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John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 3: Pastoral Theology

John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 3: Pastoral Theology

by Thomas C. Oden

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John Wesley’s Teachings is the first systematic exposition of John Wesley's theology that is also faithful to Wesley's own writings. Wesley was a prolific writer and commentator on Scripture—his collected works fill eighteen volumes—and yet it is commonly held that he was not systematic or consistent in his theology and teachings.


John Wesley’s Teachings is the first systematic exposition of John Wesley's theology that is also faithful to Wesley's own writings. Wesley was a prolific writer and commentator on Scripture—his collected works fill eighteen volumes—and yet it is commonly held that he was not systematic or consistent in his theology and teachings.


On the contrary, Thomas C. Oden demonstrates that Wesley displayed a remarkable degree of internal consistency over sixty years of preaching and ministry. This series of 4 volumes is a text-by-text guide to John Wesley’s teaching. It introduces Wesley’s thought on the basic tenets of Christian teaching: God, providence, and man (volume 1), Christ and salvation (volume 2), the practice of pastoral care (volume 3), and issues of ethics and society (volume 4).


In everyday modern English, Oden clarifies Wesley’s explicit intent and communicates his meaning clearly to a contemporary audience. Both lay and professional readers will find this series useful for devotional reading, moral reflection, sermon preparation, and for referencing Wesley’s opinions on a broad range of pressing issues of contemporary society.

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John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 3

By Thomas C. Oden


Copyright © 2012 Thomas C. Oden
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-58709-5

Chapter One

The Office and Gifts of Ministry

A. The Call to Ministry

1. An Address to the Clergy

On January 5, 1756, John Wesley wrote in his journal, "This week I wrote An Address to the Clergy, which considering the state of public affairs, I judged would be more seasonable and more easily borne at this time than at any other" Aware that he had hard words for his fellow clergy, Wesley carefully picked this time to convey them. In this essay, he set forth a thoughtful doctrine of the high calling to ministry coupled with an assessment of what sort of theological education is necessary to prepare for it.

a. Gifts and Graces for a Calling to Ministry

The study of the work of ministry begins with the call to ministry. Anyone examining a presumed call to ministry will benefit from "An Address to the Clergy" [J X:480–500 (February 6, 1756)]. It is regrettable that this important address is not yet available in the contemporary critical version; hence all references are to the Jackson edition of Wesley's Works.

Wesley first asks what gifts and graces are required for those "who watch over the souls of others as they that must give account." The core idea of "gifts and graces" is ubiquitous in the Wesleyan pastoral tradition. It points to a foundational description of qualities of character and preparation that are required for ministry. Anyone considering the vocation of ministry or who expects to go before an examining board will soon discover that the primary concern of the church is to discern a person's gifts and graces for ministry.

Those given the task of watching over the souls of others stand responsible before God for guiding the final destiny of each one under their care. In the last judgment, shepherds of the people of God will be called on to account for the care they gave to the souls committed to their charge.

b. A Vocation

Soul care is not strictly speaking a job, but a vocation. A job is a paid position of regular employment. A vocation is a calling from on high, transcending the economic, political, and domestic spheres. To receive God's call, Christians must listen for his voice.

Soul care exists as a response to God's concern for whole persons. The ultimate frame of reference for soul care is the eternal destiny of persons in relation to God. Even if accountability for the vocation of soul care is postponed, it will ultimately be required in the final judgment. This is not just serious business, but a grave matter on which the eternal destiny of souls depends.

No one is forced to undertake such a calling. It can only be pursued freely, as a voluntary response to the riches of divine grace. Worldly poverty is no match for these riches. Whoever enters this arena does so voluntarily or not at all.

2. Natural Gifts and Endowments

To discern this calling, Christians must solemnly examine themselves to determine whether they are ready for such a ministry. In his "Address to the Clergy," Wesley asked: What are the characteristics that make for an effective minister? What does the community of faith have a right to look for in and expect from those called to be preachers, liturgists, teachers, caregivers, evangelists, and overseers of the church that Christ has bought with his own blood? In setting forth the desired gifts and graces, Wesley considered first "natural gifts," as distinguished from hard-won, acquired endowments.

Natural gifts shape patterns of personal growth. They are not ordinary skills but are natural gifts of the Creator. They are not given to all. They are given through God's unfathomable providence and preparing grace. They do not work mechanically but require cooperative receptivity. They work through and within the various spheres of natural causality (inorganic, organic, animal, rational laws), not by direct fiat. They give evidence of the work of the Spirit, drawing the person in a beneficial direction by the abundance of a combination of talents. Not everyone has these gifts, even though they are offered by means of natural processes such as judging, thinking, and remembering. Some natural gifts are essential to ministry. Some can be more easily acquired by some than others, depending on genetics, environmental opportunities, and self-selected patterns of response. If not given in abundance, they may be obtained by hard work and perseverance.

The whole people of God are called into ministry of the laity. Some are called to the distinctive role of ordained ministry. Some are called, others not, to the momentous task of care of souls. Those lacking some acceptable combination and quality of natural gifts for soul care do well to pray for grace to listen carefully for discernment of God's calling.

a. Good Judgment, Quick Mind, and Retentive Memory

Among natural gifts essential for the work of ministry are these:

• sound judgment

• lively intellect

• good memory

The first of these natural gifts underscored by Wesley is sound judgment. Wise counsel requires good prudential judgment—the ability to reason closely and lucidly about complicated circumstances. Since our lives and passions are complicated, they call for good judgment, which has the power to penetrate self-deceptions. Good judgment sees through human frailties and dubious voluntary human actions.

These deceptions limit knowing and doing good. Faith is confronted with powerful adversaries, not only in persons' ideas but in their inward struggle for freedom. The adversarial powers would like nothing better than to penetrate and undermine effective ministries. These demonic powers are viewed in the New Testament as a part of the larger cosmic realm of the father of lies, the devil. They move in the arena of twisted and confused reasoning, distorting the capacity for persons to function responsibly. Fools cannot do this work of soul care. It requires battling with the spirits of darkness.

b. A Quick Mind and a Retentive Memory

Hence a second natural gift required for soul care is a quick mind, ready to match wits with the demonic. Those called to shepherd souls must have the capacity to discern situations swiftly in order to respond immediately and fittingly. A good heart does not always overcome the deficit of a sluggish mind. Otherwise, "how will he be able, when need requires, to 'answer a fool according to his folly'?" The third of these natural gifts underscored by Wesley is a retentive memory. In ministry memory will be put to the test. The minister will be required to "bring out of his treasures things new and old." Persons who cannot readily remember what the Scriptures teach will be disadvantaged in the care of souls. Readiness implies the practical capacity to apply scriptural truth to particular situations instantly when the proper time comes. The Scriptures are the quarries out of which pastoral care brings good tidings. Talking to clergy who lack a good memory is like "pouring water into a leaky vessel." Lack of discernment about these natural gifts has led to an abundance of "dull, heavy, blockish ministers" whose capacity to reason is "low and shallow" and whose apprehension is "muddy and confused."

3. Acquired Endowments for a Sound Calling

In addition to these natural gifts there are acquired habits of mind crucial for the work of ministry. These are gained by study, discipline, and sound forms of knowing—linguistic, biblical, and theological. Hence education is intrinsically a part of readiness for ministry, but not just any form of education. Rather, it requires a properly balanced education for ser vice to the community of faith in preaching, sacramental life, and pastoral care.

Wesley points to four acquired endowments in particular: understanding the pastoral office; inhabiting sacred Scripture text by text; immersing oneself in the Scripture studies of the ancient Christian writers of the first five centuries; and obtaining a broad general education in preparation for ministry.

a. Grasping the Nature of the Pastoral Office and Understanding Scripture

Among acquired endowments, candidates for ministry must clearly grasp the nature of the pastoral office itself. Those who do not know what God the Spirit wants done cannot do it. The Scriptures are necessary and sufficient to define what needs to be done. The office of ministry is a sacred trust. Careful study of the Acts, Paul's letters, especially 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and the Johannine writings are fundamentally important.

To grasp the nature of the pastoral office, ministers must study to gain a thorough knowledge of the Scripture that empowers the task. No one can be a good pastor who cannot deal in depth with the sacred text. This cannot be done without a working knowledge of the original Hebrew and Greek languages in which the Scriptures were first conveyed. These linguistic competencies are essential for rightly dividing the Word of Truth. Good pastors must be prepared to grasp "the literal meaning of every word, verse, and chapter, without which there can be no firm foundation on which spiritual meaning can be built." Pastors having a deep and practiced knowledge of Scripture will be capable of comparing Scripture with Scripture and applying Scripture accurately in real-life situations of human need. Only Scripture can guide pastors in learning how to guide others. Pastors must master the content of each narrative of salvation history separately and the whole synoptically. They must be ready to grasp objections and meet them clearly. Like most clergy in his time, Wesley was grounded in a classical education, able to read the ancient languages easily. He expected every gospel minister to be competent in language and literary skills. His lay preachers were urged to study to obtain them. He himself began learning Greek at his father's knee.

b. Immersion in the Scriptural Exegesis of the Church Fathers

The study of the sacred text extends to the study of its most reliable interpreters. The most reliable of these are those closest to the apostolic period. Evangelical pastors must therefore gain substantial grasp of the biblical message as understood in its earliest centuries by the early apologists, the patristic sources, the church fathers. Why? They were "the most authentic commentators on Scripture, being nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given." The best foundation for scriptural interpretation is a deep immersion in the earliest commentators and homilists on Scripture, commonly called the ante-Nicene writers. The ancient Christian exegetes are still most pertinent to a grasp of scriptural wisdom. The recent publication of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture in twenty-nine volumes provides a sample of the texts of the ancient Christian writers from whom Wesley was deriving his arguments. It should not be surprising that this work was conceived and nurtured and its research work housed in a seminary of the tradition of Wesley's spiritual connection—Drew Theological School.

Among post-Nicene commentators on Scripture whom Wesley most often commended were the great ecumenical teachers—Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine. Among hymn writers, Wesley commended especially "above all, the man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus." This core list shows the breadth of knowledge of the ancient tradition that comes not only from the Greek East and Latin West but also from the less familiar Syriac tradition.

Well-prepared evangelical pastors will be firmly grounded in ancient Christian doctrine, which Wesley thought was definitively formulated in the ancient church's "Three Creeds"—Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian (or Quicunque)—all based on early baptismal creeds. They provide a concise ordering of basic Christian teaching. To be rightly understood, they must be "firmly believed." When confessed, they must be uttered from the heart (ex anima).

Wesley believed that the views of evangelical pastors ought to be consistent with "Scripture, reason and Christian antiquity." By "Christian antiquity," he was referring to "the religion of the primitive church, of the whole church in the purest ages." The voice of classic Christianity is best heard through the writings of its most widely received scriptural interpreters. Among these Wesley's favorites were Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyprian, as well as Chrysostom, Basil, Ephrem Syrus, and Macarius.

The wisdom of the ancient Christian writers is not ancillary to the work of ministry in the modern world. "No thinking man will condemn the Fathers of the Church." Their views are "indispensably necessary" for the practice of ministry. There is no excuse for "one who has the opportunity, and makes no use of it," and no warrant for "a person who has had a University education" yet remained ignorant of the ancient Christian writers. Wesley had learned from his father, Samuel Wesley, an abiding "reverence to the ancient church" when he was a child at Epworth and a student at Oxford. He often commented on specific patristic references from Irenaeus, Minucius Felix, Origen, Didymus of Alexandria, Eusebius, Athanasius, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, Jerome, Pachomius, Theophylact, Pseudo-Dionysius, John of Damascus, and others.

c. Broad General Education as Preparation for Ministry

Beyond the knowledge of Scripture and classic Christian tradition, the work of the evangelical pastor requires a broad general education in the sciences and a knowledge of human nature and of the world, as well as common sense and a prudent grasp of the dynamics of human behavior. Therefore they must also have a broad knowledge of history. Since God is revealed in history, ministers cannot fulfill their office without a firm grasp of universal history, philosophy of history, and discrete historical studies, including an understanding of "ancient customs, chronology, and geography," hence of culture, time, and space.

Since God's revelation is addressed to persons within the limits of human history, freedom, and time, effective ministers will develop a practical knowledge of human nature, of "maxims, tempers, and manners, such as they occur in real life," where it is necessary to deal with a vast variety of characters and to discern the spirits. The minister must have knowledge of the world we live in, of the real lives people lead.

Since God's revelation is to persons, attesting God's revelation requires knowledge of persons, personality development, and what we would today called psychology. Wesley commended the study of the affective life, interpersonal relations, and the psychosomatic interface between body and soul.

Since God's revelation must be applied to specific situations, effective ministers will acquire by experience a good measure of ethical prudence. This means a situational sense of how to apply knowledge to living contexts. Prudence requires good common sense and a sense of the appropriateness and consequences of particular actions. This comes only by the "habitual consideration of all the circumstances of a thing," along with the "facility of adapting our behavior to the various combinations of them." Serving in ministry requires the ability to think logically about the data and inferences in the sciences, in natural philosophy, geometry, and in metaphysics, for logic is "the very gate" to all other sciences.

d. The Value of a Wisely Educated Evangelical Clergy

In no way did Wesley intend to make his arguments for lay preachers an apology for a poorly prepared, uneducated, and unsupervised ministry. He acknowledged the importance of education for gospel preaching. In "A Letter to a Clergyman," he offered these reasons for a wisely educated evangelical clergy:

• Their office is the saving of souls from death.

• Among all human concerns, care of soul is of highest significance.

• Life everlasting and holiness, or health of soul, are at stake in the quality of their care.

• Ministers are physicians of the soul.

• Full trial should be made of them in all respects "and that by the most competent judges before they enter on the public exercise of their office."

• After such trial, they may be authorized to exercise that office by those who are empowered to convey that authority.

• The supervisors (episkopoi) of holy orders are empowered to do this and have been so from the apostolic age.

For these reasons, "they should have all advantages of education and learning."

4. A Pastoral Temperament

The character and temperament of gospel ministers must be courteous, caring, and humane. Pastors must have some evidence of a good quality of character. By this Wesley meant "easiness and propriety of behavior ... all the courtesy of a gentleman joined with the correctness of a scholar." Courtesy is not merely an artificial convention but a profound aspect of sensitivity to the neighbor.

Those who preach well will seek to develop "a strong, clear musical voice and a good delivery." Accurate communication requires sentences that can be understood. The public communicator cannot be effective without learning the skills of voice projection, enunciation, and the requirements of public speaking. Those who have a "weak and untunable voice" may by diligence gain a "strong and agreeable" voice. Grace has helped "those who stammered almost at every word" to learn to speak clearly and concisely. Those "ungraceful in their pronunciation and awkward in their gesture have in some time, by art and labor, not only corrected that awkwardness of action and ungracefulness of utterance, but have become excellent in both." All of these acquired gifts are expedient for ministers, yet it would be presumptive to mandate each one of them as necessary in every instance. Some who have lesser endowments or less access to the study of these disciplines may nonetheless serve well. However, any candidate for ministry who has the opportunity to acquire these disciplines and neglects it will be disadvantaged in soul care. In this way, Wesley lays down "ex professo the qualifications, the learning in particular, which (as I apprehend) every clergyman who can have ought to have."


Excerpted from John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 3 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

 Thomas C. Oden (PhD, Yale) is Director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania and Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University. He is an ordained Methodist minister and the author of many books, including The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, and Classic Christianity. Dr. Oden is also the general editor for the widely-used Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series.

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