Getting back to Wesleyan basics?

Back in early March, I stopped in Huntsville, Alabama, to hear Bishop Willimon talk about the Wesley Study Bible. It was a fun session and classic Willimon. I learned a few things. (And met a pair of Methobloggers.)

Wesley Study Bibles are printed in China. They are all sold out. More won’t be in the United States until May.

Willimon’s contribution to the study Bible was editing the “life application” boxes.

He also told a charming story about being put on the spot by a college kid who asked him if it troubled him at all to be paid “all that money” to be a bishop while serving Jesus Christ?

But what sticks out most to me from the session was a question from an aspiring Methodist minister. The man said he knew a bit about Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Catholics, and he struggled to find anything that Willimon had portrayed as a “Wesleyan” way of reading the Bible as unique to Wesley.

I don’t recall Willimon’s answer, but the question stuck with me. Here’s why.

I wonder if our denomination’s search for its Wesleyan roots is digging under the wrong tree: the tree of doctrine.

Let’s face it. John Wesley was not a doctrinal innovator. He sampled and assembled as set of more or less coherent interpretations of conventional doctrine, but it always seems that practical considerations came first.

This really hit home with me when I read his “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodist.” Wesley’s own account shows a man who was responding and building in what we would call an “organic” manner. Everything arose in response to the needs of Christians who were seeking to more fully live out the two great commandments. It was only later that he looked and discovered that what he had built matched up – in his opinion – with apostolic Christianity.

The basic move – the Wesleyan root – seems to be an energetic creativity and willingness to innovate inside our outside the establishment if it gets people over the hump from being “Almost Christians” to fully Christian. Of course, doctrine matters. But even Wesley’s famous arguments with Calvinism strike me as being about practice. He found “double predestination” outrageous because it tended to undermine people’s love of God and cool their zeal for good works.

But – and this is where I probably go way off the path – recapturing Wesleyan practice is not about adopting his innovations. It is not about going back to field preaching or societies and band meetings. Those were well tuned to his setting. Our settings are not his.

We might end up in some of the same places that Wesley did, but we should not start there.

We need John Wesley’s spirit and zeal. That is a Wesleyan root to which our United Methodist Church would do well to graft itself.

4 thoughts on “Getting back to Wesleyan basics?

  1. John – Thank you for this post. I agree with you that there would seem to be more potential from reclaiming Wesley’s emphasis on practice than on doctrine. It seems fairly clear that the Methodist structure was a key, if not the key, piece in Methodism’s early success.

    In books about the Wesleyan tradition it often seems that the careful work is done in matters of doctrine, while the discipline (or practice) is assumed but also largely ignored.

    Blessings,

    Kevin

  2. Good post.

    Wesley was an evangelist first. He did his theology on horseback. Going back to our Wesleyan roots is going to require us to become evangelists again. Our doctrine has to serve that purpose. However, I don’t know what that should look like today.

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