Wesley used against himself

A United Methodist blogger I have great respect for wrote the following in a comment on his blog recently:

Young/early Wesley was all about personal holiness; later/mature Wesley was about social holiness. His shift from faith as belief to faith as life is one well worth exploring today.

This is a variation on something I hear and read quite often in United Methodist circles. It goes hand-in-hand with an identification of the term “social holiness” with our concept “social justice.”

Now, I’ve read nearly all of John Wesley’s sermons and I am nearly done with his journals. I’ve read most of his letters and a fair amount of his other writings. I’ve read a dozen books on his theology. And nowhere do I see support for the claim that Wesley’s theology underwent radical change in his mature years.

I don’t see a big shift from the young/early Wesley to the mature/later Wesley. And I do not see him shifting his concern away from personal holiness toward social holiness, and certainly not what we would call social justice. He did lots of things that we might call social justice: setting up schools, engaging in microfinance, advocating against slavery, caring for prisoners, even French soldiers. But these things were never set against personal holiness, and he did them when he was young and old.

He preached about justification by faith and personal salvation into his very last years. The nation was reformed, he believed by the spread of true Scriptural Christianity, which was always a matter of changing individual lives. When people came to saving faith, they would set about doing works of mercy. They would learn to live at peace with their neighbors (social holiness). They would cease to do evil, which would reform the society one village or town at a time.

In all this, Wesley never abandoned or “outgrew” his early insistence on personal holiness and the importance of individual Christians being convicted and converted. Indeed, he insisted over and over again that the doctrines he taught in his old age were the same ones he had taught for his entire life.

This all seems so plain to me from reading his works.

I do not understand why he is so often represented as going through changes that he himself denied.


14 thoughts on “Wesley used against himself

  1. We had a bishop at the NCJ Conference equate social/political activism with Wesley’s “no holiness but social holiness” quote, too – a common canard. The only major shift I see in Wesley’s practical theology has to do with what Outler pointed out years ago: Wesley consistently placed faith after works prior to Aldersgate, and correctly reversed the order after that experience.

    I have no idea what the blogger you quote is talking about. I doubt the blogger has done extensive reading of Wesley’s original works.

  2. Ken Collins named something that Wesley produced in response to theology he saw as unbiblical. It was titled something like “Jesus stabbed in the back in the company of friends.” I’ve googled that and have been unable to find it. (My memory may be faulty on this.) He went on to say, jokingly I think, that he has wanted to write an article or more with a variation on the title. “Wesley stabbed in the back in the company of friends” in response to the many reinterpretations of Wesley that rely little on the man himself.

    Sadly, I’ve found your, and his, perception to be quite right.

    Wesley was consistent. Those who seek to use him to support a less personally demanding faith are not.

  3. At the risk of being overly blunt, people interpret Wesley that for the same reason they interpret Scripture the way they do. Eisegesis is much less work than exegesis.

    1. Can everyone say “AGENDA”. Lutherans do the same with Luther and Pres. do the same with Calvin!!! You hit it right on the head Pastor Mike. The same is done with Scripture!!! Well said!

  4. I find myself puzzled by this too, John. It seems that the social action/theology distinction is used for the purpose of pitting what Wesley believed with what he practiced; as if his later epiphany made his theology of secondary importance. Wesley’s views of social justice were strongly expressed BECAUSE of his theology of salvation. He always understood that what one believes has implications for the way one practices.

  5. It strikes me that there has been this “meme” spread throughout our connection some way. Somewhere someone taught and wrote this and it got picked up through seminary and reading and preaching.

    It became accepted truth — kind of like those non-Wesley quotes that get ascribed to Wesley all the time.

    I do not want to accuse anyone of corrupting Wesley intentionally. I just see the persistence of a claim about his theology that I do not see justified by actual reference to his works. I can see kernals of it. Wesley did modify some of his views and adjusted some of his doctrine over time, but nothing so radical as the “early Wesley” vs. “late Wesley” often asserts.

    Perhaps I am not reading him well, but I do not see the basis for these claims that are — as I say — pretty common.

    1. One of the reasons I continually follow your Blog is your willingness/courage in putting yourself out there in a way that in its honesty leaves you vulnerable to shots from others. I’m too big a wuss to do that. As to this particular post, if we are honest, we all have times when we miss the mark. I got a Blue Book back once that said, “Reinhold Niebuhr was not quite as simple minded as I made him out to be.” Ouch!!! Having said that, I am comfortable saying that your observation is right on. Intentional or not we tend not to read Wesley with the depth we should. This was pointed out to me by Bishop Jones (my Doctrine teacher), Dr. R. Heizenrater (my UM History Prof.) and Dr. A. Outler ( a frequent advisor) all at Perkins. Perhaps we are all not reading him well! But then I am the Village Idiot!!!

  6. Well said as always, John.

    About the only change I see in Mr. Wesley over the years is found in his sermon, The More Excellent Way. A good number of his earlier sermons leave the impression at least that those not actively pursuing holiness should not be called Christians at all. This later sermon admits of two orders of Christians, those who do no significant harm, do good generally and are faithful to the ordinances of God, contrasted with those who zealously pursue these things, as Methodists were at least intended or expected to do. The latter he says follow the more excellent way.

    1. In some ways, though, I think the difference even in those two sermons get overplayed. As I point out in this post: https://johnmeunier.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/audience-not-age-key-to-reading-wesley/

      he was recommended “The Almost Christian” as a good sermon to unawakened sinners in 1779, which we can safely say was in his advanced years. So, the differences in those two sermons may be more about who they are directed at (unawakened sinners vs. justified believers who need to be exhorted onward).

      At any rate, he clearly did not view himself to have “outgrown” “The Almost Christian” as he was still recommending it as a good sermon in 1779.

  7. According to a very interesting paper by Dr. Andrew Thompson, we are misinterpreting Wesley when we equate “social holiness” as he used it to “social justice.” (See http://www.andrewthompson.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Thompson_From-Societies-to-Society_MR.pdf) The social holiness Wesley was advocating was the holiness of Christians meeting together and sharpening each other in the societies and bands. His belief appears to have been that social actions motivated by love for neighbor grew out of the obedience to Christ which is an integral part of personal holiness. The discussion in Dr. Thompson’s paper also shows how social justice has been warped from its original focus of building a society conducing to humanity’s flourishing as children of God to the current materialistic redistributionism. Dr Thompson’s paper is well worth reading.

    1. I look forward to reading it myself.

      What is distressing to me is something you touch on here. Social holiness as it was understood seemed to find its focus on treating our own sin and likely fed a collective humility. Social justice as is primarily practiced seems to almost exclusively focus on the sin of others feeding the pride of the very people who practice it.

      1. John, That is an excellent point. As Jesus pointed out, it is so much easier to try to fix other people and institutions (change the world, anyone?) than to look at ourselves and see where we need more hep from the Holy Spirit to be fruitful disciples, It is also easier to embrace causes than to obey Jesus. Our hearts (at least my heart) are deceptive and would often use “good causes” to distract us from abiding with Christ — at least in my case.

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