Doctrinal Clarity – Catholic spirit: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The seventh reason I am a Methodist is due to the wonderful way Wesley combined doctrinal clarity with a generous, warm-hearted spirit towards other Christians. John Wesley’s reluctance to produce any precise doctrinal formulation for the “people called Methodist,” along with his “catholic spirit” have led many to wrongly conclude that Wesley was indifferent about the core doctrines of historic Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Wesley’s famous dictum taken from 2 Kings 10:15: “If thine heart is as my heart, give me thine hand” as a kind of theological blank check to endorse departures from historic Christianity as long as it is done with a warm heart. However, Wesley was fully orthodox and fully ecumenical in a way which should inspire us today. On the one hand, Wesley was able to embrace considerable diversity among Christians who held different convictions than his on various points. On the other hand, Wesley frequently found himself embroiled in various controversies with Roman Catholics, Anglican bishops, and Calvinist thinkers. He held strong theological convictions and firmly upheld all of the historic Christian confessions. Wesley would have been dismayed at the erosion of orthodoxy in mainline churches due to the increasing embrace of secular ideologies and a post-modern epistemology. Wesley was both ecumenical and orthodox; he held firm convictions and had an irenic spirit and warm heart towards those with whom he disagreed. How was Wesley able to embrace both of these so ably? The key is to understand how Wesley understood theological inquiry.

Wesley makes a firm distinction between the theological unity which is necessary to our identity as Christians while, at the same time, allowing for broad diversity in the non-essentials of the faith. Historically, this has been expressed through the terms kerygma and adiaphora. The word kerygma comes from the Greek word meaning “proclamation.” It refers to the core essentials of the Christian faith as expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as alluded to in the introduction to this series. Wesley stayed firmly committed to the historic core of Christian proclamation. The word adiaphora comes from the Greek word adiaforus, which, as used by the Stoics, meant “things indifferent.” Thus, the adiaphora refers to those differences held by Christians which “are not sufficiently central to warrant continuing division or dispute.”1  In Wesley’s day there was an understanding that Christian belief and practice should conform to the larger national identity. In other words, if someone lived in England, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of England (Anglican). If someone was born in Scotland, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). This meant that Christians in a particular geographic region were compelled to reach agreement not only on the broad essentials of the Christian faith, i.e., the kerygma, but they also had to agree with all the diverse particulars (adiaphora) of whatever national church was in place. However, Wesley forcibly rejected this territorial understanding of Christian identity. In Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, he says,

I know it is commonly supposed, that the place of our birth fixes the Church to which we ought to belong…I was once a zealous maintainer of this; but I find many reasons to abate of this zeal. I fear it is attended with such difficulties as no reasonable man can get over: Not the least of which is, that if this rule had taken place, there could have been no Reformation from Popery; seeing it entirely destroys the right of private judgment, on which the whole Reformation stands.“2

Wesley goes on to argue that Christians should be able to dwell together in harmony even if they disagree about basic convictions such as the forms of church government, the modes of baptism, the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and so forth. However, Wesley makes an important distinction between “catholic spirit” and “latitudinarianism.” The latter refers to those who wish to engage in endless speculation about the essentials of the Gospel or wish to remain indifferent to holding a particular conviction. In contrast, Wesley argues that “a man of truly catholic spirit” does not have the right to set up his or her own form of religion. Rather, a Christian should be “as fixed as the sun in his [or her] judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.”3  He calls on his hearers to “go, first, and learn the first elements of the Gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”4  Wesley’s ecumenism was built on the foundation of a shared theological orthodoxy concerning the historic essentials of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, Methodists seek to take Jesus’ prayer in John 17 very seriously when he prays that we “may be one” just as He and the Father are one (John 17:22).

1 John Westerdale Bowker, The Sacred Neuron (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2005), 120.

2 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, Catholic Spirit, 496.

3 Ibid., 502.

4 Ibid.

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

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.