Sunday, September 03, 2017

Wesleyans Among the Protestants 1

October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I'm celebrating it in three ways on this blog:
  • The IWU Monday reading group will be going through Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea, which gives a sketch of the Protestant Reformation.
  • I plan to read through the Book of Concord, which is a comprehensive collection of Lutheran confessions.
  • I plan to blog on Sunday's an engagement with the Reformation from my Wesleyan perspective (not the Wesleyan Church's perspective, but a Wesleyan perspective). This post begins this third goal.
1. A tradition is like a family. Not everyone in the family looks exactly alike. Over time, with intermarriage with other families, new features emerge that do not look at all like our ancestors. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren have minds of their own. Sometimes things that were very important to us are discarded without a thought by our descendants.

In that sense, the Wesleyan tradition--or any tradition--is not bound by John Wesley. Certainly if some Wesleyan group were to diverge so far from Wesley that it held none of his characteristic beliefs or practices in common with him, we could wonder why they still used the name. Nevertheless, it would still be their right, for what a word means today is a matter of what it means today--not what it meant two hundred and fifty years ago.

The American branch of Wesleyanism has inevitably been affected dramatically by its context. America was Frontier country and Baptist country. Even the United Methodist church, which officially still baptizes infants and holds more closely to John Wesley's theology, has many a Methodist Baptist in its pews. In the democratic spirit of America, many people freely move from church to church, providing a good cross-fertilization of tradition.

2. So what is the Wesleyan tradition? What is distinctive about it over and against other traditions? We should keep in mind the possibility that over time what was once unique has disappeared. We should also keep in mind that, if we are truly Protestants, we are certainly free to reinvent ourselves in accordance to what we believe is truest to Scripture. Some Protestants have taken the protest further, feeling free to reinvent themselves in accordance to what they believe is true.

It may very well be that, for some, what makes them Wesleyan is primarily historical. That is to say, if you trace the story of an organization back in time, it goes back in some way to John Wesley. Others may come from the outside yet discover something about the beliefs and practices of the man that they find attractive. They may feel enough of an affinity for the tradition that they feel that the label fits.

Again, that tradition is living. It is not merely about the man himself. It is about the Methodists and Wesleyans and Nazarenes and Free Methodists and scores of other little groups that have related in some way to the family. My friend Keith Drury likes to say that The Wesleyan Church is something more like the great grandchild of the man than the child or even grandchild.

So one is either Wesleyan historically or ideologically in some way. We will leave it at that for now.

3. Wesley was a Protestant. He was a Protestant in two ways. He was a Protestant historically. He was a Protestant because he was an Anglican of the eighteenth century, and the Anglican Church of the 1700s was Protestant.

We will discuss soon enough the idea that the Anglican Church was a "via media" or "middle way" between Roman Catholicism and what I call the "high" Protestantism of Luther and Calvin. For example, the Wesleyan tradition is not bound to the same understanding of the "solas" that Lutherans and the Reformed have (i.e., grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, glory to God alone). The Anglican Church was born on a different path, one that retained more of catholicism than the Lutherans and Calvinists did.

Wesley was also a Protestant ultimately because he rejected the Catholic church of his day. [1] He called himself a "man of one book," and implicitly took his side with Luther on that issue. [2] Nevertheless, to America's Baptistified version of Wesleyanism today, much of his thinking will seem quite catholic to some.

4. It is often said that Wesley was an eclectic thinker. I personally like to think of this trait as a family characteristic. I believe that Wesleyan thought can be systematized, but its flavor is more focused on practice than theology. Wesley is often considered to be one of the original "evangelicals" in both his focus on evangelism and social justice.

So Wesley's thinking was a mixture. The recipe started with a common catholic foundation as filtered through Anglicanism. Then there was Luther's idea of justification by faith filtered through his Pietist encounters. Then there was Calvin--a lot of Calvin--but with an Arminian twist. Finally, there was England and the rise of the Enlightenment. There was individualism. There was the worth of the everyday individual.

This was the making of Wesleyan theology.

Next Week: The Anglican Via Media

[1] He could be quite vitriolic in relation to the Pope of his day.

[2] In the Preface to Wesley's sermons. However, given that this expression may go back to Aquinas, it counts less for Wesley's Protestantism than one might think at first.

1 comment:

John Mark said...

Ken, I wrote you a fairly lengthy comment. Thinking it through, I boiled it down: I think many young college and seminary grads today leave school and find themselves in churches which are downright hostile to them. Or that is how they feel, at least. Some congregations, right or wrong, are concerned (yes, it is an old dilemma) with what AMH/Wesleyan schools are ‘producing’ these days. I believe this disconnect is greater than it has ever been, at least in some regions or areas. As I read your first post I found myself wondering if you will say anything more about our current social/moral/political context in relation to the future of American Wesleyans.