As Methodist preachers were facing opposition and struggling to bear fruit in Calvinistic Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1771, John Wesley wrote the following in a letter to one of the movement’s supporters:
If any one could show you, by plain Scriptures and reason, a more excellent way than that you have received [from Methodists], you certainly would do well to receive it; and, I trust, I should do the same. But I think it will not be easy for any one to show us, either that Christ did not die for all, or that he is not willing as well as able to cleanse from all sin, even in the present world.
As I read this, I found myself wondering what my fellow clergy in the United Methodist Church would say about such a passage.
I do not think many would quibble with the notion that Jesus Christ died for all.
The second point would meet more resistance, as it did among Methodists even in Wesley’s day. Wesley believed that Christ has both the power and the intention of healing us from all sin. In theology class, we call this sanctification. In practical terms, it means that the power of Christ not only pardons us from the guilt of sin but also cures us of the very inclination and desire to sin in any way. In more positive terms, we love both God and our neighbors perfectly.
Wesley believed and taught that Christian could receive this total sanctification and should, in fact, seek after it. He did not argue this because he thought humans were capable of it, but because he believed that Scripture testified that Jesus Christ both wants that for us and is capable of doing what he desires.
This doctrine of Christian Perfection is part of the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, even if it is not frequently preached and often ignored in practice.
But the controversial nature of Christian Perfection is not the place where I suspect a congress of United Methodist clergy would find the most ground to argue over Wesley’s advice in his letter. I suspect where we would most disagree is over his standard for doctrine itself. Wesley urges the woman to whom he writes to appeal to “plain Scriptures and reason” as the foundation for what she should believe.
I suspect a gathering of United Methodists would quarrel quite a bit if this were proposed as the basis of our doctrine.
Where are tradition and experience from our later 20th century invention the Wesleyan Quadrilateral?
Where are all the critical tools that make the notion of “plain Scripture” anything but plain?
Wesley read Scripture from the privileged position of a white man in a patriarchal society, of course, so what of readings from the margin? Are they still plain?
What about impartations of the Holy Spirit that give us new words?
And so on.
For my part, I find as a pastor in a church that I am not really interested in exploring our doctrinal divisions. They have been well mapped and discussed and remain unchanged. I need to understand them just as I need to understand various reasons people resist the gospel or struggle to grown in their faith. They are the landscape in which I do my pastoral work. But I do not feel my work advances a great deal by trudging again over this well trodden turf.
What I long for is some conversation among those of us who seek to preserve the Wesleyan deposit in our doctrinal standards. I find in the realities of pastoral work among a settled congregation that it is quite challenging to nurture and develop a Wesleyan Christianity. The flock has so long been fed from whatever sources it could find and many different streams, that the particular theological and doctrinal commitments that mark a church as a Methodist church have all but vanished.
How do we dig again these wells of spiritual nourishment?