Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Request Wednesday: Wesley versus Wesleyans

A.J. Thomas suggested I start an "All Request Wednesday" on the blog. His first suggestion was, "Key Ways in Which Wesleyan Theology is No Longer Quite Like Wesley." There are many people out there who know Wesley better than I do, so let me start an answer and then others can chip in.

1. Experiences and Externals
I'm not sure how much of the Wesleyan movement pays much attention to the idea of entire sanctification these days. But even those who do often think of "holiness" a little differently than Wesley did. For example:
  • John Fletcher helped facilitate a change in focus from "perfect love" to the experience of Pentecost. American Christianity arguably came to focus more on holiness as an experience than holiness as love.
  • Phoebe Palmer accentuated this shift in the mid-1800s when she pushed a "shorter way" to sanctification. Wesley didn't really focus on a timing for perfection in love. At times he even talked about it possibly happening close to death. Palmer facilitated an almost immediate expectation that one might have an experience very quickly after conversion.
  • Many holiness people in the twentieth century came to have an exaggerated sense of holiness that was not only about a dramatic experience soon after conversion but whose key characteristic was not love but relatively shallow externals like not wearing jewelry and not going to movies.
  • A lot of Boomers then effectively abandoned the doctrine.
2. Baptistification
In 1983, Martin Marty wrote an article in Christianity Today about how the Baptist tradition has impacted the flavor of so much American Christianity. We can see this in the Wesleyan tradition in several ways. For example:
  • Believer's baptism so dominates the Wesleyan Church that most Wesleyans are surprised that infant baptism is even an option. But Wesley and Methodism has always assumed infant baptism as the norm.
  • In keeping with the shift away from Wesley's Anglican roots, Wesleyans don't generally practice communion as often as he recommended (as often as possible). We lean away from an emphasis on the sacraments altogether and the Wesleyan on the street tends more toward a memorial view, like Baptists tend to have.
  • We tend to be low church altogether. Some Wesleyans, especially those who came from another denomination, may have questions about larger church hierarchy and often lean toward a more congregational view where the local church runs the show, like in Baptist churches.
  • The Pilgrim Holiness Church went dispensational along with many Baptists around the turn of the century. So they would believe in a seven year Tribulation, a pre-trib rapture, etc, just like many Baptists. Wesley himself was post-millennial and wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about.
  • A good deal of the Wesleyan movement went fundamentalist in the mid-twentieth century. Stephen Paine convinced the Wesleyan Methodist Church in the 50s to add the word inerrancy to its Discipline, and some in the Wesleyan Church continue have a relatively Baptistic understanding of the word. Wesley and the nineteenth century holiness took a more "whole Bible" and "principled" approach.
  • The politics of many Wesleyans is indifferentiable from the typical Baptist. By contrast, it's hard to see Wesley being in favor of arming the populace or being against universal health care. Wesley would probably be thought a liberal today in terms of his politics.
  • Some grass roots Wesleyans question women in ministry and are none too keen on anything resembling the civil rights movement. While these issues were somewhat before Wesley's time, Baptistic influence on the Wesleyan Church can be seen in pockets of resistance to this part of our heritage.
  • What shall we say? Are we not more Pelagian than Wesley? Have not a lot of us absorbed the idea that we cannot help but sin? 
Additions? Disagreement?


theajthomas said...

Thanks! This only serves to confirm my growing suspicion that I am more of a John Wesleyan than a holiness movement Wesleyan.

If I may be so bold as to attempt to connect a couple dots here I think that the decline in a belief in sanctification and the rise of a belief that we must always sin is ultimately a reaction to Palmer and her "name it a claim it" approach to sanctification.

I know so many people who have tried her "shorter way" and found it wanting and so they have jettisoned the whole idea of heart holiness and embraced, at best, a notion of very slow and gradual change or at worst an "it's all under the blood so who cares" approach. Surprisingly they didn't go from hearing about sanctification for the first time to experiencing it in the 30 minutes allotted.

I also think there was a generation who met Palmer at the altar and declared themselves sanctified and embraced some of the externals you mentioned but then when on to live with all manner or sin in their hearts - pride, envy, judgmental-ism, etc. Lots of the folks in the next generation sniffed out that superficiality from a mile away and basically said - it that's what sanctification does for you then who needs it and so, knowingly or not, embraced less grandiose pop-Calvinist views.

All that to say I wonder if we do want to see a resurgence of emphasis on holiness we will need to take our historical cues more from Wesley and the methods of his Methodism then from Palmer and her "one and done" approach.

Ken Schenck said...

I suppose I should follow up this post sometime with something like, "Where I think Wesley got it wrong." I do enjoy the freedom to disagree with Wesley as more of a grandchild or great grandchild. :-) Having said that, if many Wesleyan Boomers did a kind of "scorched earth" move with their holiness heritage, Wesleyans under 40 are very open to a revival of eighteenth and nineteenth century Wesleyanism. The Boomers think they are liberal but they are actually radical in the sense of going back to the roots, I think.

theajthomas said...

I'm not saying that Wesley was 100% right on everything but if the SS Holiness was sinking and Wesley was at the helm of one life boat and Palmer was running the other I know who's boat I would want to jump into.

And I would love to see that follow up post. I'd also love to see one on where you think contemporary Wesleyanism get's it wrong but alas - there are only so many Wednesdays...

Ken Schenck said...

I'm sure I would join you. :-) I did tweet recently that I want to look at Wesley to move forward rather than to move backward. I probably would want to find a synthesis of the best of Wesley (but who decides) and a critically filtered American Wesleyanism. My critique of most Wesleyans is that they don't even realize the degree to which they are really Baptists. As a Canadian, you see our cultural blindness better than we do, IMO.

John Mark said...

My experience, being raised on 'shorter way' theology, was that I failed pretty often because I was simply immature. I was taught to believe for the experience, and when I disappointed myself, I would and did, sadly, just give up. I think one of our failures was that we didn't emphasize and teach discipleship, and the necessity of growth in grace both before and after a time of entire consecration. I'm old enough to seem some value in the atmosphere in which I was raised; I fear at times that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. There may have been some value in knowing it would cost you something to become part of a 'holiness' church. Another component in our drift, if you want to use the term, is that we were led into cultural fundamentalism by a some of the media kings (Keith Drury has written about this, as you well know) who were reacting to the leftward shift in popular culture, and in government, etc. I don't think Dobson was wrong on everything, even though he was an alarmist. In fact, on some issues, I think he was right on. But he did promote some things that Wiley wouldn't have taught or believed.

John Mark said...

My problem, as a pastor, is that I have a some people in my church who--they are too kind to actually say this plainly--don't think I preach 'holiness.' I can no longer preacher the shorter way, because it did not work for me. I think I do preach Wesleyanism, as best I understand it, with the help of many good teachers, such as Drury, Kinlaw, and Oswalt. And Dallas Willard, who said that 'Plain Account' was the best you could read on ES. You have been a help to me as well, in broadening my horizons in many ways. My personal struggles with discipline, depression, to mention a couple of weaknesses, make it impossible for me to really hammer out an Acts 2 kind of theology and call people to believe for it. I think I am pretty good at calling men and women to the pursuit of Mark 12: 30-31, or the theology of I John (another place where some things I have learned from you have been helpful.

Ken Schenck said...

A Wesleyan pastor recently asked when our denomination had shifted from a focus on holiness to a focus on love. The irony of the question was staggering. Holiness seemed to be understood as "don'ts" and to be quite distinguishable from love, as Wesley understood it.

theajthomas said...

There was a time not that long ago when the unspoken goal of most Canadian Wesleyans was to be just like our American Evangelical counterparts. We quoted American stats and said "it's basically the same in Canada." We brought in almost exclusively American speakers to our big events. The only examples of "church done right" that we looked at were in the States. And in some corners we even tried to create our own Canadianized brand of American style civil religion.

I think that time has generally passed although there are likely a few in the old guard who still hold to it. The younger generation of Canadian Wesleyans (and Canadian christians in general) see the contrasts between American Christianity and the historic faith pretty sharply and it doesn't take more than a few minutes in a conversation about social engagement, church growth, or even apologetics for those distinctions to be articulated.

Somewhat ironically though I think it was not a change started in the Canadian Church but a rise in the general culture of Canada, led primarily by our comedians, that I think ultimately led to this. Canadians began to take more pride in our own identity and stopped thinking of ourselves as "Diet America." We began to be fiercely and maybe even sometimes unfairly critical of American culture and to be honest, Americans themselves. As that was happening in the broader culture we in the church started to think more critically about the influence American Evangelicalism was having on us.

Ultimately I think this shift has been a very healthy thing for the church in Canada and I'm hoping that the creation of the Canadian Established Conference this summer will allow us to lean into that dynamic even more.