Consider Wesley

The Trinity as Practical Divinity: The Trinitarian Vision of John Wesley

Henry H. Knight III

Elmer Colyer’s The Trinitarian Dimension of John Wesley’s Theology (New Room, 2019) is by far the most extensive examination of Wesley’s trinitarianism. In it Colyer shows in great detail the pervasiveness of the Trinity throughout Wesley’s theology. While others have argued for Wesley’s being trinitarian, no one has done so with such comprehensiveness, depth of analysis, and insight.

Colyer begins much like Jason Vickers in Invocation and Assent, with an account of the trinitarian controversies in seventeenth and eighteenth century England. Like Vickers, he concludes that these “arid speculative” defenses of the Trinity detached it from the lived faith of Christians. In contrast, “the Wesley brothers adopted a participatory, evangelical, doxological, economic approach to the Trinity similar to what we find in the origins of Trinitarian doctrine and piety in the early church …” (2).

It is in chapter 2 that Colyer begins to demonstrate how a participatory economic trinitarianism shapes the way Wesley understands the core of the gospel. Although other major interpreters of Wesley’s theology have not emphasized this, Colyer, through a survey of a vast amount of Wesley’s writings, gives us eyes to see how consistently Wesley links the Trinity closely “to the essence of Christian faith, life, discipleship, and worship” (135).

One notable feature of Colyer’s argument is that he notices the lack of these trinitarian summaries in Wesley’s writings prior to 1738, but afterward how they are found in abundance for the remainder of Wesley’s life. The key was Wesley’s relationship with the Moravian Peter Böhler, who introduced him to what Wesley called a “new gospel,” leading to his experience at the meeting on Aldersgate Street. “There is,” Colyer, writes, “a deep participatory Trinitarian dimension to this ‘new faith’: grace and faith are not simply in Christ but through Christ. The love of God that reaches out to humanity through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is realized in human lives by a change that the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and lives so that we participate in the divine nature. The economic Trinity is the source and substance of this new gospel …” (134–35).

In the next chapter Colyer explores this shift in Wesley’s understanding further. From 1725 to 1738 he had been influenced by the holy living tradition’s emphasis on full devotion to God. With the Moravians the emphasis shifted to trusting “in Christ given for us and living in us,” and “to love rooted in restored communion with the Father and Son in the Spirit, and to gratitude for the blessed Triune God’s unstinting love for us in the gospel …” (141). After a period of sorting through the implications of this new understanding, Wesley was able to reconfigure the order of salvation in a trinitarian manner.
Grace, then, is not simply God’s favor, but “the Triune God active on our behalf … always involving three Trinitarian persons throughout Jesus Christ’s work and throughout our participation in it via the Holy Spirit” (143). Colyer shows how this grace is operative throughout the entire way of salvation.

In this chapter, Colyer also offers a critique of Wesley’s maintaining a close connection between law and gospel. Colyer emphasizes passages in Wesley where he speaks of Christian perfection as an “exact fulfilling of the law” and obedience to all of God’s commandments. Colyer wonders if Wesley’s portrayal of the law in “Christological incarnational categories” requiring a “rigorous keeping of every single commandment found in scripture” has led to “legalism that has at times haunted the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition” (186–87).

I must confess I do not read Wesley this way. In the passage in question Wesley seems to be saying that authentic love must be lived out. He is reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount and the emphasis is on the law written on the hearts. I invite readers of Colyer’s book (and I hope there are many!) to also read Wesley’s “Sermon on the Mount, IV,” which Colyer is referencing, as well as “The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law,” and decide this issue for yourselves.

While Colyer makes many contributions in this book, his chapter on the church stands out as especially significant. Although interpreters of Wesley often portray his ecclesiology as a blend of Anglican and pietism, Colyer sees Wesley as transcending them (203), providing “a deeper understanding of the ontology of the church as communion with God and one another in vibrant Trinitarian terms” (211).

Rather than subordinating the church to salvation, Colyer argues that Wesley sees “the church as the actual communal expression of salvation …” (201). Thus, the affections or tempers that constitute salvation “are utterly real and utterly social. They arise in, with, and out of relations of union and communion with the Triune God and are continually sustained by those relations. But they exist in and with relations with other people,” that is, they are “socially embedded and embodied” in community (242–43). This same trinitarian dimension is found within the means of grace.

Colyer then extends his analysis from the church to the Methodist movement itself. While often implicit, Colyer finds in the societies, classes, bands, and discipline of early Methodism a remarkable embodiment of “a participatory, economic Trinitarian vision of Christian faith.” He is not arguing for a conscious awareness of this but for something deeper and more subtle, but thereby all the more real, in the way they lived out their faith” (315).

This account of Colyer’s book is merely an outline that does not do justice to the richness of the argument. Whatever critique is mounted concerning aspects of his account, Colyer has succeeded in his larger goal. We will never be able to read Wesley again without recognizing the vital trinitarianism that shapes and infuses his theology.

Posted Feb 10, 2021