At a time when I was in great danger of not valuing [the authority of the Bible] enough, you made that important observation: “I see where your mistake lies. You would have a philosophical religion; but there can be no such thing. Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world. It is only ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’ So far as you add philosophy to religion, just so far you spoil it.” This remark I have never forgotten since; and I trust in God I never shall.
— From a letter John Wesley wrote to William Law, Jan. 6, 1756
We flatter ourselves in the 21st century that we have discovered new spiritual problems. We imagine that our ancestors living in less advanced and blessed ages were mired in darkness, but we see things new and face all manner of new challenges. Chief among these in our day are questions about the reliability of Scripture, questions about the reality of eternal reward and punishment, questions about the necessity of church itself for the salvation of souls. Men such as Rob Bell captivate our attention and the “rise” of the ranks of the spiritual but not religious are seen as harbingers of a new age.
Of course, our fantasy that we live in a unique time when it comes to questions of the spirit would be quickly dissolved if we would read more.
For instance, John Wesley had frequent conversation and correspondence with people who raised the same questions so popular and controversial in our day. There were in 18th century England popular figures who questioned the reality of hell and preached a kind of faith that was all about personal spirituality set free from the trappings of church and Sunday worship. Spiritual but not religious was not invented by us.
William Law was a spiritual writer and teacher who had great influence in England during Wesley’s life. Wesley himself expressed his indebtedness to Law’s works. But Wesley found himself at odds with Law’s mysticism. Law argued against the need for outward means of grace. He wrote that people did not need the trappings of church and organized religion (not his term) to follow the Spirit of Christ that is given to all people. He argued against the doctrine of hell, instead insisting on something like the doctrine of universal purgatory, where the blemishes of our sins would be removed by a time of purging before all are brought to the presence of our Lord in heaven. (When I read such notions, I am reminded quite strongly of Bell’s popular book Love Wins.)
I do not deny that our circumstances are different than Wesley’s. The general “plausibility structure” of our culture is different. The social norms are different. The religious landscape is different. But I resist the idea that we face questions about belief and practice that are all that different. The context in which the questions are raised may be different, but the questions themselves appear to be quite commonplace throughout Christian history.
In his lengthy reply to Law, Wesley tackled questions of the reality of hell with an appeal to Scripture, one that historical-critical methods make problematic for many 21st century clergy, but one that sets issue in exactly the same terms that we discuss it today.
Now, thus much cannot be denied, that these texts speak as if there were really such a place as hell, as if there were a real fire there, and as if it would remain forever. I would then asked but one plain question: If the case is not so, why did God speak as if it was?
In our day, we would halt Wesley here with questions about inspiration and revelation, but I am reminded in reading his words of people who stand up at annual conference when we debate contentious issues and raise the simple question: What does the Bible say? They are putting the question much as Wesley did.
Say you, “To affright men from sin?” What, by guile, by dissimulation, by hanging out false colours? Can you believe it of Him? Can you conceive the Most High dressing up a scarecrow, as we do to fright children? Far be it from him! If there be then any such fraud in the Bible, the Bible is not of God. And indeed this must be the result of all: If there be “no unquenchable fire, no everlasting burnings,” there is no dependence on those writings wherein they are so expressly asserted, nor of the eternity of heaven, any more than of hell. So that if we give up the one, we must give up the other. No hell, no heaven, no revelation!
We might today engage in more layers of debate and argument, but the dispute between Law and Wesley captures in its fundamentals so many of the disputes we have today. Like Wesley, many contemporary Christians cannot fathom how they should be called to find the Bible both the final authority in matters of faith and practice and a book full of errors, lies, and cynical manipulations designed to play upon the credulity of simple folk.
As I read the words of Law and Wesley, I hear so many of the conversations and debates we still have today. I am reminded of that other writer of some fame who wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”