Consider Wesley

Wesley, Methodism, and Doctrine

Henry H. Knight III

James C. Taylor, in A New Porcine History of Philosophy and Religion (Abingdon, 1992), depicts a United Methodist pig going out to explain to the world what the word “united” signifies. The pig is carrying a sign that reads “United Methodist Aren’t Hindus (At Least Most of Them Aren’t).” The great thing about being United Methodist, it has been said, is that we do not have to believe anything.

The perception that we UMs do not take doctrine all that seriously is sometimes blamed on John Wesley. Ted Peters, in God the World’s Future (2nd ed.; Fortress, 2000) notes how leaders of the eighteenth century awakening, aware of “how creedal and dogmatic statements in the past had so divided the household of faith,” “sought to avoid conceptual divisiveness by restricting their allegiance to primary symbols.” Wesley, he argues, “wanted to expunge theological opinions from determining church organization. ‘Think and let think,’ he said” (43–44).

The quotation is from “The Character of a Methodist.” There Wesley describes a Methodist as someone who, through the Holy Spirit, has come to know God’s love and as a result loves God and neighbor. That is, Wesley’s Methodism was a movement focused on renewing hearts and lives both within and outside the church. This is why he states “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort.” Like all Christians, Methodists believe in the inspiration of Scripture and the divinity of Christ, and like all Protestants believe in Scripture as “the only and sufficient rule” of faith and practice. “But,” he says, “as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” (¶ 1). Here Wesley clearly distinguishes between the essentials that all Christians or Protestants believe and the opinions that divide one denomination from another.

What he is not doing is setting aside doctrinal differences in the way T. Campbell, a leader in the Christian and Disciples’ movement, would in the next century. Campbell wanted to eliminate creeds and confessions entirely, and rely only on Scripture. While Peters sees Wesley and Campbell as having similar goals, they really are quite different. It was Wesley, after all, who wrote the Articles of Religion we have in The Book of Discipline, condensing it from those of his own Church of England. Unlike Campbell, Wesley insisted not only on the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as doctrinal essentials for Christians, but on denominations having their own distinctive doctrines as well.

We can see this in the sermon “Catholic Spirit,” where he quotes 2 Kgs 10:15: “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? … If it be, give me thine hand.” In determining if “my heart is with thy heart,” Wesley relies not only on experience but also on belief, including such Christian essentials as God ruling over all, Christ as divine Lord and crucified Savior, faith that works by love, and love for God and neighbor in both heart and life. Christian fellowship rests not on agreement concerning opinions or modes of worship, but on the essentials of faith and life. Thus disagreements over predestination or Christian perfection, or whether to baptize infants, should not prevent Christians from loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Yet in the same sermon Wesley insists that a catholic spirit is neither a speculative nor a practical latitudinarianism; it is not an indifference to opinions, modes of worship, or denominations. While recognizing that those who disagree are still fellow Christians, a person with “a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine” (¶ III.1). Choices must be made, and one must choose those doctrines and practices one believes most faithful to Scripture and the gospel.

Wesley, then, did not want to “expunge theological opinion from determining church organization.” Wesleyan Methodism does not claim to be the only true Christianity, but neither is it indifferent about doctrine. It is firmly committed to its doctrine and discipline, even as it stands in loving unity with Christians who have different opinions and practices.

Posted Nov 01, 2012