I was tempted to sing the Paul Simon hit again about the mother and child reunion in response to this fine piece of Methodist theologizing. After all it is well known that John Wesley had his famed Aldersgate Experience while reading the work of Martin Luther on justification by grace through faith (Journals, May 24, 1738). But alas, it is not quite as simple. Methodism has other mothers like the Anglican heritage and the original Reformed theological home of Samuel Wesley (and could we even suggest the Eastern tradition through Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius the Egyptian). Perhaps the Methodist-Lutheran relationship is more like that of a niece to one of her controversial, though beloved aunts who is often out of touch with the thinking of other extended family members.
Be that as it may, as you well know from your work in the dialogue, Sarah, our denominations see each other as family, in Full Communion. Your paper makes me even more confident that our denominations have done the right thing. Of course your comments on prevenient grace and forgiveness are music to this Lutheran’s ears (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.2-3). And your comments about Methodists believing that love may be expressed in different forms is in line with the Lutheran openness to a Situational Ethic (Luther’s Works, Vol.5, p.150; Complete Sermons, Vol.3/1, p.61). I also think that your way of describing Perfection as an expectation that believers may have also makes the concept even more palatable to Confessional Lutherans. Add to all these Methodist overtures to Lutheranism the fact that the more characteristically Methodist themes of striving for holiness of heart and even synergism as well as striving for perfection are also embedded in the Lutheran heritage (esp. its Pietist segments) (The Large Catechism, II.3.57-58; Formula of Concord, SD IV.31-33; II; VII; Philip Spener, Pia Desideria, 2), and it is clear that each of us may legitimately endorse much of what the other deems precious. And if you are a Methodist who construes the Sacraments as in an Anglican manner, then once again Lutherans are at home in Wesleyan contexts. My only question in that connection, then, is what do we collectively make of Sacramental fellowship with some UMCs, AMEs, Zionites, and CMEs who teach a more symbolic view of these rites?
I have just a couple of further questions of clarification aimed either at helping clear away any suspicions remaining in our memberships about our ecumenical agreements, and also a final question (suggested in my title) about whether Methodism can in fact embrace as a viable catholic point of view, a commitment very basic in the Lutheran tradition. Some of these are questions I raised last month to our Pietist colleague Christopher Gehrz. You refer to the pursuit of the holiness of heart and life as an important dimension of Methodism. My question is, who does the pursuing? Do we do that task alone? Of course with your Methodist commitment to prevenient grace, and what is written in Art 8 of your Articles of Religion you would give grace and the Holy Spirit credit for this pursuit. But Lutherans worry that Methodists and other Pietists do not always and systematically make this clear (The Small Catechism, II.3.6). This relates to your Methodist claim that our nature is marred by sin. Lutherans prefer to speak of our concupiscence, to make clear that we are thoroughly sinful in all we do, not just partially damaged (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, II.24-26), because if just partially damaged it seems we can do at least some of the pursuing of holiness on our own. Although not characteristic of Methodist thinking, can such an Augustinian way of talking about sin be considered a legitimate alternative from a Methodist point of view?
This brings me to the question raised in the title to this response. I have already expressed my Lutheran resonance with your idea of perfection and entire sanctification as an expectation. Confessional Lutheranism has expectations about what grace can accomplish. Because Lutherans expect good works to follow justification, this is why Lutherans are not inclined like Methodism to direct or exhort Christian behavior, to opt for teaching spontaneous good works and seem not to have much so say about sanctification. It is because we have expectations about what grace can accomplish (that it will lead to good works) (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp367-378; Complete Sermons, Vol.1/2, p.316). But what do Methodists do when their expectations are not met, when holiness or good works do not happen in the lives of the faithful? How do you comfort someone in despair over that matter or over the quality of their faith? Do you just keep urging them to do better in all cases, to keep striving? Or can you instead offer solace, forget about exhorting works, tell them they are fee from the Law and that works take care of themselves, like Lutherans are inclined to proclaim?
As noted above, Lutherans are open to sometimes urging the despairing to strive for more holiness. You could validly preach that sometimes in a Lutheran congregation under our full communion agreement. But if invited to your congregation, pledged to preach and teach in a manner that does not violate Methodist teaching and if advised in advance of my visit that you had a number of members struggling and uncertain in their faith, would I be legitimately able to proclaim a Word of freedom from the Law and the spontaneity of good works, as I have been advocating in our sessions? Is it possible for Methodists to deem this Lutheran theme a legitimate Christian alternative? If so, Methodists and Lutherans can indeed unequivocally follow Jesus together.