‘Think and let think’

From John Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist“:

THE distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point.

Here we might misunderstand if we do not pause to understand the word “opinion,” which in our day is thrown about without much care. An opinion is a judgment or belief held by a person without certainty of its truth. This is in contrast to a fact. Opinions are subjective. Facts are objective. In our age, when we reduce everything to subjectivity, the distinction between facts and opinions has dissolved, but Wesley was not handicapped by our prejudices.

What Wesley seems most concerned about here is the criticism that Methodists were devoted too much to Wesley personally or some specific ideas that he taught. This, Wesley argues, is not the point.

The criticism is still among us — especially among United Methodists who do not have much stomach for Wesley. So, we do well to be clear. We do not worship Wesley, but those of us who would answer to the name Wesleyan do find that Wesley, much more often than not, seems to us to get Jesus right, so we listen to him the same way you pay attention to the weather forecaster who always seems to be right on the money.

Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally. We believe, indeed, that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;” and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and Infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish Church. We believe Christ to be the eternal, supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.

In our day, the piece of this that we most often quote is the “think and let think” line, but it often gets quoted as if the previous lines had never been written. It gets quoted without including the things to which Wesley was committed.

When the liberal/progressive theologian argues that Jesus Christ was merely a wise and powerful teacher, a Methodist would not think and let think about that. When the Roman Catholic argues that church tradition compels the affirmation of the immaculate conception of Mary, a Methodist would not think and let think about that. When the Muslim (or Mormon) says there is another book in which God’s revelation can be found, a Methodist would not think and let think about that.

Wesley begins his pamphlet on the character of Methodism by noting that he would prefer it if the name “Methodist” were never used. Later, he would write that he actually thought that what he described in the pamphlet was not about Methodists but about Christians, for he always thought Methodism was nothing more or less than simple Christianity lived out.

Whatever the proper name, the sketch Wesley drew still is worth our time to consider and discuss, so I’ll be writing about it over the next several days.

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6 thoughts on “‘Think and let think’

  1. John,

    I think the anyone who denies the core tenants of Christianity as expressed in the Creed(s – Apostolic, Nicene) is already out of the loop, so to speak. But these are beliefs. Surely, we can think about these things just a little differently than one another, right?

    1. I suspect that an empirical fact we do think differently about them to some extent. That phrase “just a little” is a key here. My take is that we should all affirm the biblical witness that Jesus died for our sins, but what exactly that means (atonement theory) is open to conversation and a matter — in Wesley’s terms — of opinion.

      And I would push on the Creed as belief. I have a friend who is a Cubs fan who believes every year that the Cubs will win the World Series. I know another guy who believes he is a secret agent for the CIA. When the church says “credo” we mean more than that. Indeed, I would say we are coming much closer to claiming these are warranted, true beliefs.

      The meaning of that word “believe” is important to all this. Thanks for highlighting that.

      1. I completely agree. The reason this is sensitive to me is that I received a letter from a fellow UM’er decrying my recent statement in the local paper about thinking as a United Methodist. He didn’t like that and insisted we aren’t really allowed to think our own way.

  2. I would say that those who are able to distinguish between opinions and facts the best are those who are most cognizant of how our cultural situatedness causes us to conflate the two. To be concerned with how my privilege can confuse me about what really are “plain and obvious facts” is actually not to reduce everything to subjectivity but to pursue the truth with greater precision. Those who ridicule postmodern theory the most are often paradoxically the ones who behave the most postmodernly towards the truth.

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