Wesleyan Holiness

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I've been reading though Wesley's sermons, trying to get an idea of his theology. If Luther's gift to us was the idea of justification by faith, then Wesley's gift was the idea of regeneration and the new birth. But Wesley puts a particular spin on being born again that is in many ways good, and in some ways bad. His focus is on holiness. First of all I deeply appreciate this focus and think that we evangelicals desperately need to learn about social justice, compassion, and living in grace. We have in the past divorced our faith from social engagement and been advocates for the establishment and powers that be rather than the least. So Wesley's focus on personal and social holiness - a deep vibrant personal faith coupled with compassion and care for the needy and love for our enemies - so something we can learn a lot from.

What I question is Wesley's focus on holiness rather than on relationship. I appreciate Wesley's drive to seek to be holy and loving, but I question his notion that this in fact the central aim of religion. I would say that the central aim is in fact relationship, and the holiness is subordinate to and the product of a relationship with God. It is crucial that a genuine relationship with God leads to us loving others as a fruit of the genuineness of our relationship. I am concerned however that by his putting the focus on works of holiness and thus in many ways having a focus on performance and law that Wesley is giving us an incorrect and unrealistic focus on holiness over relationship that reflects his own particular perfectionist personality (and that of his mother) rather than the thrust of the New Testament.

Said differently, it seems that Wesley was always driven towards works of holiness and that his relational encounter with God was focused on assurance and relationship with God through the indwelling of the Spirit, but that he was continually drawn to seek holiness. First in thinking that the new birth would result in his immediate and total sanctification and then after he discovered he was mistake, in his continual preaching and striving towards holiness. In the same way that Luther really only and always talks about faith and not works, Wesley only and always talks about holiness. As I've said, there are many good things about this seeking after holiness especially when it means seeking to love God and others, but it also strikes me as a weakness of Wesley's as well, a drive that can become a foil possibly leading to legalism and a lack of compassion for those who are fallen. Just as Luther's drive and constant need for justification lead him to great heights, so did Wesley's drive, but Luther's drive was also an occation for the devil to continually torment him. A thorn in his flesh that continually prodded him to be dependent on grace. We might say that "genius has its origin in neurosis".

I think it is vital that we keep in mind that driving passion, both is good parts and its bad parts that lie behind the great theologians so that we can have a theology that takes into account their real human striving and struggles, rather that one that systematizes their thoughts into an abstract system of doctrine. I think this approach is very much in keeping with the raw passion of Luther and the experiential and practical faith of Wesley.

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Wesley and Moral Law

Friday, October 19, 2007

Wesley speaks of a “moral law contained in the Ten Commandments and enforced by the prophets” ( Upon Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, Sermon 25 , I.2) but differentiated this from both the ceremonial and Mosaic law. It would appear that Wesley's understanding of the moral law entails the eternal principles and will of God that lie at the heart of the Old Testament. But it is deeper than even this. Wesley says that the moral law precedes not only Moses or Enoch but creation itself, humanity itself, being first given to the angels and the expression of God's eternal pre-creation image and will.The moral law is for Wesley a reflection of God's eternal will and image found in Scripture and inscribed on every human heart. Wesley even goes so far as to take the Christological language of the New Testament and applies this directly to this moral law, calling it

An incorruptible picture of the High and Holy One... the express image of His person.”(The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law." (The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law II.3)

This presents a challenge to a Protestant idea of the law because if the law is both eternal, preceding creation, and the perfect reflection of the will and image of God, one is led to ask as one commentator did “Is Christ the only-begotten of the Father?”[1] Victor Shepherd suggests a possible solution, arguing that for Wesley the Son is the substance of the law,

Wesley says that the law is the face of God unveiled. Paul says Jesus Christ is this. For Wesley, Jesus Christ is plainly the substance of the law... the law isn't a message from God or truth of God but is rather God himself disclosing himself.”[2]

However it would be a mistake to assume that for Wesley the law and Christ are simply synonymous, as it would to assume that Wesley means only the moral principles and will of God that can be found in the Old Testament. Identifying precisely what for Wesley the exact content of the moral law is can be difficult as our own Ken Collins points out,

[Wesley] failed to indicate clearly the content of this moral law. Thus, in his sermon "Justification by Faith," for example, Wesley defined the moral law as the 'unchangeable law of love, the holy love of God and of our neighbor,' while elsewhere he described it in terms of the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and the ten commandments”[3]

Wesley outlines three principle uses of the moral law 1) to convince the world of sin, not only before salvation but after 2) to lead us to Christ, again not only initially but continually 3) to “keep us alive”. Wesley writes,

I cannot spare the law one moment, no more than I can spare Christ... each is continually sending me to the other, -- the law to Christ, and Christ to the law... the height and depth of the law constrain me to fly to the love of God in Christ... the love of God in Christ endears the law to me 'above gold or precious stones;'” ( The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law . IV.7).

This seems to indicate that the law is not simply a principle we follow, but needs to be alive and active in us through the indwelling of the Spirit. Shepherd explains,

Earlier Wesley had said that knowing the law of God doesn't suffice. It is evident now that what doesn't suffice is that love of Christ which is pro nobis but not yet in nobis in the absence of faith. As Jesus Christ is embraced in faith the love of Christ takes root in us; as this occurs the law of God comes to be written on the heart.”[4]

Wesley's understanding of the moral law seems to be intentionally opposed to that of Luther. Wesley directly attacks Luther's understanding of the law expressed in his “Commentary on Galatians” when he writes,

Who art thou then, O man, that "judgest the law, and speakest evil of the law?" -- that rankest it with sin, Satan, and death and sendest them all to hell together?... So thou hast set up thyself in the judgement-seat of Christ, and cast down the rule whereby he will judge the world!” ( The Original, Nature, Property, and Use of the Law . IV.8).

Luther's understanding of salvation which is rooted in the idea of finding grace is rooted in Paul's book of Romans and likewise Luther's negative understanding of the law is also Paulinian. Luther and Paul focus on the law as a good thing that - like us - can become fallen and need to be redeemed. In other words, they focus on the law seen from our human perspective and draw attention to the dangers of our misusing it to support self-righteousness and legalism. Scripture cautions against our human sinful misuse of the law. Jesus for example (following in the tradition of Isaiah) sharply criticized the contemporary understanding of the law, and was himself regarded as a blasphemous lawbreaker by the religious authorities of his day. Paul speaks of how the law which was “good and holy” in fact “became death” to him because of his own sinfulness (likely the sin of legalism, Paul being a zealous Pharisee before his conversion). Even with the perfect law before us, we see it “through a dark glass”. Our understanding of this law - like us - is created good, can become fallen, and needs to be redeemed.

Wesley's understanding of salvation went beyond Luther's focus on justification and added to it the idea of regeneration – being born again – and how the indwelling of the Spirit in our lives transforms us and gives a new identity. Wesley's understanding of salvation here is very much influenced by the Gospel of John and similarly his understanding of the moral law has a decidedly johannian flavor too. What is confusing here is Wesley's nomenclature since he refers to “the law” (paulinian language) while John uses the term “truth”. In John's Gospel for example Jesus says "I am the truth" (not "I know the truth" but "I am the truth") so that truth is a Person. Along these same lines, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as "the Spirit of truth". This is a fascinating idea because then truth or law is not based on static principles but on is creative,
active, transforming, and alive. Truth is a Person (“I am the truth” Jesus says). So in Welsey's view truth or law are and alive – God's living word.

[1] John Deschner, Wesley's Christology (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1960), p 107 as quoted in Collins (see note 3 below)

[2] Victor Shepherd, “
The Epistle to the Romans As Wesley's Cure for Antinomian and Moralist Alike ” delivered at the Romans Conference, University of Toronto, May 2002

[3] Kenneth J. Collins, “
John Wesley's Platonic Conception of the Moral Law ” in Wesleyan Theological Journal 21 Spr-Fall 1986, p 116-128

[4] Shepherd, Op Sit. The terms “pro nobis” and “in nobis” are Latin and mean “for us” and “in us”.

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