John Wesley and his theological opponents

In my Historical Theology class this semester, we began at the year 1600, with the writings of John Locke (who, by the way, heavily influenced the thought of Thomas and Alexander Campbell — the resemblance is so close that TC’s “Declaration and Address” almost sounds like it plagiarized Locke’s “First Letter on Toleration” in some spots).

This week, we moved to a dozen sermons of John Wesley.  Especially noteworthy was Sermon 128, entitled “Free Grace,” which amounts to an attack on the doctrine of predestination in all of its degrees.  It is really quite good in doing what it sets out do (I wish all of my preacher friends would read it!  Our arguments against predestination might be more effective if Wesley were  brought to bear.)  What stood out to me to me, however, was the way in which Wesley handled his opponents.  In a preface to the text of the sermon, Wesley writes:


Nothing but the strongest conviction, not only that what is here advanced is “the truth as it is in Jesus,” but also that I am indispensably obliged to declare this truth to all the world, could have induced me openly to oppose the sentiments of those whom I esteem for their work’s sake: At whose feet may I be found in the day of the Lord Jesus!

Should any believe it his duty to reply hereto, I have only one request to make, — Let whatsoever you do, be done inherently, in love, and in the spirit of meekness. Let your very disputing show that you have “put on, as the elect of God, bowel of mercies, gentleness, longsuffering;” that even according to this time it may be said, “See how these Christians love one another!”


Whereas a pamphlet entitled, “Free Grace Indeed,” has been published against this Sermon; this is to inform the publisher, that I cannot answer his tract till he appears to be more in earnest. For I dare not speak of “the deep things of God” in the spirit of a prize-fighter or a stage-player.  [Emphasis mine, CRC]

I think this is really important.  We, in non-institutional Churches of Christ, have an active debating tradition, both in public debates and in the pages of the journals that we publish.  We come by it honestly: Alexander Campbell held a number of major debates as did our other spiritual forefathers in the Churches of Christ (the Cogdill-Woods Debate, 1957, comes to mind).  Moreover, we have always hashed out our disagreements in the pages of the journals: early on it was the Gospel Advocate, the Firm Foundation and the Bible Banner, then the Gospel Guardian, The Preceptor and Truth Magazine.  In recent years, others have come along: Watchman Magazine, Biblical Insights, Christianity Magazine and Focus.  Whether it is a discussion about the “sponsoring church,” the headcovering, pacifism, MDR or the second serving of the Lord’s Supper, you can find it in the journals that our brethren publish.

What we have not paid very much attention to — and this is where I think Wesley has something to say to us — is the manner in which those disagreements have been discussed.  I don’t think that it is universally true, but in many cases we have all too readily separated truth and love, elevating the former over the latter, rather than “speaking the truth in love.” 

I don’t at all write this to say that the truths we hold to should not be proclaimed.  Too often, in our day, the pursuit of brotherly love and unity has led to a radical devaluing of the importance of orthodox teaching and doctrine.  Nowhere is this more true than in the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century.  Productive Faith and Order Conferences of the 1920s-1940s degenerated, by the 1990s, into little more than liberal politics.  This does not detract from the fact that the New Testament values the one (orthodox, correct doctrine) as much as the other (unity and brotherly love). 

If you take the time to read the entirety of the sermon linked above (I hope you will), you will see, I think that Wesley understood this.  The attitude that Wesley evidences in the preface does not cause him to waver one bit on his convictions.  It does, however, affect the way that he expresses himself.  He studiously avoids ad hominem attacks, focusing on the doctrine, not any particular advocate of it.  Furthermore, he understands that the matters of which he speaks are ultimately beyond full human comprehension and therefore he speaks carefully and with humility.  Particularly in the disputes of the 1990s over MDR and the deity of Christ, many of us lost sight of this.  Would that we could understand how much brotherly love and unity would be increased if we refused to separate truth and love.


13 responses to “John Wesley and his theological opponents

  1. Wait, there were disputes in the 1990s over the deity of Christ?

  2. You are, I am sad to say, probably correct in your analysis of our debate tradition. We have elevated “truth” above “love” … or in practice we have. Such is, I believe, a false dichotomy however.

    For further reading on debates (even among CofCs) see E. Brooks Holifield’s “Theology as Entertainment: Oral Debate in American Religion” Church History 67 (September 1998): 499-520.

    This is an excellent piece by Holifield.

    Tom Olbricht did something similar with our debates with the Baptists called “Times Together” … I think. I cannot put my hands on it at the moment but I will look for it.

    I am honored to see a link to my blog to the right.

    Bobby Valentine
    Tucson, AZ

  3. Hi Bobby,

    Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the references. I will definitely be tracking down the Holifield article. Have you read his Theology in America?

    Not all of the journals I listed above are heavily into debates. But many are and it seems as though, since the debating tradition is so deeply ingrained (right up there with gospel meetings and tract publishing), that it might be best to reshape the tone of the practice rather than seeking its outright abolition. I used to think otherwise. Realistically, though, it is difficult for most to kick the habit. Besides, the history of the Church — on one level — is the history of intense written and oral disputation (think Luther and Zwingli at Marburg or the succession of regional councils between Nicaea and Constantinople in the fourth century). So, I don’t think we’ll ever escape it, but hopefully we can carry it on in a way that is more than merely “honorable” (a favorite term among our debating brethren) but that truly reflects the spirit of Christ.


  4. jmgregory,

    If you do a search for The Gospel Anchor, Faith and Facts Quarterly, John Welch, Gene Frost and Elmer Moore you’ll get a read on the Christological controversies. It has been some time since I read the articles and debates but AIUI the controvery concerned several different positions concerning the humanity of Christ.

  5. Hi Owen,

    Good to see you over here. It’s been a while (some years, really) since we talked over at the Grace Centered forums. Hope you’re well; thanks for stopping by.

  6. Hi Chris,

    Thank you. I’m doing as well as could be. I’ve actually lurked here a while. Your posts on the RCL have in a way helped direct me towards the use of the Daily Offices.

  7. Glad to hear it. I have found the Daily Office to be very helpful in my own private devotions. As far as the Book of Common Prayer is concerned, while everything (of course) is not appropriate in a church of Christ setting, I do think that making use of the lectionary can help with making worship services more substantive (i.e. it’s a lot better than the 1-2 verses read before the sermon that passes for Scripture reading in most congregations).

  8. Thank you. I am on the fence with any kind of use of the RCL/BCP in a corporate setting. I still have some serious issues with how the verses are divided up, among other issues. I know of a congregation in Alabama that reads through the entire Bible in a year during their normal public Scripture reading time.

    I’m still trying to get used to the Daily Offices. I appreciate the discipline that comes from following it twice a day. The parts that I have an objection to I skip. I think the argument about repetitious prayers can be overblown but I do appreciate the possible danger of repeating the Confession over and over. I’m tempted to try out different denominational devotionals until I find something that I am comfortable with. In a month or so I may be trying out the Coptic Church’s version but if my visit during one of their Vesper services is any indication there will probably be stuff in there about Mary that I’ll find to be unbiblical. I know I would never be able to use a Breviary.

  9. Regarding worship use: I think it’s OK to be flexible with exactly how the passages are divided, while of course maintain the overall point the passage is making and how it is intended to fit with the other passages (although sometimes this can be confusing, so alternate passages may need to be substituted). When I have used the readings in a congregational setting, I have simply presented it as an infusion of more Scripture into the service, never as a “we need to use this denominational creed book to improve our worship service” thing. I initially arrived at the idea not because I had any “liberal” ideas that I wanted to advance, but because I thought that the worship service suffered from a lack of public reading of Scripture. I simply used the BCP lectionary readings as a skeleton and arranged the normal five acts of worship around them.

  10. I can totally agree with what you wrote. My problem is that at least for the RCL there is some scripture that is passed over and for both the RCL and BCP how the readings are structured. There may be a rhyme or reason to how the OT, Gospel and Epistle readings are grouped together-aside following the normal course of each particular book- but I’m not smart enough to figure it out. It kind of comes across as proof-texting that others are often accused of. I think my view is skewered by the fact that I have been blessed to be in a congregation these past 9 years that have placed a heavy emphasis on the study and use of the OT. I’m sure in a typical congregation the OT readings from the BCP or other books would seem like a lot.

    As for the five acts of worship or which of these really constitute worship- that’s probably a whole other discussion.:) After mulling over I Tim 4:13 and coming across section 67 of Justin Martyr’s First Apology I wonder if how a typical assembly time is currently structured is exactly how they did thing in the NT.

  11. Hi Owen,

    I have found that in many cases the logic behind the way that readings are grouped together grows out older traditional understandings of the text that don’t always work well in a CENI framework.

    As for order of worship, I’ve never had a problem with the simple fact of “5 acts of worship.” After all, everybody from Orthodox to Presbyterian to Baptists (Salvation Army and Quakers, both of whom reject the ordinances/sacraments, excluded) do some form of this in their worship. Where I think we may have gotten derailed is in the way that we have stripped it all down to its barest, most skeletal form and all of the theology that used to hang on it is now gone, leaving (oftentimes) a lifeless form that doesn’t nourish or sustain anyone from week to week.

    That said, I’m not an advocate of, for instance, appealing to Acts 2.42 for an exact “order of worship” and I do think that some of our proof texts fall flat (1 Cor 16.1-2 comes to mind) on this issue.

  12. Hi Chris,

    Thanks. If you could recommend something that could explain why the readings are grouped as they are that would be appreciated. Using what would be considered the traditional heurmenutic I’ve come to the conclusion that the Lord’s Supper is the central focus for Sunday worship and that something like the use of the Daily Offices would definitely fall under individual action.

    I don’t know if I would consider preaching worship, even though it usually gets more emphasis than the Lord’s Supper but as I said that is a whole other topic. I think I’ve derailed your thread enough.


  13. Owen,

    This may not be what you wanted but here is the link anyway:


    The half the readings are generally keyed to events of the Christian year Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Trinity. Trinity, which takes up about half the year is more doctrinally aligned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s