Methodist theology, while starting from the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, is a system of doctrine that clearly separates itself from many Calvinist distinctives while emphasizing the importance of Christian holiness and growth.
While taking the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church as its starting point, Methodism accepts the final authority of Scripture and affirms the theological and Christological orthodoxy of the first five centuries. Methodism affirms the spirituality and desire of conformity to Christ expressed in many of the spiritual writers of medieval Christianity. Methodism separated itself clearly from the leading distinctive doctrines of Calvinism. Divine foreknowledge is an effect of absolute omniscience in God and not in his decree. The atoning work of Christ is the root of prevenient grace as its retroactive effect is universal in removing the guilt of Adam’s sin from all men. The work of the Spirit also is a universal phenomenon restoring, because of Christ’s universal atonement, the intrinsic capacity to respond positively to God’s revelation. While maintaining an orthodox and evangelical core of doctrine, Methodism embraced the conviction of Wesley that the experience of many throughout Christendom may be genuinely saving and fundamentally Christian though elements of their theology have a corrupting tendency.
In its dominant form, transcending all the varieties of denominational developments within Methodism and excepting the small group of Calvinistic Methodists, Methodist Theology embodies the distinctive approach to doctrine of John Wesley (1703–1791). Wesley’s theology reflects commitments of his Dissenting grandfathers, his Anglican father, his pious Bible-reading mother, his efforts toward holiness in the “Holy Club” at Oxford, his difficulties in missionary work in Georgia, powerful impressions from the Moravians (especially Peter Boehler), a deep spiritual heart-warming (perhaps true conversion) when hearing the reading of Luther’s preface to Romans in 1738, and a visit to the pietist settlement in Herrnhut (“the Lord’s House”) where he met Count von Zinzendorf. Though he studiously sought to avoid acerbic controversy and wanted to be led “by the hand … as I am able to bear,” nevertheless he engaged in intense doctrinal conflict with George Whitefield, Augustus Toplady, and John Gill. The doctrines of predestination, unconditional election, and Christian perfection brought about engagements of closest scrutiny and most intense exchanges.
Through the combination of these places, people, experiences, Wesley developed a singular passion for his life and the lives of others, “to find the way to heaven.” Along with his Methodist Bible moths at Oxford, he professed to have “no design but to promote the glory of God, and no desire but to save souls from death.” The geographical expanse of the movement of which he was the center and its duration throughout his life led him to believe sincerely that he had seen “the dawn of ‘the latter day glory’” (Sermons, Sermon LXVII).
To this end he followed the advice of George Whitefield and began preaching in the fields in order to reach the masses. He organized his converts and the men who came to discover a gift of preaching under his influence into societies designed to encourage one another in the path of true godliness, holiness, and honest confession, and to support itinerant evangelistic preaching. After many starts and stops, the first lasting Methodist Society was organized at the Foundry on July 23, 1740. Methodism as a legally recognized church of Dissent came to resolution in 1784, the same year in which Methodism in America was given “full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive Church.”
In pursuing his passion for going to heaven and taking others with him, Wesley considered himself homo unius libri, a man of one book. His acquaintance with theological literature was large, but its value was to point to a clear understanding of Scripture, and thus to shed light on the pathway to heaven. Well acquainted with the Greek New Testament, the early church fathers (especially the Greek Fathers), medieval mystics, both the Radical and Magisterial wings of the Reformation, Wesley developed an ecumenical core of theological commitments that he believed all true Christians shared in common. “Then if we cannot as yet think alike in all things,” he wrote to a group of Irish Catholics, “at least we may love alike.” Having set out a series of commonly held doctrines and the ethical practices called for by such doctrines, Wesley queried, “Now, do not you yourself approve of this? Is there any one point you can condemn?” Wesley probed, “If a man sincerely believes thus much and practices accordingly, can any one possibly persuade you to think that such a man shall perish everlastingly?” (Albert Outler, John Wesley, 496). Albert Outler observed that Wesley’s theology was “sunk into the rich original stratum of the English Reformation: fiercely anti-Roman in polity, yet also instinctively opposed to the extremes of the Continental Protestants; ecumenical in tone and temper; devoted to the dynamic balance of Christian worship and Christian behavior” (122).
Sources of Methodist Theology
The formative, and even authoritative, documents of Methodism, the source from which to “regulate doctrine,” are fourfold. The first and initially formative source of doctrinal regulation within Methodism comes from the Doctrinal Minutes. From 1744–1748 Wesley met with selected preachers to propose doctrinal questions, discuss them freely, and present a summary of their answer. Wesley himself provided the final synthesis of each doctrinal position. These syntheses make their way into sermons and expository notes. They constitute, according to Albert Outler, “the most important single exhibition of the manner and the substance of Wesley’s theologizing” and provide the reader with “an unequaled access to the mind and methodology of this evangelist theologian” (135).
In the first such conference, questions proposed included “What is it to be justified?”, “What is faith?”, “Are works necessary for the continuance of faith?”, and “What is antinomianism?” On the second day, questions concerning sanctification were posed: “Is not every believer a new creature?”; “What is implied in being made perfect in love?”; “Does this imply that he who is thus made perfect cannot commit sin?” The answer cited 1 John 3:9 with the assertion, “St. John affirms it expressly.” Since the answers given were often short, involving a single sentence or the citation of a single verse of Scripture, in later doctrinal discussion such as the Sermons or Notes, the doctrinal idea is expanded, given consistency with other doctrinal truths, and presented in the context of Christian ministry. This expansion of thought, contextualized to a more broadly conceived scriptural framework, doctrinal integration, and experiential investigation is evident in maturing the concept of “Christian Perfection.”
The second source is Wesley’s Sermons, the first volume of which was published two years after the first doctrinal conference. This body of doctrinal expositions consists of not less than forty-four and not more than fifty-two or fifty-three sermons specifically selected as exemplars, not only of the guiding doctrinal tenets of Methodism, but how to preach them. Many other sermons of Wesley’s eventually were put in print, as many as 138, but these were deemed sufficient as a manageable body of doctrinal, practical, and spiritual material to serve as guides in these areas. They treat mainly of Protestant themes of the way a sinner comes to salvation, original sin, the new birth, justification by Christ’s imputed righteousness, faith as the means of attaining this cover of righteousness but not as a cover for sinning, holy living and sanctification, assurance, the witness of the Spirit, fruitfulness, Christian perfection, and self-denial. Thirteen of the sermons are based on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5–7. The sermon on justification by faith asserts, “Justifying faith implies, not only a divine evidence or conviction that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself;’ but a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for ‘my’ sins, that he loved ‘me,’ and gave himself for ‘me.’” Saving faith must not only include the trust of God’s general promise that he will save all who believe in Christ, but also the conviction that the redeeming intention of God includes “me” in particular. In that sermon, Wesley focused mainly on justification’s identity with forgiveness. In sermon 20, in order to become clear on his understanding of Justification by faith including the imputation of Christ’s full obedience and righteousness, Wesley referred to his Treatise on Justification, in which he affirmed that “imputing Christ’s righteousness” involved bestowing “the righteousness of Christ, including his obedience, as well passive as active.” The believer receives “the privileges, blessings, and benefits purchased” in Christ’s obedience and “may be said to be justified by the righteousness of Christ imputed,” and thus “not for any righteousness of his own.” This strong clarification not only complemented the sermonic witness but the impression left by the statement in the first doctrinal conference, “We do not find it affirmed expressly in Scripture that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to any, although we do find that faith is imputed to us for righteousness” (Outler, 139). He also made clear the relation between imputed righteousness and inherent righteousness in posing and answering a query: “But do not you believe inherent righteousness? Yes, in its proper place; not as the ground of our acceptance with God, but as the fruit of it; not in the place of imputed righteousness, but as consequent upon it.” In this lies the certainty of sanctification for all who have a true gospel faith.
A third source of regulation for Methodist doctrine consists of the Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1755). He produced this during a period when physical malady prohibited his usual relentless activity of itineration. This was originally written as a source of Bible study for “serious persons who have not had the advantage of learning … who understand only their mother-tongue” (Oden, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, 84). In the process of commenting, Wesley also retranslated passages from the Authorized Version that he felt could bear greater clarity or should be based on more recent manuscript evidence. His comments often are short sentence fragments with a clarifying emphasis or an admonition for spiritual progress in the reader. Often, he has more extended comments in order to heighten the doctrinal importance of certain passages. For example, in John 1:1 he looks at “the Word.” This term is used in Psalm 33:6 and “frequently by the seventy, and in the Chaldee paraphrase. So that St. John did not borrow this expression from Philo, or any heathen writer.” As this unfolds mysteries of the pre-incarnate existence of “the Word,” the apostle does not use the name Jesus or Christ. “He is the Word whom the Father begat or spoke from eternity; by whom the Father speaking, maketh all things; who speaketh the Father to us.” Intermingling biblical text with classical orthodox language, Wesley continued, “He is the only begotten Son of the Father, who is in the bosom of the Father, and hath declared him.” But in being “with him,” we learn that he is “distinct from God the Father. The word rendered with, denotes a perpetual tendency as it were of the Son to the Father, in unity of essence. He was with God alone; because nothing beside God had then any being.”
Wesley’s comment on “Abba, Father” from Romans 8:15 shows his insight into both the subtle implications of language and the doctrinal nuances insinuated in the text. Noting that the “cry” indicates a “vehement speaking, with desire, confidence, constancy,” he looked at repetition of address as not only an explanatory device, but “by using both the Syriac and the Greek word, St. Paul seems to point out the joint cry both of the Jewish and gentile believers.” Also, the Holy Spirit exhibits two distinctly different operations, each with a distinct purpose: “The spirit of bondage here seems directly to mean, those operations of the Holy Spirit by which the soul, on its first conviction, feels itself in bondage to sin, to the world, to Satan, and obnoxious to the wrath of God. This, therefore, and the Spirit of adoption, are one and the same Spirit, only manifesting itself in various operations, according to the various circumstances of the persons.”
The attention that he gives to distinctive doctrinal points also appear with concise resolution in these Notes. For example, among his comments on Romans 8:30 we find his doctrinal synthesis stated succinctly: “St. Paul does not affirm, either here or in any other part of his writings. that precisely the same number of men are called, justified, and glorified. He does not deny that a believer may fall away and be cut off between his special calling and his glorification.” Again Wesley insists, “Neither does he deny that many are called who never are justified. He only affirms that this is the method whereby God leads us step by step toward heaven.”
Articles of Faith
The fourth source of doctrinal regulation within Methodism is contained in the Articles of Faith. Wesley used the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England for his basis. Though he eliminated article XVII that affirmed a Calvinistic understanding of election, Wesley does not insert any affirmation of distinctive Arminianism in these articles beyond what may be implicit in the articles as they stand. For example, Article XX reads, “The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual.” Those doctrinal views are reserved for his Notes and Sermons and Doctrinal Minutes. He omitted fourteen of the Anglican articles and maintained twenty-five with some alterations to fit the ecclesiology of Methodism, omitting some of the sacramental overtones of the Anglican articles, and making several small changes or longer omissions for the sake of literary economy. This regulating standard aligned Wesley and subsequent Methodism with the theological, Christological, and pneumatological orthodoxy of the early church, including the double procession of the Holy Spirit. The authority of Scripture, original or birth sin, free will, justification, and good works are given short definitions. Works of supererogation are denied and sins after baptism may be forgiven. Several Roman Catholic doctrines and practices (including purgatory and transubstantiation) are rejected as “repugnant to the word of God.” Six articles are given to the church and the sacraments.
What sort of theological profile do the sources of doctrine present? Methodism accepts the final authority of Scripture, a denomination, like Wesley, of “one book.” Methodism developed its doctrinal expression through discussion, closely reasoned biblical exposition, sermonic presentation of doctrine, and a mediating Protestant confessional statement. Methodism historically affirms the theological and Christological orthodoxy of the first five centuries. Methodism affirms the spirituality and desire of conformity to Christ expressed in many of the spiritual writers of medieval Christianity. Though Wesley observed that “the truth of the gospel” lies within a “hair’s breadth” of Calvinism, Methodism separated itself clearly from the leading distinctive doctrines of Calvinism. The first conference posed the Question, “Have we not then unawares leaned too much towards Calvinism?” with the answer, “It seems we have.” Methodism considered reprobation as a millstone around the neck of Calvinism and the most sinister doctrinal implication of unconditional election. Foreknowledge is an effect of absolute omniscience in God and not in his decree. The atoning work of Christ is the root of prevenient grace as its retroactive effect is universal in removing the guilt of Adam’s sin from all men, restoring a “capacity for spiritual life” to all men, and establishing a reservoir of forgiveness for all who believe. Because of this universal restoration, our unity with Adam in his fall is a great blessing. The work of the Spirit also is a universal phenomenon restoring, because of Christ’s universal atonement, the intrinsic capacity to respond positively to God’s revelation. Without such a restoration of voluntary liberty “it would be as absurd to ascribe either virtue or vice to him, as to ascribe it to the stock of a tree.” While maintaining an orthodox and evangelical core of doctrine, Methodism embraced the conviction of Wesley that the experience of many throughout Christendom may be genuinely saving and fundamentally Christian though elements of their theology have a corrupting tendency.
- Albert C. Outler, ed. John Wesley
- Arnold Dallimore, A Heart Set Free: The Life of Charles Wesley
- John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches
- John Tyson, Charles Wesley on Sanctification
- John Wesley, Notes
- John Wesley, Sermons
- John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley
- Richard Watson, Theological Institutes
- Thomas Oden, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition. Francis Asbury Press, 1998.
- Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of his Teaching on Christian Doctrine