I’ve been carrying around in my head for about a year now the six-fold description of the reign of God that William J. Abraham sketched out in his book The Art of Evangelism. The six dimensions are the moral, the experiential, the theological, the horizontal (community life), the operational (hands and feet of Christ), and the disciplined (practicing spiritual disciplines).
Abraham argues that Christians live into the reign of God as they mature into each of these six dimensions, but he conceives of them as more or less independent. You can enter the reign of God through any of these dimensions and you can progress along them somewhat independently of the others. So, for instance, a person might begin his or her journey into the reign of God with social activism (operational dimension) or by being born into a church family and being raised among Christians (horizontal) or by undergoing conversion (experiential). At some point, Abraham argues, mature Christians must grow into all six dimensions, but there is not one pattern for that.
When I read the works of John and Charles Wesley, I can track all six of these dimensions in their work. They touch on them all, but is a significantly different way than Abraham does.
For the Wesleys, the experiential dimension is the central movement around which all the other dimensions are arranged. The experiential dimension is the experience of conviction, pardon, new birth, and sanctification that the Holy Spirit works in a believer. For the Wesley’s the kingdom of God was primarily about these experiences worked out in the life of the Christian.
Other dimensions mentioned by Abraham could be understood in relation to this central thrust. So, the operational dimension (being agents of Christ in the world) was understood as works of mercy, which were both fruits of the spirit and disciplines to mold the temperament and bring the Christian into closer communion with Christ. The moral dimension served to show a sinner his sin and to provide the pardoned sinner a guide to Christian life. The theological dimension gave the Christian knowledge of God, which helped her to better know the object of her love and to better see the life to which she was called in Christ.
For the Wesleys the experiential dimension was the keystone of the entire kingdom. A Christian could be moral, could practice spiritual disciplines, could know the Bible back to front, but without an inner experience of conviction and repentance, forgiveness and new birth, and finally perfect love, the rest was mere outward religion.
I’m sure I am being too fast and loose with both Abraham and the Wesleys, but I do think the basic contours of this comparison are at least close to helpful.
So the question I am left with is whether the Wesleys gave us one possible way of understanding the relationship of these six dimensions of the reign of God or whether their articulation of the kingdom is incompatible with Abraham’s articulation of six independent dimensions. John Wesley certainly did not articulate a rigid set of things that must happen in only one order. He was too subtle an observer of the spiritual life for that. But he also consistently understood the key element of the life of the spirit the experiential dimension. Perhaps he was merely highlighting the one of the six that he felt was most misunderstood and neglected in his context. I am not certain. But my sense is that Wesley would not arrange these six as equals. For him the experiential stood at the heart of the matter.
And, so, I wonder, should it for us?
I fear that my writing in this post has been more muddled than usual. My apologies for that to my kind readers. If my fog is not too dense, I welcome your thoughts.