How should we “read” John Wesley? And why is he important for people today?
These are important questions for Methodists, most of whom consider themselves to be Wesleyans in some sense.
Focusing on the actual theology of John Wesley has not always been emphasized in American Methodism. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Wesley was treated in “hagiographic” terms—meaning that he was seen as a kind of founding saint. But his actual theological views were often overlooked.
Another way Wesley has been used (both past and present) is for “proof-texting.” Just as people are tempted sometimes to lift a single verse out of the Bible and use it out-of-context, Methodists have fallen into the same temptation in relation to Wesley. If you’ve ever heard phrases bandied about like “heart strangely warmed,” or “catholic spirit,” or “think and let think,” you’ve probably been subject to Wesley proof-texting that may well suggest views that Wesley himself wouldn’t have agreed with.
The way Wesley was read by Methodists began to change in the 1960s, under the influence of Albert C. Outler and other scholars. These leaders in both church and academy saw Wesley as a practical theologian whose thought merited serious attention. From his reading of Wesley’s works and his involvement with the ecumenical movement, Outler became convinced that Wesley’s actual theology had much to contribute to the people called Methodists of his own day.
Outler called Wesley a “folk theologian,” meaning that his diverse writings—in sermons, letters, journals and treatises—were all intended to provide practical teaching and guidance for people in the church as they sought to live faithfully.
Wesley himself had said that he aimed at offering “practical divinity” rather than “speculative divinity.” He wasn’t interested in spending his time tracing new ideas about how to conceive of God, and he never attempted to develop his theology in a systematic way. He believed his task was to interpret biblical teaching for men and women who were attempting to respond to the gospel through committed discipleship—a primary reason why so much of Wesley’s published work is focused on grace and salvation. Wesley was satisfied that the teaching of his own Church of England offered a faithful summary of God’s revelation on the broad range of Christian doctrine. He saw his own task as presenting evangelical teachings about justification by faith, the new birth, the means of grace, and sanctification in a way that was accessible to a broad audience. Of course, as Wesley did so, he made his own contributions in how such realities of the Christian life ought to be understood and received.
In recent years, Randy L. Maddox of Duke Divinity School has advanced Outler’s understanding of Wesley’s importance to the present. Dr. Maddox favors the term “practical theologian” for Wesley, and he connects the kind of theological work Wesley did with the theology of the early church fathers. Like Wesley, their writing often took the form of sermons, liturgies and apologetic treatises meant to explain the Christian faith to the people of their day.
Dr. Maddox has also developed another important theme of Outler’s: The conviction that the best way to “read” Wesley in the contemporary church is as a theological mentor. This idea sounds simple on its surface, but when taken seriously it can shape the very way that Methodists understand our own calling and the ministry our church should take.
Wesley was not perfect. He never claimed to be, even in the technical theological sense that he would want us to use the term “perfection.” But Wesley was an outstanding practical theologian, whose lifelong reflection gave him a keen sense of what should matter most for disciples of Jesus Christ. His theology was intended to help men and women come to a vibrant faith that expressed itself in a graced, transformed life. Put in the language of the Great Commission, Wesley was interested in making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Much of what Wesley wrote is directly relevant for us. And even in those parts of our 21st-century context that seem very different from Wesley’s, we can see ways that his teaching informs our situation by analogy. The problem of sin, the significance of Jesus Christ, the nature of God’s grace, the shape of mature discipleship, and the importance of the church’s mission are all enduring Wesleyan themes that the church today should focus upon.
Viewing Wesley as a theological mentor in this way shows us why his theology is significant for contemporary Christian ministry. Hagiography and proof-texting are—ironically enough—very un-Wesleyan ways to read Wesley. But when we see him as a guide to our own ministry and discipleship, we’ll find that Wesley’s practical theology holds great promise for latter-day Methodists and others.
(This essay originally appeared in a different form in the United Methodist Reporter. Used by permission.)