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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At 4:05 PM, Blogger Sue said...

So succinct. Thank you. I really love reading your stuff.

At 4:01 PM, Blogger dave said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger dave said...

excellent thoughts.

Here's radical possibility on Wesley:

link is here

At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I wonder if you have missed a crucial understanding in reading Wesley. My understanding is that Wesley was thoroughly relational in his understanding of sanctification/holiness.

Permit me to quote from Professor Ted Runyon's book, 'The New Creation: John Wesley's Theology Today' Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1998, p. 22. This book demonstrates that, Wesley's understanding of holiness was thoroughly relational (although sometimes his language did not reflect this):

'A new creation! From Wesley's standpoint, this is the sine qua non. If humanity is to become different from what it is now in its grasping and greedy attempts to produce its own security, what is needed is transcendent resources, partnership with and participation in the divine Spirit, that synergy (working together) which is a partnership in which the Creator informs, infuses, and inspires the creature with the original goal of human existence. There is no human future without this kind of covenantal partnership with the "Creator and Father of every living thing". There is no restoration of the true image without the God it images... the name for this initiative from the other side is grace'.

For me, love is the key to Wesley's understanding of this restoration of our role of reflecting God's perfect love (our divine image) into the world. As Runyon says, Wesley 'summarizes "the whole of scriptural perfection" as "pure love filling the heart, and governing all the words and actions". This "energy' of love is 'found in the Spirit that communicates God's love'.

So Wesley can say, 'We must love God before we can be holy at all; this being the root of all holiness. Now we cannot love God till we know he loves us... And we cannot know his pardoning love to us till his Spirit witnesses it to our spirit'. It seems that, Wesley was deeply aware of our dependence on God's, wonderful grace for our sanctification.

This language of love both is profoundly and thoroughly relational. Can I recommend that you read 'A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism', Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1972 for a thorough study of relational aspects of love in Wesley's practical theology.


At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I like where you are ending up in a focus on love and relationship as being at the heart of holiness. In this you are echoing many Wesleyan scholars. I'd also like to think that Wesley would agree. But there has also been in the holiness tradition problems with legalism which are important to be aware of and guard against. Reading through Wesley's sermons, I think it becomes clear that legalism was the thorn that Wesley struggled with himself, just as Luther struggled with forgiveness. So I want to appreciate Wesley's contribution, which at the same time recognizing his humanity as well.

At 9:39 PM, Blogger dave said...

right on


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