Rethinking Wesleyan Theology

Steven J. Koskie

But we allow that the whole value of the means depends on their actual subservience to the end of religion; that consequently all these means, when separate from the end, are less than nothing, and vanity; that if they do not actually conduce to the knowledge and love of God they are not acceptable in his sight. (J. Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” §II.2)

I know of nowhere in Wesley’s corpus that he refers to theology as a means of grace, yet were he here today he might offer the words just quoted in response to much that comprises our understanding of the term. If there has been an especially debilitating dogma of modernism, it is the belief that competent theology is singularly achieved through refined cognitive faculties and a sound methodology. Moreover, a topography of the current theological academic landscape can be bewildering: disciplines and sub-disciplines galore, each with their own universes of literature and disparate methodologies—a reflection, really, of the wider professional scene. Within such an environment, it would not be surprising to hear Wesley ask whether theology as we teach and practice it is disengaged from “the end of religion”; with whether it is conducive toward “the knowledge and love of God,” as well as its love of neighbor.

Although Wesley’s entire life was framed within the eighteenth century, he was all the same untainted by some of the most decisive forces that conspired to beget theology as we know it. For instance, although a contemporary of Kant, Wesley was unacquainted with his work; thus, while he lived through the Enlightenment, he was not affected by its chief architect. Neither was Wesley exposed to the ideas of Schleiermacher, whose life barely overlapped with Wesley’s, nor did he live to see the modern German university grapple with whether to recognize theology as properly wissenschaftlich—that is,  as according with the canons of scientific inquiry on which the modern academy was founded.

These concerns, and others besides, are important as groundwork for rethinking Wesleyan theology. In what follows I will briefly consider one endeavor within the current academic setting designed to move theology forward and ponder its implications for Wesleyan theology. I will then probe the Wesleyan tradition’s relationship to Wesley himself, and examine how recent theological developments may call for “rethinking Wesleyan theology.”

Listening to the Past

Edward Farley, in his book Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Fortress, 1983), shows how the division of theological education into discreet disciplines—systematic theology, biblical studies, church history, and practical theology—contributed not only to the perennial dilemma of how to relate theory and practice, but also to a loss of “theology” as sapiential knowledge and love of God and the things of God. With this definition relinquished, theology was no longer a practical skill learned within the life of the church, but a mode of inquiry sterilized of conviction in order to gain admittance into the modern university. Today this is being increasingly challenged in two ways: questions are being raised as to how theology as taught in the classroom can once again become reflection on the life and faith of the church, and discussion centers on how the convictions of the faith might be necessary for this reflection to take place.

One conversation where these topics are being explored is theological hermeneutics. As I am using it here, the term refers to how the church reads the Bible as its Scripture, that is, as the book that shapes its life and faith. On the face of it, this may appear to be a subset of issues within the area of biblical studies, but it is in fact a discussion about what we see theology to be, along with how and where it is to be practiced. The working assumption among many is that the Bible’s primary context is the church, and that for the Bible to be read as Scripture is to bring to it the church’s orthodox faith and commitment to the mission of the gospel. This is an irreducibly theological way of reading that takes the Bible as two testaments united in its witness to God the Father, whose identity is disclosed by Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. For this reason it has drawn people from several disciplines, many of whom are looking for ways beyond the impasses bequeathed to us by modernity.

One outcome of this discussion is a willingness to listen to past voices. The hope is that, by turning to precursors in the faith, theology can be renewed as a reflective practice performed in and for the church as it endeavors to fulfill its role in God’s mission in the world. Modern theology tended to effect, among other things, a state of amnesia on theologians, who devalued the past in favor of sophisticated, “scientific” methodologies. Although former eras cannot provide all the answers, they can remind us of who we are, and from that may come a theology cured of the ills of the modernist epoch.

Wesleyan theology has not been immune to these problems, and it is perhaps for this reason that W.J. Abraham recently announced its demise (“The End of Wesleyan Theology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 40 [2005] 7-25). The Wesleyan theology Abraham declares expired had its genesis in A.C. Outler, and was possessed of a dual aim: to make Wesleyan theology an academic presence on par with other traditions, and to recover Wesley in the service of this first aim by making his theology “relevant” for today. A serious problem here, according to Abraham, is that readers of Wesley always find what they are looking for, whether it be liberation theology, process theology, or something else. Adherents to this agenda have nonetheless carried on, frequently taking two courses, not completely separate in either conception or execution: systematizing Wesley’s thought, and performing a historical archaeology of the sources of, and influences on, his thinking.

The first enterprise, arranging Wesley’s thought systematically, often commences with the observation that Wesley was not a systematic theologian. That this fact rarely deters efforts at systematization is ironic, but also belies the assumption that translating the assorted genres of Wesley’s writings into a systematic theology is the appropriate task for a Wesleyan theologian. To do this, however, makes Wesley a source in a form of scholasticism. The result is a distillate, a reiteration of the “essence” of Wesley’s variously expressed ideas, now crystallized in the systematic genre. Collapsed together is the distance between Wesley’s manner of doing theology and our own, as theologians confuse their analysis via systematic categories—soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, and the rest—with Wesley’s colloquial and scripturally saturated dialect. This is more than merely “the way Wesley talked.” This was the way he did theology. Wesley would not have comprehended our division of labor into biblical interpretation and theology; for him biblical interpretation was theology. Doctrine and reading are integrated in Wesley, not because he lacked our sophistication, but because they had not yet been artificially sundered. If we do not realize this and begin deploying our schemas more judiciously, the opportunity is forfeited that someone who lived prior to our own academic theological milieu could call into question how and why we do what we do, possibly even pointing us in a different direction.

In the second undertaking, Wesley is read, not simply as an eighteenth century person, but as a junction for numerous socio-historical forces. When one reads the extensive notes in the bicentennial edition of Wesley’s Works, the first response is to be impressed by the encyclopedic knowledge such detail requires. After a while, however, the question of whose encyclopedic knowledge is actually on display becomes unavoidable: Does this reflect the depths of Wesley’s learning, or the scholars’ who study him? In order to help preserve a healthy sense of the distance between Wesley and us—so that we do not simply read ourselves into his writings—understanding his context is invaluable. However, a purely historical, “behind the text” way of reading Wesley isolates him in the eighteenth century, limiting the ability of his writings to have a formative impact on those who have come after him is limited. The rationale, of course, is that the more we know about Wesley’s past, the better we can appreciate his thought. There is doubtless truth to this, but when the archaeological approach is not reined in, Wesley’s writings become a window into his context, as opposed to a set of writings that help induct us into a life of holiness. Reading Wesley becomes an opportunity for excavation, rather than formation.

When coupled with the transformations underway in academic theology generally, Abraham’s critique signals the denouement of the modern Wesleyan theological project. It does not, however, absolve Wesleyan communities of faith from continuing to reflect on their lives in the light of the gospel. For this reason, rethinking Wesleyan theology is mandatory as long as the Wesleyan tradition persists. Some thoughts toward that end are now in order.

What Is “Wesleyan Theology”?

The initial query must be, what do we mean by “Wesleyan theology”? Answering this involves resetting Wesleyan theology within a tradition-constituted framework. Nancey Murphy, in a gloss on A. MacIntyre, has described a tradition as a historically extended, socially embodied argument about how best to interpret formative texts (Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism [Trinity, 1996] 103). Reading Wesley from this perspective is more art than science, with Wesley portrayed not as a source, but as someone at whose feet we may sit to learn what it is to be a “real Christian.” This includes theological content, of course, but it must be appropriated hermeneutically, not solely on our terms, but in a way that allows interacting with Wesley to possibly change our terms. If successful, Wesley will have a chance to teach us how theological reflection carried out in an ecclesial setting can reintegrate the fragmented remains of modern theology.

The upshot of this is that, while we cannot lose the horizon of Wesley’s eighteenth century in reading him, neither is that era the only context to which his writings properly belong. The Wesleyan tradition is also their proper context, and it is ongoing, exceeding the boundaries of Wesley’s original circumstances. We can indeed learn from Wesley, to a degree, how to perform the art of theological reflection, but we cannot look to him for all the answers. Judging by his own work and the reading he commended to his preachers, he never intended to do so at any rate.

Wesleyan theology is therefore theological reflection within communities that stand in the Wesleyan tradition. This implies that Wesley is not the whole of what is meant by “the Wesleyan tradition.” We must avoid a positivism that seeks to authorize every “Wesleyan” proposal with an endorsement proof-texted from Wesley’s oeuvre. Falling into this would eventually paralyze theological reflection, and it misrepresents what traditions are and how they work. Healthy traditions outgrow their founders—they flourish within situations that could not have been anticipated at their inception. Thus, fidelity to tradition is not inherently conservative. Instead, it is creative, vibrant, because it must continually adapt to changing situations. Problems beyond the ken of a tradition can result in that tradition’s downfall.

The Wesleyan tradition is intertwined with other ecclesial traditions, and all are situated within the larger scope of the Christian faith itself. For that reason, its theological intentions cannot be ideologically driven to reinforce being Wesleyan for its own sake. If the end of religion is to love God and neighbor, then theology serves the people who live in obedience to that twofold dominical command, and this cannot be reduced to the Wesleyan tradition.

Theology as a communally formed practice has been characterized as being second-order. This means it is critical reflection on the language and practices of the church. The connotation is that it occurs at a remove from first-order practices such as preaching, confession, mission, and so forth. This may be useful, but it seems to me the Wesleyan tradition would want to relax the distinction a bit. Wesley is an exemplar, for instance, for how the sermon can be used as a powerful theological medium. He might also teach us to make the question of whether theology leads, directly or indirectly, to love of God and neighbor a fundamental barometer of its soundness. If we are located in the Wesleyan tradition, theology cannot be learned in a narrowly cognitive and methodical way. Knowledge of God requires holiness; knowledge of God leads to holiness. However we negotiate the existing issues in academic theology, if we fail to meet this end, our work is “less than nothing, and vanity,” as Wesley himself would most likely tell us.

Posted Nov 01, 2006