John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is arguably one of the most theologically complex and creative figures in 18th-century England.
Scholars almost unanimously agree that it would be a misnomer to describe Wesley as a “systematic theologian” because of the disparate and somewhat diffused character of his corpus. But to give Wesley the polite designation of “practical theologian”, as some scholars are wont to do, is not only to create a distorting caricature but also to be scathingly dismissive of his theological genius.
To be sure, Wesley’s overall theological approach has proved very difficult to classify, making it frustratingly challenging to “locate” him in the Christian tradition. To simply pigeonhole Wesley’s theology as “Anglican”, or “Arminian”, or even “Protestant” is to reduce the polyphonic character of his thought to a dull monotone.
Wesley scholars are beginning to appreciate Wesley’s creative retrieval of some of the most important insights of the early Church Fathers, especially the theologians who wrote before the Council of Nicaea that took place in A.D. 325.
Wesley himself made no secret of his admiration of the early Church Fathers. In his letter to Dr. Middleton in 1749, Wesley wrote that he “exceedingly reverence[d]” the writings of the fathers “because they describe true, genuine Christianity; and direct us to the strongest evidence of the Christian doctrine”.
Ted Campbell is right to postulate that Wesley did not uncritically weave the insights of these ancient writers into his own thinking, but adapted them as he brought them to bear on his own concerns. In addition, Wesley always evaluated the writings of the Fathers by bringing them into conversation with the insights of the Reformers and the great Anglican divines.
Many scholars agree that although the Fathers exercised a profound influence on many aspects of Wesley’s thought, it is in his understanding of salvation and the Christian life that their influence is perhaps most evident. For example, according to Randy Maddox, therapeutic metaphors and emphases – so central in Orthodox soteriology – pervade Wesley’s concept of salvation, outweighing forensic ones.
Wesley’s alleged ‘Arminianism’ – his rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of double-predestination and his embrace of a synergism that preserves the integrity of human freedom – is also largely due to the influence of the Fathers.
In the same way, while Christ’s death on the Cross is central to Wesley, he places more emphasis on the resurrection – following Eastern Orthodoxy – than any other Western theologian in his time. And while Wesley understands atonement in terms of the satisfaction of the divine justice, he quite clearly stresses the restoration of man to God-likeness through the Incarnation, following Irenaeus’ notion of recapitulation.
Another important characteristic of Wesley’s conception of salvation and the Christian life, which has baffled some scholars, is the privileging of sanctification over justification. As a result, some of Wesley’s opponents have accused him of leaning too much towards Rome. But Wesley’s inspiration in fact came from the patristic theologians, not the medieval schoolmen.
Wesley’s study of the early Fathers of the Church has also shaped his concept of sanctification. This has led Orthodox theologian Charles Ashanin to conclude that the classical Methodist doctrine of sanctification “is probably Wesley’s adaptation of the Patristic doctrine of Theosis”.
Randy Maddox agrees: “The extensive commonalities between Wesley and Orthodoxy on issues of sanctification surely warrant the claim that the final form of Wesley’s doctrine is heavily indebted to the early Greek theologians he read.”
The portrayal of the Christian life as a life of faith energised by love that appears frequently in Wesley’s writings can be traced to the works of the great patristic preacher, John Chrysostom.
We can discern the influence of Macarius the Great, the fourth-century Egyptian monk, as Wesley wrestles with the question of the continuing presence of sin in the life of the believer. And there are striking similarities between Wesley’s “entirely sanctified Methodist” and Clement of Alexandria’s “perfect Gnostic Christian”.
Wesley’s profound respect for the Latin tradition and his creative retrieval of theological intuitions of the Eastern Fathers makes Methodist theology truly catholic (meaning “universal”). It draws from the best traditions that shaped the Church’s theology before the Great East-West Schism of 1054 as well as the most profound insights of the Reformers.
Methodists today should not only be proud of their rich heritage. They should also be shaped and nourished by it.
Dr Roland Chia –
is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).