Soundings

Methodism: ‘Religion of the heart’

Aug 2010    

SOCIAL HOLINESS

“For Wesley, the true Christian “knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness”.”

METHODISM IS ASSOCIATED WITH JOHN AND CHARLES WESLEY, sons of an Anglican rector and his wife, Susannah. Together at Oxford, the Wesley brothers formed the Holy Club (ca 1725), and gathered around them students who were concerned with “inward religion, the religion of the heart”.

The rigour with which they applied themselves to the discipline of study and religious duties earned this small band the name “Methodists” from their critics in 1729. In 1735, John Wesley journeyed to America and served as a missionary, but returned to England three years later having failed to achieve what he set out to do. is major setback and the torturous and mostly unsuccessful struggle to achieve “inward holiness” continued to plague John Wesley.

On May 24, 1738, John Wesley unwillingly attended a Bible study meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, where he heard a layman read and expound Luther’s commentary on Romans. He had a strange experience, which he later described thus: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.

I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He has taken my sins.”

This event proved pivotal in the life of John Wesley, and was the catalyst for what may be described as the Wesleyan revivals in England and America that gave birth to the Methodist Church.

From England, Methodism spread to America in the 1760s and flourished after the arrival of Francis Asbury in 1771.

The following century saw Methodism spreading to Africa, China, Australia and Asia. The founding of e Methodist Church in Singapore is marked by the arrival of James M. oburn and William F. Oldham on Feb 7, 1885 from Calcutta. After 125 years, The Methodist Church in Singapore has about 38,000 members, 44 local churches, 15 schools and 13 social service units in Singapore.

The theological heritage of the Methodist Church can be traced to its founder, John Wesley (1703-91). Although Wesley was primarily a preacher, teacher and organiser, and not strictly speaking a professional theologian, he was a creative thinker with an unwavering quest for what he called Biblical Christianity. His own theological roots can be traced to the Anglican theological and liturgical traditions. is is evidenced in the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion that he drew for the American Methodists in 1784, which are the abbreviated version of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Communion (first introduced as the Elizabethian Articles in 1562).

Wesley’s affinity to the Anglican Church is also seen in his appropriation of the three sources of theology – Scripture, tradition and reason – that it affirms. To this triad, Wesley added experience, and together they become known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a description coined by the Wesley scholar Albert Outler in 1968. Among the four sources, Wesley stressed the primacy of Scripture, demonstrating clearly his agreement with the theologians of the 16th century Reformation.

The confluence of these sources in the interpretation of the meaning of Christian existence makes the Wesleyan theological tradition the most catholic (i.e., ecumenical, in the best sense) and therefore theologically the most exciting among all the Protestant traditions (I may be a little biased here). Its emphasis on the primacy of Scripture, in line of the Reformers’ sola scriptura dictum, locates it firmly in the theological tradition of the Reformation. But, by recognising the important role of tradition, Wesleyan theology could never degenerate into a form of idiosyncratic biblicism or myopic fundamentalism. Wesley in fact reached behind the Reformers to recover the rich theological heritage of the early Fathers of the Church. From Wesley’s writings we find evidence of his acquaintance with the works of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Cyprian and Ephraim.

WITH ITS EMPHASIS on reason, the Wesleyan tradition supports the apologetic endeavours of the church that seek to demonstrate the reasonableness of its faith. Finally, by its inclusion of experience, the Wesleyan tradition puts a check on all forms of “dead” orthodoxies and arid intellectualisms. Biblical Christianity is more than simply giving intellectual assent to a series of doctrines, propositions and creeds. It is profoundly relational. at is, it has to do with the believer’s intimate fellowship with the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Throughout his life and ministry, John Wesley has been concerned about the spiritual lives of believers. Greatly influenced by Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and William Law’s Christian Perfection, and deeply troubled by the spiritual and moral indifference of a good number of baptised Christians in his time, Wesley became the preacher of holiness par excellence.  This quest for holiness has resulted in Wesley’s controversial understanding of Christian perfection. Despite its emphasis on personal holiness, Wesleyan spirituality can never be accused of being individualistic. For Wesley, the true Christian “knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness”. This is because Christians are not only commanded to love God, but also to love their neighbour. Thus, in one of his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, Wesley could say that “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it”.

John Wesley claimed that the loyal Methodist “does good unto all men – unto neighbours, and strangers and friends, and enemies”. His social praxis has inspired Methodist Churches throughout the globe to energetically reach out to the poor and the disenfranchised of society. The Methodist Church in Singapore has contributed significantly in the area of public education and also in the provision of welfare services.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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