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Toward a Wesleyan Eschatology

the-end-is-nearHere’s a question that often comes up:

Where do John Wesley and his early followers fit in the familiar end-time schemas of a-millennial, post-millennial and pre-millennial (and it’s pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib flavors)?

People looking for information about this find that there is very little available.

Here’s the reason: John Wesley doesn’t fit any of these schemas exactly. He has been claimed by both pre-millennialists (Christ returns to establish an age of peace and righteousness on earth) and post-millennialists (an age of peace and righteousness on Earth is established through the advancement of Christian faith, and then Christ returns). And, individual quotations from his works can be lifted out both to support or refute both viewpoints.

First, let me note Wesley’s approach to the book of Revelation, as a way of introducing and illustrating the problem.

John Wesley’s interpretation of the book of Revelation followed the notes in the commentary of Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), the Gnomon Novi Testamenti. As a result of this, Wesley’s approach to the book of Revelation is not in the “Futurist” school of interpretation, in the first place. Bengel’s approach to the book of Revelation was idiosyncratic and partially “historicist” in nature.

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

Here are Wesley’s introductory comments to his notes on Revelation from his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. Notice: (1.) his reluctance to comment on the book of Revelation at all and (2.) his heavy dependence on Bengel:

It is scarce possible for any that either love or fear God not to feel their hearts extremely affected in seriously reading either the beginning or the latter part of the Revelation. These, it is evident, we cannot consider too much; but the intermediate parts I did not study at all for many years; as utterly despairing of understanding them, after the fruitless attempts of so many wise and good men: and perhaps I should have lived and died in this sentiment, had I not seen the works of the great Bengelius. But these revived my hopes of understanding even the prophecies of this book; at least many of them in some good degree: for perhaps some will not be opened but in eternity. Let us, however, bless God for the measure of light we may enjoy, and improve it to his glory. The following notes are mostly those of that excellent man; a few of which are taken from his Gnomon Novi Testamenti, but far more from his Ekklarte Offenbarung, which is a full and regular comment on the Revelation. Every part of this I do not undertake to defend. But none should condemn him without reading his proofs at large. It did not suit my design to insert these: they are above the capacity of ordinary readers. Nor had I room to insert the entire translation of a book which contains near twelve hundred pages. All I can do is, partly to translate, partly abridge, the most necessary of his observations; allowing myself the liberty to alter some of them, and to add a few notes where he is not full. His text, it may be observed, I have taken almost throughout, which I apprehend he has abundantly defended both in the Gnomon itself, and in his Apparatus and Crisis in Apocalypsin. Yet I by no means pretend to understand or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book. I only offer what help I can to the serious inquirer, and shall rejoice if any be moved thereby more carefully to read and more deeply to consider the words of this prophecy. Blessed is he that does this with a single eye. His labor shall not be in vain.

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

Adam Clarke (1760–1832)

The great early Methodist Bible commentator Adam Clarke was also hesitant to comment on the book of Revelation — or endorse any theory of its interpretation. He wrote:

My readers will naturally expect that I should either give a decided preference to some one of the opinions stated above, or produce one of my own; I can do neither, nor can I pretend to explain the book: I do not understand it; and in the things which concern so sublime and awful a subject, I dare not, as my predecessors, indulge in conjectures. I have read elaborate works on the subject, and each seemed right till another was examined. I am satisfied that no certain mode of interpreting the prophecies of this book has yet been found out, and I will not add another monument to the littleness or folly of the human mind by endeavoring to strike out a new course. I repeat it, I do not understand the book; and I am satisfied that not one who has written on the subject knows any thing more of it than myself.

So, now you’re seeing a clue to why there is no systematic teaching on Wesleyan eschatology. We are forced to look into Wesley’s teachings for hints about eschatology.

Tyreman, the great Wesley biographer, claimed that Wesley was a pre-millennialist (or “chiliast” as they used to say). Others have also sought to defend this thesis. However, there are statements within Wesley’s writings that do not fit well with the pre-millennial schema (or, at least its modern manifestations).

Daniel Steele (1824-1914)

Daniel Steele (1824-1914)

In the 19th Century Holiness teachers and American revivalists were generally post-millennialists. They believed that evangelistic activity and social reform would usher in a great age of faith and peace and justice — thus, their evangelistic and missionary passion. Daniel Steele (one of my favorites, as you may have noticed) defended the idea that Wesley’s teachings fit best with the Post-millennial schema. This argument is in Chapter 2 of the book Jesus Exultant, a chapter entitled “Wesley Expectant.”

One brief quote:

Even Tyreman, while calling Wesley ‘a millenarian,’ admits in reference to his ‘Notes on Rev. xx’ and his sermons on ‘The Great Assize,’ ‘The General Deliverance,’ ‘The General Spread of the Gospel’ and ‘The New Creation,’ that ‘there may be found in some of them statements scarcely harmonizing with the millenarian theory.’

— Daniel Steele, Jesus Exultant (1899) Chapter 2.

But, Steele’s opinions on the subject of eschatology can also be found — at much greater length — in an another one of his books. Steele’s lengthy critique of Dispensationalism can be found here: A Substitute for Holiness or Antinomianism Revivived: The Theology of the So-Called Plymouth Brethren Examined and Refuted. The Appendix to this book contains a chapter entitled: “WAS WESLEY A PREMILLENNIALIST?”

Steele cannot actually claim Wesley as a post-millennialist. Wesley just wasn’t that consistent. Steele can only honestly claim that Wesley’s views fit well with the post-millennial scheme that became popular among holiness preachers in the 19th Century.

Other interesting reading related to this topic: WESLEYAN RESERVATIONS ABOUT ESCHATOLOGICAL “ENTHUSIASM” by Michael Lodahl in the Spring-Fall, 1994 edition of the Wesleyan Theological Journal (the link is to a pdf file of that edition of the Journal).

And, especially: PROCESSIVE ESCHATOLOGY: A WESLEYAN ALTERNATIVE by Clarence L. Bence in the Spring 1979 edition of the Wesleyan Theological Journal (the link is to a pdf file of that edition of the Journal).

Clarence L. ("Bud") Bence

Clarence L. (“Bud”) Bence

In this article, Bence writes:

It is one thing to advocate a Wesleyan eschatology; it is quite another to propose any definitive statement on the end times which would satisfy more than a handful of Wesley scholars. Wesley himself contributes considerable ambiguity to the subject. It is not as simple as quoting a few selected passages from Wesley’s works, for many of Wesley’s apocalyptic interpretations reflect the prevailing views of his own century and thus are anachronistic to present day understanding. Wesley accepted a view which Ernest Sandeen calls “historical pre-millennialism” a view interpreting the Book of Revelation as largely a description of past events in the history of the Church. The apostle John looked into the future and described what he saw in the apocalyptic language of woes, pestilences, calamities and destruction. According to Wesley and his contemporaries, these prophecies had already been fulfilled with amazing accuracy in the conquests of Rome, the Germanic invasions and the spread of Islam. The severe persecutions of Christians before and after the Reformation certainly qualified as the great woes described by John in chapters 9-17. For Wesley, the Anti-Christ had already appeared in the later middle ages in the form of the Roman papacy. Only the closing events of history, described in the final chapters of the Apocalypse remained to be fulfilled. Wesley and many of his contemporaries expected the Beast and False Prophet to appear in Rome at any moment, and certainly before the end of the eighteenth century. From his Notes on the book of Revelation, it appears that Wesley concurred with the calculations of the German writer, Johann Bengel, who predicted that on or about 1836 the conflict with evil would reach its climax in the destruction of the Beast and False Prophet, and the binding of Satan for one thousand years.

None of these great eschatological events took place before Wesley’s death in 1791. And despite considerable millenarian excitement in the 1830s and 40s, nothing of great significance occurred as Wesley had forecast. The older position of historical pre-millennialism was largely replaced by post-millennialism; and by the end of the nineteenth century, yet another pre-millennial interpretation espoused by the dispensationalists Darby and Scofield vied for the allegiance of evangelical Christians. In a number of interesting articles and pamphlets, both pre- and post-millennialists of the Wesleyan tradition claimed the founder as a member of their ranks and offered dubious proof-texts from the writings of Wesley to substantiate their claims. (Both were partially correct; Wesley accepted Bengel’s rather bizarre belief in two millennia — a thousand years during which Satan is bound and the church prospers on earth, followed by another thousand year reign of Christ and his saints.) Unfortunately, both pre- and post-millennialists failed to grasp the historical and theological distance between Wesley’s understanding and their own. And we too would be ill served if we simply resorted to Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament to formulate a Wesleyan alternative to modern day eschatologies.

In fact, the question might properly be raised whether apocalyptic speculation has any place in Wesleyan eschatology. Given the large body of material that Wesley either wrote himself or edited, very little of it deals specifically with the events or personalities associated with the end times. One must turn to sermons on the great judgment, eternity or hell’s to glean details on Wesley’s view. It is only in the Notes on the New Testament that one finds specific interpretations of dates, places and names. And here Wesley readily acknowledges his own ignorance concerning such matters and his almost total reliance on the work of others.

I suppose one can look at this as an advantage of the Wesleyan perspective or as a disadvantage. The followers of John Wesley are not tied to any particular end-time schema. We are free to weigh each for their truth claims and for their congruence with an optimism founded on our confidence in God’s grace.



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