at work within us; that means our response is not “work” on our part; and yet because God is at work within us we can respond.  Grace is enabling and transformative by its very nature. In much of this we agree; however, Wesleyans believe that God’s grace enables a genuine human response, which would not be possible if such grace were irresistible. This is the heart of the matter I referred to in my previous point: a sovereignty understood in a monarchist sense, or a sovereignty understood in terms of a loving Parent. It’s not a “failure” because this is God’s purpose – to save those who yield to his gracious work in their lives. God has freely chosen to work in this way with his human creatures, because it accords with his loving and just nature.

Finally, you say that Wesley asserts that every human is a child of God. Perhaps I was sloppy in my own language explaining Wesley’s position. Normally, he only uses the term “child of God” for believers. Indeed, it is a hallmark of his teaching that all Christians should have the assurance of salvation through the Spirit’s witness to their adoption as sons.  He is quite clear that this is the privilege of believers – to know that they are in fact God’s children.  I do not recall, off-hand, if he refers to all people as children of God; there is a sense in which this is the case, since God is the Father of all that lives. And if Wesley ever says something along those lines, I’m sure that is what he meant (simply that God is creator of all and therefore “Father” to all in that sense).  Do you have a reference to Wesley calling all humans children of God?

Perhaps your point is simply that if only believers are properly called children of God, then God’s loving character as Father does not apply to non-believers?  My point in stressing the “Parental” character of God is not to say that therefore all are in God’s Parental favour; it is, rather, simply a point about God’s own character and the way he exercises his sovereignty. The distinction between the “sovereignty of a king” and “sovereignty of a parent” should not be stressed too far, however. I’m not talking about absolute distinctions but differing emphases; Calvinists certainly draw upon parental analogies for God, and Wesleyans certainly draw on monarchist analogies.  But each tends to favour one or the other.

I’m sure I haven’t changed your mind, Jeff; you certainly haven’t changed mine. But I hope these comments clarify some of Wesley’s ideas.

Yours in Christ,

James

19
Dec
13

Sixth Annual Wesley Studies Symposium at Tyndale Seminary

Registration is now open for Tyndale’s annual Wesley Studies Symposium, taking place on March 25 at Tyndale’s new Bayview Campus.

haykin_lg_sqThis year, in honour of the 300th anniversary of George Whitefield’s birth, we’ll be welcoming Dr. Michael Haykin as our keynote speaker.  I am very pleased that this distinguished Baptist historian has agreed to come and make a presentation to our symposium. His talk is titled, ““The Revived Puritan”: The Life and Piety of George Whitefield.”

Here is a bit more from our event page:

2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth George Whitefield, friend, partner-in-ministry, and sometimes theological enemy of John Wesley. Because the lives of these two men are so intricately intertwined with one another, we are going to feature a paper on Whitefield as our keynote address at the Wesley Symposium.

Dr. Michael Haykin is a leading Baptist historian, who has published on a wide variety of topics, from the Church Fathers to Jonathan Edwards. He studied at the University of Toronto, where he earned a BA at Victoria College, and an MRel and ThD in church history from Wycliffe College. In addition to his position at Southern Seminary he is Director of the Andrew Fuller Centre for Baptist Studies, and an Adjunct Professor at the Toronto Baptist Seminary, where he previously served as President. His many books include Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival (Evangelical Press, 2005); The God who draws near: An introduction to biblical spirituality (Evangelical Press, 2007); and Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011).

bayview-campus-frontOther speakers for this year’s event include Dr. Claire MacMillan (National Director, Church of the Nazarene, Canada) Rev. Leonard Chester (Archivist of the Brethren in Christ Church, Canada), Rev. Dan Sheffield (Director of Global and Intercultural Ministries, Free Methodist Church in Canada), Rev. Michael Tapper (PhD Candidate, St. Paul University), Rebecca Nicol (PhD Candidate, McMaster Divinity College), and Rev. Dale Harris (Pastor, The Freeway Free Methodist Church, Oshawa).  You can find more information about the paper topics here.  We will also have a book panel on Lift Up a Standard: The Life and Legacy of Ralph Horner, including presentations from myself and Dr. James Robertson, and responses from authors Rev. Laurence Croswell and Mark Croswell.

Visit this page to find more information and to register.

29
Oct
13

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).

28
Mar
13

Mystical and Missional: Elaine Heath on Phoebe Palmer

Heath Naked Faith the Mystical Theology of Phoebe PalmerI’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Elaine Heath’s Naked Faith: the Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer (Eugene OR: Pickwick, 2009).  Palmer had a massive influence in Wesleyan circles and beyond in the nineteenth century, but, as Heath notes, she has been largely forgotten or marginalized – even within her own tradition.   She certainly hasn’t been taken seriously as a theologian, though Thomas Oden sounded an enthusiastic call for the retrieval of her voice in his introduction to the collection of her writings he edited for publication (Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist, 1988)).  John Farina, general editor of the series “Sources of American Spirituality,” of which the Oden volume was a part, briefly located Palmer in “that great mystical stream that runs like a golden river down through the ages” in his general introduction to the book, noting especially the interest in Catherine of Genoa in Palmer’s circles.  Heath has taken up this idea and written a book that attempts to both offer an interpretation of Palmer’s thought as an expression of mystical theology, and to hold out “Saint Phoebe” as a guide for the renewal of contemporary Methodism.

Palmer, for her part, would have resisted the “mystical” label, but Heath shows, through a discussion of the mystical tradition, that Palmer’s resistance was really to the antinomian perversions of the mystical tradition which she encountered (35ff).  Heath identifies mysticism as “the radically transformative experience of the Divine that is described by the great Christian mystics and saints throughout the ages” (41).  She also notes that genuine Christian mysticism will be Trinitarian, ecclesial, and transformational (42).

While a great deal could be said about the reception of mysticism in Protestant circles, and the degree to which John Wesley himself embraced some aspects of mystical theology at various points in his life (Heath deals with these issues), I was particularly taken by the way in which she connected mysticism with Christian mission.

Phoebe PalmerFor Palmer, the primary way this was expressed was in her own calling to a ministry of preaching and teaching, which followed immediately upon her “day of days” experience of sanctification.  Her profound mystical experience, then, became the source of an unprecedented (for a woman) ministry which had massive influence on the history of the Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions.  Even those experiences of “union” with God that make some Protestants nervous, Heath contends, impel the mystic to service, rather than retreat from the world (as many suppose):

“The fruit of unitive experiences is a powerful desire in the mystic to help all people experience salvation and sanctification.  This desire partly originates in visions of the mysic being made one with the Trinity, whose goal in the church is to seek and to save the lost. Thus the life of the mystic increasingly becomes one of humble service in the world” (59).

Heath also carefully distinguishes problematic mystical “Quietism” from a healthy sense of “quiet,” an active passivity that bears fruit in missional activity:

“The result of true mystical passivity is an increase of strength and spiritual energy, an increase of love for God and neighbour so that the individual is increasingly alive to God in the community and world as the process of passivity progresses” (75).

Interestingly, in some other reading I recently found Henri Nouwen making a similar claim: “Mysticism is the opposite of withdrawal from the world. Intimate union with God leads to the most creative involvement in the contemporary world” (The Genesee Diary155).

Heath’s work seems to break new ground on several fronts: a sustained interpretation of Palmer as a mystical theologian, a retrieval of her theology by distinguishing it from the ways in which it was distorted by her later followers, and a contribution to research into the mystical aspect of Wesleyan spirituality – and I could go on.

Phoebe Palmer via cyberhymnalI think it is particularly important as a contribution to contemporary discussions of the “missional” character of the church.  I’ve sometimes worried in the past that some strands of missional thinking are anti-ecclesial, and create a false dichotomy between the church’s inner life (thinking here in terms of spirituality) and its mission.  In other words, the church is not only sent into the world, but also gathered together, and it is in the gathering that we are centred on the particular identity of the God of the gospel, who then sends us out.   Heath’s work on mysticism and mission helps to bridge this perceived gap between “inner” life its fruit in “outward” activity.  There is a strong connection between the arguments in this book and the account of the new monasticism in Longing for Spring, which Heath co-wrote with Scott Kisker (see my review here).  I still need to do some further reading of my own on mystical spirituality, as it is not an area with which I’m familiar, but my initial reaction to Heath’s work on Palmer is to give it a hearty endorsement.   Next on my list is her 2008 book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism.

24
Jan
13

Fifth Annual Wesley Studies Symposium at Tyndale Seminary

Richard Watson via wikimedia commonsOnce again this year Tyndale Seminary is hosting a Wesley Studies Symposium.   This symposium aims not only to promote Wesleyan scholarship in the Canadian context, but also to help build a network of people interested in Wesleyan theology and history.

Although this is an academic event, we purposely blur the lines a bit between scholarship and ministry, in part because it is thoroughly Wesleyan to integrate theology and practice.  So we typically have a nice mix of academics, graduate students, and practitioners in attendance.

The Symposium is scheduled for Tuesday March 12, and we have another interesting lineup of papers covering a range of topics and disciplines.   The papers to be presented this year are:

  • “Rediscovering Discipleship as a Pathway to Ekklesial Reformation – Wesley did!!” by Cliff Fletcher (Pastor, Whitby FMC / DMin graduate, Gordon-Conwell).
  • “The Importance of Richard Watson’s Theological Institutes for Methodist History,” by Barry Hamilton (Northeastern Seminary).
  • “Leading with the Ear: The Church as a Listening Community,” by Aaron Perry (Pastor, Centennial Road Standard Church / PhD Candidate, Regent University).
  • “The Character of God Revealed by The Incarnate Word in the Theology of John Wesley,” by Niven Harrichand (ThM graduate, Tyndale).
  • A Book Panel on Witnesses of Perfect Love: Narratives of Christian Perfection in Early Methodism, by Amy Caswell [Panelists TBA]

After dinner we will have a guest lecture by Donald E. Burke (President, Booth University College, Winnipeg) on “Salvation for Both Worlds: Contours of a Wesleyan/Biblical Social Theology.”

Registration is free, and you can sign up here. Please spread the word about this event among those who might be interested.

14
Dec
12

Distinguishing Wesleyan and Fundamentalist approaches to Scripture

Al Truesdale, a Nazarene theologian, has posted an interesting article on “Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists” over at Holiness Today (ht Kevin Jackson).

Some excerpts:

God himself, not information about him, is the primary content of revelation. God manifests himself, his person, his “Name,” and his will in all the earth. He reveals his “glory” as Creator and Savior, the proper end of which is our worship of and obedience to him. God declares his Name particularly by creating a people who, in covenant with him, will bear redeemed witness to his holiness, his love, his Kingship, and his faithfulness. The Bible uniquely and definitively tells the story of God’s self-disclosure and of humankind’s response. But not everything in the Bible is essential to God’s self-disclosure.

For Wesleyans, knowing the truth is primarily a matter of knowing God, of being transformed and gifted by him, and of being placed in his kingdom service. Thinking of knowing the truth as principally a matter of assent to a body of divine knowledge or propositions strikes Wesleyans as once-removed from knowing him who is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

It’s worth a read.  Although Wesleyans have never taken a fundamentalist approach to scripture, I find that on the popular level it has infiltrated many of our churches.




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