Prevenient Grace as the Foundation for Wesleyan Catechesis: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 1 by Timothy C. TennentMarch 29th, 2011
During these days I am reflecting on how Christians are to “make culture” by reconstructing the grand narrative of the gospel. The grand story stretches from creation to fall to covenant to incarnation to resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to church to return of Christ to New Creation. This big narrative of God’s mighty redemptive acts loses its coherence when we only tell bits and pieces of it. In earlier blogs I have explored how the surrounding post-Christian culture has nearly forgotten the grand story completely. However, the greatest tragedy is that the church itself has so fragmented and domesticated the grand story that we are called to rebuild the broken walls almost from scratch.
Yesterday’s blog pointed out that the first step is catechesis (church and home – sometimes called altar and hearth catechesis). I explored some of the major models of catechesis in the history of the church and we are now exploring in more detail the distinctives of Wesleyan catechesis.
Often when Christians begin to think about catechesis they often begin by brainstorming about either what Christians should “do” or “know.” The “do” list would include such spiritual disciplines like prayer and scripture reading. The “know” list would likely include such key doctrines as the two natures of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity or the specifics of the Ten Commandments. It may surprise you but this is NOT where Wesleyan catechesis begins. For Wesley, catechesis begins with Christ himself. For Wesley, spiritual formation and catechesis does not begin with human initiatives to “do” or “know” anything. Rather, catechesis begins with the prior act of God in prevenient grace. For Wesley, all spiritual formation begins with God’s action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). This clearly refers to a drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Thomas Oden puts it well when he says that “the divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will” (Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life, 189).
Wesleyans are often wrongly accused of denying human depravity because of our emphasis on free will. However, Wesleyans believe in total depravity every bit as much as any five point Calvinist. The difference is that Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then serious theological difficulties arise. (Perhaps a future blog post might explore the many theological conundrums which emerge with the loss of the doctrine of free will). Wesleyan thought affirms that God has taken the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive his grace. Many, of course, still resist his will and persist in rebellion against God (Love Wins, yes, but Justice also wins). Wesleyan thought is actually a middle position between a Pelagian view (which makes every person an Adam and admits no sin nature or bondage due to Adams nature) and the Reformed view (which affirms limited atonement). What Wesleyans mean by free will is actually “freed will,” i.e. a will in bondage which has been set free by a free act of God’s grace. It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways, but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind and will to respond to God’s grace.
What does all of this have to do with catechesis? For Wesley, it has everything to do with it, because he believed in waiting upon God “inside the means of Grace” not “outside the means of Grace.” In the next blog I will explore why this is so important to a proper understanding of Wesleyan catechesis.
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