Sunday, February 26, 2012


Yesterday I spun out what an outline of a short, 120ish page overview of Wesleyan theology might look like.  Today I wanted to brainstorm what the outline of the first chapter might look like.  The first chapter is usually introductory.  It gets definitions and presuppositions on the table. It might be a little shorter than the others, say 10-15 pages.

Here are some thoughts.

1.1 What is Wesleyan Theology?
Here I would give some history.  John Wesley was an Anglican minister, founder of the Methodist tradition.  Anglicanism was a kind of middle ground between Roman Catholicism and high Protestantism. So Wesley was influenced by Martin Luther's focus on individual faith and salvation.  He took the position of Arminius that God wanted everyone to be saved and that anyone could be saved, an argument that played out on the ideological turf of John Calvin. But Wesley also valued the sacraments and the authority of the church in a way that looks catholic to many today.

In America, Wesleyanism played out in the 1800's as revivalism.  Wesley himself had emphasized certain experiences of God a believer might have in his or her life, and the American frontier emphasized these, including one in which a person became perfected in love.  There was an emphasis on the necessity of a godly life after conversion with the possibility that you could "lose" your salvation if you did not walk in faithfulness to God. These were all trajectories set by Wesley's theology.

So Wesleyan theology is a form of theology that is orthodox in that it holds to the common creeds of Christianity.  It is Protestant in that it recognizes the fallibility of the visible church and the validity of its critique by Scripture and the founding principles of Christ.  It affirms the primacy of God's grace and the importance of individual faith.  It is Arminian in the sense that it believes anyone can be reconciled to God.

Within these streams, the Wesleyan tradition believes that faithfulness is an essential for continuance in God's grace.  It is optimistic about God's desire to transform us into godly people and to transform the societies of which we are a part.  There is thus an experiential emphasis in the Wesleyan tradition that arguably provided the fertile soil from which the Pentecostal movement later sprung.  

1.2 The Role of Experience
One of the influences on Wesley was his encounter with a group called the Moravians.  They were Pietists who emphasized the possibility of a personal assurance that a person was right with God.  It was quite unusual in those days, especially for Calvinists, to think you could be certain whether you were one of the chosen or not. Wesley himself found the peace they felt about their eternal destiny quite striking, and the idea of assurance was to become one of his major preaching points.

Experientially oriented Christianity has its dangers as well.  We are probably more often than not mistaken about what we feel is right when we don't bring our heads into the equation.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that God wants us to be in relationship with him.  Relationship implies that we have encounters with God.  The model of relationship is an excellent lens through which to explore Wesleyan theology and I would use it throughout any book of this sort.

The wisdom of recognizing the key role of the non-rational has become clear as postmodernism has passed by and brain study has progressed.  The way we think about the world is not the way God thinks about the world.  We do not have all the data nor can we organize it in all its complexity.  History is the story of shifts in paradigms and how we think is much more about the subconscious than conscious mind.

It thus turns out to be insightful to focus on the "heart" over the "head" in theology.  A robust theology cannot merely focus on what we believe with our conscious mind but include the deep person within with its motives and deeper intentionality.

1.3 The Role of Reason 
As a child of the Enlightenment, Wesley's thinking was very rational and Reason played a significant role.  Again, postmodernism has highlighted the centrality of faith in what we believe. Everything we believe about just about everything requires faith.  We must start therefore with faith.

Some streams of Christianity right now are heavily "presuppositional."  There are some things you just don't question.  This was not the spirit of Wesley.  He was more of the mind that the evidence would not blatantly contradict what we believe as Christians.

A fruitful middle ground is the tried and true "faith seeking understanding."  We start with the faith of the church but we recognize that our minds are fallible and limited, and the Protestant principle implies a certain revisability.  The evidence may not demand a verdict, but we wouldn't expect it to blatantly contradict the verdict of faith either.


David Drury said...

This is right on...

Of course it's more of a "history behind the theology"... lots of the backstory emphasized.

But that's important for students of theology, who will need to know "where all this comes from" and will immediately want to know where Wesleyans fit into their typologies.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Man has always sought to understand. The ancients had varous ways of understanding "God"; Fate (providence), and Nature (the Sun, animism, and historical reflection). All of these attempts at understanding "life" is man's attempt at science (observation and experience)....this is what theology is seeking understanding. But, it is no less faith to pursue endeavors of intellectual questions in ANY area of interest!!!

Faith presupposes "God" (as Nature? or as separate from Nature?). Such struggles to understand is man's attempt at explaining "all that is" with religious, as well as scientific, claims....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, what the ancients understood in the observation and experience, they projected upon "God"...such as "God's wrath" in natural disasters.

"God" is only the name that people give to their observations, as well as their cultural reference points. Religious explainations of "all that is" are described as "God". Science is what we investigate and seek to provide evidence and falsification for, which we cannot do when we speak of "God".

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And because we cannot prove or disprove "God", the New Atheists question of what use "God" is, as practically speaking, "God is irrelavant". How things work in the world, is how things work, and that doesn't depend on anyone's understanding of a transcendental realm!

The Church has "used" theology for social conditioning, all the while theology is really philosophy "on stilts" as one New Atheists described.

Ken Schenck said...

Dave, I guess I have found it difficult to describe Wesleyan theology without some sort of comparative locating.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Social conditioning is what parents do for their children, and some academics have understood child development in the terms of a "God" parenting", not by tradition/text, but by nurture, and guidance. Guidance that is not "conforming", or indoctrinating, but geared toward the child's "bent", as when the child "comes of age", then the parent entrusts their child's welfare to his own choice and value. Such parents do not over-intend their "visions" or expectatons upon the child, but accept and applaud their child's curiosity and discovery of their interests....