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John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 2
By Thomas C. Oden
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Thomas C. Oden
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Chapter OneJesus Christ
A. The Incarnate Crucified Lord
Wesley prayed that the people in his connection of spiritual formation might be saved from supposed "improvements" on the apostolic testimony or presumed christological innovations. Wesley at no point hinted that there is a needed purification, progression, or remodeling of ancient ecumenical christological definitions. There is very little of that in magisterial Protestantism. The Reformers gladly accepted ancient ecumenical definitions of the apostolic church, and Wesley followed in their steps.
The study of the doctrine of Christ (Christology) has two parts: The person of Christ as God-man (theantropos) and the work of Christ as mediator of salvation to humanity.
1. The Person of Christ
In Wesley's view, it is precisely in the text of the New Testament that we meet the "inmost mystery of the Christian faith," where "all the inventions of men ought now to be kept at the utmost distance" to allow Scripture to speak of the one mediator who has "become the guarantor of a better covenant" (Heb. 7:22 NIV).
Wesley summarized his thinking: "I do not know how any one can be a Christian believer ... till God the Holy Ghost witnesses that God the Father has accepted him through the merits of God the Son; and having this witness, he honors the Son, and the blessed Spirit, 'even as he honors the Father.'"
a. Two Natures: Truly God, Truly Human
The foundation of the doctrine of Jesus Christ is found in Scripture: truly God, truly human. Wesley confidently employed the language of the Council of Chalcedon in phrases like "real God, as real man," "perfect, as God and as man," and "the Son of God and the Son of Man," whereby one phrase is "taken from his divine, and the other from his human nature."
The Son's unity with the Father is a unity of divine essence, nature, substance, and glory. All the attributes of God the Father are manifested in God the Son. Wesley paraphrased Jesus, saying, "I am one with the Father in essence, in speaking, and in acting." The Father is Jesus' Father "in a singular and incommunicable manner; and ours, through Him, in such a kind as a creature is capable of." To say these divine attributes are "incommunicable" means that the Son's unique nature as eternal Son is not in itself transferable in its fullness to finite beings, but that persons through faith participate in his sonship "in such a kind as a creature is capable of." Though inseparably united with the Father, the Son is a distinguishable voice from the Father as a person yet always understood emphatically within their unity of essence. The Son is worthy of worship since "Christ is God."
b. Arguments Concerning the Divinity of Christ
Wesley often called Jesus simply "God," or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the one who is spoken of in Romans 9:5. There the classic view of the two natures of Christ is clear: "'He that existeth, over all, God blessed for ever': the supreme, the eternal, 'equal with the Father as touching his Godhead, though yielding to the Father as touching his manhood.'"
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks as "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" the one who incomparably is, "the being of beings, Jehovah, the self-existent, the supreme, the God who is over all." He speaks in the first person, and thus claims the divine name, "I am," of Exodus 3:14 (John 8:24, 27–28, 58). His eternal generation distinguishes him from all creatures. "He has all the natural, essential attributes of his Father ... the entire Divine Nature."
The ascription of all divine attributes of the Father to the eternal Son is taken for granted as the faith of the ancient church. To the Son are ascribed "all the attributes and all the works of God. So that we need not scruple to pronounce him God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, in glory equal with the Father, in majesty coeternal."
The incarnation reveals the harmony of God's attributes, especially the subtle interfacing of God's justice, which must discipline the sinner, and God's mercy, which reconciles the sinner—a reconciliation that occurs out of divine love as an event in history on the cross. Through incarnation and atonement, we learn "that not sovereignty alone, but justice, mercy, and truth hold the reins."
c. Arguments Concerning the Humanity of Christ
"In the fullness of time He was made man, another common Head of mankind, a second general Parent and Representative of the whole human race." In becoming "flesh," God becomes fully human, not simply body but all that pertains to humanity.
He is a "real man, like other men," even "a common man, without any peculiar excellence or comeliness," who becomes weary, who weeps, who is tempted as we are yet without sin, who increases in wisdom "as to his human nature," who passes through stages of development like other human beings, who as man lives within limitations of time, finitude, and the restrictions of contextual knowing.
Wesley commented freely on the temperament of Jesus, his psychological dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and courage, yet without displacing the premise that he is truly human, truly God, not one without the other.
In all this there is no hint of a docetic (flesh-repudiating) tendency in Christology. Above all his humanity is seen in his death and burial. "He did not use His power to quit His body as soon as it was fastened to the cross, leaving only an insensible corpse to the cruelty of His murderers; but continued His abode in it, with a steady resolution." In the bodily ascension, God "exalted Him in his human nature."
d. The Assumption of Human Nature by the Son in the Virgin Birth
"I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person, being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary." "Christ, the Second Person, had a being before he was born of a virgin," but it was the being of the preexistent Son, not a preexistent human flesh—an idea that Wesley considered "exceeding dangerous" since it tended to compromise the Son's coequality and coeternality with the Father.
In the virginal conception, "the power of God was put forth by the Holy Ghost, as the immediate divine agent in this work." "As Christ was to be born of a pure virgin, so the wisdom of God ordered it to be of one espoused; that, to prevent reproach, He might have a reputed father according to the flesh."
Mary who was "as well after as before she brought him forth, continues a pure and unspotted virgin." The nativity hymns of Charles Wesley splendidly attest the virgin conception and Christmas theology.
Yet the angelic salutation "gives no room for any pretense of paying adoration to the virgin." "[Mary] rejoiced in hope of salvation through faith in Him, which is a blessing common to all true believers, more than in being His mother after the flesh, which was an honor peculiar to her.... In like manner he has regarded our low estate; and vouchsafed to come and save her and us."
e. The Mystery of the Personal Union
Insofar as the mediator between God and humankind shares our humanity, he does not need to know the time of the day of judgment, for "as man," that is insofar as Jesus was flesh and blood in finite time, he was a palpable human being. How could he be if he dwelt in finite time? But according to his divine nature, "He knows all the circumstances of it."
All that belongs to the divine nature appears in the human nature. All that appears in the human nature belongs to the divine nature. In this way, Wesley explicitly affirmed the classic doctrine of communication of properties or perichoresis. This is "the communication of properties between the divine and human nature: whereby what is proper to the divine nature is spoken concerning the human; and what is proper to the human is, as here [John 3:13], spoken of the divine."
Wesley speaks, for example, of "the blood of the only-begotten Son of God." The assumption is that the human properties of the man Jesus have been shared participatively with the one person of the God-man, Jesus Christ, in an "amazing union." It is this union that David Lerch, in Heil und Heiligung bei John Wesley, regards as the christological key to Wesley. This perichoresis is what places Wesley so close to ancient Christian orthodoxy.
The personal union of one who is truly God and truly human theanthropos —"the God-man"41 —is at once "man and Mediator." God is "His Father, primarily, with respect to His divine nature, as his only-begotten Son; and, secondarily, with respect to His human nature, as that is personally united to the divine." Echoing the ancient councils, the Son is "without father, as to His human nature; without mother, as to His divine." The Son is obedient to the Father as seen in the New Testament. But the Son is not thereby inferior in nature with the Father.
As fully human, he "bids His disciples also to pray" to his Father, "but never forbids their praying to Himself" as eternal Son.
B. The Christology of the Articles of Religion
1. God and Humanity in Personal Union
The primary doctrinal text that best reveals Wesley's Christology is article 2 of the Articles of Religion on the Son of God. Its two clauses distinguish the person from the work of Christ.
In one spare sentence, we have the summary teaching of the Son as the Word of God, preexistent Logos with the Father, the address of the Father, sent by the Father, truly God, of one substance with the Father, truly eternal who becomes incarnate assuming human nature, born of the blessed Virgin, one person with two natures, truly human and truly divine, undivided. The Son is the Word of the Father, not less God than the Father, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.
God took human nature in the womb of Mary so that in the Son two whole and perfect natures, God and humanity, became one person. In this one person, we have not half God or half man, not an Arian-like almost God, not part God, but according to the teaching of the ancient christological tradition, Godhead and humanity joined together in one hypostatic union of two natures in one person never to be viewed as separable.
2. The Work of Christ
a. The Work He Came to Do
If this is who Christ is, what did this unique person do that evidences his divine Sonship, and why? This theandric mediator did something for each one of us sinners. His work is consummated in his atoning action in which he suffered for us, was crucified for us, died for us, and was buried (XXV, art. 2).
This descent theme points to the length to which God goes to show his love for us by sharing our humanity, and by his death and resurrection, to bridge the alienation between the holiness of God and fallen humanity.
b. His Atoning Death Reconciles God and Humanity
The work of Christ's life is consummated in the atoning deed of his death, to be a sacrifice not only covering and redeeming our primordial guilt inherited from the history of sin, but also the actual sin resulting from our own free decisions and collusions. Why? To reconcile his Father to us. The focus is neither on reconciling us to the Father nor to one another, as if that could occur apart from the Son's reconciling his Father to us. Reconciling the wrath of God and the sin of man is his work. His work is what he does, as distinguished from "who he is."
c. He Suffered unto Death for Our Sins
He who is truly God became truly human and truly suffered. Patripassianism is thereby rejected, for the Father did not suffer, but the Son suffered as incarnate Lord, was crucified for us, died, and was buried. This is a shorthand way of speaking about salvation from sin for all who repent and believe.
This pardon covers all sin: inherited and acquired, social and personal, primordial and historical. No individual act of natural freedom can excise itself from this distorted, despairing human condition. All who are born enter a history burdened by sin. In addition to that inherited burden, each of us has made our actual personal self-determined additions to that history of sin.
The Son's atonement is addressed to and sufficient for every individual sinner who shares in the heartrending history of sin. For those who reach the age of responsibility, it is effective for their salvation when they repent and believe. For those who have not reached the age of accountability or who are unable to take responsibility for themselves, sufficient grace works preveniently to draw them toward the means of grace that would enable their salvation, provided they use the available means of grace (prayer, Scripture, and common worship) when they are able. Though this grace is always sufficient, our self-determining wills may be deficient by our own choice.
d. He Rose Again from the Dead—The Resurrection
The third article confesses the resurrection as the decisive event that makes sense out of Christ's death: "Christ did truly rise from the dead and took again his body with all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven and there sitteth until he returns to judge at the last day" (XXV, art. 3).
The first clause attests the central truth of the history of our salvation, that Christ indeed rose from the dead in a real body, a glorified body that experienced all the common things that pertain to human nature. It is Christ who represents sinners in the presence of the Father. Having ascended into heaven, he sits in session at the right hand of the Father and intercedes on our behalf and will return on the last day. This is the central salvation occurrence that vindicates the whole work of Jesus in his earthly ministry and on the cross.
e. The Descent to the Nether World
Despite the absence of the phrase "descent into hell" in Wesley's Sunday Service, there is strongly evident elsewhere in Wesley's Christology a large-scale descent theme:
from eternal Logos of the Father to incarnation to death, from death to burial, from burial to the descent to the nether world.
And only then is there a mighty reversal in the resurrection:
Christ raised from the dead, ascended to heaven, sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and promised to come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
To understand each of these phases of descent and ascent is to grasp the essence of Wesley's Christology. The step that most requires explanation is the descent to the nether world.
(1) The Descent to Hell
(a) Why Omitted in the "Sunday Service"? That Christ descended into hell was omitted in the 1784 Sunday Service that Wesley sent to the churches in America. Among the Thirty-Nine Articles is article 3, "On the Going Down of Christ into Hell": "As Christ died for us and was buried, so also is it to be believed that he went down into hell."
Wesley excised that article in his liturgical advice to American Methodists. All he did was strike the phrase from the service, offering no detailed explanation of this omission or its motives or implications.
It is likely that the main reason Wesley did not include the descent of Christ into the netherworld is not that it lacked biblical support, but that it was even in his time regarded as a controversial hypothesis among scholars. In narrowing the thirty- nine to twenty-four articles, he was trying to make a plain and spare statement, as consensual as possible, of necessary affirmations of faith.
Excerpted from John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 2 by Thomas C. Oden Copyright © 2012 by Thomas C. Oden. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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