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The Theology of John Wesley
Holy Love and the Shape of Grace
By Kenneth J. Collins
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The God of Holy Love
Thy darling attribute I praise
Which all alike may prove,
The glory of thy boundless grace,
Thy universal love.
—Albert C. Outler, ed., The Works of John Wesley. The Sermons (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 3:560, "Universal Redemption."
In exploring the doctrine of God, we must first of all point out that Wesley often used the term "God" in an ambiguous way. On the one hand, at times he refers in his writings to the entire Godhead, especially when he describes the nature and attributes of the divine being. On the other hand, he sometimes adverts to the language of God the Father, especially when he considers the work of the Most High. Accordingly, this distinction between Godhead and God the Father will inform the major sections of this chapter and will help bring increasing clarity to Wesley's Christian understanding of the deity.
The Personal and Essential Attributes of God
Wesley's doctrine of God evidences a distinction between the person and work of the Most High, in which the personal and essential attributes of the divine, such as love, holiness, eternity, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence, are explored separately from those that emerge from a consideration of the roles in creation and governance, such as goodness, wisdom, and justice. But before these traits are considered, it is important to point out that for Wesley—and here he follows the Anglican Articles of Religion—God is spirit without body or parts. Elsewhere, in his observations on John 2:24, Wesley once again underscores that "God is a Spirit—Not only remote from the body, and all the properties of it, but likewise full of all spiritual perfections." In this context, then, not only is the divine simplicity affirmed (without body or parts) but also transcendence, that is, the lack of spatial limitation with respect to God understood precisely as spirit.
When Mildred Bangs Wynkoop published her major work on theology, entitled A Theology of Love, she rightly understood that the love of God must be at the heart of this enterprise—if it is to be Wesleyan. Indeed, not only did John Wesley in his own setting point out that "love existed from eternity, in God, the great ocean of love," but he also referred to love as God's "darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections." And late in his career Wesley counseled his friend Elizabeth Ritchie in a way that underscored divine love as both the highest human aspiration and glory: "But, blessed be God ... we know there is nothing deeper, there is nothing better in heaven or earth, than love! There cannot be, unless there were something higher than the God of love!"
Beyond this, Wesley reminded his enlightened detractors throughout the British Isles in his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, produced in 1743, that the Methodist religion was after all about love, "the very thing you want." The problem, however, then as now, was that so many people misunderstood what is meant by the love of God since they often supplied the content of this "darling attribute" with their own ideas, desires, and likings. And once this course is taken, one may be left with a very sentimental and unrealistic view of the divine being in which God emerges as a kindly old grandparent who indulges and tolerates the self-will of the grandchildren to make them "happy." To prevent such a misconception in his own day, Wesley took great pains to link the love of God with another reigning attribute, namely, holiness. "[God] is infinitely distant from every touch of evil," Wesley cautions; "He 'is light, and in him is no darkness at all.'" Even more pointedly, Wesley appeals to the created order and its majesty—the contemplation of which should suggest something of the beauty, transcendence, and holiness of God. He writes:
The height of the heavens should mind us of God's supremacy, and the infinite distance that is between us and him; the brightness of the heavens, and their purity, should mind us of his majesty, and perfect holiness; the vastness of the heavens, and their encompassing the earth, and influence upon it, should mind us of his immensity and universal providence.
For Wesley, then, God is not love in a indulgent way, nor is God holy in an abstract sense; rather, holiness is that divine attribute that informs every one of the divine perfections, but especially love. Put another way, because of its pervasiveness and extent, holiness belongs to "the essential nature of God in a deeper and more profound sense than merely as one attribute among others," as H. Orton Wiley, reflecting on Wesley's work, noted in his own age. As such, holiness is the "moral quality of all God's attributes." It is that distinguishing characteristic peculiar to the Most High alone, and it "sets the Being of God apart from all other forms of being."
What is distinctive about Wesley's contribution here is that he sees the love and holiness of God in relation to—and at times even "in tension with"—each other. That is, on the one hand, Wesley considers "the infinite distance between us and him" in terms of the divine holiness—a holiness that separates and distinguishes. On the other hand, he underscores the communicability and the other-directedness of love, its outreaching embrace. As noted in the Introduction, holiness creates distance; love seeks communion. These same two predicates of the divine being, that is, holiness and love, describe—indeed epitomize—what is the will of the Most High for the church, for those who are not only "called out" and "set apart" from the world in holiness, but also invited to enter that same world in love and mission.
Moreover, if the holiness of God were stressed to the neglect of the divine love, then the Eternal One would remain forever apart from all creatures, and fellowship, much less communion, would hardly be in the offing. For Wesley, then, holiness must ever be understood in terms of the divine love, a love that is energized in a freely chosen outward movement, that stoops down, as it were, and draws the relation, makes contact, and establishes fellowship. This distinct holiness of God, informed by love, and not to be confused with the variety of human loves and desires, is communicated, according to Wesley, by no one less than the Holy Spirit.
This means, of course, that not only is holiness a unique mark of God, indicative of the divine glory and being, but also it is, once again, not a human attribute or possibility at all—unless it is communicated by grace. Wesley brings these two movements of holiness and love together throughout his writings, such that one of his preferred ways of attesting to divine grace—the fingerprint of God on the world—is to discourse on the inculcation of holy love among the saints. To illustrate, Wesley weaves these two elements together as he comments on Exodus 26:1:
Thus the churches of Christ, though they are many, yet are one, being fitly joined together in holy love and by the unity of the Spirit, so growing into one holy temple in the Lord. This tabernacle was very strait and narrow, but at the preaching of the gospel, the church is bid to enlarge the place of her tent, and to stretch forth her curtains.
Elsewhere, as Wesley explores the consequence of knowing a God of holy love, he observes in what manner the offering of a heart should be made to the Almighty: "Other sacrifices from us he would not, but the living sacrifice of the heart hath he chosen. Let it be continually offered up to God through Christ, in flames of holy love." Again, since the mark of "holy love" is so expressive of the divine character, Wesley quite naturally highlights this as he reckons with what is necessary to enter into the richest communion with the Holy One: "God would first, by this inspiration of his Spirit, have wrought in our hearts that holy love without which none can enter into glory." In Wesley's doctrine of God, then, in its most basic sense, it is neither love without holiness, nor holiness without love, but both resplendently together.
That God is eternal—the One who was, is, and is to come—is a mark that, for Wesley, is intimately associated with the divine name of Jehovah, "I am that I am," the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end. That is, God is the One whose very essence is to exist and is, therefore, not dependent on any other being or substance for this qualitatively distinct kind of being. Wesley considers this unique existence of God, a truth by the way he never attempts to prove, by making a distinction between two different kinds of eternities: a parte ante (eternity "It is God alone," Wesley notes, "who '... inhabiteth eternity' in both these senses. The great Creator alone (not any of his creatures) is 'from everlasting to everlasting.' "that is past) and a parte post (eternity that is to come). Holy love had no beginning; it will have no end.
That only God embraces both senses of eternity just described is a basic truth that does not exclude the notion that angels and human beings may also be eternal, properly understood. To illustrate, Wesley appeals to and uses the distinction between "duration without beginning" and "duration without end" and maintains that while the former does indeed pertain to God alone, the latter characterizes creatures as well. He reasons:
This [duration without end] is not an incommunicable at tribute of the great Creator; but he has been graciously pleased to make innumerable multitudes of his creatures partakers of it. He has imparted this not only to angels, and archangels, and all the companies of heaven, ... but also to the inhabitants of the earth who dwell in houses of clay.
In light of Wesley's reflections, it appears that eternity conceived as "duration without beginning" is especially descriptive of God, a divine-making attribute if you will, since it is a characteristic shared by no other being. In fact, Wesley uses this unique trait as a standard or norm to judge other philosophical questions such as, Is matter eternal? "Not indeed a parte ante," he reasons, "as some senseless philos ophers, both ancient and modern, have dreamed. Not that anything had existed from eternity; seeing if so it must be God." In other words, for Wesley, the past eternity of any being or thing, other than the Holy One of Israel, would necessarily result in a plurality of gods and therefore in the elimination of monotheism. Simply put, there cannot be "two Gods, or two Eternals."
As Wesley reflected on the omnipresence of God, another key attribute, he reasoned that just as God is not limited by time, so, too, is the Holy One not limited by space. "As he exists through infinite duration," Wesley notes, "so he cannot but exist through infinite space." Unpacking the salient text of Jeremiah 23:24 ("Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD" [KJV]), Wesley again affirms "there is no point of space, whether within or without the bounds of creation, where God is not." That is, since "God is everywhere;" the one implies the other.
Though Wesley clearly taught that God is immanent in the creation and therefore everywhere, he nevertheless avoided the teaching of pantheism by contending that the Holy One yet transcends the universe in some important ways. Accordingly, though Wesley was willing to agree with Isaac Newton (1642–1727) that infinite space is the "sensorium of the Deity," he nevertheless balked at the notion that space circumscribes the being of God or that the universe is the "body" of the Most High. In this context, Wesley aptly holds together both the immanence and the transcendence of God, never one affirmation without the other. That is, to stress immanence to the neglect of transcendence would result in pantheism; to stress transcendence to the neglect of immanence would result in separation in which God would be and would remain unknown.
As in many of his theological deliberations, whether in sermons, treatises, or letters, Wesley was not content to leave such an important matter as the omnipresence of God on a speculative, abstract, or merely notional level. Instead, he ever sought to win an insight and to develop practical spiritual and moral applications that would assist others in their walk with a God of holy love. Thus, for example, in his sermon "On the Omnipresence of God," Wesley observes:
Yea, suppose one of your mortal fellow-servants, suppose only a holy man stood by you, would not you be extremely cautious how you conducted yourself, both in word and action? How much more cautious ought you to be when you know that not a holy man, not an angel of God, but God himself, the Holy One "that inhabiteth eternity," is inspecting your heart, your tongue, your hand every moment! And that he himself will surely bring you into judgment for all you think, and speak, and act under the sun!
And in an even more personal and familiar way, Wesley queries: "If you believe that God is about your bed and about your path, and spieth out all your ways, then take care not to do the least thing, not to speak the least word, not to indulge the least thought, which you have reason to think would offend him."
For Wesley, many of the essential attributes of God imply one another. To illustrate, he considered the next chief characteristic, namely, the omniscience (literally all-knowing) of God as a "clear and necessary consequence of his omnipresence." Put another way, "If he [God] is present in every part of the universe," Wesley reasons, "he cannot but know whatever is, or is done there." Moreover, in a sermon composed late in his career, "On Divine Providence," Wesley again draws the same relation between omnipresence and omniscience: "The omnipresent God sees and knows all the properties of all the beings that he hath made. He knows all the connections, dependencies, and relations, and all the ways wherein one of them can affect another." In short, the infinity (and transcendence) of God in terms of space issues in and supports the idea of divine omniscience. Because God is everywhere, this Eternal One knows all that occurs anywhere.
Wesley's doctrine of the omniscience of God, however, is not only sustained by a consideration of space (omnipresence) but also supported by a consideration of time (eternity). Since "all time, or rather all eternity (for time is only that small fragment of eternity ...) [is] present to him at once," then the Lord God knows all things, nothing is beyond such a grasp. On a more philosophical level, and in a way similar to Augustine, Wesley maintains that all time, whether past or future, is present to God as "one eternal now." And quite naturally, the same implications apply: the God who perceives all in a moment, in an eternal now, also knows all.
Being the good pastoral leader that he was, Wesley pondered the moral and spiritual consequences of divine omniscience for human life, even referring to what discomfort such knowledge can bring, just as he had done in terms of the attribute of omnipresence, especially when he wrote: "How are ye affected to the omniscience and omnipresence of God? Men naturally would rather have a blind idol, than an all-seeing God; and therefore do what they can, as Adam did, to 'hide themselves from the presence of the Lord.'" These last two attributes, then, highlight not only the truth of divine knowledge but also the importance of human responsibility in the face of God who is holy and glorious.
And finally, Wesley explores the omnipotence (all powerfulness) of God, the last essential at tribute, in terms of the divine omnipresence itself and contends that "to deny the omnipresence of God implies likewise the denial of his omnipotence. To set bounds to the one is undoubtedly to set bounds to the other also." Elsewhere in his writings, Wesley declares that God is "omnipotent as well as omnipresent: there can be no more bounds to his power than to his presence. He 'hath a mighty arm; strong is his hand, and high is his right hand.'" But just what does this mean to state that there are no bounds to the power of the Eternal One? How is such a truth to be interpreted properly with respect to both the natural and the spiritual realms?
Excerpted from The Theology of John Wesley by Kenneth J. Collins. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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