The Musicality of Catechesis

Leicester R. Longden

When thinking about catechesis, that is, oral instruction in the life of Christian faith, we often get caught in categories like creed, curriculum, lesson plans, and Bible study. We use them as tools or maps for navigating the biblical texts and the life of faith. But they are not the terrain itself.

Some of our greatest teachers, while virtuoso performers in all these categories, find ways to teach that move beyond mere abstractions and intellectual interpretations. William Harmless, in his marvelous Augustine and the Catechumenate (Liturgical Press, 1995) writes of the “musicality” of Augustine’s teaching and preaching:

If one approaches Augustine with a programmatic eye, one leaves disappointed. He offers no neat lesson plans, no orderly scope-and-sequence chart, no clear and distinct curricular architecture. Yet if one comes to Augustine … with an ear for music, patterns begin to emerge. His catecheses moved melodically, not structurally … their flow was more fugal than linear. It is this musicality that makes his work so hard to outline or to summarize. (373)

The “musicality of catechesis” may also be found within the Wesleyan tradition in the ministry of Charles Wesley. We might even go so far as to say that his hymnody forms one of the “pillars” of Wesleyan catechesis, alongside the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sacraments. Borrowing the metaphor proposed by William Harmless, Charles sings rather than explains our doctrine.

Jason Vickers argues that Charles had a rich doctrine of the Holy Spirit that Methodism has lost over time (“Charles Wesley’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: A Vital Resource for the Renewal of Methodism Today,” Asbury Journal 61, no. 1 [2006]: 47-60). By recovering Charles’s deep sense of the personal activity of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome the “domestication” of Wesleyan-Methodist language about the role of the Spirit in Christian life.

Vickers traces the way contemporary Methodism replaces the language of personal activity by the Holy Spirit with an abstract vocabulary of grace. We speak of justifying grace, illuminating grace, sanctifying grace, and perfecting grace rather than the revealing, empowering, purifying, and equipping activities of the Holy Spirit. We talk of grace as a concept relating to various phases of religious life. Charles sings and teaches us to long for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who makes it possible for sinners to participate in God’s own Triune life.

Here’s how Charles — in a hymn not found in our hymnal — expressed his robust sense of the Spirit’s active role in Christian experience:

O that the Comforter would come!

Nor visit as a transient guest,

But fix in me his loved abode,

The temple of indwelling God!

Come, Holy Ghost, my heart inspire!

Attest that I am born again!

Come, and baptize me with fire,

Nor let thy former gifts be vain.

(Hymn 365 in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7 [Abingdon, 1983], 534-35)

It’s not as if we have stopped believing in the Holy Spirit, but it is clear that Charles names specific actions of the Spirit, whereas we habitually refer to a general concept of grace. As Vickers puts it, “Referring to the Holy Spirit as a living, breathing, divine personal agent who convicts of sin, reveals the true identity of Christ to the human heart and mind, applies the blood of Christ, and makes us partakers of the divine nature is far more robust theological vocabulary than attributing salvation in a generic way to grace” (54-55). I would add that what makes this vocabulary “robust” is its musical character.

Vickers offers several reasons why Methodism may have domesticated the vivid Spirit language of Scripture by replacing it with grace talk. First, the constant accusation by Calvinists that Wesleyans were really preaching a subtle form of “salvation by works” may have led Methodists to overstress the phrase “salvation by grace.”

Second, the pressures and skepticism of the modern secular age ranked talk of the Holy Spirit with unscientific appeals to magic, superstition, and aliens. Modern Methodists, ever sensitive to the changing cultural context, opted for less shocking religious language.

Third, the rise of Pentecostalism and charismatic movements made many Methodists eager to distance themselves from excessive claims about speaking in tongues and healing miracles. Unfortunately, this tended to silence Methodist talk about the Spirit and make it the monopoly of Pentecostals.

Finally, it may be that the neglect of Charles’s hymns, and their poetic, personal, and musical language for the work of the Holy Spirit, left us with an impoverished theological vocabulary. Here is all the more reason for us to read and sing Charles carefully, and to place him consistently alongside his brother John in our teaching of the faith.

Posted Oct 12, 2015

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