John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your informative contribution to our ongoing conversation.

You are probably aware of the fascinating ways John Wesley is linked with Eastern Orthodoxy, but some of our conversation partners may not be aware of these connections.

First of all, while John Wesley loved all the Church Fathers of the first four centuries, he clearly favored the Greek Fathers over their Latin counterparts.  As Randy Maddox observes (in his essay entitled “John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences” which appeared in The Asbury Theological Journal in 1990),

“It is generally recognized that the first four centuries of Christian tradition played a significant role in Wesley’s theology.  What is not as often noted is that he tended to value the Greek representatives over the Latin.  It was a preference he inherited from his father.  It deepened during his Oxford years as he studied newly-available editions of patristic writings with his fellow ‘methodist,’ John Clayton.

“As such, it is not surprising that Greek theologians predominate when Wesley gives lists of those he admires or recommends for study.  Frequently cited were Basil, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Ephraem Syrus, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Polycarp and (Pseudo-)Macarius.  By contrast, references to Augustine, Cyprian and Tertullian were relatively rare.”

Maddox further states,

“Perhaps the closest resemblance between Orthodoxy and Wesley lies in the articulation of their respective doctrines of deification and sanctification.  The Orthodox doctrine of deification has often been misunderstood by the West.  It is not an affirmation of pantheistic identity between God and humanity, but of a participation, through grace, in the divine life.  This participation renews humanity and progressively transfigures us into the image of Christ.

“Analogously, Wesley’s affirmation of entire sanctification is not a claim that humans can embody the faultless perfection of God in this life, but a confidence that God’s grace can progressively deliver us from the power of sin – if not from creatureliness.  For both Wesley and Orthodoxy, the transformation desired is more than external conformity to law.  It is a renewal of the heart in love – love of God, and love of others.  Moreover, they agree that such transformation is for all Christians, not merely a monastic or spiritual elite.

“What is most characteristic of and common between Wesley and Orthodoxy is their conviction that Christ-likeness is not simply infused in believers instantaneously.  It is developed progressively through a responsible appropriation of the grace which God provides.  Spiritual disciplines are essential to this process of growth.”

It’s also known that while on the ship on his way as a missionary-priest to the colony of Georgia in the New World in 1735, Wesley was reading the Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Makarios of Egypt.

And finally, there’s the very intriguing possibility that, at Wesley’s request, a Greek Orthodox bishop from Crete named Gerasimos (or Erasmus) ordained several of Wesley’s preachers to the priesthood, in 1763, while the bishop was visiting England, after having established an Orthodox church in Amsterdam.  Apparently Wesley could find no Anglican bishop to ordain his preachers, and more of his followers wanted to receive Communion than he could accommodate himself.  There is more than just a little evidence that these ordinations really did take place.

May these points of contact between the founder of Methodism and Eastern Orthodoxy help contribute to more fruitful dialogue between these two major streams of Christianity!

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford