Consider Wesley

On Knowing God

Henry H. Knight III

I sometimes ask students to write an essay in response to these questions: Who is God? How do you know? Theologians have provided different answers. Protestant scholasticism, for example, argues that we know God through a rational examination of the propositions in Scripture, while liberal Protestantism grounds knowledge of God in human experience.

John Wesley takes a different approach. First, he believes little can be learned from general revelation in the created order. “I grant,” he says, “the existence of the creatures demonstratively shows the existence of their Creator. The whole creation speaks that there is a God. But that is not the point in question. I know there is a God…. But who will show me what that God is?” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part II,” III.21) Wesley wants to know: Who is this God? To find that answer he will need to look at special revelation, to how God is revealed in the particularities of the story of Israel and in Jesus Christ. That account is found in Scripture.

Again and again Wesley emphasizes the authority and inspiration of Scripture. It is Scripture that tells us what God has done in creation and promised for our salvation. It is Scripture that both describes the Christian life and says it can be received by faith. For Wesley the New Testament is entirely a promise in that whatever therein God commands us to do, God will through grace enable us to do.

One might think from this description that Wesley was a Protestant scholastic. Certainly he, like them, was prepared to test every doctrine by Scripture, although he was also aware that there can by many plausible interpretations of Scripture. But unlike the heavy rationalism of the scholastics, Wesley took an “experimental” approach. The purpose of Scripture is to show the way of salvation and the nature of the Christian life, and one can “test” the promises of God therein by turning to God and seeing if they are true.

The central point Wesley makes in the essay quoted above is that we are intended not just to know about God, but to know God. He was impatient with those in his day who said we simply need to trust the testimonies of those who wrote the Scriptures. They had encountered God, it was argued, and they are reliable witnesses, so we can believe them. Wesley certainly believed them; what he wanted was to know God as they knew God. To know God in this way, he believed, was the promise of God in Scripture. Salvation was not simply a matter of the afterlife, it was a vital relationship with God in the present life.

In order to love God one must first know God, and how can one know God “unless God reveals himself to your soul?” (“A Farther Appeal, Part II,” III.21). Those who respond to grace seek God, and to those God gives faith, enabling them to know God, trust in God’s love in Christ, and begin to love God in return. This knowing is not like knowing historical figures through reading either biographies or their own writings. It is much more like knowing someone personally. To know God is not to simply believe a fact but to encounter a reality.

Thus Wesley rejects the dead orthodoxy of those who believe correct information but have not yet encountered the reality of which they speak. But the fear of many in Wesley’s day was not being too rational but too emotional. Would not his emphasis of knowing God in this personal way open the door to enthusiasm, and to creating the God we want instead of the God who is?

It would not, Wesley would argue, because the normal way we know God is in and through means of grace. Such Christian practices as prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and the devotional reading of Scripture are the primary occasions we encounter the presence of God. So when we, through faith, meet God in these divinely appointed means, the God we meet is never apart from the particularities of the revelation of God in Israel and (most fully) in Jesus Christ. The means of grace “define” God even as they mediate the presence of God. Our experience of God is shaped by the means of grace, and with it our hearts are continually being formed into the image of that God which is centered in love.

Posted Oct 22, 2014