Within a hair’s breadth
The title “From Guilt to Grace to Gratitude” that Wesley Granberg-Michaelson uses is one I could almost borrow to talk about the Wesleyan tradition, although there are some subtle differences (John Wesley once said he came within a “hair’s breadth” of Calvinism). I will follow the headings Dr. Granberg-Michaelson uses to bring out those differences.
Confessional: Wesley’s Methodism was not organized around doctrinal differences. As I explained in my response to Randall Balmer, the Methodist societies were meant to function within the Church of England, and when Methodism took ecclesial form in North America it accepted a version of the Articles of Religion revised by Wesley. These Articles have been preserved and protected by the constitution as essential doctrinal identity. Later in merger with the Evangelical United Brethren, The United Methodist Church also accepted a Confession of Faith as doctrine. Wesleyan Methodists in North America, then, are not without written beliefs.
Although Wesley himself argued vigorously with Calvinists (especially Calvinist Methodists) over predestination and what he feared was antinomianism (disregard for holiness), Wesleyans have not been preoccupied with “defining faith by correct propositions.” In fact the guidance Wesley left in his carefully argued sermons was that faith is not “assent” to right belief but is rather an evidence and conviction of Christ’s work of love in our lives (in “The Scripture Way of Salvation” II.3). Wesley could describe such faith as “recumbency,” a kind of leaning on Christ in trust (in “Salvation by Faith” I.5). So Wesleyans have doctrine and care about understanding it and expressing it well, but faith is lived more than defined.
Covenantal: Most Wesleyans practice infant baptism, and with that practice we understand our communal commitment to “carry” this child into the faith. We see infant baptism as a sign of God’s gracious initiative to save (prevenient grace). Beyond this, we have a history of using small groups to continue to “carry” believers through times that test their faith. These practices do not inoculate us against individualism or corporate exclusivity, but they do offer the possibility of accountability.
John Wesley left to us a Covenant Service that is still used (usually with updated language) by conferences and congregations, often at the beginning of a new year. This service is a recommitment to the covenant made in our baptism and to commit ourselves to being used by God in whatever way God needs us. When prayed in the company of others, is also a reminder of how we are connected to each other through our baptism.
The World Belongs to God: Amen. Although language of God’s sovereignty is not as characteristic as language of God’s grace for Wesleyans, we mean by grace that God’s power and presence are at work in the world, and this grace calls forth our response. Wesleyans can capitulate to culture, but our theology intends to call us back to God when we do.
John Wesley consistently called Methodists to keep a “single eye” on God in order to know how to live properly in the world–to keep our priorities in order, to recognize how God is working in our lives and in the lives of others, to make good decisions about how to use our resources (including spending money). Even during his lifetime, Methodists largely failed to learn in full his lesson about money. Keeping a single eye requires ongoing attention, especially in the presence of competing values. The Wesleyan tradition, though, does call people to see the world as God’s and to act accordingly.
Taking sin seriously: Wesleyans typically stress grace more than sin, but our understanding of grace comes from an understanding of a serious problem that needs to be overcome by God. In the face of Enlightenment optimism, John Wesley insisted on retaining an understanding of original sin. In the face of predestination, though, he also insisted that God had already begun healing through prevenient grace. His concern about predestination was never to “control” God’s grace but rather to preserve the possibility of salvation for all. Human nature has been restored enough for us to be able to cooperate with the work of God. God’s healing can be effective enough (here is an exercise of sovereignty!) that some measure of our original capacity (Wesley talked about humans as capax dei, capable of God) can be returned. No one is totally bereft of the power and presence of God in their lives. This makes it possible for us to really followJesus.
Wesley found himself in disagreement with some other evangelicals of his time over holiness. The language used at the time was “inherent” righteousness. Wesley never thought “inherent” meant we could be righteous on our own. We need the help and healing of God to have our broken human nature repaired, but he did think God could really repair. As God heals us, we become really different, not just regarded as different. For that reason his theology stressed sanctification as much as justification. Holiness is not a quality that humans possess or gain as if our nature is not in desperate need of salvation, but it is rather a gift from God. So he took sin seriously, but he also took God’s healing grace just as seriously.
Ecumenical: Although Wesleyans know the pain of divided churches, we have also contributed figures such as John R. Mott, Albert Outler, and John Deschner to the work of ecumenism.
Wesley’s own example on this point is mixed. He urged Methodists to have a “catholic spirit,” in other words to “take the hand” of those whom we see to have a heart right with God even if we differ over “opinions” or modes of worship (in “Catholic Spirit”). Wesley warned against “bigotry” (or too strong an attachment to one’s own party, opinion, or Church) and he urged that we not hinder any who were clearly doing God’s work (in “A Caution Against Bigotry”). At the same time, he could argue theological points vigorously when he understood there to be serious consequences at stake (for instance regarding predestination and antinomianism). He never himself broke with the Church of England, but he did break with George Whitefield’s Methodism. Even so, he preached at Whitefield’s funeral and lauded not only Whitefield’s character but also the way God had used him.
Wesleyans generally have open hearts toward other Christians and easily join in common work with them. Not having been born in doctrinal dispute, we have sometimes given the impression that we have no doctrine that we care about. As Wesleyans entered into ecumenical dialogue with others, we learned that we needed a better sense of what our own tradition stands for. Recent years have brought an increased interest in helping people value the theological and doctrinal heritage we have received. Just as Wesley found, ideas have consequences and caring about them can lead to difficult disagreement. We do not always do as well with our internal disagreements as we do with our relationships with other churches.
Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s summary that “we are held by God’s uncontrollable grace, and that God invites us as disciples of Christ to serve and act out of gratitude for the sake of a world so loved by God” is a way of following Jesus that Wesleyans also embrace, with the different nuances I have outlined above.
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