Consider Wesley

The Heart of Wesley’s Theology

Henry H. Knight III

In the preceding contribution to “Consider Wesley,” we explored several key quotations from John Wesley that point us to what it means to be “Wesleyan.” This essay will examine how some contemporary Wesley scholars have described the heart of his theology. Most of these descriptions revolve around two works: love and grace.

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop centers her description on the first of these words: “to be Wesleyan,” she says, “is to be committed to a theology of love” (A Theology of Love [Beacon Hill, 1972], 101). Love is both the content and the goal of Wesley’s understanding of salvation and the reigning attribute of God.

Thomas A. Langford focuses on the second: “The grace of God, as the redeeming activity of divine love, is the center of Wesley’s theology” (Practical Divinity [Abingdon, 1983], 24), Here, redeeming grace is the central term, although that grace is itself a manifestation of God’s love.

The theme of grace is further developed by R.L. Maddox who argues that Wesley has a “practical theology” governed by an “orienting concern” for “responsible grace” (Responsible Grace [Abingdon, 1994], 16-19). By “practical theology,” Maddox means a theology centered on shaping the worldview of believers in order to further spiritual growth and faithful discipleship. An “orienting concern” is a central perspective that provides guidance for theologically addressing diverse contexts and changing situations. “Responsible grace,” as the orienting concern, refers both to grace enabling our response to God’s initiative and, so enabled, our responsibility to do so.

Kenneth L. Collins argues that Wesley’s practical theology has as its axial theme “holiness and grace”: holiness as “holy love” and grace as both free and co-operant (The Theology of John Wesley [Abingdon, 2007], 6-18]. The terms are not only related; each term shows the conjunctive nature of Wesley’s theology. “Holiness” implies separation and purity; “love” is self-giving, embracing, and inclusive. It is the conjunction of the two that describes both God’s nature and the character of the Christian life. Likewise, grace is both freely given by God alone and co-operant, involving divine and human cooperation in the process of salvation.

This conjunctive nature of Wesley’s theology is also highlighted by P.W. Chilcote who describes it as a “both/and” theology. Wesley understands “salvation as both forensic (legal) and therapeutic (healing or restoring); as both Christ’s work for us and the Spirit’s work in us; as both freedom from sin and freedom to love” (Recapturing the Wesley’s Vision [InterVarsity, 2004], 12).

A perceptive insight into the conjunctive nature of Wesley’s theology as a whole was offered decades ago by E.G. Rupp, who argued it was marked by a tension between “a pessimism of nature and an optimism of grace” (Principalities and Powers [Abingdon, 1952], 90). By “pessimism of nature” Rupp meant that Wesley took our fallenness into sin with all the seriousness of the Protestant Reformers. By “optimism of grace” he meant that Wesley believed God would through grace not only forgive but actually renew us in the image of God in which we were created.

It is this promise of renewal that is central to T. Runyon’s interpretation. For Wesley, he says, the heart of Christianity is “the renewal of the creation and the creatures through the renewal in humanity of the image of God…” (The New Creation [Abingdon, 1998], 8). The heart of that image is the love that was revealed in Jesus Christ.

This brings us full circle to where we began: with a theology of love. And that is most fitting, for in Wesley’s theology creation and redemption both begin and end with God’s love.

Posted Apr 01, 2012