Another way of Being Evangelical Catholic

Several years ago, my first entry into ecumenical dialogue was to participate in the final round (rounds lasted for several years) of dialogue between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the United Methodist Church (UMC). One member of the Lutheran half of the dialogue introduced himself by saying that Lutherans were “doctrinal bulldogs.” Perhaps previous rounds of this dialogue had some dog fights, but the round in which I participated kept finding things in common. The one doctrine that was met with real suspicion was John Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification (especially perfection). Wesleyan Methodists understand that while justification is the essential basis for salvation, sanctification is also important. Like justification, sanctification is a gift received by grace through faith.

In reading Mark’s posting, I had the same sense I did years ago of what we share. Mark describes the Lutheran way of following Jesus as Evangelical Catholic, while Wesleyan Methodists are rooted in the theology of John Wesley that was described by historian Albert Outler as “evangelical catholicism” because it brings together being saved by grace alone through faith with holy living. Ellingsen and Outler may not be using words “evangelical” and “catholic” with exactly the same meaning, but the desire to acknowledge the full scope of what we take into account as we follow Jesus feels similar. We share together the way we understand grace to come before (preveniently) anything we do in response. John Wesley does not seem to have been well acquainted with Luther’s writings, but he certainly embraced justification by grace through faith.

Within this common ground, there are some differences that may be in part verbal and in part matters of emphasis. Wesleyan Methodists agree wholeheartedly that we are free from the Law so works of the law are excluded as the basis for our justification. However, Wesleyan Methodists have a tradition following Wesley to affirm that the Law is established by faith. Wesley understood that the Law that faith establishes for us is to love God and neighbor. This is the Law we would follow to know what to do in any “situational ethic.” Because this Law is established by faith, what we do to show love for God and for neighbor is transformed from “works of the Law” into “faith working by love.” The point of saying that the Law is “established” is to say the saving work God does in us becomes active in our lives so that we live according to love.

Wesleyan Methodists stress (not separate) sanctification as a distinct and important aspect of salvation, which Wesley saw as a “present thing” that transforms our lives and not just a heavenly destination after death. For him, God’s salvation does something for us (forgives us by justifying us) and God also does something in us (heals us by sanctifying us). This healing is the renewal of our fallen nature, not in every respect because we remain finite and mortal; but renewed in the love for which God created us and by which we reflect God and share the mind of Christ—in other words, enabling us to follow Jesus. The goal of sanctification is perfect love, not “achieved” by us, but given by God. The doctrine of perfection does not express confidence in ourselves but rather confidence in God’s power to heal. Wesley thought about sanctification as a real change in us. When we follow Jesus, we really become more loving. Even if we do not fully arrive at the goal of perfect love in this life, the expectation of it is important for keeping us focused on the one we follow.

As he matured in his thinking and as he watched what happened in the lives of Methodists, Wesley’s understanding of sin became increasingly nuanced. He recognized both inward (in our hearts) and outward (expressed in action) sin, and he knew that even when Methodists did not sin by willingly and openly violating God’s commands, they still struggled inwardly with unloving feelings (for instance impatience, envy) that could lead to unloving behavior (for instance gossip). He began to reflect on sin after justification and the need to acknowledge and repent of it. While it is doubtful that he would ever use percentages to express his ideas about being saint and sinner, he did recognize that Christians stand in need of Christ’s atonement even after being justified. He also warned those who claimed entire sanctification that they too stood in need of Christ’s atonement. It seems that in Wesley’s theology, a deeper sense of God’s love brings about a deeper sense of sin (our own unlovingness) and appreciation for the gift of grace.

God gives us means to use so we may stay on this path of love, the principal ones being prayer, searching the Scriptures, and receiving the Lord’s Supper. Wesley also called these “works of piety.” Mark Ellingsen says that rites of the church change the believer or at least put the believer in a new context to nurture a new way of behaving. Wesley also saw that works of piety could have this effect. In his context, there were some Methodists who had been influenced by the “stillness” of the Moravians. These Methodists feared that by praying, searching Scripture, or receiving communion they might be depending on works rather than faith for salvation, so they stopped doing these things. To them, Wesley said God gave us these means of grace, so they are gifts of God that should be used.

Wesley also thought that works of mercy could be means of grace. He wrote a sermon “On Visiting the Sick” to encourage Christians to stretch beyond what was comfortable to show love of neighbor. His text was Matt. 25:36 “I was sick and you visited me.” By “sick” he meant all who are afflicted in mind or body, and “visit” meant seeing them in person, not just sending aid. Our supposed compassion for others is tested when we come face to face with them, especially in unpleasant circumstances. Facing the unpleasantness in order to follow and serve Jesus aids our growth in humility, patience, tenderness, and sympathy. These are “works of mercy” that become means of grace as God works through them to increase our thankfulness to God and our sympathy for others.

Wesleyan Methodism has encouraged intentionality in following Jesus rather than stressing spontaneity. To be sure, there is an inner impulse to serve when you live with Jesus and want to follow, but the sin that remains in us can put up barriers to following. For instance, as noted above, we may substitute giving money for building relationship. Furthermore, just as brain research is confirming selfishness, we are also learning more about implicit bias. Our blind spots can prevent us from seeing what is most helpful in a situation. Even in close, healthy families, blind spots can lead to misunderstanding. We may not “just know” what God wants us to do in a situation because what we “just know” is shaped by assumptions from our own lives. Intentional learning (for instance to understand the needs, hopes, and obstacles of those from other backgrounds rather than assuming their situation is identical to ours) is crucial for responding to our neighbors in love in the most helpful way. Not paying attention to those differences can lead to harm rather than comfort and hope.

Wesleyan Methodists have been concerned with “doing” but not in a way that puts our own actions before God’s work in us. Although the General Rules that governed the early Methodist societies contain examples, they are in fact general: Do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God (use the means of grace). These rules are in effect a restatement of the Law that is established by faith: Pay attention to loving God by using the means God has provided for you to grow in relationship with God, and love neighbors by seeking their welfare and avoiding hurting them.

2 replies
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear Sarah
    I knew from Albert Outler that your Methodist heritage could be interpreted in an Evangelical Catholic way. You suggest he may not mean the same thing as I do. Let’s try to pin down the differences, as it may help us unpack remaining differences in our overall commitment to shared UMC-ELCA ministries. When I refer to “Evangelical” I am talking about a commitment to salvation by prevenient grace through faith, a belief that the Gospel has the final say over the Law. I think that those commitments surface in your Articles of Religion, Art.IX about how “wholesome” justification by faith is. It makes my Lutheran heart flutter. By “catholic” I understand Methodism’s ecumenical commitments along with its roots in the most Roman Catholic-like of all us Protestants, the Anglican heritage. (I do not want to concede that, but I must.) This is the Wesley who remained an Anglican priest and it is my impression maintained the Anglican Sacramentology. If this is what Outler means by Evangelical Catholicism, we are indeed sister and brother. Of course I know from hanging out with a lot of Methodists during my 3 decades at the Interdenominational Theological Center that a lot of Methodists have a Zwinglian view of the Sacraments. I hope that when it is your week to post the main paper we can explore that.
    Regarding the Methodist position on the Law and Perfection, the paper to which you were responding indicated that they need not be barriers to relations with Lutherans whose Pietist branches can and also do affirm these convictions. The question is whether Methodists could consider the Lutheran commitments to freedom from the Law, the spontaneity of good works, and even a situational ethic a valid Christian model for following Jesus. In pursing these points with you, not surprisingly, I am repeating observations made in my dialogue with Christopher Gehrz, our representative of Pietism. But here they are again.
    Your point about Wesley remaining aware of our containing need for grace nicely fits Luther’s first thesis of The Ninety-Five Theses, that we should be repenting daily. I note another overlap between our traditions in connection with your awareness of an inner impulse which flows from living with Jesus. Your observation that this impulse must always contend with our sin is right in line with the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator. And your point that even in close, healthy families blind spots can lead to misunderstanding is certainly an accurate observation. But the Lutheran in me hastens to add that this is God’s love, not flawed human love, that we are encountering in our marriage to Jesus a love which can’t help but overcome sin (at least Eschatologically). Is that a valid Methodist perspective, and if not, can we find a position acceptable to both our traditions?
    I am very open to your suggestion that works of mercy can be means of grace. The Lutheran heritage is open to this insofar as we believe that only unintelligent people will quibble about the number of Sacraments (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XIII). And brain research suggests that there is a neurobiological compatibility between ethics and spirituality. It seems that the prefrontal cortex operates when doing good works just as it does in spiritual exercises. In other words, we get the same neurological benefits from doing good works and community service as we do from prayer. Works of love are indeed means of grace.
    But now since Lutherans can concede the validity of characteristically Methodist approaches to following Jesus, can Methodists be reciprocally catholic and embrace the virtues of the Lutheran situational ethic model? Why is this a valid alternative?
    Based on Neurobiological findings, my hypothesis is that to follow Jesus always in dialogue with the Law or preconceived methods of exercising spirituality as is characteristically Methodist gets your brain focused more on your context, on what you have to do or how to respond, and
    this in turn activates back parts of your brain (the parietal lobe). When that part of the brain is
    activated, you are not rewarded with the good-feeling brain chemicals which flow when we are focused on God and grace or on doing works of love spontaneously and not with calculation about what to do (Stefan Klein, The Science of Happiness, pp.35-37,56-58). I’m not trying to convince you that Methodists ought to walk the walk of faith as I have described it. I’m just trying to learn if my Methodist brothers and sisters could concede that in interests of enhancing joy, focusing more on grace, and attracting the “don’t-tell-me-what-to-do” Millennials, the Situational, Sin-Bravely Ethic of Confessional Lutheranism could be deemed a Biblically based approach valid sometimes in some situations (Gal.5:1; Gen.22:1-19).

    Your Evangelical Catholic brother,
    Mark

    Reply
    • Sarah Lancaster
      Sarah Lancaster says:

      Mark,
      Thanks for taking the time to write individual comments. I will try to answer as best I can.

      The first thing to say about Wesleyan Methodists in light of the questions you pose is that Methodism did not arise within doctrinal dispute. There is no specific doctrinal test particular to Methodists that measures “valid” ways of being Christian. John Wesley was concerned that people be “real” Christians who had “genuine religion” but that was a concern about how people exhibited holiness in heart and life. He once summed up “true religion” as gratitude and benevolence (being grateful to God and having a good will toward others). So it is a little bewildering to me to be asked whether we could accept other approaches as valid. We do that almost instinctively.

      There is, though, room for discussion on several things. When Outler acknowledged the catholic side of Methodism, he expressly had in mind holy living. My experience working on the full communion agreement with the ELCA and in reading your comments is that this point has been pretty well worked through. We both acknowledge that works follow from grace.

      I think we could talk further about the Law. Regarding what you could preach in a Methodist pulpit, it would be important to know more clearly what you mean by Law. Can you raise questions about laws as they are written in the Bible? Many Methodists do. Others will insist that the laws that are written are exactly what God intended. For my part, I expressed that the Law which is established by faith is to love God and to love neighbor. Would you really want to preach freedom from that?

      Holiness was not the only thing that Wesley was concerned about. He frequently paired holiness with happiness. Although we do not typically talk about this happiness as “fun” you may find some common ground with your own view. The book I mention in my bio for this Ecircle is a book on John Wesley’s understanding of holiness and happiness as the goal of Christian life.

      Reply

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