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5 Criticisms of John Wesley's Teachings and Our Readings of Them
A few weeks ago Zondervan Academic released Thomas Oden's final volume on John Wesley's sermons, John Wesley's Teachings: Society and Ethics. As I mentioned in my overview of the book last week, it gives us teachers and practitioners a sturdy guide to advising our people how to navigate the choppy waters of the moral and ethical life.
Oden's goal with his four volumes was to make Wesley's thoughts accessible to modern readers inside and outside the academy. His final volume is the most practical of the four, because it gets at the heart of how a Christian should behave.
One of the things I like about this final volume is how Oden wraps up his jaunt through Wesley's teachings with a final essay on Wesley's argument. Throughout the series he employs so-called argument analysis—he seeks to analyze Wesley's reasoning and argument on a text-by-text basis.
As Oden describes, "This method asks, 'What reason does Wesley give for drawing his conclusions? Show me the text where these reasons are stated.'" (311) Accordingly, Oden explains that Wesley's arguments weren't limited to natural reason or conscience, but traced the consensus of Christian Scriptural memory; classically understood Scripture checked natural reasoning alone.
Having unpacked his arguments and use of Scripture to support them, Oden sets forth five observations of "tendencies" that arise both from Wesley's own teachings and our readings of them. Although he is "profoundly grateful" for Wesley's arguments, Oden has some "respectful reservations" and some responses to Wesley's critics. (311)
1.) An Oversimplified View of Special Providence
First, Oden says "Wesley seems occasionally to have attributed to events an over simplified view of special providence in which it appears that God is unilaterally decreeing events as if apart from human freedom." Yet elsewhere Wesley makes clear that God exercises his power by creating humans with freedom. "The abuses that ensue from human freedom require further providential and redemptive actions to enable its redemption." (311)
We find this dynamic illustrated in Wesley's so-called "wheels of providence," where in America Wesley saw God's special work in this country "'adapting one event to another, and working one thing by means of another.'" (151)
As Oden explains, "The metaphor of wheels is a dynamic model of ironic historical change in which God's grace and human freedom are interacting in unexpected ways, but always with God in ultimate control, and without diminishing the reality of human freedom." (151)
2.) Scripture Study Doesn't Require Contextualization
Second, Oden notes, "Wesley's method of comparing Scripture with Scripture does not require contextualization of each text quoted, a process favored by modern biblical scholarship." Rather than letting biblical texts sit in their historical context, he sees them within the broader "gist of the whole of Scripture as divine revelation." (312)
Returning back to the "wheel of providence" metaphor we see this lack of non-contextualization illustrated. In trying to make sense of God's special providence, Wesley chose for his essay "The Late Work of God in North America" Ezekial 1:15-18, in which the prophet saw intersecting wheels that moved in relation to four creatures.
Of this passage Wesley writes, "'Whatever may be the primary meaning of this mysterious passage of Scripture, many serious Christians in all ages have applied it in a secondary sense to the manner wherein the adorable providence of God usally works in governing the world.'" (emph. mine, 151)
Without regard for the primary, historical context and meaning, Wesley applied this passage to the providential work of God in revolutionary America.
3.) Wesley's Situation is Different Than Ours
This next insight isn't a response to Wesley, per se, but our reading of Wesley. Oden reminds us that major cultural and historical differences account for many problems modern readers have with his teachings.
For instance, "His country had a king; ours functions with elected representatives led by an elected executive who under the Constitution carries out written laws written by Congress. It is not an error of Wesley's that he was born British in the eighteenth century." (312)
Furthermore, "It is an error of judgment to presume that modern reasoning is superior to all previous ages of reasoning or that our culture is intrinsically and self-evidently superior to premodern cultures." (312) Thus, we need to take care in listening to the conditions of Wesley's context as much to the contours of his argument.
4.) Harsh Teachings on Hell and Judgment
"It is jarring for the modern reader," Oden writes, "to hear from Wesley what moderns consider harsh declarations about final judgment and hell and the devil." (312)
Wesley believed hell was a "final condition;" "fundamentally banishment from the presence of God;" the punishment of which occurs "when the soul separates from the body of the ungodly; "the punishment of loss is added the punishment of sense, which is expressed in two arresting metaphors: worms and fire;" "the term of sentence is forever." (volume 2, 299-300)
Oden believes such a jarring reading illustrates a perennial problem for modern readers: a clash of cultures between modern versus classic evangelical. Instead he urges us to pay close, careful attention to what Wesley teaches, because after all "Wesley was not harsher than Jesus on the subject of hell." (312)
5.) An Overly Optimistic, Utopian View?
Finally Oden grants, "Much that Wesley taught about the power of the Holy Spirit to transform human freedom may sound to modern ears utopian or exceedingly optimistic." (312) But as Oden notes, can the same person who wrote a treatise on the doctrine of original sin truly be viewed as optimistic?
Instead here is what we find at work in Wesley's teachings: "If he was pessimistic about the human condition apart from grace, he was confident in the grace that transforms the human condition." (312)
Consider the morally reprehensible social condition of slavery, for instance. Oden explains that Wesley thought the hearts of the traders and planters had to be changed through a radical encounter with God's grace one at a time in order to transform his society. His vision truly was one of God's kingdom coming, not through human ingenuity of gumption, but by and through the God's grace.
In the end, Oden believes that "None of these plausible criticisms is sufficient to dismiss Wesley. Rather, they invite further investigation of the clash of worldviews between modern consciousness and the classic historic root of evangelical faith." (312)
Whether you are a pastor or teacher, student or life-long learner, along with Oden I invite you to explore and investigate yourself Wesley's teachings and how they plumb the vast, rich depths of the historic Christian faith for our modern day Western culture.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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