Wesleyan Beliefs examines foundational beliefs as expressed in the works of John and Charles Wesley in formal doctrinal statements adopted by Wesleyan communities and in a variety of other literature including hymnals, catechisms, and works of systematic theology approved for study by preachers. It further considers the expression of these core beliefs through such popular means as personal testimonies and spiritual autobiographies and in the architectures of Methodist Wesleyan and Methodist worship spaces.
For more information, please see the author's website: http://tedcampbell.com/wesleyan-beliefs/
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About the Author
Ted A. Campbell is Professor of Church History at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University and has authored the following books for Abingdon Press: Methodist Doctrine, Wesley and the Quadrilateral, Wesleyan Essentials in a Multicultural Society, and John Wesley and Christian Antiquity. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
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Wesleyan BeliefsFormal and Popular Expressions of the Core Beliefs of Wesleyan Communities
By Ted A Campbell
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJohn Wesley and Common Christian Beliefs
Wesleyan communities today evolved from the Wesleyan movement led by John and Charles Wesley, who considered Methodism to be preeminently an expression of Christian faith. As John Wesley stated it in his sermon "On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel, Near the City-Road, London" (1777): "Methodism, so-called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England." John Wesley's immediate successors thought of his work as being preeminently a work of revival of Christian faith, thus the inscription on his tomb which claims that God had "raised up" John Wesley "To Revive, Enforce and Defend [t]he Pure Apostolical Doctrines and Practices of the Primitive Church."
This chapter initiates a study of Wesleyan beliefs by asking what John Wesley himself believed to be the most essential, commonly held beliefs of the Christian faith. The next chapter will consider John Wesley's claims about distinctive teachings of the Methodist movement under his leadership, and the third chapter will consider how Charles Wesley transmitted these common Christian beliefs as well as distinctively Methodist beliefs by way of poetry that formed the nucleus of a body of hymnody utilized by Wesleyan communities. Comprehensive studies of John Wesley's theology since the 1980s have focused on particular ideas or "axial themes" in John Wesley's thought that serve as keys to interpreting Wesley's contemporary theological relevance, for example, the notion of "responsible grace" (Maddox), the liberation and redemption of creation (Runyon), and the axial theme of "holy love" (Collins). The account of the origins of Wesleyan theology in this and the next two chapters does not aim to be as comprehensive as these early studies but examines two key questions regarding the theologies of John and Charles Wesley. First, what did they hold to be the most basic or fundamental beliefs of common Christian faith? Second, what did they hold to be the most distinctive beliefs of the Wesleyan movements they led?
"A man of a truly catholic spirit," John Wesley wrote in 1749, "has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine." But what were "the main branches of Christian doctrine," as John Wesley understood them? Because Wesley never gave out a definitive list of essential doctrines, or so it has been claimed, scholars have given a variety of answers to this question. This chapter responds to these questions about John Wesley's understanding of "essential" or "fundamental" doctrines by offering some criteria by which we may discern Wesley's understanding of essential Christian doctrines. With these criteria clarified, the chapter proceeds to examine ten doctrines central to John Wesley's understanding of the Christian faith. The next chapter will identify some doctrines that, in his view, were the distinct characteristics of the Evangelical movement and of the Wesleyan branch of that movement.
When I first approached this subject, I entertained the hypothesis that John Wesley made a clean distinction between doctrines that he considered commonly Christian ("catholic") and doctrines that he considered distinctive of the Methodist movement, which I supposed to be synonymous with the Wesleyan movement. Historical evidence has led me to modify this earlier hypothesis in two ways. In the first place, it has shown that there was a complex relationship between the doctrines Wesley considered to be commonly Christian and the doctrines he considered to be the distinct emphases of the Methodist movement. In the case of three doctrines he held to be essential or common—original sin, justification, and regeneration—Wesley maintained that each of these was a common Christian teaching and yet each had a distinctive emphasis within the Methodist movement, especially as they supply a basis for the Methodist teaching about the "way of salvation" involving repentance, faith, and holiness.
Moreover, the evidence showed that most of the distinctive emphases of the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century were not limited to the Wesleyan branch or side of the Methodist movement. The teachings of repentance, faith, and even holiness in a broad sense were consistently proclaimed by such Calvinistic Evangelical preachers as George Whitefield as well as the Wesleys and the preachers associated with them, and the term "Methodist" was applied to the Calvinist Evangelical preachers as well as to the Wesleys. The next chapter will examine in more detail some of these common emphases of the Evangelical revival but it will also show that the teaching of entire sanctification was a unique and distinguishing mark of the Wesleyan sphere of the revival movement.
Methodists have come to regard the writings of the Wesleys as a canon of classical literature, but this way of understanding their work does not acknowledge the extent to which the Wesleys functioned as intellectual leaders of a popular religious movement in the eighteenth century. The literature produced by the Wesleys appears today in scholarly editions with footnotes and other academic apparatus, but when it appeared in the eighteenth century it took the form of cheaply printed tracts, pamphlets, fascicles of John Wesley's Journal sold for a penny, copies of single sermons, and small collections of hymns. The process of authorization or "canonization" began with the Wesleys themselves, for example when John Wesley arranged a collection of Charles's verse into the Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists in 1780, or in John Wesley's "Model Deed" that specified that the doctrines preached in Wesleyan chapels should be those contained in the first four volumes of his own Sermons on Several Occasions. The canonical status of the literature, however, should not blind us to the fact that it originated as popular literature, and thus there has been a long interplay between popular and formal expressions of beliefs, with some works originally intended for popular readership eventually taking the form of authorized texts.
Discerning John Wesley's "Essential" Doctrines
John Wesley's distinction of "essential" or "fundamental" beliefs, as contrasted with "opinions" or "modes of worship" over which disagreements could be allowed, reflected an ongoing discussion about Christian doctrine inherited from the time of the Protestant Reformation. One of the suggestions advocated by such Catholic humanists as Desiderius Erasmus and by such Protestant Reformers as Philipp Melanchthon was to affirm a relatively short list of central or "fundamental" beliefs that Christians should agree on that would allow wide latitude over nonessential doctrines or opinions. The term adiaphora was used in sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century theological disputes to distinguish "nonessential" or "indifferent" teachings. This notion was taken up late in the seventeenth century and early in the eighteenth century by Protestant Pietists, who maintained that Christian piety should be a principal ground of unity and that Christian unity did not rely on detailed agreement in doctrinal matters.
It is widely recognized that John Wesley distinguished between "essential" or "fundamental" doctrines, on the one hand, and nonessential "opinions" and "modes of worship," on the other hand, most notably in his 1749 sermon "Catholic Spirit," but also in a wide range of writings through his career. Nevertheless, the question of what precisely his "essential" doctrines were has continued to puzzle his interpreters. In this section I will try to clarify some criteria by which essential doctrines can be discerned. In doing so, both this chapter and the next chapter attempt to identify what I will call the "ecclesial scope" of essential or fundamental teachings, that is, whether John Wesley understood a particular doctrine to be constitutive of Christianity per se, constitutive of Protestantism (in some cases), constitutive of the Evangelical revival ("Methodism" in the broadest sense), or constitutive of the distinct ethos and message of his own branch of the revival movement. The identification of ecclesial scope will show that Wesley identified specific teachings as being essential to Christian faith in general, he identified other doctrinal emphases that were essential to the more particular definition or identity of the Evangelical revival, and in at least one case he identified a doctrine critical to the definition of the Wesleyan movement within the scope of the Evangelical revival.
Affirmation of Essential Doctrines in Occasional Comments
Colin W. Williams's John Wesley's Theology Today (1960) influenced generations of Wesleyan scholars and students. In this work Williams attempted to identify John Wesley's essential doctrines by collating passages where Wesley himself indicated that a particular teaching was an "essential" or "fundamental" element of Christian faith that could not be abandoned without abandoning the Christian faith itself. Using this method, Williams took the following six items to be essential doctrines for John Wesley:
(1) original sin, (2) the deity of Christ, (3) the atonement, (4) justification by faith alone, (5) the work of the Holy Spirit, and (6) the doctrine of the Trinity.
Williams's list and his criterion of identifying doctrines explicitly stated by John Wesley to be essential or fundamental offers a useful beginning point, although as it stands, it is a rather unorganized combination of doctrines. Item 5 is especially problematic: one can argue that it refers to the distinctive teaching of the Methodist movement that insisted on "perceptible inspiration," although my own reading of the passages that Williams cites at this point is that Wesley did not insist in these loci that any doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit is necessary; rather, Wesley insisted that the work of the Holy Spirit is itself necessary to Christian existence. On my reading, Wesley was not making a claim about an essential doctrine in this case. Belief in the work of the Holy Spirit required no more definition of doctrine than was already present in the doctrine of the Trinity defined in the ancient creeds. Moreover, as the text following will show, Williams omitted at least two doctrines that John Wesley did claim as fundamental or essential, namely, the doctrines of biblical authority and the doctrine of regeneration. Further still, Williams did not include in this list some teachings that John Wesley identified as describing necessary Christian institutions, namely, teaching about the Christian church and the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, although Williams did devote attention to John Wesley's beliefs about these institutions elsewhere in the book.
In contrast to Williams's list of John Wesley's essential doctrines, a very different list appeared two years after the publication of Williams's work in Lawrence Meredith's 1962 Harvard dissertation, "Essential Doctrine in the Theology of John Wesley with Special Attention to the Methodist Standards of Doctrine." Meredith's dissertation focused on three essential doctrines in John Wesley's thought, namely:
repentance, faith, and holiness.
This triad is grounded in a passage in John Wesley's "Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained" in which Wesley asserted that "Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three,—that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness." It is clear that Meredith had conceived of the project of "essential doctrine" in a different way than Williams, whose book he had seen before the completion of his own thesis. Rather than identifying passages in which Wesley had denoted a doctrine to be "essential" or "fundamental" or otherwise constitutive, Meredith tried to find a logical consistency or coherence to Wesley's claims about characteristically Methodist teachings, thus the significance of Wesley's claim about "our main doctrines" (my emphasis) in the passage cited. Despite the focus on "essential doctrine" in his dissertation, then, what he sought was rather different from Colin Williams's quest for the ecumenically significant core or fundamental doctrines in John Wesley's work. Using my own terminology, what Meredith did was to restrict the ecclesial scope of the claims he examined to distinctive claims emphasized by the Methodist movement. This is helpful in its own way and Meredith's work will be particularly important in developing the next chapter, which deals with distinctly Methodist teachings. In this chapter, however, I will focus more on the kinds of doctrinal claims that Williams investigated and in doing so I shall try to examine texts with attention paid to their contexts, especially as contexts reveal the ecclesial scope of John Wesley's doctrinal claims, that is, whether he claims specific doctrines as necessary for Christianity in general, for Protestant identity, or for the identity of the Methodist or Wesleyan movement.
I have already noted a problem with these lists of essential doctrines, and that is the fact that they omit a range of teachings about necessary or essential Christian institutions and practices—specifically, teachings about the church and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper—that Wesley elsewhere identified as necessary for Christian existence. That is to say, he identified the Christian church itself as necessary, since there can be no "solitary religion," and he identified the sacraments as indispensable means of grace. As we will see, this raises the issue of identifying teachings about some of these indispensable practices and about the Christian community alongside the definition of strictly essential or necessary doctrines in John Wesley's thought.
Doctrinal Affirmations in the "Letter to a Roman Catholic"
There are two documents in which John Wesley did in fact give something like a list of essential or constitutive Christian teachings, and these are his "Letter to a Roman Catholic" (1749) and his redaction of the Articles of Religion of the Church of England (1784). Keeping the question of ecclesial scope in mind, I now want to examine some of John Wesley's specific claims about essential Christian doctrines that appeared in his "Letter to a Roman Catholic." This was a published (open) letter that he wrote in 1749 around the same time when he wrote his sermon "Catholic Spirit." It appears that Wesley actually began a statement of essential doctrines within the sermon "Catholic Spirit," when he asked about the nature of Christian unity with reference to his Scripture text, "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?" After dismissing inappropriate notions of Christian unity such as the notion that Christian unity depends on unity in "opinions" or "modes of worship," Wesley proceeded to state positively what Christian unity should imply, and the first two paragraphs in this statement begin as follows:
The first thing implied is this: Is thy heart right with God? Dost thou believe his being and his perfections? [H]is eternity, immensity, wisdom, power? [H]is justice, mercy, and truth? Dost thou believe that he now "upholdeth all things by the word of his power" and that he governs even the most minute, even the most noxious, to his own glory, and the good of them that love him? [H]ast thou a divine evidence, a supernatural conviction, of the things of God? Dost thou "walk by faith not by sight," looking not at temporal things, but things eternal?
13. Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, "God over all, blessed for ever?" Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified? Does he dwell in thee, and thou in him? Is he formed in thy heart by faith? [H]aving absolutely disclaimed all thy own works, thy own righteousness, hast thou "submitted thyself unto the righteousness of God," which is by faith in Christ Jesus? Art thou "found in him, not having thy own righteousness, but the righteousness which is by faith?" And art thou, through him, "fighting the good fight of faith, and laying hold of eternal life?"
Excerpted from Wesleyan Beliefs by Ted A Campbell Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. 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.
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Table of Contents
1. John Wesley and Common Christian Beliefs,
2. John Wesley's Claims about Distinctively Methodist Beliefs,
3. Charles Wesley and the Transmission of Wesleyan Beliefs,
4. Beliefs about God in Wesleyan Communities,
5. Beliefs about the "Way of Salvation" After the Wesleys,
6. Beliefs about the Church in Wesleyan Communities,
7. Fourteen Core Beliefs of Wesleyan Communities,