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How I Still Think Like a Methodist

hgbk-coverIn the early part of his 2012 book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, N. T. Wright remarks on how the Church has not always allowed itself to hear the full witness of the Gospels to Christ. I won’t attempt to reproduce the argument here: read the book.

Wright begins by discussing some ways that the Church’s teachings unintentionally got off track. And, as he is discussing how these various theologians of the past attempted to defend orthodoxy in a way that misconstrued some of the Bible’s teachings, he says on page 37 that “the eighteenth century saw great movements of revival, particularly through the Methodist movement led by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield.” and, he goes on to say:

Their theology and their understanding of the gospels are quite different topics upon which I am not qualified to speak. But, I suspect that the Wesleyan emphasis on Christian experience, both the “spiritual” experience of knowing the love of God in one’s own heart and life and the “practical” experience of living a holy life for oneself and of working for God’s justice in the world, might well be cited as evidence of a movement in which parts of the church did actually integrate several elements in the gospels, a synthesis that the majority of Western Christianity have allowed to fall apart.

— N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne 2012) page 37.

John & Charles Wesley

John & Charles Wesley

The Wesleyan movement in it’s beginnings, held together a challenge to a life genuinely transformed through faith, and to a commitment to seeing the values of God’s Kingdom implemented on earth. “…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

I know people who were brought up in the stricter, more legalistic branches of the Wesleyan holiness movement who learned to resent it. I understand. But, that has not been my experience.

I am thankful to have heard the Gospel among a group of people who believed that faith in Christ made a real, observable change in a person’s life. I am thankful for a community of faith that believed that moral and spiritual change were possible. I am thankful for a community of faith that spoke of a faith that could be experienced. I am thankful for a community of faith that believed that the Gospel could both change people and change society.

Early on in my Christian life I began to read the writing of Adam Clarke and John Wesley. This has had a powerful effect on how I interpret Scripture to this day — and I am thankful for the insights of the early Methodists on the meaning of the Scriptures.

So, I appreciate Wright’s calling attention to the original Wesleyan synthesis.

Even now, as I feel deeply alienated from the institutional structures of the United Methodist Church, I still feel drawn to the original Methodist synthesis of faith and life and compassion and justice. Wesley achieved this by learning from the Bible, and from both the Reformation (with it’s emphasis on Justification by Faith) and the Roman Catholic mystical tradition (with its emphasis on Christian Perfection). Wesley reasoned that if Justification (our relationship with God) was by faith, well, then, Sanctification (our conformity to the character of Christ) must be by faith, as well. This led to an emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than an emphasis on moral efforts and striving. And, if God could change people (however difficult the job) why couldn’t we expect God to change the world?

This doesn’t mean that everything John Wesley ever said is correct. That is not the point. Far from it. Wesley pointed in a direction that I still find interesting and challenging to follow.

N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright

But, however kind his initial remarks, Wright quickly adds:

Even within Methodism itself, however, I do not sense that the fine instincts of the early leaders have led to an enriched, integrated long-term understanding of the church’s central texts, the gospels, themselves.

— N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne 2012) page 37.

Indeed, it did not. And, the initial spiritual and intellectual enthusiasm of the Wesleys and Fletcher and Whitefield and Clarke and Watson was not sustained into the generations that followed. Part of the movement tended toward pitting emotional experience over against intellect — and the other part embraced the theological tradition initiated by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Not only was there no “enriched, integrated long-term understanding of …the gospels” — the original synthesis fell apart.

But, here’s the thing. I still believe in a here-and-now Gospel that changes people for the better and impacts the world for the better.

So, in that sense, yes, I really do still think like a Methodist.

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