Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology


Of special focus in this reflective overview of Wesley's theological convictions is highlighting the practical-theological dynamics of Wesley's work and suggesting possible implications for contemporary attempts to recover theology as a practical discipline. Another distinctive focus of this work is a systematic consideration of the integration of theological emphases traditionally divergent in Eastern and Western Christianity. The author also closely examines the consistency of Wesley's thought throughout his ...
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Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology

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Of special focus in this reflective overview of Wesley's theological convictions is highlighting the practical-theological dynamics of Wesley's work and suggesting possible implications for contemporary attempts to recover theology as a practical discipline. Another distinctive focus of this work is a systematic consideration of the integration of theological emphases traditionally divergent in Eastern and Western Christianity. The author also closely examines the consistency of Wesley's thought throughout his career.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687003341
  • Publisher: Kingswood Books
  • Publication date: 10/1/1994
  • Series: Kingswood Series
  • Pages: 418
  • Sales rank: 816,534
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

(2012) Randy L. Maddox isWilliam Kellon Quick Professor of Church History and Wesley Studies at The Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; and Associate General Editor of the Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley.He is a recognized authority on both John Wesley's theology and the theological developments in later Methodism. Among his special interests are the science and religion dialogue, the nature of evangelicalism, and the theological distinctives of Eastern Orthodoxy. Maddox is an ordained elder in the Dakotas Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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Responsible Grace

John Wesley's Practical Theology

By Randy L. Maddox

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1994 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-00334-1


Human Knowledge of the God of Responsible Grace

Whenever Christians articulate, inculcate, reformulate, or defend primary theological convictions, they operate (implicitly or explicitly) with assumptions about where one can obtain reliable input regarding these issues and how one should draw upon this input to insure truly Christian convictions. That is, they operate with assumptions about the manner of revelation and the criteria of doctrinal decisions. This chapter will assess Wesley's assumptions about these "meta-theological" issues.

An initial caveat is in order. I have chosen to discuss these issues prior to consideration of Wesley's theological worldview only because it provides a helpful context for understanding some of his doctrinal decisions. I am not meaning to imply that Wesley developed explicit stances on these issues prior to engaging in doctrinal reflection. He was not subject to the "paralysis of analysis" that plagues modern theologians, leaving them hesitant to engage in actual doctrinal reflection until they have solved all methodological puzzles. Indeed, Wesley seldom provided extended articulations of his methodological assumptions. He postulated them in passing, or exemplified them in the process of actual theological activity. I will be gathering these scattered insights, while watching for any developments or tensions.

The Fount of Knowledge—God's Gracious Self-Revelation

One set of meta-theological assumptions concerns the sources of theological knowledge. How and where can we have access to knowledge about God and God's will for us? The best way to approach Wesley's answer to this question is in light of his general epistemological commitments.

Excursus: Wesley's Epistemology

Discussions of epistemology, which inquires into the sources of human knowledge, had divided into two major camps in the Western intellectual traditions by Wesley's time. The rationalist camp (hailing back to Plato) stressed the role of reason in providing the most important knowledge, particularly through innate ideas—ideas resident in our minds prior to any experience. By contrast, empiricists (championing Aristotle) denied that there were innate ideas, arguing that experience was the source of all foundational human knowledge. Where did Wesley fit in this debate?

The issue of Wesley's epistemological commitments has attracted considerable scholarly interest recently. What has become clear through this study is that Wesley self-consciously sided with the empiricist denial of innate ideas. He frequently quoted the slogan nihil est in intellectu quod non fuit prius in sensu, "nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses". He embraced the Aristotelian logical tradition at Oxford. He commented favorably on John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, and he appended an abridgement of Peter Browne's The Procedure, Extent, and Limits of Human Understanding to his compendium of natural philosophy.

This is not to say that Wesley agreed totally with (then current) Lockean empiricism. He dissented from this tradition in two significant ways. In the first place, Wesley was epistemologically more optimistic than Locke. He considered Locke much too prone to believe that our senses could mislead us, or that the abstractions which our minds form based on our experience might not correspond to the way things really are.

Wesley's second divergence from contemporary empiricists dealt specifically with the issue of knowledge of God. Most contemporary empiricists assumed that knowledge of God was available only by inference from our experience of the world or by assent to the external testimony of Scripture. While Wesley allowed a role for such indirect knowledge of God, he desired more direct knowledge as well. Yet, since he agreed with empiricists that direct knowledge must come through the senses, he postulated (in conscious contrast with Locke and Browne) that God provided humans with spiritual senses to sense spiritual realities, just as our physical senses sense physical realities.

Where could Wesley have found such a notion of spiritual senses? One possible source was his reading of John Norris, who espoused a form of Malebranchean Platonism that included an important role for spiritual senses as the means of our perception of God. Another likely source was his study of early Eastern Christian writers. In particular, this theme was common in the Macarian Homilies. The theme can also be found in Western spiritualist, Pietist, and Puritan writers.

Whatever its source, Wesley called upon this notion of spiritual senses in two distinct contexts. Sometimes he was primarily concerned to explain how Christians could have an assurance that they are accepted by God. At other times he further credited the spiritual senses with providing immediate perceptual access to such spiritual realities as the existence of our soul, angels, and the afterlife. It is the latter appeal that will be of most interest as we turn now to considering how Wesley's basic epistemological commitments found expression in his understanding of the nature of revelation.

The Gracious Character of All Revelation

There has been an ongoing debate in recent Wesley scholarship over whether Wesley believed that human beings could have knowledge of God apart from God's definitive revelation in Jesus Christ. This debate appears to result more from an inappropriate framing of the question than from ambiguities in Wesley. The debate has typically been framed in terms of whether Wesley affirmed a "natural revelation" or a "natural theology." Behind such designations is the assumption that any universal knowledge of God available through consideration of the world and human life would necessarily be "natural" knowledge rather than "gracious" knowledge.

It is not surprising that the question is frequently framed this way, because the polarization of nature and grace increasingly characterized Western theology, becoming definitive of much of Protestantism. Thus when Wesley is read in a Protestant paradigm (as is most common), he is forced toward one or the other of opposing alternatives: either he is assumed to affirm that humans can have some knowledge of God apart from grace, or he is read to deny the existence of any significant knowledge outside of definitive Christian revelation.

By contrast with later Western theology, early Greek theologians and the continuing Eastern Orthodox tradition have rejected such polarization. They make no absolute separation between general and Christian revelation, but they see both as based in God's grace, with God's revelation in Christ establishing and completing divine revelation in creation.

Wesley's convictions about revelation appear to be more in line with early Greek perspectives than with later Western theology. He too wanted to affirm that there is an initial universal knowledge of God available to those who have not heard of Christ, while insisting that this knowledge was itself an expression of God's gracious activity epitomized in the revelation of Christ.

To be sure, Wesley achieved this result in a different manner than was typical of early Greek theologians. They usually assumed that there was a continuing (weakened) influence of the grace of creation even after the Fall. Through his distinctive wedding of total depravity with universal Prevenient Grace, Wesley grounded the knowledge of God available to those who have not heard of Christ in an initial expression of the grace of restoration.

In other words, Wesley was convinced that no one had access to God apart from the gracious restoration of Divine self-revelation. However, he also believed that this restoration took place in a continuum of progressively more definitive expressions, beginning with a basic knowledge that was universally available and reaching definitive expression in Christ.

Initial Universal Revelation

In keeping with his epistemological commitments, Wesley denied that humans have an innate idea of God stamped on our souls. All knowledge of God must come either through inference from creation or by direct sensation through our spiritual senses. The major source that Wesley consistently identified for the universally-restored initial revelation of God was inference from creation. Beyond this constant, his precise convictions about the content and effectiveness of God's restored initial self-revelation fluctuated somewhat through time.

The early Wesley apparently romanticized the situation of native peoples (who would have no revelation of Christ) as being free from the distorting sophistication and ambitions of much Christian culture. He assumed that they were innocent, humble, willing to learn, and eager to do the will of God. He even claimed that one of his main reasons for undertaking the mission to Georgia was to present his understanding of the gospel to the Native Americans, for they would immediately discern if his doctrines were authentic or not! Needless to say, his actual encounters with Native Americans failed to live up to such unrealistic expectations. In reaction, Wesley was soon castigating the religion of those who had no revelation of Christ as being demonic.

Wesley's disillusionment in Georgia coincided with his heightened appreciation for the Protestant emphasis on distinctively Christian grace. As a result, the period shortly following Aldersgate evidenced his most negative evaluations of any universal revelation of God. He did not deny it, but he saw it as nearly empty. Consideration of God's creation might convince us of God's existence, but it could tell us nothing of God's nature.

As time passed, Wesley's estimation of the contribution of restored universal revelation appears to have increased. In 1748 we find him suggesting that God's basic attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, and wisdom can be deduced from creation. By 1754 he included at least a vague awareness of the general lines of good and evil in the religious knowledge that was universally available.

This is not to say that Wesley now considered this initial restored revelation to be self-sufficient. Indeed, in 1757 he wrote a lengthy polemic against Bishop John Taylor's deistic claim that "heathens" (i.e., those lacking the revelation of Christ) have sufficient knowledge and power to know God and obey God's will. Given the situational nature of this piece, it is not surprising that it one- sidedly emphasized the limitations of universal revelation. However, even here Wesley did not deny that some restored knowledge was available to all, only that it was effective in producing virtuous (i.e., holy) lives.

By the 1780s Wesley had nuanced even this assumption. He now claimed that initial universal revelation enabled people to infer not only that there was a powerful, wise, just, and merciful Creator, but also that there would be a future state of punishment or reward for present actions. More importantly, he suggested that God may have taught some heathen all the essentials of true religion (i.e., holiness) by an inward voice. That is, he raised the possibility that Prevenient Grace might involve more than simply strengthening our human faculties and testifying to us through creation; it might also provide actual overtures to our spiritual senses! With such provisions, some people would surely pursue virtuous lives, and Wesley appeared willing to acknowledge some attainment. However, he was quick to add that such cases would be less pure and far less common than in the Christian dispensation, and he was convinced that these persons would not have theassurance that is available to Christians through the Spirit.

Definitive Christian Revelation

Wesley's acknowledgement and understanding of an initial universal revelation would have been largely acceptable to the emerging deistic temper of his day, that is, until he raised the suggestion of direct spiritual sensation! Here was the crucial parting of the roads between Wesley and contemporary Deism (in both its rationalist and empiricist forms). Deists limited all credible revelation to that either grounded in or conformable with general human knowledge. Wesley, by contrast, assumed that the most definitive and important knowledge of God was not universally available, nor derived by mere inference. It must be obtained directly from God.

How do we receive such direct revelation from God? Wesley's notion of spiritual senses immediately comes to mind, and rightly so. However, one must be careful in developing this. Wesley's own occasional unguarded comments in this area left him open to accusations that he taught a religious "enthusiasm," encouraging people to make their individual inward impulses the guides of their actions and beliefs. Wesley's consistent response to such accusations was that all present inward revelations must be tested by Scripture. As Charles once put it, "Whate'er his Spirit speaks in me, must with the written Word agree."

In other words, Wesley ultimately focused definitive revelation in Scripture. But what makes an external entity like Scripture normative over immediate personal experience? Is not definitive revelation supposed to come directly from God? While Wesley gives no elaborate discussion of this question, his answer is quite clear: he sees Scripture itself as being directly from God. His most typical way of expressing this is to describe Scripture as the direct words or teaching of God, and yet he is well aware that this Divine Word comes through human words. In what sense then is it immediate revelation from God?

Wesley sees it as so in a two-fold sense. First, the original inspiration of the writers of Scripture would have been through immediate contact of the Holy Spirit with their spiritual senses, for their knowledge transcended what could be known by empirical experience or inference alone. So God's revelation was direct to them, but what about us? One of Wesley's more characteristic claims is that God's presence can be communicated through means and still be immediate. In particular, the definitive revelation of God may come to us through Scripture but still be immediate because the Spirit who originally addressed the spiritual senses of the writers will also open our spiritual senses to perceive and attest to the truth they expressed.

This latter claim distances Wesley from even the "benevolent Deists" of his day. These were folk like Peter Browne who were willing to allow definitive Christian revelation to provide knowledge beyond that generally available, as long as there was universally-available empirical or rational evidence that Scripture was indeed divine. In other words, their assent to Scripture was based on inference or rational proof. The typical evidences invoked to provide such proof were the miracles of Christ and the apostles, the fulfillment of prophecies in history, Scripture's endorsement of general revelation, and its internal consistency of teaching.

Wesley once offered a similar attempt to demonstrate the divine origin of Scripture. It is far from convincing. More important, it was highly uncharacteristic. His more typical course was to appeal to the immediate "internal witness of the Spirit" (through the spiritual senses) and the transformation of present Christian lives (i.e., the "external witness of the Spirit") as the strongest evidences of the truth of biblical revelation. That is, he based the authority of Scripture on its sufficiency for effecting saving relationship with God, rather than vice versa. While this approach raises more epistemological ambiguities than Wesley was aware of, it holds promise as an alternative to the frequent modern polarity of extreme fideism versus hard rationalism.

Thus for Wesley, definitive Christian revelation finds normative expression in Scripture, a status that is personally attested by the internal witness of the Spirit. The other major way in which it differs from initial universal revelation is in its transforming content. Wesley considered two major elements of the Christian worldview to be known only in the definitive Christian revelation: the free forgiveness of God offered through Christ and the renewing power of God present in the Holy Spirit. As will be shown in later chapters, these two are inherently interrelated. One of Wesley's most fundamental convictions was that authentic Christian life flows out of love, and that genuine human love can only exist in response to an awareness of God's pardoning love to us. It is in Christ's atoning work that the divine pardoning love is clearly revealed to humanity and it is through the witness of the Spirit that this love is "shed abroad in our hearts," empowering our loving response. Herein lies the rationale for Wesley's assumption, noted earlier, that Christians have available a greater potential for recovering holiness of life than do those with only the initial restored revelation.


Excerpted from Responsible Grace by Randy L. Maddox. Copyright © 1994 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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.

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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Human Knowledge of the God of Responsible Grace,
Chapter 2: The God of Responsible Grace,
Chapter 3: Humanity's Need and God's Initial Restoring Grace,
Chapter 4: Christ—The Initiative of Responsible Grace,
Chapter 5: Holy Spirit—The Presence of Responsible Grace,
Chapter 6: Grace and Response—The Nature of Human Salvation,
Chapter 7: The Way of Salvation—Grace Upon Grace,
Chapter 8: The Means of Grace and Response,
Chapter 9: The Triumph of Responsible Grace,
Concluding Reflections,
Selected Bibliography,
Index of Selected Names,
Index of Selected Subjects,

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