Sunday, 14 October 2012
JOHN WESLEY AND THE METHODISTS pt1. By Rev. Dr. L. Rumble, M.S.C.
Methodism is the name given to the religious denominations which owe their origin to the evangelical revival set on foot by John Wesley, in the early part of the 18th century. John Wesley was an Anglican clergyman who was dismayed by the apathy and indifference of his own Church in the England of two hundred and fifty years ago or so, and who set out to re-enkindle its religious fervour, with results which went far beyond his original intentions. The first beginnings of the movement can be traced back to 1729, when John, then a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, together with his brother Charles and several other companions, banded together into a “Holy Club,” imposing upon themselves strict rules of religious observance. Their methodical piety earned for them the nickname “Methodists,” a name John Wesley gladly adopted, and in no way resented. It was quite a good name, even as in the Catholic Church priests who belong to Religious Orders are known as “Regulars” because they undertake to regulate their lives according to the Rule of the Order to which they belong. These small beginnings paved the way for the enormous influence of John Wesley over more than five generations of followers, and indeed over all forms of modern Protestantism. And no one can study his campaign for “Christianity in earnest” without sympathy and the kindling of the religious sense within his own soul. Whatever may be one’s ultimate judgement of the movement he set on foot, all must recognize in it that spirit of personal religion without which merely external observances would be but an empty shell.
1 JOHN WESLEY
John Wesley, the son of an Anglican clergyman, was born at Epworth Rectory in 1703. Going to Oxford, he became a Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726. There, as we have seen, with his brother Charles and other companions, including George Whitefield, he formed a group which met together for mutual spiritual improvement. The members gave themselves to study and prayer, bound themselves by strict rules of fasting, of regular weekly Communion, and of good works, such as visiting the sick and instructing neglected children. This programme earned for John Wesley, not only the nickname “Methodist,” but also the charge of being a “Papist.” But neither Wesley nor his accusers really knew what Catholicism meant, though the spirit inspiring such religious earnestness was undoubtedly Catholic. Indeed, he drew much of his inspiration from the Catholic classic, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a’Kempis, a book he later urged his hearers to make the subject of their daily meditation. Yet the Catholic Church, as a Church, he saw only through the eyes of current Protestant prejudices. He declared that “no Romanist can expect to be saved according to the terms of the Christian Covenant:” In 1778 he protested against Lord North’s proposal to grant relief to Catholics from their legal disabilities. He was too good a man, of course, to be consciously unjust. He believed he was standing for principle. His charity insisted again and again that “Methodists are the friends of all, and the enemies of none.” But he was certainly not a “Papist”! In 1735, after admission to Anglican Orders, he went as a missionary to America, to minister to the English settlers there according to Anglican rites, and to evangelize the Red Indians. But the colonists found him too rigidly insistent on what they considered High Church Ritual, and too dictatorial towards themselves; and in 1738 he returned to England with a sense of almost complete failure. Then came the spiritual crisis of his life. On the voyage to America in 1735 he had as fellow-travellers twenty-six Moravians, followers of the teachings of John Hus. These people had profoundly impressed him by their deep personal religion and unswerving confidence in God. When, therefore, on his return to London he met Peter Bohler, a young Moravian, he accepted the suggestion that he should attend with him a meeting of the Moravians in Aldersgate Street. There, on May 24th, 1738, whilst listening to the reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he says, “I felt my heart strangely warmed, and an assurance given me that He had taken away MY sins, even MINE, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I then testified to all I now first felt in my heart.
From this experience, so individualistic and subjective, Wesley concluded that all the rule-keeping of his “Holy Club” had been in vain, and that for salvation all must experience a “New Birth,” a perceptible conversion like that of St. Paul on the way to Damascus. Moreover, he adopted the doctrine of the Moravians that, after one’s conversion, sin altogether ceases, and one instantly attains perfection in the sight of God. These ideas he greatly modified in later years; but he certainly came away from that Moravian meeting feeling that he had never before been a Christian in any true sense of the word. John Wesley could not keep his new convictions to himself. He at once began to preach his new doctrine, and persuaded his brother Charles and George Whitefield to join him in a series of revival campaigns. At first, Wesley preached only in Anglican Churches, but he soon followed Whitefield’s example and began to conduct open-air meetings, with sensational results. In 1739 he organized the converted societies under his own control, the first beginning of the “Wesleyan Methodist Society.” He did not dream of affiliating these societies officially to the Church of England. Many of the converted were not Anglicans, and regarded the society and its preachers and worship as enough for them. Wesley hoped that they would become Anglicans eventually, as we shall see. But, for the time being, he just went ahead, leaving the future to take care of itself. In 1741, the needs of the work forced him, though very reluctantly, to appoint lay-preachers; but he allowed them to preach only, and not fulfil the other functions of the clergy. However, on that point also, he had to give way later. In 1742 he instituted class-meetings, with class-leaders, for devotions and mutual help, all classes being knitted together into his “Society of the people called Methodists.” He would not call it a Church. The only “Church” he acknowledged was the Church of England. Even when he came to die, in 1791, after fifty-two years of zealous labour in the organization of his “Society,” he still professed adherence to the Church of England.
2 METHODIST DOCTRINE
The Methodist Churches today exist in a state of complete separation from the Church of England to which Wesley himself belonged. How the separation came about we shall see later, when dealing expressly with that subject. Here, taking separation as an accomplished fact, let us try to get some idea of distinctive Methodist teaching. Unfortunately no precise statement can be made, to which all Methodists would subscribe. Methodists themselves admit this. Writing in the book, Towards Reunion, p. 95, Prof. A. V. Murray, Vice-President of the Primitive Methodist Conference, says, “It is important to notice that it is impossible as yet to speak of “Methodism” as if it stood for one thing either in matters of faith or in matters of order:” And he goes on to say, p. 99, “There are on the one hand strong supporters of ‘Free Catholic’ ideals, ministers who like a good deal of ritual in their services and are strong sacramentarians, and even call themselves ‘Wesley-Catholics’; and on the other hand there are ministers who hate all that kind of thing with a fierce hatred. There are ministers whose modernism is very pronounced; and there are others who hold by sudden conversions and by the verbal inspiration of the Bible. These differences of faith are, of course, characteristic of all Protestant bodies today. The distinctive feature of Methodism, however, is that all these differences are somehow equated to the doctrines of John Wesley; and the somewhat bold assumption is made in the United Statement of Doctrine that Wesley’s Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, liberally interpreted, can become a standard of faith for the new Church.” It is indeed a bold assumption to think that the bewildering variety of beliefs held by Methodists can ever be reduced to one definite and consistent standard. All that we can do is to give the teaching of the Deed of Union, of 1932, to which it is the Methodist hope that all their Churches will subscribe. This Deed of Union declares that Methodists claim a place in the “Holy Catholic Church,” and that they accept the Apostolic Faith, the historic Creeds, the Protestant principles of the Reformation, the Holy Scriptures as the only Rule of Faith, and the evangelical doctrines in Wesley’s Sermons and Notes on the New Testament. Great difficulty arises from the fact that Methodists cannot agree as to what the “Holy Catholic Church” is, nor as to the contents of the Apostolic Faith. Hosts of them do not believe in the historic creeds, which cannot be reconciled with the principles of the Protestant reformation. The theory of the Bible only as the Rule of Faith is negatived by the appeal to the “Apostolic Faith” and the “Historic Creeds,” an appeal which introduces Tradition also as a Rule of Faith! And modern Methodists repudiate much of the teaching contained in Wesley’s Sermons and Notes. Still, no clearer general statement of Methodist doctrine can be given, and therefore we must turn to more specific matters, beginning with a brief glance at John Wesley’s own position.
3 WESLEY’S TEACHINGS
John Wesley always claimed to accept fully the teaching of the Church of England as contained in the Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. But, in his preaching, he concentrated on the one aim of reviving personal religion, demanding of his listeners the same revolutionary change that had come over his own life. So long as they were CONVERTED from indifference to a new and enthusiastic religious experience, he seemed to leave them completely uninstructed in the Anglican Creed in which he himself professed to believe. What wonder that his converts imagined the whole of the Christian religion to consist in a felt assurance of salvation, and in the determination to try to live a better life than previously! How interested John Wesley was in personal experience without regard to doctrinal consistency is evident from the “Christian Library” he prescribed for the training of his preachers. It included his own Notes on the New Testament, the Imitation of Christ, the Homilies of Macarius, the Spiritual Letters of Brother Lawrence and of St. John of the Cross, the Thoughts of Pascal, and the Spiritual Guide of Michael de Molinos. Every book listed, save his own Notes, was written by a Catholic who would have insisted on the necessity of belonging to the Catholic Church, and being in union with Rome! But Wesley was interested, not in the Faith they professed, but only in their rules for spiritual living and for progress in virtue. Doctrinally, he himself was ever vague, uncertain, and inconsistent; and anything but a reliable guide to the beliefs required of Christians.
3a BELIEF IN THE BIBLE
Wesley certainly accepted the doctrine that “God’s Written Word is the only and sufficient rule both of faith and practice,” which all Methodists profess. But he denounced “private interpretation” as a seed-plot of endless errors. In his Journal Vol. IV, he wrote, “That you need not any man to teach you is a text which has been brought in support of the rankest enthusiasm.” He himself justified his own interpretation at times by appealing to the “voice of antiquity,” or Tradition; at other times, by arguing from reason or “undeniable inference:” When Tradition was quoted against him, or his inferences were denied, he appealed to the “Inner Light,” the testimony of the Spirit within his own soul. But others claimed that the “Inner Light” led them to quite other conclusions, and that they preferred the testimony of the Spirit within THEIR souls to the leadership of “Blind John.” In such cases, Wesley was reduced to declaring them victims of feeling, imagination, and self-deception; a charge which they promptly turned against himself. That he felt the hopelessness of the position is indicated by his words in Preface to Standard Sermons, “Some say that I have mistaken the way myself . . . and it is very possible that I have.”
3b SIN Absorbed by thoughts of individual salvation, and of the necessity of conversion.
John Wesley devoted little attention to the great dogmatic affirmations about God, the Holy Trinity, and the Divinity of Christ. Those he never denied, of course. He took them for granted. But conversion implies repentance of sins, and the subject of sin assumed great importance in his eyes. His starting-point was from the Ninth of the Anglican “Articles of Religion,” which declares that “Original Sin . . . is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam.” He believed, therefore, in the Fall of the human race in Adam, interpreting inherited sin at first as a poison resulting in the utter depravity of unredeemed humanity. But this extreme Calvinism he later repudiated, denying that man is wholly corrupt, but insisting on the impossibility of eternal salvation without the grace of Christ, which alone can cleanse us both of original sin and of personal sins.
The very heart and soul of Methodism lies in its doctrine of salvation. John Wesley’s passionate desire was to save souls; and it was to preach salvation that he sent his preachers. It is only to be expected, therefore, that his greatest contribution to Protestantism would be his doctrine bearing on this subject. The essence of his teaching may be summed up in the promise of a NEW BIRTH, with FREE, PRESENT, and FULL SALVATION, to all who would respond to his invitation to repentance. For Wesley, the “New Birth” was the experience of conversion, shattering “inward sin,” and immediately justifying the soul before God. Believing in the necessity of such an instant regeneration, he urgently and almost desperately sought in his revival meetings to shock his hearers into decision, and surrender to the grace of God. And the very force of his personality worked wonders in the most unexpected places. But, in later life, as Henry Bett, in his book, The Spirit of Methodism, p. 36, writes, he “frankly confessed that he was wrong in his early insistence upon two things - the necessity and suddenness of the experience; and he admitted both that it was not possessed by some, though it was the privilege of all; and also that the experience might come gradually.” As regards the explanation of the “New Birth,” Wesley did not regard it as taking the place of baptismal regeneration. He accepted the Anglican Prayer Book teaching that “none can enter into the Kingdom of God except he be regenerate and born anew of water and the Holy Ghost”; and that it is by baptism that one becomes “a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven.” For him, therefore, the “New Birth” was evidence of repentance of post-baptismal sin, and of a new start in the spiritual life which had already been received. But he gave little thought to theology, and so preached the necessity of a “New Birth” without qualification that his own followers interpreted it as taking the place of baptism, and providing the very beginnings of the life of grace within the soul. The strange thing is that Wesley knew this, and permitted it, making no effort to correct misunderstandings, though the misconception was not in accordance with his own convictions! This is one of the many mysteries of inconsistency in Wesley which defy solution. But it is not surprising that modern Methodists have come to regard baptism, not as effecting regeneration, but merely a symbol of “inner conversion.” Infant baptism is for them no more than a “dedication service,” symbolizing the grace which will be given to the child in later life after having been consciously converted to Christ.
3d FREE GIFT
The effect of the “New Birth” was, according to Wesley, FREE, PRESENT and FULL SALVATION. In declaring salvation free for all men of good-will, John Wesley expressly rejected Calvin’s teaching that it is for the elect only. He insisted that Christ died for all, and declared Calvin’s doctrine of the predestination of the elect only to be “full of blasphemy.” In his revival meetings he stressed each man’s power to choose salvation, and laid immense emphasis on the need of surrendering to the grace of God. On this important issue he separated from his associate, George Whitefield, who believed in the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation for elect souls only. On the other hand, by declaring salvation free, Wesley cannot be said to have accepted the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith only, and not by works. Many modern Methodists still teach that Lutheran doctrine. But they are not followers of Wesley in that. It is true that Wesley was first “converted” at a Moravian meeting in 1738, whilst listening to the reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. But, in 1741, he publicly rejected Luther’s Commentary on Romans, and his teaching of justification by faith only. Later on, in his Journal he wrote, “The grand error of the Moravians is that they follow Luther for better or for worse, and hence their no works, no law, no commandments.” In “Sermon 20” he says, “We are afraid lest any should use the phrase ‘the righteousness of Christ is imputed to me’ as a cover for his unrighteousness. We have seen this done a thousand times. Warn them against making void that solemn decree of God, ‘Without holiness no man shall see the Lord,’ by a vain imagination of being ‘holy in Christ.’ O warn them that, if they remain unrighteous, the righteousness of Christ will profit them nothing.” On this same plea that salvation is free to all who are willing to accept it, many Methodists also feel called upon to reject the Catholic doctrine of merit. That good works are meritorious before God, and deserving of eternal reward, they deny, despite Our Lord’s words, “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in Heaven.” (Matt. 5: 12.) But here, too, Wesley was Catholic rather than Protestant in his teaching. “As to merit itself, of which we have been so dreadfully afraid,” he wrote, “we are rewarded according to our works, yea, because of our works. How does this differ from SECUNDUM MERITA OPERUM, ‘as our works deserve’? Can you split this hair? I doubt I cannot.” (Fitchett, Wesley and His Century, p. 381.)
3e PRESENT ASSURANCE
Methodists hold that acceptance of grace, with consequent “conversion,” brings with it an absolute and divinely begotten ASSURANCE that one’s sins are forgiven, and that one is indeed in God’s love and friendship. This they regard as their great contribution to Protestantism, the genuine recovery of a most important yet forgotten evangelical truth. It would be an injustice to Methodists to attribute to them the doctrine that it is sufficient to believe on Christ to be saved. Calvinists taught that doctrine, for they declared that once one had received the assurance of election and justification, it could never be lost. For them the question, “Are you saved?”, was full of meaning. But for Methodists the question is as meaningless as for Catholics. They agree with Catholics that no one is ever allowed to presume certainty of salvation. Always later sins are possible. One can fall from grace. Still, Methodists hold, as John Wesley held, that, whilst assurance of eternal salvation is not possible, assurance of present pardon of sin is possible. In fact, it is necessary. If one’s sins are forgiven, one has that certainty, the Holy Spirit immediately and directly testifying to the soul that it is in the grace of God, and that it is the child of God. If one has not that certainty, as infallible as faith itself, then one’s sins are not forgiven at all. In this doctrine, that man can not only attain to the grace of God, but can know with infallible certainty that he has attained to it, Wesley was definitely at variance with Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church admits that one can have a well-grounded confidence that he is in God’s love and friendship, both by the knowledge of one’s own sincerity, and the testimony of a good conscience. This trust in God gives sufficient peace of soul. But absolute and infallible assurance is not possible, and is but a form of self-deception. Even St. Paul did not claim it. “I am not conscious to myself of anything,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “yet I am not hereby justified.” (1 Cor. 4: 4.) There are things we must leave to God. Wesley himself, in his old age, greatly modified his ideas on this matter. He retracted his teaching that inward assurance is necessary for salvation, and that those who lack it are still in their sins. “When, fifty years ago,” he wrote, “my brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, taught the people that, unless they knew their sins were forgiven, they were under the wrath and curse of God, I marvel they did not stone us.” (H. Maldwyn Hughes, Christian Foundations, p. 158