So the week comes to an end, a week of meanderings largely on developments in Pauline scholarship relative the doctrines of the Reformation. I've dialoged enough here over time on sola scriptura, prima scriptura, etc. that perhaps I need not say much on that topic.
1. Because the books of the Bible were written to multiple ancient contexts, they were not written directly to any of us. To apply the words directly to ourselves without further ado is thus to rip them from their contexts and falsely and dangerously apply them. We are just as likely to distort God's voice by doing this than to hear it.
That means, however, that reasoning is involved with the correct appropriation of Scripture--reasoning beyond Scripture.
2. Because the varied books of Scripture were themselves written to diverse contexts, we must synthesize and integrate their teachings before we can even say "the Bible" says such and such. This again involves a process of prioritizing and connecting that we are forced to do outside the Bible, beyond the Bible, extra scripturam. It involves reasoning.
3. My arguments this week have shown that I believe a good deal of what we think we get from the Bible in fact comes from Christian tradition. This is surely not all bad. Indeed, I believe that close scrutiny shows that Luther did not really get all the way back to the Bible in his pruning of tradition. Instead, he basically pruned off traditions from about 500 on.
Many of the key, even essential beliefs of Christendom--the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, the contours of the canon--took on their quasi-current form in the 300's and 400's. The contours of the canon are particularly poignant. The same drive that allowed Luther to resist the book of James also led him to remove the Apocrypha completely from the canon. They had been in use up to his day at least as deuterocanonical, even if they may not have had as full a status as what we would consider the protocanonical books.
In any case, the Bible alone cannot by its very nature cannot identify the limits of what should be in the Bible.
So both in the nature of language in relation to context, given the contexts of the books of the Bible and our different context, and in the very question of what the contours of the canon are, the Bible alone is insufficient to provide us either with a stable meaning for today or a stable set of words on which to base that meaning. The so called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is thus a far sounder hermeneutic. It is, however, more of a trilateral in reality. There are the biblical texts, there is the history of interpretation of those texts by the church, and there is contemporary experience. Reasoning is necessary to process all of these. It is the roundhouse through which all the trains of meaning inevitably pass, whether we like it or not.
But all that is passe stuff I have written often before. I can't see how any of it is even debatable, really. What is more difficult is to identify what Wesleyan theology even is in the first place.
When I ask myself, what was distinctive about John Wesley in his own day, I think of things like 1) the idea of prevenient grace, 2) the idea of the assurance of salvation, 3) his ordo salutis, which was characteristic both in its "methodist" character and particularly in relation to 4) the doctrine of Christian perfection that was a part of it (as also prevenient grace). But the Wesleyan tradition has not been static, even if some of its wandering has been unconscious movement.
So most Wesleyans, as most Baptists and others, have become semi-Pelagian to believe--or at least to operate as if--we have free will apart from some miraculous intervention of God. I'm not convinced it should be called semi-Pelagian, but the current Wesleyan (broad) sense of prevenient grace differs from Wesley's somewhat in that we tend to think of prevenient grace as the grace that makes it possible for us to choose God at any time. Wesley of course thought the opportunity only came on God's time.
Russ Gunsalus had a good "light" metaphor for the current way of thinking, extending my previous metaphors. If for the Calvinist, God turns the switch of salvation on or leaves it off, if for Wesley it was more like a dimmer switch that God at some point turns up enough for us to say we want more light, Russ suggested that the current understanding of prevenient grace is of a switch that God has wired to be hot so that we can throw the switch at any time. In other words, it is prevenient grace that makes the throwing of the switch possible, but we are empowered to throw it at any time. This prevailing understanding is different from Wesley's.
The doctrine of assurance is no longer distinctive. Most believe we can know now whether we are on the way to heaven or not. In fact, I believe the idea of eternal security is a variation on the original Calvinist "perseverence of the saints" in the sense that it brings assurance into the equation. Before, a Puritan didn't know if s/he was saved until s/he made it. But with assurance now, if you know you are saved now and those who are saved will persevere, then once you are saved you know you are going to be saved. It is a kind of one point Calvinism without the logical basis!
My sense is also that most Wesleyans have become very tentative about Christian perfection as an instantaneous experience. Here let me suggest that the following components of Wesley's soteriology remain essential Wesleyanism:
1. The importance of imparted righteousness in the life of the believer. In other words, Wesleyans in the broad sense continue to emphasize the need for victory over sin and the power of God to make it possible.
2. The possibility of losing one's assured salvation. Wesleyans continue to have a sense of sin as a matter of a relationship with God, a relationship that can be offended, broken, and even restored again.
3. Although you don't hear much preaching on sin natures and such these days, Wesleyans would continue to preach the need for entire consecration of oneself to God. And along with this, I think most Wesleyans would still agree that you can not only win over temptation, but you can like it. In other words, that you can be oriented toward doing the right thing rather than sinning.
Beyond soteriology, let me also add that
4. The Wesleyan tradition has increasingly seized on Wesley's method of using Scripture, summarized by Albert Outler as Wesley's Quadrilateral. This is a keeper. Wesley wouldn't have put it quite this way, but we can see him more objectively now than he could have in his day and categories.
This may seem like a watered down list of Wesley-an characteristics. As others have posed, it is a legitimate question as to whether we can even speak of an essence of Wesleyan theology without referencing Calvin and Augustine, to where Wesley's theology is a tweak rather than a free-standing theology. This suggestion bugs me. Chris Bounds also pointed out to me yesterday that my descriptions of Paul might actually be closer to the Eastern Orthodox tradition than to Wesley himself, which also bugs me.
So how might we describe a Wesley-an theology that is systematic in its own right today, not as a variation on Calvinism? I wonder if one direction such a theology might take is a somewhat pragmatist turn, one that fits with the death of conventional metaphysics. Wesleyan theology seems well suited in flavor to make certain theological statements that are in potential tension with each other but which we do not logically try to resolve, assuming the resolution of the tensions is in God.
1. God offers the opportunity of faith to all persons.
2. Those who have faith are elect of God, predestined by Him.
3. The default state of all humans is one of separation from God and the end thereof is death in the dual sense.
4. God's justification of those with faith is gracious and not by any obligation on His part.
5. Reconciliation with God is only possible on the basis of the atoning death of Christ.
6. God empowers those in Christ and thus expects fulfillment of his core ("moral") law thereafter.
7. Continued willful sin after adoption as God's child endangers one's relationship with God and can break it if one wrongs God enough.
8. Final justification will be based on the status of one's relationship with God on the Day of Judgment.
These bald affirmations raise all sorts of other questions, questions that have spawned the "mythologies" of various Christian traditions about natures and such. But it seems particularly appropriate in a postmodern age--and quite amenable to Wesley's practical nature--to leave the gaps.