John Wesley: Building a Bridge Between East and West?

I was questioned on one of my comments on another blog post about where I saw John Wesley and Catholic theology fitting together. I thought it would be good to copy my response here because I have often thought that John Wesley could serve as a potential starting point for building a bridge between the East and the West when it comes to theology.

Sadly, John Wesley the theologian has been largely ignored over the past two hundred-odd years in favor of John Wesley the evangelist, church-planter, organizer. It is only within the past couple of decades that Wesleyan scholars have “rediscovered” Wesley’s theology. Before that, the common consensus was that Wesley was a rather mediocre theologian. Of course the one exception to this is Wesley’s ideas on “perfection.” This idea has a great deal in common with the idea of theosis and, to my knowledge, Wesley is the only Protestant who has embraced this theological concept. Although perhaps with the revival of modern interest in Patristics, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy there are now some more Protestants who are willing to embrace this idea. However, at the time, John Wesley took a lot of flak for his ideas on perfection.

Of course I must also say a “mea culpa” because old habits are hard to break and poor Charles Wesley did not show up in the post. Scholars and theologians are gradually bringing Charles Wesley into greater place in the Wesleyan movement because he was at least as influential as his brother, even if his brother gets all the credit. That’s not to mention the influence of their father, Samuel Wesley; and undeniably their mother, Susanna Wesley. I could probably delve into each of the family members and write an entire thesis on this topic (hey, there’s an idea!)

Anyway, here follows my (slightly) edited post:

I see Wesley as perhaps being a great bridge between East and West when it comes to theology. Wesley was certainly as well-versed in the teachings of the major theologians of both East and West as a person could be in 18th-century England. He was good friends for a while with an Eastern Orthodox bishop. And a Methodist legend has it that Wesley was ordained bishop by this Orthodox bishop, but this is likely wishful thinking. At the very least it takes more than one bishop to ordain another bishop (I think it takes three).

John Wesley also believed that Mary remained a virgin her entire life (good luck finding very many Methodists that ascribe to that these days!) He also took the Eucharist at least three times a week and refused to ordain anyone who didn’t participate in the Eucharist at least once a week. I think Wesley was also positively Franciscan when it came to possessions. When he died the only money he personally owned was what was in his wallet (I think it was a handful of shillings which is like, what? Maybe twenty dollars in today’s money?) He also stipulated that his coffin’s shroud should be cut into pieces and made into clothes for the poor.

I think Wesley was definitely a prophet to church people who were a bit too comfortable with just “the way things were.” Along with other Anglo-Catholics (and there were others although perhaps not so famous), John Wesley went out to where those most in need were living and working. And it’s important to remember that of course the Eucharist was an important part of going out to those in need. So I guess again in that respect Wesley is somewhat Franciscan. They both took to heart the “go” part of the Great Commission.

Of course there are things that Wesley said and wrote against Catholics. I can’t (and won’t) try to deny that. I think Wesley was just very much a product of his times. England has laws against Catholics even until today. At the same time, he was on friendly terms with particular Catholics and sought common understanding where there was common understanding. And we should remember that Wesley also wrote and spoke the same way about many people in the Church of England too. His overwhelming concern was on a “living relationship” with God rather than simply following the mere forms of religion with no inward change in the individual.

Then of course there’s Wesley’s “peculiar doctrine” of perfection. Many scholars have already noted how much this has in common with the theological idea of “theosis” that is expressed by Catholic and Orthodox thinkers and (to my knowledge) not a single other Protestant thinker.

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~ by crossingthebosporus on August 26, 2012.

13 Responses to “John Wesley: Building a Bridge Between East and West?”

  1. I think Wesley was a very great man of God. He may well have been ordained by a single bishop, it is not uncommon for ‘Vagante’ Orthodox bishops to behave in such a way – there are several examples I can think of. He is unfairly neglected, I think, and the Methodists ought to make more of him 🙂

    • Yes, I think the biggest problem about modern Methodism is that we (at best) seem only to pay lip service to John and Charles. It’s rare (at least in my experience) to hear much of anything about them other than “Oh yeah, they started this.” I think one of the major problems with Methodism is that they are not Methodist enough. There’s little that’s distinctive or Wesleyan about very many of us.

      • Interesting point. John Wesley seems to me just the sort of Christian who’d make anyone think about the idea that God is to be found in only one Church – he’s such a shining example. Had he been Catholic I am sure he’d have been declared a Saint long ago.

      • Funny thing, the saints of the Catholic church make me uncertain about Orthodox claims regarding only one Church and the saints of the Anglican church make me uncertain about Catholic claims!

      • As, I suspect, it should be. One of the reasons I love St. Isaac is that by all normal standards everyone should consider him a heretic as he was a Nestorian – but everyone sees the love of Christ in him and no one sees the label on the tin 🙂

  2. I certainly agree. I have been amongst Methodist my entire life and, if possible, they know less of Wesley than Lutherans do of Luther. I also second Jess that Methodists need to make more of the ideas of the founders of their church (so do Lutherans) but I’m sure it would make many members quite uncomfortable, which would also be good. 🙂

    • Yes, I think there’s a definite tension between the Reformation ideas of reforming and of simply throwing things out. Reforming can be good and was necessary (even many Catholic thinkers have admitted that), but once we get into simply throwing things out then where does it end? Well, at this point in time many denominations seem to have accepted the idea of throwing things out and have thus decided to just throw their founders out too!

      • Yes, it seems so. They’ve taken what was a reformed church that the founders had in mind and made it into a social club that can’t get into anything more than God is love because it’s too hard, or uncomfortable, or something. Last time I checked Christianity wasn’t about being comfortable. I t was about God, and that’s why so many of us are uncomfortable with our (especially protestant) churches.

  3. I think that it is the probably the most common problem the Christians have no matter what their affiliation is: radical conversion in Christ. When we see it, we know it. The reality of a radical change in the human person who has died to self and lives for Christ is remarkable and there are far too few of them in any denomination. Sounds like John Wesley may fall into that small minority of souls that had his life radically changed in Christ.

    • And interestingly enough, like the great saints, John Wesley spent most of his life in doubt. I think that may be one of the most relevant lessons all of us can take from the lives of the saints. If they’re not spared doubt, why should we be?

      • In fact it that very fact that speaks to true humility and the realization of our true nature in light of God. When God tries these men and women by withdrawing his comfort and consolations, they are suffering doubt and excruciation worthlessness. Mother Teresa is a good example as is Teresa of Avila who said that for 12 years she lived in doubt and darkness when God withdrew. The saints are those who persist even through this, where most of us lose hope.

  4. […] the Magisterial Reformation and the Radical Reformation. I posted a while back about how I thought Wesley could be a bridge between East and West, and now I see this new area of bridging too. Schisms solved everyone! Become Methodist Seriously […]

  5. […] history, and my own choices. If I sometimes lose sight of the benefits of Methodism, I’m left pointing to a few pieces of evidence but am too often unable to properly articulate the benefits of Methodism. Bishop Willimon’s […]

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