As a member of a local Methodist church in Arkansas, I have an interest in John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Many years ago I learned from John Cobb that one of Wesley's most powerful ideas is that the Christian life lies in being open to the living spirit of God who can transform our hearts into love. It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that this is the kind of heart I would like to have. I believe in this living Spirit. This is why, in addition to being a member of a Methodist church, I am an oblate (lay associate) in a Benedictine monastery. My Benedictine friends have the same commitment. I guess I'm half Methodist and half Catholic. My hope is that both traditions, and many others, can flourish in life-enhancing ways.
As a professor of the world's religions, I have had many students over the years who have gone into the Methodist ministry. They have been among my best and brightest students; I have deeply admired their impulse to combine personal piety with social piety, prayer and Bible study with service to the poor and powerless. I interviewed one of them recently in a podcast: Ellen Rowland, now a youth pastor at a Methodist church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Click here to listen. She is an example of the future of the Methodist movement, and her way of working with youth is, to my mind, all about the growth in love that is at the heart of Christian faith.
The fact that I know so many students like Ellen makes it all the more painful when I realize how far so many older people in the Methodist church are from the spirit of John Wesley: liberals and conservatives alike. My own hope is that the Methodist church, now threatened by schism, can become more Wesleyan: for Christ's sake, for the world's sake, for God's sake. The purpose of this page is to encourage that hope. The page features a BBC overview of John Wesley and Methodism in the podcast above, for those unfamiliar with Methodist history; and five lectures delivered by John Cobb at Point Loma University in San Diego, California, in February 2000. Cobb himself is an ordained Methodist minister and, as you'll see from his lectures, he, too, thinks Wesley has much to offer the world and to Christians.
Wesley the Evangelical Wesley the Liberal Wesley the Liberationist Wesley the Process Theologian What can Wesley do for us Today?
The page starts with the final lecture (What can Wesley do for us Today?) in that it summarizes the content of the first four. I offer it here, with permission from John Cobb and Religion Online, as a resource for United Methodist churches and other Wesleyan communions who want to think about the future of the Wesley movement.
Summary: John Cobb believes that Wesley can support Wesleyan evangelicals and free them from their tendency to knee-jerk conservatism, moralism, and negativism. He can support Wesleyan liberals and free them from their tendency to humanism, to relativism, and to half-heartedness. He can support Wesleyan liberationists and free them from their tendency to self-pity, divided loyalty, and fragmentation. He can support Wesleyan process theologians and free them from their tendency to intellectualism, distance from biblical roots, and divided loyalty.
What can Wesley do for us today? That has been the issue of all of these lectures. It has been my proposal that he can support Wesleyan evangelicals and free them from their tendency to knee-jerk conservatism, moralism, and negativism. He can support Wesleyan liberals and free them from their tendency to humanism, to relativism, and to half-heartedness. He can support Wesleyan liberationists and free them from their tendency to self-pity, divided loyalty, and fragmentation. He can support Wesleyan process theologians and free them from their tendency to intellectualism, distance from biblical roots, and divided loyalty. He can help all of us to understand better the relation of grace and responsibility and to work out its implications in personal and corporate life.
If each group sat at Wesley’s feet and corrected its weaknesses accordingly, they would still remain distinct. But their differences would no longer be seriously divisive. They would be more matters of emphasis than of rigidly defined positions. Each group could appreciate the emphases of the others and recognize the value of having some group maintain that as their primary focus. The groups would complement one another. The Wesleyan movement as a whole would be strengthened by the diversity.
Of course, the Wesleyan movement would continue to have disagreements within it. Of the many current issues that divide us I take abortion as an example. Not all Wesleyans would agree on whether abortion is ever the most moral choice, and if not whether it should be outlawed or left to the judgment of those most intimately involved.
It would be difficult to guess what position Wesley would take on these issues, and, in fact, it would not matter greatly. The key issues are not ones he addressed or on which central features of his teaching cast any direct light. When does distinctively human life begin? How is the value of the fetus is to be weighed against the needs and desires of the mother? If we come to agreement on these issues as Wesleyans, is it appropriate to attempt to impose our agreement on the wider society through political processes? Or should public policy be broadly permissive, leaving decisions in each case to those most immediately involved?
The divisions I have been discussing would not, in a healthy Wesleyan context, determine answer to the questions about abortion. That is, a Wesleyan evangelical would be open to arguments on both sides of these questions, as would a Wesleyan liberal or liberationist, or process theologian. The current tendency to line up on the issue in terms of the party from which one comes reflects non-Wesleyan aspects of each of the current groups.
Today evangelicals tend to support legislation restricting the freedom of pregnant women to have abortions. But this is more because evangelicals have adopted a conservative stance than because of their evangelical heritage from Wesley. Since the issue is not discussed in the Bible, the greater emphasis of evangelicals on staying close to biblical teachings is irrelevant. The tendency of contemporary evangelicals to appeal to tradition to support conservative positions would be checked by Wesley’s far more selective use of tradition, and much greater openness to current evidence. Wesleyan evangelicals would have to join liberals in a broader appeal to the Bible’s emphasis on God’s care for each individual person and try to work out the implications of that central conviction for these difficult questions.
Similarly, there is nothing about a Wesleyan liberalism that settles these questions. Liberals have often emphasized the sacred worth of each person. Approaching matters from this perspective heightens the importance of the question as to when the fetus becomes a person. Liberals could agree with Augustine that the human soul emerges at quickening and make a sharp distinction between abortions before or after this point. But they may make a different judgment on this point, identifying the beginning of authentically personal life with quickening, or with birth.
If their conclusions restrict the morality of abortion, they face a second decision. Should their conclusions only guide their own decisions, or should they try to pass laws that restrict the behavior of others. There is a tendency in liberal thought to leave as many decisions as possible to individuals rather than to introduce governmental restrictions. On the other hand, this does not apply in cases where a decision seriously injures others. We are thrown back on the question as to when the fertilized cell becomes an "other" to be protected by the state.
Liberationists, similarly, cannot decide these questions easily. They are particularly sensitive to oppression and seek in every way they can to liberate people from it. Feminists have emphasized the age-long oppression of women. They have pointed out that women have not been permitted control of their own bodies. Such control, they often emphasize, should include the freedom of a woman to decide what to do with a fetus that exists within her womb. For this reason there is a strong tendency for feminists to argue against any state-imposed restrictions.
Nevertheless, most feminists have deep feelings about the preciousness of the potential life that develops within women. They are convinced that even those who seek abortions share these feelings. They support the right to abortion because circumstances are too often such that other concerns rightfully override this one.
On the other hand, the concern for the weak and oppressed that is central to liberation theology can cut in a quite different direction. It is the fetus that is most powerless and voiceless. However powerless the woman may be in relation to other social forces in a patriarchal society, she is powerful in relation to the fetus. A liberationist may conclude that it is important to speak and act for the fetus.
Process thought deals more directly with some of the issues than do the fundamental principles of the other groups. On the question of when the fertilized egg develops into a human person, it answers unequivocally that this is a gradual process. There is no one point at which it occurs. But it does not draw the conclusion that before the fetus becomes a human person it has no intrinsic value. For process thought everything, and especially all living things, have intrinsic value. Their destruction is an evil that requires justification. On the other hand, life is not possible without the destruction of other life; so no
Among living things, those that have integrated subjective experience, or souls, have special value. If quickening corresponds to the emergence of a unified experience in the fetus, then it is an important stage in the movement toward human personhood. The abortion of a quickened fetus inflicts more pain and destroys more value than an earlier abortion. But it is not murder!
The greatest value of the fetus, however, is not its actual intrinsic value. The greatest value is its potential to become a human person. The ending of that possibility is more serious than the suffering and present loss involved in abortion. The latter is comparable to the killing of other animals or, more exactly, to their fetuses. The moral importance of abortion lies in cutting off as yet undeveloped possibilities.
No absolutist conclusions can be drawn from this. The failure to fertilize an ovum also cuts off undeveloped possibilities. But the fertilization of every ovum and bringing the resultant fetus to term would have consequences so appalling that noone could advocate an effort in this direction. We live in a world in which only a few of the potentials for life can or should be realized. We must make judgments about which ones, The greater the potential and the further its realization has been advanced, the more serious the loss. But this cannot place an absolute demand upon us.
Wesleyans must judge whether to appropriate the implications of process cosmology. They are, I believe, open to evangelicals, liberals, and liberationists. But persons from any of those camps can also reject them. They are not distinctively Christian, but they seem to me fully compatible with the faith, at least as a Wesleyan understands it.
If we recognize that in order to draw conclusions about matters of this sort, we must ask questions not answered by faith in any direct way, the tone of our debates can be improved. Christians should be able to debate philosophical questions without supposing that those who differ with them are less committed to Christ. Our unity in Christ allows for disagreement about many matters. These disagreements may be intense and prevent common action on important issues in our time. Recognition of the authenticity of one another’s faith does not mean indifference with respect to the philosophical issues on which we disagree or the diverse actions resulting from those disagreements. But the Wesleyan movement should be able to maintain its unity despite these debates. This is surely Wesley’s own view. It should be that of Wesleyans today.
In my first lecture I noted that the four categories of Wesleyans I identified are far from exhaustive. There are many other foci of attention among us. It is interesting, even remarkable, that so persons with such diverse emphases can all appeal, legitimately, to Wesley as a supporter. It is obviously not possible, in the concluding lecture, to discuss any of these other contemporary forms of Wesleyanism in any detail. But I would like to say enough to indicate that the movement from mutual conflict to complementarity and mutual appreciation is possible across a still broader spectrum than considered in the previous lectures. I will speak briefly about the seven additional emphases noted in the first lecture: orthodoxy, postliberalism, liturgical renewal, multiculturalism, institutionalism, spirituality, and healing.
Of these the first two present themselves as theological options for the church. Both are reactions against the liberalism treated in the second lecture, especially against what I recognized as its weaknesses. But both take positions that reject also much of what I believe Wesley would support in liberalism. In this way they enter into a relationship of conflict with liberalism rather than simply offering a different emphasis.
John Wesley was a great admirer of the Greek Fathers. He had much less appreciation of the Latin Fathers and very little for the medieval theology that grew out of their work. The tradition from which he developed his own thought skipped from the Greek Fathers to the tradition of the Church of England. In this evaluation of tradition, he was in agreement with many Anglicans.
One can argue that the Greek Fathers were in closer continuity with the gospel the New Testament writers. Their church was the one most directly continuous with the New Testament church. Hence, in order to understand the meaning of the gospel for a wider community than the first generation, these Fathers are our best source. Where we cannot answer our questions directly from scripture, we should have recourse to them.
Among evangelicals rather widely there has been a renewed interest in the Greek Fathers. Among some evangelicals, this has led also to an interest in the form of Christianity that is in greatest continuity with these Fathers, that is, Eastern Orthodoxy. A significant number of conservative evangelical Protestants have converted to Orthodoxy!
Obviously, a renewed interest in the Greek Fathers has Wesley’s blessing. It has also been attractive to a number of Wesleyan conservatives. It leads to the formulation of doctrine in ways that are clearly conservative but that differ from Roman Catholicism and well as Calvinism. It provides an authority over against current cultural developments, both liberal and liberationist.
The main problem from the point of view of Wesley’s heritage is the exclusivist tendency of orthodoxy. It tends to exclude all who find the history out of which they live to be one that has broken the relationship to this ancient past. A broken relationship does not exclude learning and appropriating much, and Wesleyans who retrieve the wisdom of the Greek Fathers can contribute much to this for all. But for many of us there have been developments in knowledge and understanding during the intervening centuries that make a simple retrieval of an eighteenth century figure like Wesley impossible. A repristination of second- and third-century writers poses even more severe difficulties. Their formulations of faith cannot be separated from their worldview, or from the culture of the Roman Empire of the time. That worldview and that culture are alien to us.
The post-liberal theology reacts to many of the same weakness of contemporary Wesleyan movement as does Orthodoxy. It wants to reestablish the radical difference between Christianity and the surrounding culture. It wants Christian meanings to shape the whole of life rather than compete with others arising from other sources. Many of its doctrinal and ethical conclusions would agree with those drawn from the Greek Fathers.
Nevertheless, in some respects the strategy is proposes is at an opposite pole from the orthodox one. It attacks liberalism for its commitment to universal and objective truth. It believes, no doubt with some justification, that the quest for such truth has undercut its commitment to the distinctive biblical and traditional forms of Christianity. However, in this attack it appeals to postmodern philosophy rather than to ancient wisdom. In its effort to achieve a universal vision, liberalism has continued the ancient tradition including that of the Greek Fathers, so that the attack on liberalism also condemns any return to earlier forms of theology including that of Wesley.
Post-liberalism believes that by giving up the attempt to formulate universal truths we become free to affirm our own distinctive Christian vision. This consists in an ordering of symbols and meanings that constitute the Christian faith. Our task is to immerse ourselves in this Christian way of thinking so that it shapes the whole of our vision. The community that lives in this way can be truly faithful to its heritage. If it is a Wesleyan community, then it will be faithful to this Wesleyan heritage.
There is a high price to be paid, however, for this move. Wesley’s evangelical zeal stemmed from his conviction that God is a reality for all people, that grace works in all, and that all are called to love God and neighbor and can be empowered to do so by grace. To think that this is one way of organizing thought, life, and feeling alongside other ways, that it is true for those who live by it but not for others, undercuts the zeal to explain to others the situation in which they objectively exist whether or not they have previously recognized it. The Wesleyan movement would never have come into existence if Wesley had thought in this way. It can be a form of renewal for those who half-heartedly commit themselves now to Wesleyan communities. It cannot motivate a new evangelism.
This does not mean that post-liberals have nothing to contribute to the Wesleyan movement today. There is no doubt that much of what constitutes us are particularities whose value does not depend on their universal truth or relevance. This does not reduce their usefulness as a way of forming us individually and collectively. We need to learn how to socialize our youth into our distinctive meanings and symbols to give them a special Christian identity. We cannot agree with post-liberals that all our beliefs are of this character. The God we worship is much more than a symbol. But, of course, the way we image God is an image that expresses our distinctive history and experience. Its value is for those who share that distinctive history and experience. Socialization into the community that lives from these meanings is an important contribution to the revitalization and renewal we so badly need. Post-liberals have shown us that we can emphasize our particularity without undertaking to impose it on others who have a different history and experience.
The other groups to which I have referred are more clearly matters of emphasis rather than efforts to shape the whole of the Wesleyan heritage. One such group has focused its attention on worship seeking the deepening of the church’s life through liturgical renewal. Certainly, they, too can appeal to Wesley. Usually they move in the direction of Episcopal liturgy with a strong emphasis on the Lord’s Supper. This was the form of worship in which Wesley himself participated.
The loss of this form of worship among resulted, not from a preference for something else on Wesley’s part, but from a peculiar history. He did not think of the movement he initiated as an alternate church. It was to supplement the established church and its worship. Nevertheless, when Methodists gathered they engaged in activities akin to worship. These had a highly informal and somewhat emotional character. For many Methodists they were more satisfying and meaningful than the formal services of the Church of England. When Methodism became a separate denomination, this history of evangelical worship carried over into its services. The Anglican liturgy, so precious to Wesley himself, largely disappeared.
The liturgical movement has developed across denominations. Wesleyan participation in it has been significant. There is no doubt that it has helped many Wesleyan communities to develop or recover forms of worship that mean much more to the participants.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, no one form of worship appeals to all. The tendencies in a high church direction can be felt by some as an abandonment of the deeply personal, truly heartfelt celebrations that have been so important to them. The music that appeals to more traditional worshippers may fail to touch generations of youth. To be faithful to Wesley is to be as concerned about practical consequences in these respects as about continuity with tradition. The Wesleyan revival involved radical innovations in church music in the eighteenth century. A new revival may require as much daring in our time.
For some Wesleyans today the greatest challenge confronting the church is to respond to the diversity of cultures and ethnicities that now characterize urban American society. This was not the problem Wesley faced. Looking back we can recognize that the societies he established were culturally and ethnically largely homogeneous. But to maintain an ethnically homogeneous church in a context in which there are Christians of many ethnicities impresses many as a failure to display the unity in Christ that was certainly a deep concern of Wesley.
The challenge is immense. The easiest response is to include within a denomination congregations of varying ethnic types. These can worship in their several languages and styles. They can be encouraged to have fellowship with one another and to unite at district and conference levels. This remains the majority pattern. But may find this profoundly inadequate. Cannot our unity in Christ be expressed in worshipping and working together as believers?
Of course, this is not difficult if it means only that a church made up primarily of one ethnic group, such as Euro-Americans, opens its doors to all. Most such congregations have some ethnic diversity. But this is still not real openness to the multi-cultural reality of our society. That requires that the many cultures have an equal share in shaping the shared life. Enormous efforts are expended to achieve this result. Thus far the results are modest in comparison with the extent of the work done. But for some Wesleyans attainment of a genuinely multi-cultural church is the greatest test of our seriousness in believing that Christ transcends all cultures.
I have labeled another segment of our church "institutionalist." This term is often pejorative, implying that some are devoted to institutional matters independently of any concern for the purposes of the church. But many of the people to whom I refer care deeply for the church and believe that it is very important to carrying out God’s purposes on Earth. They notice that many Wesleyans seem more intent on pushing their particular agenda and using the church to further these special ends than on enabling the church as a whole to survive and flourish. They focus their attention, therefore, on the institutional church and its health, even when this means discouraging some of the initiatives that come from one group or another within it.
They, too, can appeal to Wesley. Of course, for him, institution-building was for the sake of accomplishing the ends of the movement, and about these he was quite clear.
Some contemporary institutionalists have greater difficulty articulating more fundamental ends and purposes. But Wesley would have supported their conviction that without the institution, little happens on a long-term basis. It is because he gave so much attention to institutionalizing his movement, and did so so skillfully, that among the great revivalists only he left a lasting mark on society.
The danger among institutionalists is that they may suppose that the survival and health of the church can be assured by proper institutional arrangements. Wesley certainly knew this was not true. And, even if it were true, what would thereby survive might be of little service to God. Institutional structures must serve the church’s mission, and without renewal of commitment to that mission, no structure will do more than buy a little time.
This recognition of the emptiness of the church as institution has aroused in our culture broadly and within the Wesleyan movement a strong interest in spirituality. "Spirituality" means many things. It is sometimes contrasted with "religion," on the assumption that religion is tied to institutions and traditions whereas what people now need is free of these outer trappings and authorities. This no doubt expresses the fact that many people have not been liberated and empowered or deeply touched inwardly by their experience in churches. They are looking elsewhere for what the churches have failed to give them.
The preference for spirituality over religion can also be an expression of the consumer society and its individualism. People want recipes for inner serenity and confidence that do not involve interaction with others or taking responsibility for institutional life. The private practice of meditation can fulfill this need.
Wesley certainly understood the spiritual hunger that is so widely expressed today. He read widely in the mystics and appreciated much of what he found. But he was also critical. Mysticism as an effort at self-improvement was doomed to failure. Our growth is a matter of God’s grace working in us. Also, mysticism could be individualistic, whereas the Christian life is inherently social. The small group movement at the heart of Methodist organization expresses his own sense of how to advance the spiritual quest. It was social both in its involvement of social interaction within itself and in its concern for the relationship to others of all who are involved.
Wesleyans today who recognize the deep spiritual hunger of our time characteristically reaffirm the importance of small groups. These have never died out in our churches altogether, but they have lost much in intensity and have come to be regarded as optional rather than central to our participation in the movement. The Wesleyans who emphasize the renewal of spirituality through small groups would certainly have Wesley’s enthusiastic support.
Problems remain, however, with the term spirituality itself. Its origins in monastic devotions still tinge its current use. Our Wesleyan concern is for the deepening of love for God and neighbor, not for esoteric experiences. Love inherently expresses itself in action. We are not cultivating an inner state as an end in itself. The term "discipleship" captures more of this than does "spirituality."
Another special focus among Wesleyans is on the renewal of a healing ministry. They note that physical and psychological healing was as central to Jesus’ ministry as was the forgiving of sins. Often they went together. They note also that Wesley devoted time and attention to physical health, even if he separated this somewhat from his evangelism.
Wesley separated these in part because he was taught to do so by the science of the time. In that science, the physical world was understood to be passive matter. On matter God acted from without, since it had no within. More recent biology and physics have replaced this view with one that asserts that the physical world is composed of energy rather than passive matter. There is indication that energy events take account of one another, that they have an inside as well as an outside. If so, then Wesley could extend to bodies his understanding of how God works in the human psyche and in all living things – that is, inwardly and persuasively. One can also understand how intimately the psyche and the body are interrelated. This gives us the opportunity to see salvation also in a more holistic way.
The truth is that many people are more concerned about their physical and psychological illness than about their sin. It may be that the good news for our time needs to recover the full breadth of that proclaimed by Jesus. In response to John the Baptist’s question about his Messiahship, he replied: "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them." In announcing his mission in Nazareth he read from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
Can we proclaim such a gospel today that includes physical and psychological healing? Some think so and believe that those who do so will both be more faithful to the New Testament and more effective in reaching people in this new century. They voice a very important challenge to a church that has compartmentalized body, mind, and spirit.
In my judgment Wesley would have been happy to see these dimensions of human life more fully integrated. He would warn against promising what cannot be delivered or regarding ill health as necessarily a sign of lack of faith. To add guilt to sickness is not good news. But to affirm that God works through every cell in our body to bring healing and health and that our openness to grace can further that working is not alien to Wesley’s teaching.
It is time to pull all this together in its relevance to its challenge to contemporary Wesleyans. What are the implications of what I have been saying? They are that if we are all willing to evaluate our various concerns and emphases in new dialogue with Wesley, we may be able to pull together instead of using our energies in contesting with one another. We might be able to engage in a whole new era of evangelism.
This program would give central place, rather obviously, to evangelicals as those most explicitly committed to sharing the good news. But it would require that evangelicals abandon their tendencies to moralism, conservatism, and party spirit. Their effort would be devoted to understanding what the good news is for our time and to sharing it effectively.
I have suggested that the good news would be more like that proclaimed by Jesus. The narrowing of the good news to the forgiveness of sins would be reversed. Certainly that would continue along with Wesley’s emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit enabling us to grow in love of God neighbor. But it would be further enriched by the theology of liberation and by those who emphasize the holistic nature of human existence. We would proclaim the good news that God has purposes for the world and for each of us within it and that through grace God makes the realization of those purposes possible.
There would be no defensiveness in this new evangelism in relation to the best thinking of the time. That does not mean that we Christians would simply accept the conclusions that come from assumptions alien to our beliefs. But we would engage the discussion in a completely open spirit with no special pleading. In inviting people to open themselves to God and join with us in a movement to realize God’s purposes, we would present our gospel as at the cutting edge of critical thought, not as an intellectual backwater. We would bring the good news to the university as well as to the poor, and we would challenge the learned as well as the ignorant.
The full formulation of what God calls us toward would be continuously reviewed and revised. This would be both in light of what we can learn from all who work with us and in light of what we observe to be the effects of our proclamation. We would be pragmatists in the way Wesley was.
Like Wesley we would organize and institutionalize our work. Here, too, we would, like Wesley, improvise and learn from failures and successes. We would also appreciatively toward others who were working toward similar ends through other means and organizations. Some of these would be other Christian groups. Some would be related to other religious communities or consider themselves entirely secular. The realization of God’s purposes in the lives of individuals and in the world at large is so vast a goal that we would know that many approaches are required. But we would aim to make as great a contribution to the salvation of the world in this new century as Wesley made in England in the eighteenth century and Methodism made in the United States in the nineteenth century as it spread scriptural holiness across the land.
I realize, of course, that what I see as possible for a re-Wesleyanized church is far removed from present reality. Whereas Wesley sized up the problems of eighteenth century England and found a way of responding, we hardly attempt to analyze the deepest problems of our own time. We exhaust ourselves in quarrels about a few ecclesiastical and moral questions. Meanwhile our youth abandon us in droves because we are irrelevant and boring.
This is not the only possibility. The needs of the world, and even of our own nation are even more acute now than they were in Wesley’s day. As individuals people suffer from meaningless and seek meaning fruitlessly in the acquisition of wealth or in irresponsible sensuality. Failing in all this they turn to alcohol or become addicted to drugs. Frustrated, people turn to violence against one another and especially against those who are different. Their need to know the love of God and experience it in their lives is palpable.
Nationally, we are concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The rich grow richer while the poor grow poorer. We have become insensitive to the suffering of the poor and ignore the existence of the underclass created by our economic policies. Our prisons house one-fourth of all the prisoners in the world! The policies that determine who is imprisoned are heavily racist. As politics is governed more and more by the wealthy, masses of people have given up hope in democratic policies and do not even vote. In these ways much of the progress we thought we had made in this country is rapidly eroding.
One effect of empowering the rich is to reorder the whole world’s economy for the benefit of corporations. These, and not national governments, now rule the world. The growing separation between rich and poor in our country is vastly magnified when viewed on a global scale.
Meanwhile the economic growth that increases the wealth of billionaires is exhausting the planets resources. We are using them at an unsustainable rate, which means that we had are on a collision course with disaster. We are giving out of fresh water, of wood, or soil, of seafood, and of oil. The promise that technology will solve all these problems is grounded in a faith that is not directed to God. Instead of adapting to the need to be cautious and move toward sustainability, we are raising the temperature of the planet in ways will disrupt climates everywhere with unpredictable but disturbing consequences. From all these crises the poor suffer first and most.
Perhaps the reason that we Wesleyans do not now proclaim the good news is that we have no confidence any exists. But if we believe in God we cannot give up our hope. Nor need we do so. Much of course is already lost, but much can still be saved. And human beings can adjust to losses in ways that lead to more humane relationships among them instead of mutual destruction. God cannot give us now what would have been possible had we repented thirty years ago, but God can still give us much. That is good news worth proclaiming.
Summary: Cobb holds that Wesley was a process theologian in the sense that Wesley sees God as working with each human being through the course of our lives — a process. Wesley pays close attention to the actual changes that occur: the emergence of faith, growth in love, falling back into sin. A large part of his preaching and theology deal with the stages of this process and how God works in them. None of this is decided from all eternity. It is worked out in a real process of interaction between the individual and God.
You may understandably think that this title is the most anachronistic of all. If a process theologian is one who has been influenced by philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, then obviously you are right. Historical influence does not work backwards in time.
But my argument is that in a general sense process thought has been around for a long time. In philosophy in the West, we trace it back to Heraclitus. In India it was richly developed by Gautama Buddha. In general, if we consider the two main sources of Christian theology as the Bible and Greek philosophy, we can say that process thought is more characteristic of the Bible than substance thought of the Greeks. Given this broad use of the term, it is not anachronistic to claim that Wesley came down much more on the side of process.
Let me explain my use of the terms "substance" and "process." If I ask you give me examples of substantial things, I suspect you will point to rocks and sticks, plants and animal bodies, perhaps also atoms and heavenly bodies. Most Greek philosophy, except for Heraclitus, took its cue from reflection about things like this. Most modern science did so as well.
Now if I ask you to identify some processes, you might find that a bit less clear. It might be better for me to ask you to identify some events. That you can do easily. A lecture is an event, and so is an election. A wedding is an event, and so is a war. Birth and death are events. I could then explain that by a process I refer to a sequence of events. A person’s life from birth to death is a process. So is the history of Israel.
It should now be easy to understand the sense in which I claim that the Bible is more about processes than substances. There is very little reflection about objects and their attributes. There is a great deal of story telling and history.
In the formation of Christian theology, the Greek influence was very great. Whereas most Biblical talk of God locates God as an actor in a story, the theology forged in the early centuries is deeply influenced by Greek reflection about substances. The resulting picture of God is in severe tension with the actor in the story. We are told that God cannot be affected by anything that happens. God cannot act differently at different times.
The understanding of Jesus is also affected. Instead of thinking primarily about the story of Jesus in the gospels and how God is involved in that story, we are offered reflections about how the divine substance and the human substance can be united in one person. The resultant doctrine led many to suppose that Jesus was not really affected by interactions with others. He was so far removed from ordinary human experience that Christians needed an intermediary in order to relate to him. Mary served that purpose for many.
The Reformation was in part a protest against the dominance of Greek substance categories over biblical historical and personal ones. But the former were never systematically excised from official doctrine, and Aristotle quickly recaptured a leading place in Lutheran theological education. To a surprising extent, conservative Protestant philosophers of religion continue to follow the guidance of Thomas Aquinas, the great Aristotelian theologian.
Calvin belonged to the nominalist or voluntarist theological tradition. Instead of focusing with Thomas on the being of God, he focused on God’s will. This could be a more biblical, event-oriented, approach. But Calvin emphasized the immutability of God as much as the earlier substance-oriented theologians had done. The logical implication is that everything is determined from the outset by God’s one, unchanging act of will. The narrative history told in the Bible is, then, simply the outworking in time of that eternal act.
Now there is much in Calvin and in subsequent Calvinists that is far more fully influenced by the biblical account. There is much process in Calvin. Nevertheless, his most fundamental pronouncements work against this, and to a considerable extent he was willing to draw the logical conclusions. Some of his followers went even farther in doing so.
At this point you will understand why I claim Wesley for the process side of this long debate. Wesley sees God as working with each human being through the course of our lives. He pays close attention to the actual changes that occur: the emergence of faith, growth in love, falling back into sin. A large part of his preaching and theology deal with the stages of this process and how God works in them. None of this is decided from all eternity. It is worked out in a real process of interaction between the individual and God.
Of course, Wesley did not think of this in terms of the distinction between substance and process. Hence he did not thematically work out the implications of choosing for process. He is not a process theologian in the sense of having chosen to build his theology in relation to a process philosophy instead of a substance one. He was far from ignorant of philosophy and he engaged philosophers in significant ways, but these philosophers did not themselves develop their thought in terms of this alternative. They were all substance philosophers, even though their work began the process of undercutting the concept of substance. Wesley was a process thinker, I believe, because he was immersed in the Bible and because he was radically open to what he actually experienced.
This far you may be able to accompany me even if you are not sympathetic with any of the forms of contemporary process theology. But I would like to persuade you that there are important features of Wesley’s thought that parallel closely with more technical doctrines arising out of recent process philosophy. In short, I believe that Wesley’s theology as some forms of contemporary process theology are more closely related than one would expect from their quite different social locations and histories.
The contemporary form of process thought to which I will limit my remarks is that of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers, among whom I count myself. Whereas Wesley came to his theology chiefly out of his study of the Bible and his personal experience, Whitehead was a mathematical physicist trying to make coherent sense of deep perplexities created by new discoveries in the early part of this century. On the other hand, this exaggerates their differences. Wesley was keenly interested in science and saw it as another basis for understanding God and the world. Whitehead was keenly interested in religious experience and believed that any adequate cosmology must learn from it and make sense of it. Incidentally both were products of vicarages of the Church of England.
In my opinion, the greatest theological contribution of Wesley was his way of affirming human responsibility for our ultimate destiny and daily life while strongly maintaining the primacy of faith. This provided a third way between Calvinism and deism. Calvinists thought that they must exclude any human contribution to salvation to avoid allowing Christians to believe that they were saved by their virtue. Deists thought that God gave us free will and that everything else is up to us. Wesley found both views deeply alien to the Bible. The problem was formulating a coherent alternative.
One possibility is to say that God urges all of us to accept the gift of salvation, and that some do and some don’t. This is a sense acknowledges the primacy of grace, but since the result depends on a human decision, the Calvinist fear is realized. Finally, believers can claim that they deserve salvation because they chose rightly. Wesley agreed that this possibility of boasting must be excluded.
To exclude boasting, one may say that God works faith in our hearts, but that this grace is not irresistible. We contribute nothing to the positive outcome, but by our resistance we may prevent it from happening. In this case, while we are rightly blamed for failing to be saved, we can take no credit for our salvation.
Wesley comes close to this view, but it does not quite express his understanding. This view is normally associated with a somewhat external view of God’s working and the notion that human nature is completely sinful. In this case there is a competition between the gracious work of God and the sinful resistance of human nature. But one wonders how there can be degrees of resistance on the part of a completely sinful nature. One wonders also whether it must not be God’s decision to overcome or not to overcome the resistance.
Wesley changed this picture by locating the working of God within the human being. He kept the view that human nature is entirely sinful, but he regarded human nature in this sense as an abstraction from real human beings. An actual human being, even a baby is already the union of God’s grace and human nature. Thus an actual human being makes choices that result from the particular way in which grace and nature are united in that person. This choice is constantly affecting the way in which grace can function in the next moment. It clearly affects the question of whether justification will occur and how far one will go on to perfection in love.
In this way Wesley gives a large role to actual human decisions. But these decisions are never made independently of grace. To the extent that they are oriented to the reception of more grace, they are already informed by the grace that has worked there before. Noone can boast of any achievement as if that were not dependent on the working of grace. One can only thank God for the great gifts bestowed on one and pray for continued strength to make the decisions for which one is responsible.
Theoretically, one can still press for more clarity about the respective contributions of human nature and grace. I am not sure that Wesley had the tools for a wholly satisfactory answer. But for the practical purposes of preaching and teaching, Wesley’s formulations offered a third way that won the hearts and minds of many. In earlier lectures I have bemoaned its loss in Methodism if not in the Wesleyan movement as a whole.
Now let us turn to Whitehead. He formulated his model of human experience for quite different purposes. But in surprising ways he supports and clarifies Wesley’s vision.
Whitehead saw every occasion of experience as a coming together of the whole world in that locus. Our personal past informs the present. Recent bodily events. including sensory awareness of the external world, also enter into that experience. Through these, the whole human past and even the whole cosmic past play some role. All of this is heavily laden with emotion.
If we suppose that this is an exhaustive account, however, we cannot understand either novelty or human freedom. The present would be simply the outcome of the past. In William James’ words, we would be living in a block universe. The all-determination of God’s will in Calvin would be replaced by an all-determination by nature.
Much scientific work is carried on as if this were an exhaustive picture. But Whitehead points out that the scientist who engages in this work acts as though he were a responsible person who chose to do this work. Whitehead insists that this practical assumption of all action, deepened in religious experience, must be accounted for in an adequate cosmology. This requires that there is something present in each occasion of experience that is not derived from the past.
This factor must introduce into the occasion of experience the possibility of responding to the inflowing world in more that one way. These ways include the appropriation of novelty. Of course, the possibilities are closely related to what has happened thus far, and in the great majority of cases, the range of possibilities in a single moment is quite limited. But cumulative decisions can still make a great deal of difference.
God calls this factor entering into every occasion of experience God. God is thus the source of freedom and responsibility. God is also the call to make the best choice among the possibilities. In this way God is the giver of life, the explanation of conscience, and the ground of hope.
Let us look at Wesley’s problem from this perspective. Apart from God’s presence in an occasion of experience, there is the total impact of the past world on the present moment. This has elements in it that are both good and bad. If we trace back the good elements, we will find that their goodness derives from God’s contribution to them. That contribution is so thoroughly intermixed in the whole that one cannot sort it out.
But without God’s fresh incursion, the present will simply reenact that past in some changed pattern generated by the respective strength of the many forces that impinge on it.
The fresh coming and calling of God in this moment changes that. Because of it, the present moment can and must make a decision. It can decide largely to ignore the new possibilities God offers and fall back into habit. It can decide to adopt the finest possibility, the one to which God calls in that moment. Or it can make an intermediate decision. That decision will influence the kinds of possibilities God can give in the next moment and how open the person will be to God in the next moment.
What determines the person’s choice? Here the answer is: Nothing determines it. The choice emerges out of the interaction of the whole past with the call of God in the present. It is, in a sense, causa sui. But whereas it is caused by nothing other than itself, it is influenced by everything, and especially by the decisions made in the past and by God’s persuasiveness. Those earlier decisions were also the self-determined outcome of the interaction of the pressures coming from the past and the fresh calling of God.
For my own part, I find this eminently congenial to Wesley’s thought, illuminating of my own experience, and conceptually satisfying. No doubt my own reading of Wesley has been influenced by what I have learned from Whitehead. I am sure also that the existential meanings I draw from Whitehead’s cosmology are deeply affected by the influence of Wesley on my life. All this, I think, is as it should be.
There is a second contribution that process thought can make to Wesleyan theology today. This is a critique of the dominant worldview. I will pick up from my discussion of how liberalism has been radically open to the sciences and to historical scholarship. I said that I thought Wesley would approve that. But I do not believe that Wesley would be happy with all the consequences of this openness. I believe that Wesley would have approved a counteroffensive against a good deal that we are asked to think and believe as people open to contemporary scholarship and science.
To take a rather obvious example, God has been excluded from the university. To affirm that God acts in the world is to violate the canons of science and scholarship as they operate in our world. When we bring standard historical scholarship to bear in the interpretation of the Bible, this means that a priori we exclude the activity of God as an explanation of any historical occurrence reported there.
The weight of the modern worldview goes further still. There are many extraordinary events recorded in the Bible. We call them miracles. In the eighteenth century believers in God divided between those who thought that God set up a law-abiding world and left matters to these laws and those who believed that God also intervened supernaturally from time to time. The latter lost out so far as the course of scholarship is concerned. That is probably inevitable, and even desirable, if these are our only choices. The result has been that scholars simply deny that any of these events actually occurred.
Process theology advocates another possibility. Since God is present and active in every event, the notion of supernatural intervention should be rejected in favor of a theistic naturalism. But in such a naturalism the activity of God is an explanatory factor to be reckoned with. Furthermore, the range of possible events is far wider in a process world than in a substance world. The evidence for parapsychology, so commonly excluded because it violates the dominant worldview can be sifted, and in large part appropriated. In this view, many strange and wonderful things have happened. We should not be simply credulous, since we know that imagination and literary license play a large role in reporting what has happened. But we should also not be dogmatically incredulous.
Process thought also provides a way that overcomes the tendency toward relativism resulting from openness to the wisdom of other religious traditions. Let us consider why that tendency is so widespread. It is typically thought that if two traditions hold different views of ultimate reality, they cannot both be correct. One may defend one against the other, or one may become skeptical of both. One may take the linguistic turn and deny that religious statements are about reality, interpreting them as expressions of value and ways of ordering life meaningfully. It seems that only those who defend the truth of one traditional affirmation against all the others are likely to maintain evangelical zeal! And to many, this seems narrow, rigid, and bigoted. Liberals often decide that there are many paths up the mountain of truth or salvation, and that one should not judge the beliefs accompanying one path better than those accompanying other paths.
There is another way of looking at matters. Process thought understands the totality of reality as being far richer and more complex than any individual or culture can ever appreciate or realize. Each culture highlights certain features of the whole and learns much about that. The features highlighted in cultures differ. What they come to know in their attention to these different features of the totality is, or can be, mutually complementary. To learn what another culture has discovered does not necessarily conflict with affirming the full truth of what one’s own culture has learned.
To make this a bit more concrete, consider the difference between the cultures from which Christianity comes and those of the East. In both a great deal is said about form, but what is said is quite different. Aristotle distinguished between form and matter and saw the imposition of form on matter as of primary importance. Mathematics and science developed through the study of form abstracted from matter. There is little attention to matter as such.
In the opening verses of Genesis we are told that when God began creating the Earth was a formless void. Thus the reality of the formless is acknowledged. But attention is directed entirely to God’s creation, which entailed the imposition of form on this void. There is little reflection about the void and formlessness. All value is associated with what is formed.
In contrast, any Westerner who studies Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoists texts is startled to find the fascination with the formless. Somehow the formless seems more real, more ultimate, than what has formed. To reach it one goes behind the forms. One comes to realize that at the deepest level one participates in this formlessness. The quest for release from the world of appearance is pursued through meditational practices that move beyond form.
Of course, this is a vast oversimplification. In the West we find mystics who seek the Formless. There are great differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists with respect to their valuation of form and formlessness. Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that the East has been learning a great deal from the West about form, especially as that has been studied in mathematics and science. And a considerable number of Westerners have been seeking to learn about the Formless from Eastern teachers.
There are great differences between the ways of thinking, the valuations, and the orientations that arise out of these two foci of attention and concern. Many of the formulations developed by their practitioners are in conflict. But in principle and in general, it is possible for knowledge of form and of the formless to be complementary and to be unified into a larger whole. In that context it is possible to affirm both the Christian God and the Buddhist Nirvana. Learning about Nirvana and accepting the wisdom associated with it need not in any way weaken our convictions about God.
I will illustrate also in a more familiar example. Western medicine has been based on a well-established understanding of the human body. Eastern medicine, I will take the Chinese version as my example, has been based on a different understanding. The tendency of Western doctors has been to assume that their picture of the body is virtually exhaustive. It has no place for the kind of energy flows on which traditional Chinese medicine is based. On this basis, one may simply reject Chinese medicine a priori as superstition.
Fortunately, this has not happened. Enough Western doctors have observed the efficacy of acupuncture that they have recognized it as a valid approach to healing. Meanwhile the Chinese have recognized the great achievements of Western medicine. The two are complementary. There is still no fully articulated account of the human body that shows how the Western and Chinese maps are complementary, but that is implied by the fact that both systems work. To accept Chinese medicine in no way denies the efficacy of Western medicine.
To point out that a process worldview critiques assumptions that are almost universal in scholarly research and opens is significant only if people are open to issues of worldview. Many of our contemporaries have concluded that interest in such questions reflects a now outdated mindset. Since Kant, it is widely thought, the effort to hold scientific and moral questions together in a unified context has been shown to be misguided. As the sciences have developed, any effort to derive a unified coherent picture from them has also been abandoned. Even within physics there is not much interest in developing a coherent quantum theory or integrating relativity theory with it. Certainly the social sciences have quite separate assumptions and implications. Deconstructionists tell us that any effort to achieve a unified worldview aims at hegemony and is thus oppressive.
Many theologians rejoice in this abandonment of worldview interest. It means that they need not concern themselves to relate the articulation of faith to other arenas of thought. On the left, this often means that theology is a system of symbols that does not claim to describe any independent reality. On the right, it often means that one can describe reality as revealed without concern about other approaches to reality,.
Both find an advantage in the new autonomy of theology. If theology must adapt to new scholarly findings, it can never be settled or complete. It is always vulnerable to new discoveries by historians and scientists. To relate theology to a cosmological scheme such as Whitehead’s either leads to failure to recognize its provisionality or to an endless modification both of the cosmology and of theology as scholarship advances.
Process thinkers accept this condition. Whitehead’s cosmology seems to us the best we have. He himself certainly recognized that it is incomplete and provisional. He did not think that meant that it was likely to be totally overthrown by new developments, but it certainly means that it is endlessly subject to revision. Process theologians believe that the same is true of the affirmations of Christian faith. It is the human condition that we must live and think without finality or certainty. That does not mean that we cannot have considerable confidence in some of our assertions! It does not mean that we are unable to act decisively in terms of the best that we know.
Few would claim that Wesley thought in these post-Kantian ways. But I have argued on other matters that Wesley would have been open to new forms of scholarship and would have adapted his teaching to their implications. Hence both liberals and conservatives who reject the quest for a comprehensive overview could claim that given the course of intellectual life, Wesley would have followed the direction they have taken. In their view, his confidence in reason would have been replaced by a formulation of beliefs that was fully autonomous from other lines of inquiry.
I recognize that Wesley might have responded that way over time. I affirm, however, that this would have been a profound change that he would not have relished. The union of faith and reason in his theology was important to him. That he could appeal to scientists in support of his teaching gave him great satisfaction. The liberal replacement of statements about objective reality with the ordering of images and symbols appropriate to a community is quite foreign to his vision. It tends strongly to undercut the passion for evangelism, working much better in established communities of believers. The claim that revelation provides us with knowledge of objective reality would have been much more readily acceptable, but that this knowledge is disconnected from that gained from other sources would have been disturbing to Wesley.
My claim, then, is that Wesley would be sympathetic toward fresh efforts to develop an overview inclusive of both science and faith. That this overview supports some of his central beliefs would have added to his interest. That it also provides a basis for criticizing scholarly assumptions that undercut acceptance of much in the biblical stories would also register positively with him.
At the same time, I acknowledge that we cannot tell whether he would have been willing to side with a small intellectual minority against the dominant thinking of the time. Perhaps he would, after all, have felt that Christians must accept the predominant intellectual consensus and find some way to articulate their beliefs within it. In that case, the efforts of Wesleyan process theologians turns out not to be faithful to his spirit. Although I prefer to think that for the sake of affirming the unity of all God’s work, Wesley would have been willing to counter the dominant intellectual currents of our time, I know that I do not know.
Thus far I have been primarily making the case that process thought can be helpful to those who want to be faithful to Wesley. It is not parallel to evangelical, liberal, and liberationist forms of the Wesleyan movement. Whereas most practitioners of all three reject process thought, a few in each group appropriate it in part or in whole. It is obvious that I wish more would do so.
One obstacle to its appropriation by evangelicals and liberationists is that the theological appropriation of Whitehead’s thought occurred initially among liberals. That means that process theology as it now exists has a strongly liberal caste. Liberationists initially took it as just one more instance of comfortable members of the white male establishment indulging their intellectual interests in a profoundly oppressive world. There was some justification for this critique. But on the whole process theologians have been open to learning from liberation theologians, and some liberation theologians have recognized their need for types of reflection with which process thought can help them. The lines are not as sharp as originally posed from the side of liberationists.
The strong support among process theologians for liberationist concerns has not always helped to bridge the gap toward evangelicals. Especially those evangelicals who maintain a strongly Calvinist tradition are understandably suspicious of process thought. Nevertheless, there is a large overlap of concerns between evangelicals and process thinkers.
Many evangelicals share with process thinkers resistance to the fragmentation of knowledge that characterizes the modern university and the world in general. Their believe that God created and rules all things leads to different conclusions. Sometimes their efforts to bring coherent lead to imposing answers on scientists in ways that do not seem responsible, but most of them prefer to find ways of dealing responsibly with science without allowing its implicit atheism to determine the outcome.
Most evangelicals also share with process theologians the commitment to be realists in their theological affirmations. In terms of the current use of language, this means that they remain metaphysical, refusing to think of "God" as only a symbol of the community’s faith. They share interest in God’s nature and actions with process theologians. In the case of the more Calvinist evangelicals, it is true, the resulting dialogue is likely to be polemical.
Many of the reasons for the hostility toward process thought by Calvinist evangelicals are similar to their reasons for suspicion of Wesley. Hence there is no need for Wesleyan evangelicals to share in this hostility. Those who continue Wesley’s emphasis on God’s love and on human responsibility find at least some congeniality with Whitehead’s philosophy. Accordingly, a number of Wesleyan evangelicals have allied themselves with process theology on many points. A much friendlier relation is possible here.
I need to close by noting differences between Wesley and process thought and the warnings we process theologians should expect from Wesley. The most obvious is that it is quite possible to become so enthusiastic about Whitehead’s cosmology that the primacy of devotion to Christ is lost. One can become a Whiteheadian instead of a Christian. This has happened. And of course one can become a Whiteheadian as a Jew or as Buddhist. In other words, a Whiteheadian Christian may end up serving two masters. A Wesleyan process theologian cannot follow this course.
This warning can also be formulated in terms of the role of the Bible in process theology. Many process writings in the field of theology approach biblical teaching from the outside, whereas Wesley approached all questions from a point of view that was immersed in scripture. This expresses the fact that most process theology to date has come out of the liberal camp. Two hundred years of biblical scholarship have led to a more external relation to scripture on the part of too many of us. This is a problem that can be corrected by those evangelical process theologians who are genuinely immersed in scripture rather than distinguishing themselves by their objective statements about biblical authority.
Wesley would also warn us about an intellectualism that turns attention away from the personal needs of ordinary individuals. To accept process philosophy does not need to have this effect. But excitement about the solution of intellectual problems can easily distract from effective dealing with deeply personal ones. Wesley organized believers so as to strengthen their faith and enable them to support the evangelism of others. Liberals have lost touch with that, especially the evangelistic dimension, and process theologians coming from the liberal tradition share this weakness. We are more likely to be evangelical about process thought than about the Christian gospel.
Obviously, I am not the best critic of process thought. I hope the previous paragraphs indicate that I have heard criticisms that I take seriously. I am personally clear that my deepest loyalty is to Christ. I came to Whitehead at a point in my life when my Christian beliefs seemed unsustainable in the light of what I was learning of the modern world. The encounter with Whitehead enabled me to remain a Christian and, indeed, to deepen, and I hope, purify my faith.
For me the task is so to understand Christ that the tension between my belief in him and my conviction of the fruitfulness of Whitehead’s philosophy is overcome. Today my faith in Christ is so informed by the worldview I have learned from Whitehead that I can hardly separate them. Perhaps Wesley would warn against that as well. But for myself, I find it an empowering basis to challenge the unchristian culture in which I live. I like to think that Wesley would approve this vocation.
Summary: Wesley was an evangelical in the sense that he undertook to supplement the activity of the Church of England with a program aimed at bringing the gospel to the masses of estranged people and helping them to transform their personal and social lives. Cobb enumerates genuine Wesleyan qualities which “evangelicals” today should give up, and those which they should emulate.
I am a Wesleyan. In one sense I have always known that. Although in my childhood I attended chiefly ecumenical Protestant churches in Japan, I knew that I was a Methodist. I was baptized by a Japanese Methodist bishop, and I joined a Southern Methodist church in Georgia at the age of seven. By then I was aware that Methodists looked to John Wesley as their founder. In high school I remember arguing with Presbyterian friends about predestination.
In another sense, I make the statement today with greater emphasis than I have in most of my adult life. My concerns as a young adult were with Christian faith in general -- whether I could continue to be a believer at all. At that juncture it mattered little to me whether the belief would be Catholic or Protestant, much less whether it would be Lutheran or Methodist. The piety of my youth had been shattered by its encounter with modernity, and I teetered on the brink of total abandonment.
I attended the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, an institution with liberal Baptist roots. I attended the First Baptist Church of Chicago because of its openness to Japanese-Americans during World War II and its Japanese pastor, Jitsuo Morikawa. My teachers at the Divinity School were Episcopalian, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregationalist. Wesley was not a significant figure in my theological education.
On the other hand, it never occurred to me to change denominations. If I could be a Christian believers at all, I had no desire to be anything but a Methodist. Eventually I qualified for ordination as a Methodist by taking courses in the correspondence school. The North Georgia conference was suspicious of my Chicago-informed theology, but I squeaked through.
For three years I taught at a little Methodist junior college in Appalachia. Then I went to Emory University. I taught a broad swath of courses. The theological issues in a Methodist seminary dealt with the Reformers, by whom one meant Luther and Calvin, and with their contemporary heirs, Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, and the new quest for the historical Jesus. As a "process" theologian, my struggle was to get a foothold in the conversation.
Actually at Emory I did not teach systematic theology. I taught historical theology, and in doing so I did make the point that Wesley should be taken seriously in that discipline. But I spent more time teaching philosophy and humanities in the university than historical theology in the School of Theology. Wesley was one of a hundred figures to whom I gave some attention.
When I came to Claremont in 1958 I was at last able to teach what mattered most to me, that is, what I thought Christians could responsibly believe in the twentieth century. Of course, I still spent much more time introducing students to the great theologians of the twentieth century than propounding my own ideas. In neither category did Wesley figure significantly.
Nevertheless, my interest in Wesley grew. On the occasions when I read about him or dipped into his writings, I was impressed. Also, I became aware that I was more deeply influenced by him than I had realized. As I reflected on the differences between Wesley and the earlier reformers, I saw that these were quite similar to my differences with the Neo-Reformation thinkers who dominated the mid-century discussion. I realized that I was Neo-Wesleyan in much the same sense that they were Neo-Lutheran and Neo-Calvinist.
I remained somewhat suspicious of the whole "neo" approach. And I was suspicious also of the "back to Wesley" tendencies among some Methodists. My own sensitivities accented the enormous intellectual and cultural changes that had occurred in the past two hundred years. Wesley as an eighteenth-century thinker was not as remote from us as Luther and Calvin, but the distance remained great. I knew that it my own religious crisis, reading Wesley would have been no help.
Also, one of the great contributions of Wesleyan denominations seemed to me to be their ecumenical character. I do not mean only that they participated in councils of churches. I mean that in their seminaries, or at least in those of the United Methodist Church, the emphasis on Methodism was muted. Lutheran seminaries accented Luther and the Lutheran confessions. Presbyterian seminaries accented Calvin and the Reformed tradition. Both favored professors who stood in those traditions. We Methodists sought the best professors we could get with little regard to their denominations. The back to Wesley movement seemed to encourage a denominationalism that would be a backward move for Methodism. I wanted Wesley to be heard as one part of a much larger heritage, not singled out as especially normative.
I have stated this in the past tense. That does not mean that I have changed my mind drastically. I am still far more concerned for the future of ecumenical Christianity than for that of my own denomination or the Wesleyan movement as a whole. But my perception of the situation has changed.
First, I have become clear that my concern for ecumenical Christianity instead of denominationalism was also Wesley’s. Indeed, the Methodist tendencies in that direction are derived from him. There is, therefore, in principle, no tension between going back to Wesley and locating him as simply one figure, however impressive, in the ecumenical tradition.
Second, and more important, I gradually realized that my denomination, like most of the old-line denominations, was in serious trouble. In the fifties and sixties I had taken the denomination for granted as the context in which I would work. My ecclesiastical politics were directed to influencing the denomination in the direction of my concerns and convictions. But the decline of the denomination as a whole called for different responses. I regret to say that I was all too slow in shifting gears.
In so far as I have shifted gears and taken some responsibility for the health and future of my denomination, my major efforts have been directed toward renewing lay theology in the church. I became convinced that one major reason for decline was that theology had become an academic discipline rather than the articulation of the faith of ordinary Christians. Unless lay people came to their own confession of faith and were committed to the beliefs at which they arrived, I could not, and cannot, foresee a healthy renewal in the life of the denomination. I did not consciously come to this conviction under the influence of Wesley, but I have little doubt that as the leader of a great lay movement he would agree.
Third, I saw that as the denomination overall declined, instead of drawing together, its leaders became more intense about their differences. Fragmentation accompanied decline. The Methodist ethos that had enabled people of diverse views to work together in mutual respect was an early casualty of numerical losses. That ethos, I now saw more clearly, was itself derived from Wesley.
In this situation I began to think that a return to Wesley, however qualified it must be by the centuries that separate us, could help us to recover the ethos of mutual appreciation and support and a common vision of who we are together and where we want to go. This would not end disagreements about homosexuality and the nature of Biblical authority, but it might provide a context in which these disagreements could be less threatening and Methodists might be more willing to make room for differences.
These judgments have not turned me into a Wesley scholar. I am indeed grateful that there are Wesley scholars around from whom I can learn, and I commend their work to you. Obviously, I like the work of some better than that of others, and on some points I am prepared to enter the argument despite the acute limitations of my scholarship.
There is today a tendency to accent the interpretive character of every statement about a past thinker. Some theorists treat these statements more as new constructions than as clues to the real intentions of the past thinker. This is a healthy reaction to any claim that our historical reconstruction is purely objective or neutral. No Wesley scholar today can avoid selectivity and bias in representing Wesley to us.
But it would be unfortunate if, recognizing this relativity of all our interpretation, we gave up the constant testing of our interpretations against the received texts in the community of scholarly interpreters. I want to commend the society of Wesleyan scholars for their ongoing work in this respect. I think we are much closer to the historical Wesley as a result of their careful scholarship.
My role, however, is not to be a part of that community. I am not a Wesley scholar. I am a theologian who recognizes the influence of Wesley in my own work and who sees the potential of Wesley to help the United Methodist Church and perhaps other Wesleyan denominations as well. I hope my use of Wesley is responsible. I certainly do not want simply to read back into him what I think is needed today. But I am engaged in asking questions of him that were not in his mind. To ask what a past thinker would say about a current issue introduces a level of speculation that gives a central role to the interests of the interpreter. I want to acknowledge that before I proceed.
This lecture and the following three begin with a consideration of segments of the contemporary United Methodist Church. I have selected evangelicals, liberals, liberationists, and process theologians for consideration. My thesis is that all of these can find support in Wesley. It is also my contention that all have failures and weaknesses that need serious criticism, and that much of this criticism can be developed in dialog with Wesley. I hope that those of you who are members of other Wesleyan denominations will find some relevance in these reflections.
Evangelicals, liberals, liberationists, and process theologians, in their present forms, by pressing their several agenda, are tearing the church apart. My thesis is that genuinely Wesleyan evangelicals, Wesleyan liberals, Wesleyan liberationists, and Wesleyan process theologians would respect and appreciate one another. Disagreements would remain, but they would be greatly reduced. And together they could launch a new evangelical movement appropriate to the twenty-first century.
Indeed, the list of types of contemporary Methodists could have been considerably extended. There are also the Orthodox, the post-liberals, the liturgical traditionalists, the multiculturalists, the institutionalists, and those primarily interested in spirituality or in bodily and emotional healing. These also can find support in Wesley. I will comment further on these other groups in my concluding lecture.
I should acknowledge that one or another of the forms of Wesleyanism I have just listed might well be a better candidate for full-length treatment than process theology. Although process theology has some following, it hardly functions as a form of Wesleyanism analogous to the others. A few who have adopted process theology are evangelicals or liberationists; but most, are liberals. This has skewed the use of process categories in particular directions.
My attention to the relation of process theology to Wesley is, therefore, self-indulgent. It is a topic of particular interest to me. And this is the topic on which I am best qualified to speak.
One more acknowledgment of limitation is in order. I realize that I am addressing an audience that is not primarily United Methodist. Nevertheless, as I speak of the contemporary situation and its need of Wesley, my reference is chiefly to the United Methodist Church. I am not sure to what extent my comments are relevant to other Wesleyan churches. It is my impression that most of them have stayed closer to Wesley, or at least tried harder to do so, and have been less caught up in the diverse movements that have swept the denominations that became the United Methodist Church. Certainly they have done much more to keep Wesley studies alive, and for that we United Methodists owe them a great debt. On the other hand, some of them may have read back into Wesley a more conservative, dogmatic, or moralistic mentality than he in fact exhibited.
It is time now to turn to the specific topic of this lecture. To assert that Wesley was an evangelical is the most obvious of my claims. If Wesley was not an evangelical, who was? In my judgment, shared by many, he was the most important leader of the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. Of course, he was an evangelical!
Nevertheless, that does not mean that all characteristics of those who claim the label, "evangelical," in our time apply to Wesley or that he would support everything that is being done under that rubric today. Hence there is a need to sort out the meanings of the term. For example, I am going to argue in the next lecture that Wesley was a liberal. Today the word "evangelical" is typically paired with "conservative," and it is characteristic of those who call themselves "conservative evangelicals" to be sharply critical of liberals. Of course, Wesley would also be critical of many forms of liberalism, but it is important that today's evangelicals not read their opposition to liberalism in general back into Wesley.
Of course, there are many respects in which Wesley was conservative. Indeed, this is true of all Christians, including those who call themselves "liberals." To be a Christian is to conserve the truth of the Christian gospel. This involves retaining beliefs that are not supported by the culture generally. Often these beliefs were more widely held in the past than they are in the present. They may, indeed, be in radical opposition to dominant elements in the culture. In many contexts in our nation today, especially in our universities, to affirm the reality of God is a very conservative act.
On the other hand, when "liberal" means simple accommodation to the culture, then there are good reasons to attack liberalism. Just as Wesley does not fit today's model of the conservative evangelical, so also his liberalism was quite different from that of many contemporary liberals. For one thing, Wesley's liberalism was certainly not opposed to evangelicalism!
Now we can ask, what was the heart of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century? It was the belief that the gospel had utmost importance for all people individually and that this placed a supreme obligation on believers to bring the message to those who had not heard it. Since the established churches were not reaching large segments of the population, evangelicals could not be content with ordinary churchmanship. They must organize to bring the message to those who needed to hear it even if this brought them into tension with the established structures. No one worked at this task more constantly or effectively than John Wesley.
Those who call themselves "evangelicals" today are also often in the forefront of efforts to bring the gospel to those who have not heard it effectively. In this they are in healthy tension with the dominant tendencies of the United Methodist Church. For various reasons, most United Methodists have redefined evangelism as inviting their neighbors to go to church with them, and even this kind of evangelism is spoken about more than it is practiced. To whatever extent "evangelicals" actually bring the gospel to the vast numbers of people in our society who need its message, they stand in the tradition of Wesley and rightly claim his mantle against the dominant trends in my denomination.
Furthermore, today's evangelicals rightly recognize that a major reason for the failure of Methodists to witness to their friends and neighbors is a lack of confidence that they have anything of great value to share. This is the "liberalism" they rightly deplore. Here, also, today’s evangelicals stand fully with Wesley and bring needed critique.
Today's evangelicals rightly identify the loss of conviction about Biblical authority as a major source of the decline of evangelical fervor in the United Methodist Church. Here, again, they can claim the heritage of Wesley. No preacher has ever been more biblical than he. His sermons are often little more than rearrangements of biblical texts with a few connectives thrown in! He lived and thought in the language of the Bible. He saw the world through biblical spectacles.
Finally, today's evangelicals continue a tradition of deep personal piety. This involves the cultivation of a sense of closeness to God, experience of the Spirit, and intimacy with Christ. There is an expectancy of divine aid and guidance, a trust in providence, a readiness to respond to God's call. There is also an examination of motives, a readiness to confess one's failures and sins with real feeling, and a cultivation of loving relations to others.
Of course, I speak in idealistic terms. But evangelicals give time and attention to these dimensions of faith, many of which have been lost in much of the church as piety was redefined as pietism and rejected. Today in circles where this has happened keen interest has arisen in "spirituality." People hunger for deeply-felt religious experience of the sort the evangelical tradition has never lost. But the focus on spirituality leads more in the direction of mysticism than of the piety Wesley ultimately encouraged. It often separates the inner life from the outer life in a way that evangelicals avoid. Inner serenity often replaces love of God and neighbor as the primary goal. Evangelicals who are more faithful to Wesley avoid these dangers.
In these ways, many features of contemporary Wesleyan evangelicalism give authentic expression to the impetus from Wesley. Evangelical services often call for personal decision in ways that most other Methodist services do not. They challenge youth more effectively than most Methodists and evoke decisions for full-time Christian service at a higher rate than others. No doubt more evangelicals are able to engage their neighbors in serious discussion of their faith than is true of most other Methodists. Probably a higher percentage of evangelicals than of Methodists generally consciously and intentionally make their personal decisions, day by day, on the basis of their faith. Almost certainly they give more time to Biblical study and prayer than most others. It is likely also that they give more generously of their substance. Methodism needs its evangelicals!
Unfortunately, all this, commendable as it is, is still a far cry from Wesley's own evangelicalism. Wesley undertook to supplement the activity of the Church of England with a program aimed at bringing the gospel to the masses of estranged people and helping them to transform their personal and social lives. Contemporary Wesleyan evangelicals, at least in the United Methodist Church, have taken only one major initiatives in this direction, the establishment of a separate board of foreign missions. They did so because they wanted missionaries to deal with personal conversions to Christ and avoid liberationist entanglements. In general their claim to be evangelicals is more that they believe in evangelism than that they practice it on any large scale.
Indeed, the difference between many contemporary Methodist evangelicals and Wesley is greater than this would indicate.
First, evangelicals today often associate their position with that of holding fast to traditional doctrines. No doubt there is some justification for their belief that the lessening of knowledge and conviction about these doctrines has left a void that leads to lack of evangelical fervor in the church as a whole. But Wesley himself was more impressed by the fact that people could disagree on many of these matters and yet commit themselves with equal fervor to the evangelical task. He did not insist on holding to any particular Christology or doctrine of the Trinity, for example.
One might argue that this difference in attitude toward doctrine reflects a difference in our situations. In his day diverse views were held with real conviction such that people acted on them. Today people are lacking in such conviction. To renew it, some evangelicals argue, traditional doctrines must be vigorously reaffirmed. But if this is the argument, its supporters must recognize that they cannot claim the mantle of Wesley for this approach. And thus far the practical gains from trying to re-impose orthodox teaching have been modest indeed.
If evangelicals would direct their criticism chiefly to the absence of conviction and fervor, so widespread, in the church, they could play a very positive, and authentically Wesleyan, role in promoting serious doctrinal study in the church. But too often they direct their attack not at this great weakness of the church but at those who do have fervent beliefs leading to commitment and action, when these beliefs differ from the one's held by evangelicals. It is here that their departure from Wesley is most harmful.
Second, some evangelicals call for a renewal of an otherworldly outlook. Certainly much of the revivalism associated with the American frontier urged people to consider the rewards and punishments that were promised after death. The erosion of fear of Hell has played a significant role in ending the effectiveness of that kind of evangelism. Some evangelicals want the church to reemphasize its belief in life after death as a place of judgment.
No one doubts that Wesley believed in life after death. But what is surprising is how little he appealed to fear of Hell or even to the expectation of rewards after death. His preaching focused overwhelmingly on growth in love in this life worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It was hunger for this deep personal transformation that he evoked in his hearers.
Third, in the public sphere, the most visible aspects of the evangelical witness today are typically moralistic, and the moralism is often related to sexuality. In Wesley's teaching sexual matters are hardly mentioned. He held believers to very high standards, but these were all derived from his understanding of the implications of the love of God and neighbor.
This moralistic tendency in contemporary evangelicalism also leads evangelicals to play a divisive role within the church. They have made themselves especially visible by leading the attack on homosexual activity. Here they have insisted that the national church restrict the freedom of annual conferences with respect to ordination and the freedom of local congregations with respect to the kinds of services they are allowed to hold. In short, in order to impose their views on the church as a whole they have insisted on centralizing authority in the national church and using that authority to demand that many -- bishops, clergy, and lay people -- act contrary to their consciences. This is profoundly unWesleyan!
Fourth, the understanding of biblical authority they use to justify this program is one that few Methodists would employ in other areas. It is not one that draws support from Wesley. His biblicism comes from immersion in the Bible and testing everything in terms of the conviction that God is love and of the love commandment. The current evangelical biblicism turns a few scattered condemnations of certain homosexual practices in the ancient world into a law against all forms of homosexual activity today.
Obviously, I am not being neutral or dispassionate on this matter. I think that denying freedom of conscience to a third of its members has been a profoundly unWesleyan act of the United Methodist Church. When Christians must choose between obeying church rules and their convictions about what God calls them to do, a good many will follow God's call. The efforts of the denomination to prevent this, led and goaded by its evangelicals, are creating tensions that may lead to schism. The claim that this suppression of conscience of fellow Methodists must be done in order to be faithful to the Bible is remote from Wesley's own biblicism.
Let me hasten to say that I do not know what Wesley's views on homosexuality were. There is no indication that he thought much about the matter. Nor would I dare to conjecture "what Wesley would say if he were alive today." His lack of attention to sexual behavior might lead him to say that any Christian should be prepared to be celibate if the active expression of sexuality would be an offense to others. That would mean that he would oppose homosexual unions. On the other hand, he might judge that all persons should find that way of life that best enables them to love their neighbors as themselves and God with all their hearts, minds, and soul. He might judge that, for some, faithful relations with another person of the same gender would be best. What he would not do, I am convinced, is build a political campaign within the church to exclude all who judge differently on this matter and who would act on their judgment.
More broadly we may ask how Wesley would view the contemporary evangelical movement as a whole. Would he regard it as expressing his spirit and his deepest concerns? I do not think so.
What, now, would it mean to recover an authentic Wesleyan evangelicalism in our day? It would build on the existing piety of many ordinary Wesleyans, whether or not they label themselves as evangelicals.
These Methodists believe that their relation to God as Holy Spirit through Christ is of supreme importance for their lives. They hunger for a deeper realization of the Spirit's presence and working within them. They seek through prayer and Bible study to find God's will for their lives. They know that growth in grace expresses itself in their love of God and neighbor. They know that their love is halting and imperfect, but they try to let it determine their actions.
They know also that love of neighbor has very real and concrete meaning. It means attentiveness to the neighbor's needs and willingness to respond even at considerable personal cost. It means that this response is more important than the accumulation of personal wealth or attaining success in the eyes of the world. They know also that responding well takes thought and is learned partly by trial and error.
They understand that neighbors are not only those who live nearby but also persons on the other side of the world. Concern for them cannot express itself as directly. It may mean giving money in support of education, health care, or agricultural missions. It may mean support of legislation that will benefit them.
They believe deeply that the life of love that the Holy Spirit is working within them is one that is needed by others as well. They see many around them whose lives are misdirected toward the accumulation of earthly goods even at the cost of human relationships. They see some who have turned to alcohol or other drugs to ease the emptiness and despair of a meaningless life. They are convinced that the deepest need of these people is to hear the good news that God loves all and is ready to work savingly in the lives of all who will allow that to happen. When they can do so in ways that do not push others away, they witness verbally to their beliefs.
They know that their churches are far from perfect, but they believe in the importance of the fellowship of believers and in gathering for worship. They want their children to be brought up in that fellowship and to be encouraged to seek God's will for their lives. They give generously of their time and talents and money to support their church. They emphasize the positive contributions of church leaders rather than their weakness and disagreements. They strive for unity and harmony in the body of Christ.
They love the United Methodist church but not in such a way as to question the work of God in other denominations. They support working with other Christians wherever that helps to further God's work in the world. They want mutual understanding and appreciation, not suspicion and competition.
They know that people are often most comfortable in the company of persons much like themselves. They know that suspicion and hostility can develop toward those who are different, even toward those who share the Christian faith. They know that historically many Christians have been racists and nationalists in ways that are deeply contrary to the gospel and to Wesley's message and mission. They regret the community's sins and their own participation in them, and they seek to repent in the full sense of changing direction toward a love of those who are different that enables all to contribute freely to the common good.
When they encounter Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus, they are open to seeing goodness in them as well. Knowing that God works in all, and recognizing the wisdom and virtue in the lives of those who do not affirm Christ, they thank God for these people as well, and are open to learning from them. But they are also ready to witness to them of their own experience of Christ.
Are there many United Methodists like this today? I think the answer is Yes, but I fear the number is declining. On the one side, the open spirit of many of them has eroded their confidence in the universal importance of Christ. They have become more relativistic and less sure that they have something to offer others.
On the other hand, the danger of losing the specifics of their faith has led others to follow leaders who call for closure. Openness to the Spirit is then understood to channel their thinking and acting in prescribed ways. They are taught to oppose other factions in the church and to become militant in promoting particular views about personal morality.
Can this polarization be reversed? That is my hope. That would require that those whose confidence in the centrality of Christian faith has been eroded recover that confidence. It would require that those who, in order to defend that centrality, have moved to closure and legalism return to their former openness. This cannot happen by simply reversing what has happened in recent decades. It can only happen by moving forward in particular ways.
I am proposing that reencountering Wesley can help. I am proposing that there will be much more hope of help if, as these people reencounter Wesley, other groups of United Methodists also do so. In the next lecture we will consider Wesleyan liberals and their relation to Wesley.
Summary: John Cobb believes that Wesley would have supported the Social Gospel. However, for Wesley it would be very important that every effort to formulate new theologies remain centered in Christ. With all the diversity of historical and cultural experience, Wesley would want attention given to what is also common to believers. Loving one another across differences would be part of that commonality.
Calling Wesley an evangelical and a liberal is not particularly anachronistic. These terms have well-established meaning in relation to eighteenth-century figures, and both clearly apply to him. I have of course gone on to speculate about how Wesley would have responded to issues he did not face, and there I may be accused of anachronism. Certainly, I tend to project my own preferences back on to him, but I hope I do not do so without reasonable justification.
When we turn to liberation theology, however, everything we say will have an anachronistic character. Prior to the 1960s liberation theology did not exist. It was a way of thinking that had occurred to noone earlier. Of course, once it came into being, one might trace some ancestry or anticipation of its themes, but that is another matter. Wesley was not, and could not have been, a liberationist.
Given this situation, the question here will be exclusively that of whether contemporary Wesleyan liberationists can claim support from Wesley for the new position they have adopted. Here, the claim can be taken seriously. Although as I have several times acknowledged, it is not possible to say how Wesley would have responded when confronted by the contemporary scene, there are enough parallels with his response to his own scene to require that we take the argument seriously.
Actually, there is an intermediate question that is more accessible to our inquiry. Would Wesley have supported the Social Gospel that played so large a role in the United Methodist Church in the first decades of this century? I will devote the first part of this lecture to that question. We can then consider the differences between the social gospel and liberation theology to pursue the relation of Wesley to the current scene.
In the preceding lecture I dealt with liberalism without discussing its relation to social issues. One branch of liberalism is highly individualistic, as is much of evangelicalism. But both liberalism and evangelicalism can be deeply concerned about those who are exploited or excluded by the social and economic orders. Although the Social Gospel developed chiefly in the more liberal branches of the Wesleyan movement, its concern for the poor has been widely shared by evangelicals.
The greatest gulf I identified between Wesley and twentieth-century liberal Wesleyans was the loss of strong conviction on the part of the latter. This criticism does not apply to the advocates of the social gospel. That gospel revitalized the church, giving it a strong sense of mission. Clearly Wesley shared and would have supported the deep concerns for justice and fair treatment of the poor. In these respects, the adherents of the social gospel could claim with full justification to be faithful to Wesley in a way that much of the Wesleyan movement in the nineteenth century was not.
But there are differences. The fullest articulation of the social gospel identifies the salvation Christians seek with a transformed society. Individual life is fulfilled in the service of that new order, and life in that order will participate in the social salvation. We cannot find that idea in Wesley,. He focused on individuals.
On the other hand, his understanding of salvation was not individualistic in the way much of it had become in the nineteenth century. To oversimplify, conservative views of salvation focused on the details of how individuals lived, the acts they performed or failed to perform, the beliefs they held or failed to hold, and the emotions they felt or did not feel. Liberals celebrated their freedom to think freely, shape their lives responsibly, and be confident in God’s love and acceptance.
Neither understood, or at least neither vigorously pursued Wesley’s understanding of the Christian life as growth in love. Love turns one immediately away from preoccupation with oneself to concern for the neighbor who is in need. Its expression is, therefore, immediately social. Individual salvation is a matter of growing social concern and acting on that concern.
The shift from understanding Christian life as directly expressed in the service of the neighbor to understanding that the salvation sought is that of the whole society is an easy one, and those who made it can claim to be faithful to Wesley even if he did not take that step. Whether they are right in their claim depends on how Wesley would have responded to two developments in the nineteenth century.
One of these developments was in biblical studies. Wesley appealed extensively to Jesus’ teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the basileia theou, the Realm of God. Wesley understood this as personal salvation. But scholars of many stripes now recognize that it is a vision of the world in which God’s purposes are fulfilled. Had Wesley understood Jesus in this way, would he have accepted a social understanding of the gospel? To claim that he would is not an unreasonable guess.
The other development began in Wesley’s own lifetime but did not influence him. Prior to the American and French Revolutions, especially the latter, there was little thought that the organization of society was something human beings could decide on. It seemed to be a given situation, allowing some room for human decisions, especially by rulers, but basically decided for all. The French Revolutionaries engaged in massive social experiment that invited a new kind of reflections about what kind of society is desirable.
There were so many terrible results of these social experiments that most people reacted against them. But the fact that people could make basic choices about the social order was historically established. To support continuance of the existing order itself became a choice. As the nineteenth century advanced this fact dominated much of its politics. The authors of the American Social Gospel took for granted that a society quite different from the one in which they lived was possible.
Actually, most of them saw the society that would embody God’s purposed for humankind and as a relatively minor modification of the one that already existed in the United States. They were not radical revolutionaries like the French Revolutionists or the Marxists. They believed in democracy and supported extension of suffrage to the disfranchised. They pushed for numerous reforms that would allow workers to have a good life, reduce inequalities in society, ensure peaceful relations among nations, and end the vicious treatment of minorities, especially Afro-Americans. They wanted everyone to have a good education and adequate health care. They thought that government could institute these reforms, and in many cases it did. They also wanted to extend the work of social justice throughout the world and were among the strongest supporters of Christian missions. They found personal fulfillment in working for Christ’s Kingdom.
My own judgment is that Wesley would have supported the Social Gospel. His own work included some rudimentary analysis of social policies in light of their effects on the poor and some effort to change them. I believe he would have accepted the shift of biblical scholarship with respect to Jesus' teaching. He could hardly have failed to be influenced by the greatly increased sense of human responsibility for the basic structures of society.
He would no doubt have been troubled by any tendency to minimize the importance of the motive of action. Apart from the growth and purification of love in the believer’s heart he would see little true progress. He would be concerned about any lessening of the effort to bring individuals to Christ while all worked for a society in which God’s purposes were fulfilled. In this connection he would have been skeptical of the idea that individuals can be deeply transformed by social changes, or any supposition that a society will truly fulfill God’s purposes if its individual members are not filled with love for one another. This would lead him to criticize some adherents of the social gospel but to side with others. Certainly, if the movement as a whole had been more fully faithful to Wesley’s passion for the inner transformation of each person, it would have had a greater capacity to achieve its purposes and to survive the disappointment of World War I.
This does not mean that Wesley would have discouraged actions to benefit the poor even when they were disconnected from Christianizing them. He never doubted that we should give a cup of cold water to the thirsty simply to help them quench their thirst. The danger in the Social Gospel was that Christians would forget that the greatest gift they could give was Christ. Not all forgot, but enough did to weaken the movement and to carry it in a direction the Wesley could not have supported. Unfortunately, those Wesleyans who recognized the weakness of the social gospel in this respect tended to react against its passion for social righteousness as a whole and to interpret Wesley falsely as an individualistic thinker. We still suffer from this polarization within the Wesleyan movement.
The influence of the Social Gospel lasted longer among Wesleyans, at least in the United Methodist Church, than in most other American denominations. Elsewhere the Neo-Orthodox critique of its exaggerated hopes for human action won out more quickly. The coming of God’s basileia, they affirmed, would be by God’s act, not ours. Neo-Orthodoxy was also called Neo-Reformation theology and even Neo-Calvinism. On the whole Wesleyans felt uncomfortable with it, despite our recognition of valid elements in its critique of the Social Gospel.
Something of the spirit of the Social Gospel was revived by the Civil Rights movement and especially by Martin Luther King’s leadership. Here was a cause around which the leadership of the old-line denominations could unite. Sadly, conservatives, who defined themselves in part by their reaction against the social gospel, were slow to give their support to this effort. Their resistance deepened the division between liberals and conservatives. On this score, I have no doubt that Wesley’s mantle fell on the liberals, and today most conservatives would agree.
Within the Civil Rights movement many were impatient with the moderateness of King’s leadership. King simply asked the dominant society to fulfill its own commitments and ideals. His aim was integration of African-Americans into the existing form of American society. These were easy goals for liberal Wesleyans, informed by the Social Gospel, to support.
Other leaders of the Black community, however, found this program unsatisfying. They believed that there were deep pathologies in the dominant Euro-American community that had enabled it to affirm slavery and segregation for centuries. Racism was not, in their view, an aberration from the values and ideals of that society but a central expression of its real nature. They did not want integration into that society.
Many of those who took this position also rejected Christianity. Some created Black Muslim churches. Others became secularists. But among them were also some who remained Christian and undertook to formulate a new theological style and movement. James Cone is the best know example, and his contribution to the formation of liberation theology has been enormous. To be a liberationist involves sharing many of his teachings.
As a professional theologian who lived through the late sixties and early seventies, I can assure you that understanding and assimilating what was being said was not easy. It required a deep transformation of the understanding of theology shared by virtually all American Protestant professionals. We supposed that theology was a movement of thought among Christians articulated effectively by leading thinkers. We traced its history from the second century through the present with considerable consensus about who were the theologians worthy of greatest attention. This history was understood to have been developed chiefly in northern Europe, and in the past two centuries, chiefly in the German-language nations. We might offer special courses in British or American theology, but they did not belong to the central stream. We might be interested in how Christianity was indigenized in Asia or Africa or Latin America, but the assumption was that to become participants in the theological discussion, their representatives would have to interact with the mainstream theological development.
Liberation theologians pointed out that we were identifying Christian theology with white, male, European theology. Whereas we had been immensely impressed by the scholarly gifts and intellectual genius of its major practitioners, liberationists told us that we should view them chiefly in terms of their social location. This location rendered them blind to the evils of European colonialism and American racism as well as to the oppression of women in their own society. Since the Christian faith is more genuinely bound up with resisting these evils than with responding to scholarly German critics, this theology cannot be viewed as in any way inclusively normative for Christians. Male Europeans cannot speak for all Christians.
The liberationists went on to point out that the angle of vision from which European scholars had interpreted the Bible differs from the angle of vision of its writers. Most biblical authors viewed the world from the perspective of the oppressed. European scholars viewed it from the point of view of the oppressors. This difference is so great that we need a whole new form of biblical scholarship.
Black liberationist theology was reinforced on its main points by that of Latin America. Of course, there were differences. Latin American liberation theology was more influenced by Marx and therefore emphasized the class structure of society instead of race. It also dealt with international oppression. But it shared the view that the Bible is a book that properly belongs to, and is best understood by, the oppressed, and that the theology we need should come from them.
Initially those of us who were influenced by the Social Gospel supposed that we were hearing this same message in a new and more radical form. But liberation theologians pointed out that this was not the case. Social Gospellers were members of the oppressing group who sympathized with the oppressed and wanted to extend to them the benefits of the oppressor’s society. They did not really take the views of the oppressed seriously. They thought they already knew what the oppressed needed. Their relation to the oppressed was primarily paternalistic.
Further, Black liberation theologians pointed out how little the Social Gospel dealt with the oppression of African-Americans. Its preoccupation was with factory workers and other European immigrants who were exploited by U.S capitalists and denied full participation in American society. The deep-seated character of American racism expressed itself in the policies of the labor unions that Social Gospel thinkers supported so strongly. This was little criticized. The Euro-centric understanding of history and of the present world remained unquestioned. In short, the Social Gospel did not free its practitioners from their own social location in the dominant white culture.
The third form of liberation theology that broke upon us in the early seventies was feminism. Like Black theology this emerged chiefly in this country. It struck many of us with even greater surprise. We had, at least, been aware that Blacks in the United States and peasants in Latin America suffered acute injustices. That they would protest did not surprise us. But many middle class males in the United States thought that their wives had a somewhat favored place in society. It seemed that they had greater leisure than we did and less responsibility and pressure. We did not think of them as systematically exploited and oppressed. We had difficulty at first understanding their complaints.
That situation has changed. Feminists have taught us to read our history in a way that shows how even the more favored women have been treated as male property, excluded from the possibility of developing and expressing their independent capacities, identified chiefly by their relations to men, and expected to shape their lives for the sake of husbands and children. We now see that many other women have been grossly abused, raped, forced into prostitution, and brutalized by their husbands. We have learned that religious traditions, including Christianity, have supported male dominance in many ways, including depicting God as male and denying women a place in religious leadership.
Whereas Blacks and Latin Americans could claim that the Bible is written from a point of view more like their own, this claim is not open to women. On the contrary, they point out that the Bible is written by men to support their own dominance. Male dominance characterizes oppressed groups as much as, perhaps more than, privileged ones. In many respects, the Bible is part of the problem. Certainly, Christian tradition has harmed women both by justifying their exploitation by men and by encouraging their psychological dependence on men. Many feminists turned against Christianity altogether.
Some women liberationists, nevertheless, have remained Christian. They find in the Bible a prophetic tradition calling for justice. They find themes that support the application of that call to the relation between the sexes. They find in Jesus one who was attentive to women and took them seriously as full human beings. They find indications of relative equality in early Christian communities. And they believe that the Christian tradition can be redeemed from its patriarchal character and transformed into a support for inclusion and justice.
They know that this transformation requires a great deal of repentance for past teaching and practice. Hence they have exposed the patriarchal character of every aspect of the church’s life as well as its traditions. They have made clear the radical character of the change that is needed.
Clearly these three early forms of liberation theology were not in full agreement. Those who wanted to preserve the status quo were, accordingly, in position to play them off against one another. During the seventies the Maryknoll Fathers, sympathetic to all these movements, held a series of conferences to enable each group to understand the others better. They were successful. Blacks agreed to the importance of class and gender analysis of oppression. Latin Americans agreed that they had erroneously neglected issues of race and gender. And feminists acknowledged the importance of race and class as well as gender. Thereafter, while emphases continued to be different, there was far less mutual denunciation. One could begin to speak meaningful of liberation theology in general as well as of its specific forms.
Once the idea of liberation theology was established, it became clear that it could take, even needed to take, many more forms. If the Christian faith needed to be appropriated in a distinctive manner by Latin American peasants, the same must be true of Korean workers, of Asian immigrants into the United States, of black Africans in South Africa, of low caste Indians. Also Black women needed to clarify their point of view over against both Black me and white women. Homosexuals have needed to find their voice. Persons with disabilities have done so also. The list is endless.
The general point is that whereas in the past it has been supposed that Christian theology is a work of scholars and thinkers belonging to the establishment and thus supposed to be free of special bias, now it is assumed that theology needs to be formulated in each social location to give expression to the meaning of faith in that location. Those locations that result from a history of suffering under oppression are seen as privileged in comparison with the social locations of the oppressors.
Now what would Wesley think of all this? To answer this is to stretch speculation farther that we have done thus far. Clearly Wesley was aware of the poor and oppressed and concerned for them. He also recognized a certain positive relation between poverty and Christian faith. That is, he saw that whereas the poor seemed to find it possible to fulfill Biblical expectations of mutual support and generosity with worldly goods, once people began to amass such goods, they changed. Protection of their assets became a significant factor in their decisions. They did not give themselves wholeheartedly to the Christian way. They divided their loyalties between God and wealth.
It would not be much of a stretch to go from this to saying that the Bible is better understood by the oppressed than by their oppressors, by the poor than by the rich. Given other statements by Wesley on such matters as slavery, it would not be hard to claim that he would agree that the slaves have a better chance of understanding the gospel than their masters. Although race was not a major category for Wesley, in a society that defined people’s place along racial lines, he might well have agreed that those races who were oppressed had better access to the true meaning of scripture that those that oppressed them.
From here it would not be much of a stretch to propose that the understanding of faith of the poor and oppressed is superior to that of the rich and the oppressors. Since theology for Wesley is essentially the understanding of faith, one could well argue that the poor and the oppressed should be encouraged to formulate their theology. Since there are many forms of oppression, this could result in a variety of theologies.
Although all this is quite reasonable, we must also recognize that Wesley made no moves in this direction. Within the Methodist movement he held the reigns tightly in his own hands. Although he was remarkably open to individuals who held divergent views, he certainly did not encourage them to articulate and proclaim these divergences. Despite the implications that the poor might have a better understanding of the gospel, there is no indication that he listened attentively to them or encouraged them to think independently. By temperament Wesley was far more paternalistic than liberationist.
In dealing with evangelicals and liberals and Social Gospellers, I have treated their differences from Wesley as negative. To have stayed closer to Wesley would have improved their work and thought. But in the case of liberation theologians, this is not obviously the case. It may be that here they have taken a step that Wesley should have taken but failed to take. That is they have not undertaken to do good for the poor. They have undertaken to help the poor take control of their own thinking and living. This seems to be an advance whether or not Wesley would have made this advance had he been aware of the possibility.
I noted that in the 1970s the three main branches came to acknowledge that they could learn from one another. There continues to be much mutual support among liberation theologians representing different groups. They share an opposition to the dominant culture and its institutions and thus are often able to work together in their efforts to overcome its hegemony.
Nevertheless, the dominant tendency is fragmentation. Each oppressed community needs to find its own voice and speak out of its particular experience. The authenticity of expression is prized far more than its roots in the Christian faith. One often gets the impression that formulating this experience as a Christian liberation theology is more for political or institutional reasons than out of any deep commitment to Christ. In other words, there sometimes seems to be a shift of primary concern from faithfulness to Christ to liberations from a particular oppression.
It is not my view that there needs to be a conflict. In a particular situation I am fully open to the idea that faithfulness to Christ demands wholehearted commitment to liberation from a particular oppression. What arouses anxiety on my part is that this connection is sometimes not articulated as central. Having had one’s consciousness raised as to how Christ in the past has been appealed to in support of oppression, it sometimes seems that liberationists are as open to liberation from Christ as to Christ the liberator.
I have discussed this under the heading of fragmentation. When a particular form of liberation becomes ultimate for a group, then its unity with other branches of the Christian family, even other liberationist branches, becomes one of alliances and networking. Christian unity in any deep sense is lost.
This tendency is heightened, at least in academic circles, by the close connection between liberation thinking and critical theory and deconstructive postmodernism. These emphasize difference over commonality. They stress that responsible thinking must stay close to life experience and oppose the effort to find a common history or a comprehensive vision. Their influence works against the deep Christian passion to find a common center in Christ that binds us together despite our differences. They typically see this effort as a hegemonic one, in principle opposed to liberation.
Finally, there are problems with focusing on understanding oneself and one’s community primarily in terms of the way others have oppressed. One’s personal passion to free one’s community from oppression is a deeply unselfish one that has, or can have rich rootage in the Christian faith. But it can also pass over into taking a certain pride in having endured oppression and even into competition with others as to the degree of suffering one’s groups has endured. Instead of unselfish concern for other members of one’s group, it can become a demand for power for oneself as representative of that group. Here, too, one can become competitive with others who have been oppressed.
In this process, there is a danger that the analysis of sin will apply only to others and that one’s own sinfulness and the sinfulness of one’s own group will be forgotten. This is not to say that the victim should be blamed! There is far too much of that. But it is to say that we live in a very complex world in which no individual and no group has entirely clean hands. If any of us cease to be sensitive to our own capacities for evil, we can become dangerous to others.
I am saying nothing of which many liberationists have not spoke more eloquently. But the fact that many are sensitive to the problems and seeking to avoid them does not mean that there are no remaining weaknesses in the movement. They are not easy to remove. Awakening people to how their problems are due to the sins of others leads very easily to some form of self-righteousness. Recognition of the importance of hearing each group, and each individual, into speech, leads almost inevitably to fragmentation. The truths uncovered by critical thinking and deconstructive postmodernism lead almost inescapably to relativistic conclusions.
It will not surprise you to learn that I believe that Wesley would share my concerns. For him it would be very important that every effort to formulate new theologies remain centered in Christ. With all the diversity of historical and cultural experience, Wesley would want attention given to what is also common to believers. Loving one another across differences would be part of that commonality.
It would also be very important that those who seek liberation from oppression seek also to grow in love for all. Love of the oppressor need not prevent confrontation, but it does change its character. Just as with the Social Gospel, efforts at liberation that are not also efforts to deepen love of neighbor will ultimately fail.
Summary: John Cobb,, an ordained Methodist minister, holds that the most unequivocal way in which Wesley was liberal was in his insistence on human participation in the process of salvation A second respect in which Wesley was clearly liberal in his own time was his attitude toward those with views differing from his own. However, today the false identification of liberalism with the absence of conviction and disciplined living receives far too much support from the practice of many who think of themselves as liberals.
My dictionary gives as its first meaning of "liberal" a political definition. To be liberal is to support "political views or policies that favor non revolutionary progress and reform." In Wesley’s day that definition fit the Whigs rather than the Tories. But Wesley was a Tory.
The progress and reform advocated by the Whigs was in the direction of the free market and capitalism. The Tories resisted many of these changes. They created greater freedom for the middle class but on the whole, at least initially, undercut the social structures that gave some security to the poor. Retrospectively we associate these changes with the extension of democracy, but it in evaluating Wesley’s politics, it is important to recognize that it was primarily a matter of giving more power to those who were gaining wealth in the process of industrialization. It was not empowering the workers or benefiting the poor.
The meaning of "liberal" in economic terms is quite similar. It supports the freedom of those who have money to use it as they will. It opposes governmental restrictions on market activity. Again, it benefits the bourgeoisie, but often at the expense of the poor as well as the landed gentry who were the mainstay of the Tories.
In politics the meaning of "liberal" gradually changed. Today we often consider those who support the freedom the market against governmental controls as the conservatives. Those who want the government to insure that workers and the poor have a fair share of the nation’s wealth are the liberals. I judge that Wesley’s support of the conservatives of his day was more like the liberalism of today than like contemporary conservatism. Hence, even in the political field, contemporary liberals can claim his support.
Of course, calling Wesley a liberal in these lectures refers primarily to theology and churchmanship rather than to politics. In this area it is just as true to say that Wesley was a liberal as that he was an evangelical. Just as being an evangelical does not make Wesley entirely supportive of all contemporary evangelicals; so being a liberal certainly does not mean that Wesley would support everything that is said and done by contemporary religious liberals. Testing today's liberalism against that of Wesley can help to refine what in that liberalism can contribute to the healthy future of Methodism and what needs to be purged.
Perhaps the most unequivocal way in which Wesley was liberal was in his insistence on human participation in the process of salvation. He associated his thought with the liberal Arminius against the dominant conservative Calvinism that insisted on the doctrine of predestination and all its consequences. He made this emphasis on human participation central to his message.
For this reason, almost all Wesleyans, even those who most emphasize their conservatism, are liberal in this sense. Almost all affirm human participation in the decisions that shape spiritual destiny while affirming also the priority and primacy of grace. Sadly, few have understood the subtlety of Wesley’s doctrine, and many, including those most active in seeking to win souls for Christ, have emphasized the capacity of the human will to respond to God’s offer. As Robert Chiles pointed out, during the nineteenth century, American Methodism as a whole shifted from Wesley’s teaching of free grace to an emphasis on the freedom of the will.
Once this move was made, there were two directions to go, neither of them faithful to Wesley. The more conservative direction was to emphasize that one can choose to believe and live as one is required by God to do. To fail to make this choice can then be depicted in frightening terms, whereas great rewards can be promised for a righteous choice. This move leads to legalism.
The other, "liberal," possibility is to celebrate the human freedom and dignity bestowed by God upon us. Human personality is sacred. We are encouraged to take responsibility for our own lives, to follow our convictions, to realize our full human potential. Of course, we are to respect the sacred worth of all other persons as well, and in all of this we are to be grateful to our Maker and express this gratitude in worship and life. This way lies a Christian humanism that is semi-deistic.
Those who follow the two directions noted are often suspicious of one another. The conservatives rightly see that Wesley’s passionate quest for true righteousness is muted among liberals. The liberals rightly see that Wesley’s deeply spiritual account of the Christian life in terms of love of God and neighbor and all that means is turned into a set of do’s and don’ts by many conservatives. But neither really appreciated Wesley’s vision of God’s grace bearing us forward in the Christian life.
Actually, aspects of both distortions are often found in the same people. Moralistic tendencies were present among liberals as among conservatives, although the list of do’s and don’ts was likely to be different. And too many conservatives lost the passion for true righteousness while priding themselves on holding on to traditional beliefs. An authentically Wesleyan emphasis on God’s empowering and liberating grace is still rarely heard in Methodist preaching.
I am saying, therefore, that on a very central point, Methodist liberalism departed from Wesley’s liberalism. I affirm Wesley’s liberalism and deplore what replaced it. Nothing is more important for the future of Methodism than a recovery of Wesley’s doctrine of grace and responsibility. I will return to this in the lecture on Wesley and process theology, since it is my claim that process theology can help to clarify and support
A second respect in which Wesley was clearly liberal in his own time was his attitude toward those with views differing from his own. The liberal position in the Church of England was Latitudinarianism. The idea was to enable Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals to accept one another as fellow members of one English church. Wesley was certainly Latitudinarian in his view of the Anglican church.
More surprisingly, Wesley carried the same attitude into his own movement. He welcomed people of diverse theological orientations and convictions into the Methodist organization. He did not impose his personal views upon them.
Still more surprising was his attitude toward those outside the Protestant fold. He took considerable risks in his appreciative approach to Roman Catholics. On the other side, he acknowledged the genuine piety of Unitarians. It was more important to relate to such people in love than to attempt to convert them.
Such views were liberal in Wesley’s day. This charitable attitude toward those with different views within one’s denomination is all too rare in our own day. Extending an appreciative and cooperative spirit toward those who are usually excluded from the fold is a challenge to Wesley’s followers today as it was then.
Today the acute issue confronting Christians is whether they can or should extend to those outside the Christian family a similar appreciative and cooperative spirit. Newly confronted with this issue in the second half of the twentieth century liberals have responded affirmatively. This shift has deepened the rift between them and conservatives. Our question is how the legacy of Wesley cuts on this matter.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wesleyan liberals shared with evangelicals enthusiasm for the conversion of the heathen. But as liberals learned more about those whom they were seeking to convert to Christianity from other religious traditions, they became less sure. The Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1896 was a turning point in liberal thought. The Layman’s Commission headed by William Ernest Hocking was another step.
In general, liberals did not withdraw support from missions. The Report of the Laymen’s Commission did not call for that. But liberals wanted to emphasize meeting the recognized needs of other people rather than converting them to Christianity. They favored a more dialogical approach in which Christians could learn from others as well as teach them. Liberals continued to believe that Christianity had certain advantages or superiority over other religious traditions, and these they wanted to share. But the more conservative view that all who belonged to other communities were damned or depraved was no longer convincing to them.
Can liberals appeal to Wesley for support in this more positive appraisal of other religious traditions? Surprisingly, they can. Of course, Wesley was preoccupied with bringing the gospel to those within Christendom who had not appropriated it. With the exception of Native Americans, he was not engaged in missions to those outside of Christendom. I am not aware of any efforts on his part to convert Jews. He developed no systematic position on the question of the rightness of converting sincere members of other religious communities to Christianity. I am sure he would not have turned anyone away, but he did not organize missions for this purpose.
Such comments as Wesley made about persons of other faiths were surprisingly positive. He found the behavior of supposedly Christian people at least as barbaric as that of any "heathen." His openness to the actual situation would have led him, almost certainly, to admiration for Buddhist and Hindu saints, had he known them. It would be idle to speculate what theory he would have developed about the sources of their virtues and how these are related to Christ. But it would not have been true to his character to deny the wisdom and virtue he encountered because it was not associated with beliefs similar to his own.
Unfortunately, too many liberals have taken another step, one that carries them far away from Wesley. Having recognized the values of other traditions, they regard the position to which they are drawn as outside of faith. They associate Christian faith with the Christian exclusivism that they now reject. Their liberalism leads them to the edge of the believing community, even to viewing it with some detachment. One of the factors eroding the spirit and commitment in the United Methodist Church is the relativistic tendencies that are so widespread among liberal members.
There is no support in Wesley for this weakening of conviction. For Wesley it is Christian love that leads us to be open to what is positive in others. If the evidence led Wesley to recognize wisdom and virtue in members of other communities, it would be as a Christian believer that he would affirm this. Some Christian doctrines might require modification, but his convictions about the supreme importance of loving God and neighbor would in no way be weakened.
This openness to persons of other faiths is closely related to another central tenet of liberalism. Christians should be open to truth and wisdom from whatever source they come. The distinction here between liberals and conservatives is usually a matter of degree, but the degree is important. Conservatives cannot reasonably claim to be uninfluenced by scientific and historical knowledge in their understanding of their faith. Liberal Christians continue to give the central place in the formation of their thinking to the Bible and the Christian tradition.
Nevertheless, conservatives fear that liberals allow changing cultural attitudes to shape their commitments, and liberals see conservatives as defensive in relation to new knowledge. There is justification for the criticisms each levels at the other. Nevertheless, I believe that a nondefensive openness to psychological and sociological knowledge, as well as to the natural sciences is more faithful to Wesley, despite the fact that the consequences of such openness may lead to ideas that were foreign to him. In short, I am stating my conviction that on this very important point, Wesley would support contemporary liberals.
Thus far we have considered topics on which there is considerable continuity from Wesley’s time to ours. Here we will turn to one that took one dramatically new form for Christians in the nineteenth century. The question of how to judge what is our authentic heritage from Wesley on this matter is more speculative.
A remarkable development in the nineteenth century was in the field of historical scholarship. Much of this development was closely related to efforts to understand Christian origins. A central question for many was how to understand Jesus as a real historical figure.
The formulation of the question already had theological assumptions built into it. If Jesus was God-incarnate, then the effort to understand him as a historical figure – that is, in terms of standard historical scholarship – was misplaced. Nevertheless, the quest for the historical Jesus took place and involved a quite new approach to scripture in general.
One defining element of liberalism has been its openness to the findings of this scholarship and to rethinking doctrine in light of it. Conservatives are more cautious about doing so, determined to preserve especially beloved ideas and teachings against the acids of modernity. Fundamentalists, of course, reject the critical historical approach to the Bible altogether, pointing out that it is based on the assumption that the Bible is a human document like others to which the same methods of scholarship can be applied.
One cannot reasonably declare of an eighteenth-century thinker what position he would have taken on a nineteenth-century issue. But if the eighteenth-century thinker is somehow authoritative for us today, it is difficult to avoid this kind of speculation altogether. One could make a case for all three answers.
One can find statements by Wesley that could support Fundamentalism. Certainly he shared with most Christians of his day a strong sense of the inspiration of scripture. His argument that because there are claims to inspiration within the Bible, the authors must either be inspired or liars has a Fundamentalist ring.
On the other hand, the rigid literalism we associate with Fundamentalism was not characteristic of Wesley. Think of his skillful handling of Romans 8:28-30 in his Notes on the New Testament. He was open to the relevance of historical knowledge to the interpretation of texts. Since his own approach to all reality was from a perspective soaked in the Bible, however, he would certainly not have abandoned this point of view readily! He might have taken a non-Fundamentalist conservative position.
One can also make the case that those Wesleyans who refused to be defensive in relation to the new scholarship were faithful heirs of Wesley. Wesley was an enthusiastic proponent of scientific knowledge, believing that it contributed to our understanding of God. As the same kind of scholarly, critical inquiry was turned on human history, it is hard to think of Wesley drawing limits. I doubt that he would have refused to apply these critical methods to the study of Israel as well. Liberals can claim to be his true heirs.
I personally want to claim him for a fourth position, one that supports critical scholarship but engages it critically in terms of its assumptions. I’ll return to this in the lecture on process theology. This can be regarded as a form of liberal theology; so at this point I will simply argue that Wesley would support no holds barred biblical scholarship and rethink his teaching in its light.
Within the Wesleyan family, the institutional split between liberals and conservatives was chiefly over the desirability of maintaining Wesley’s teachings on the Second Blessing and perfection in love. As this point it is apparent that the conservatives had Wesley’s explicit teaching on their side. Wesley taught that God could give us a purity of heart that was free from all motives other than love of God and neighbor. He taught that this gift could come suddenly to those who truly desired it and believed. Some segments of the Wesleyan movement placed on this a great deal of emphasis. One could also argue that they distorted Wesley’s teachings in some respects, but that is not my point here. The liberals who abandoned this teaching clearly broke with explicit doctrines of Wesley. Can they in any way claim to be faithful to Wesley in this break?
I think the answer is Yes. The appeal must be away from Wesley’s explicit teaching and to his reasons for those teachings. If similar reasons could lead his followers to change the teachings, they can still appeal to Wesley’s authority. Why, then, did Wesley teach the possibility of entire sanctification in this life?
Of course, he justified his teaching from the Bible. But the biblical support for entire sanctification is less than that for predestination. Most biblicists do not teach it. The presence of biblical support was not the reason for the teaching.
I believe that he taught this doctrine for two main reasons. First, he found convincing the testimony of some that they had arrived at this state of perfect love. He was disappointed that some of them subsequently fell from this condition, but this did not lead him to deny that they had held it, and that others continued to do so. Of course, he knew that many who sought this condition failed to attain it, including himself. He also knew that not all claims were valid. In short Wesley tried to formulate his teaching to conform to the evidence.
Second, Wesley was deeply concerned that believers never grow complacent. The idea that the Christian life always includes sin allowed for such complacency. Wesley wanted his followers to open themselves constantly to the working of grace within them to overcome the remaining sinful motives. He was not willing to set any limit to what God can do with a human life. That implied that perfect love is a possible gift of God. The force of this concern that people not become complacent about their present condition is strikingly, if puzzlingly, expressed in his idea that even those who have attained entire sanctification should keep growing.
In the nineteenth century, many Wesleyans became troubled about the outworking of this teaching. Their reasons for rejecting it were largely shaped by the evidence. They saw the preaching of entire sanctification as leading to self-deception on the part of many. This self-deception was too often accompanied by a kind of self-righteousness that Wesley would have abhorred. Liberal Wesleyans decided that an emphasis on the Second Blessing as an immediate possibility for all believers did more harm than good.
To oppose emphasis on a teaching on practical grounds does not necessarily mean that one denies the truth of the teaching. Some liberals thought that perfection in love is possible. But they thought that its occurrence would rarely be connected with dramatic experiences. They thought also that any who attained to this state would be unlikely to advertise the fact. And finally they thought that none of us are really in position to judge such matters about others or even with regard to ourselves. These reasons for de-emphasizing the doctrine can claim to be faithful to Wesley.
In the late nineteenth century another reason for turning from this doctrine of Wesley emerged in the form of depth psychology. Eighteenth-century writers were less aware of the unconscious depths of the psyche than either earlier or later thinkers. With a fuller awareness of these depths, the possibility of determining the purity of motive must be more radically acknowledged. The fact that those who honestly felt that they had attained perfection in love found later that they were not in this condition adds weight to the assumption that there is more to human experience than what can be discerned by honest introspection. I believe Wesley would have been open to being informed by this kind of psychology.
But liberals cannot claim Wesley’s support if their account fails to urge believers on towards greater holiness of life. Here liberals have been mixed. On the one hand, there is a strong liberal emphasis on righteousness or virtue. Many liberals continue the Wesleyan emphasis on love as the one truly Christian motivation. Neo-Orthodox theologians pointed out that liberals were naively optimistic about the possibility of living a life of love and even of solving social problems by loving actions. Liberals can, thus, urge people to become more loving, never resting in the extent to which they fulfill this ideal.
Nevertheless, the absence of the emphasis on grace creates a rift between the typical liberal call for love and that of Wesley. Liberals too often make it seem that the achievement of love is within our power, that we can choose to be more loving. For Wesley, every advance in love is the work of grace, even though that grace will not effect love apart from our openness to it. Still, liberals may be closer to Wesley on this point than their Neo-Orthodox critics. In any case the liberal de-emphasis on the Second Blessing does not in itself entail the liberal tendency to emphasize free will instead of free grace.
I have been speaking of Methodist liberalism within the context of the ongoing Wesleyan movement. I have argued that liberals, like evangelicals, can claim considerable support from Wesley, but that both groups in their present form have departed from valuable parts of Wesley’s thought and spirit. I want to conclude this lecture by discussing Wesley’s likely response to what presents itself as mainstream evangelical thought today. I believe that such a comparison will show that Wesleyan evangelicals today are themselves liberal.
On June 14, 1999, Christianity Today published a manifesto entitled "Evangelical Essentials." How would Wesley view this understanding of evangelical Christianity?
The first striking comparison is the content of what is essential. Wesley did affirm some teachings as essential. To the best of my knowledge he never undertook a systematic account of what these are. But his references to them suggest that they are quite few and are quite directly related to the heart of Christian experience. If disagreements about doctrine do not strike at the heart of Christianity, then mutual tolerance is called for.
Robert Chiles has found three key places where Wesley tells us what the essential doctrines are. At one place, he lists original sin, justification by faith, and holiness; at another, repentance, faith, and holiness; and at a third, the new birth and justification by faith. It is true that on various occasions he mentions other doctrines as essential, including more objective ones such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity. But on these matters he still allows considerable leeway as long as the teaching continues to support the understanding of Christian life as the movement from sin to holiness on the basis of God’s free grace.
The recent statement of evangelical essentials also calls for "unity in primary things, with liberty in secondary things, and charity in all things." But its tone is very different. Here there seems to be a careful effort to draw boundaries and to exclude liberals. The intention is to formulate the one correct definition of many doctrines even where it is not clear that different formulations would have any deleterious effect on Christian experience or on how the believer lives. In short, while Wesley’s approach is irenic, the contemporary evangelical approach is polemical.
One issue on which the manifesto is emphatic and clear is Christian exclusivism. Those who do not receive Christ "will face eternal retributive punishment," regardless, apparently, of the quality of their lives. Indeed, the boundaries of salvation are drawn even more narrowly. One must not only personally affirm the humanity of Christ, his incarnation, and his sinlessness, but one must also maintain that all of this is essential to the gospel. I find it doubtful that Wesley personally thought in this way. I am confident that he would not have asserted that those theologians who affirm that the humanity of Jesus was a sinful humanity would be damned for such a belief. And I am certain he would not have required that all who wanted to join his movement think in exactly this way.
Perhaps the greatest difference in this form of evangelical theology and that of Wesley is a matter of emphasis. To a Wesleyan’s eyes, a word striking by its rarity in the document is "love." To be fair it is not absent. At one point God is called "loving." We are called to love God’s truth. And it is emphasized that Christian love for other Christians should not be restricted by differences of race or gender.
But this is a far cry from Wesley. One can read the whole movement of grace as increasing love for God and neighbor in the believer’s heart. Sanctification is the process of love more and more fully dominating the motives of the Christian. And the grace by which we live manifests God’s love for us. Love of neighbor may sometimes focus on fellow Christians but it certainly is not limited to them.
One place where there may be some Wesleyan influence in the manifesto is in the strong statements made about sanctification. There is unabashed affirmation that there is growth in the Christian life. Sanctification is "the transformation of life in growing conformity to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit." There are statements of this sort that Wesley would endorse enthusiastically.
On the other hand, he would be less comfortable with the insistence that righteousness is imputed. According to the manifesto, it is essential be believe that the actual transformation effected by the Holy Spirit is the outworking of imputation. For Wesley an emphasis on imputation is uncongenial.
Wesley would have been likely to respond to much of this document that he could assent to its content. I doubt that he would personally object to bodily resurrection, ascension, and enthronement, although these are not the themes of his teaching. Nevertheless, he would have been uncomfortable. Although the document does not explicitly affirm predestination, its picture of God and God’s role in the world leads in that direction. And he would certainly have opposed including all of this in essential doctrine.
Furthermore, I have argued that on some of these points the changing situation and growing knowledge of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have led Wesley to come down at a different place. I suspect that he might affirm that what is resurrected is the spiritual body of which Paul spoke rather than the fleshly one. I suspect that he would avoid language about ascension and enthronement that have spatial and local implications. In general, I believe he would minimize the importance of the more mythological-sounding doctrines of traditional Christianity in favor of those most closely related to the Christian life.
In conclusion, I emphasize that the differences between Wesley and this affirmation of evangelical essentials differentiates him from the mainstream of current evangelical teaching far more than from today’s Wesleyan evangelicals. The problem for them is that those who now most frequently define evangelicalism are more Calvinistic than Wesleyan. When Wesleyans emphasize that they also are evangelical, they are drawn toward this Calvinist form. The danger is that they become more insistent on particular doctrinal formulations, including some that are not closely related to Christian experience and life. In their reaction against liberalism, they may move from Wesley’s irenic approach to difference to a more polemical one. When this happens, to other Wesleyan ears, their message does not sound like good news.
But it is clear that much of contemporary liberalism has moved even further from Wesley. Too often, Wesley’s openness to differences becomes indifference to doctrine. His respect for people of other faiths becomes relativism. The agreement that we are not Fundamentalists or evangelicals as defined by this manifesto is clearer than the positive affirmation of the Gospel.
Wesley was a liberal, but for today’s Methodist liberals to become true Wesleyan liberals will require a commitment and dedication that are too often lacking. The false identification of liberalism with the absence of conviction and disciplined living receives far too much support from the practice of many who think of themselves as liberals.