Practical side of Wesley’s doctrine: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 6

Monday, April 18th, 2011

In the last blog I was exploring a bit about Wesley’s understanding of doctrine.  We have seen that Wesley was deeply committed to historic Christian orthodoxy.  We have also seen that Wesley had a very generous spirit of cooperation and collaboration with Christians with whom we disagreed about matters of indifference.   We are exploring three aspects of Wesley’s doctrinal framework.  The first was “unity and diversity” – the relationship between the kergyma and the adiaphora.  The second feature is the relationship between the experiential and the practical.

Experiential and Practical

It has often been noted that, unlike the earlier 16th century Reformers, Wesley’s theology was not set forth in a sustained, systematic fashion.  Rather, Wesley’s theology is derived from his sermons, short treatises, exegetical notes, journals and many letters of correspondence.  This is because Wesley was rightfully suspicious of a theology which was set forth in isolation from the lived experience of Christians.  At the core of Wesley’s theological method was his fundamental commitment to the experience of Christian conversion and the need to apply theology to the practical challenges of the Christian life and the social needs of the larger society.  Wesley insisted that all his preachers learn his notes to the New Testament so that they would be fully Wesleyan in their theology.  Wesley insisted that his preachers expound his canonical sermons to their congregations as a form of sermonic catechesis!  Wesley was a genius in knowing how to teach doctrine.  It was not done through rote memorization of questions and answers, but lively proclamation of doctrine of living congregations of believers!  Now that is experiential and missional catechesis at its best and Wesley does it better than anyone!  Just because it is theopraxis, don’t begin to think he is indifferent to theology.

Wesley’s emphasis on theopraxis and his reluctance to set forth a Methodist “creed” for those in the movement was not because Wesley was indifferent towards theology or the need for doctrinal clarity.  Wesley understood that faith in Christ is first and foremost a response to God’s saving initiative, as opposed to merely granting mental assent to a certain defined set of dogmatic formulations, however true.  Wesley was a trained theologian and preacher of the gospel long before his famous heartwarming experience at Aldersgate which took place on May 24, 1738.  Wesley’s conversion experience at Aldersgate transformed his preaching and his understanding of the Christian gospel.  Prior to Aldersgate, Wesley saw the gospel as beginning in the mind of the Christian as he or she learned to affirm the truths of the Christian faith.  After Aldersgate, Wesley understood that Christianity begins as a religion of the heart.  Wesley’s post-Aldersgate theology looks for the initiative of God in the life of the believer – namely conversion.  Only then, could one respond to God’s grace through doctrinal or theological positions.  As Wesley scholar Albert Outler has observed, “Christian experience adds nothing to the substance of Christian truth; its distinctive truth is to energize the heart so as to enable the believer to speak and do the truth in love.”[1]

This emphasis on conversion created the basis for a new frontier in how theology could be simultaneously defining and fixed as well as ecumenical and generous.  In Wesley, the emphasis is no longer on whether your brother and sister shares your precise view of baptism, or church government, or views regarding predestination.  The starting point was to first recognize our common experience as those who have been converted by the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is why Wesley added “experience” to the traditional Anglican triad of scripture, tradition and reason, forming the famous Wesleyan quadrilateral.  Wesley’s theology became rooted in the shared evangelical experience.  Wesley encouraged Christians to embrace the theological distinctives of their tradition, but also to embrace people of genuine Christian experience who differed on matters that did not strike at the heart of historic Christian faith.  Wesley said, “The person of a “catholic spirit”… is steadily fixed in his religious principles, in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; … his heart is enlarged toward all mankind…. This is catholic or universal love…. For love alone gives the title to this character-catholic love is a catholic spirit.”[2] The person of “a catholic spirit,” while not being indifferent to “opinions,” does not base Christian love and concern upon agreement in “opinion”.[3] The role of doctrine in Wesleyan catechesis will continue in my next blog entry.

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[1] Albert Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley”  Wesley Center Online, Wesley Center for Applied Theology, http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/16-20/20-01.htm, accessed September, 2008.

[2] Catholic Spirit, p. 503.

[3] Catholic Spirit, p. 493, 495.

Comments

  • Lawson Stone says:

    For the sermons as catechesis, I was preaching some years ago in western Kentucky and a and an elderly gentleman showed me a crudely stitched, leather notebook. Inside were the sermons of a circuit rider from the 1800’s. What was amazing was that there were a couple verbatim transcriptions of sermons by John Wesley, and several more of the standard sermons in outline form. Evidently, the circuit rider saw Wesley’s sermons as a vital part of his repertoire of basic messages. I still have a photocopy of that sermon notebook.

  • Joe Cox says:

    I have appreciated the series so far on the Wesleyan Catechesis. After seminary at ATS, ordination in the UMC, and mucking through the emergent movement, I am still struggling with the idea of the quadrilateral. Don Demeray use to say that Wesley preached a unilateral theology with tradition, experience, and reason always being subordinate to scripture. After reading several of Kenneth Collins books On the scriptural Wesley I am still inclined to agree with Dr Demeray. Will their be some blogging on that subject in this series or following?