John Wesley is often referred to as a Folk Theologian, because he never took the time to systematize his thought. This is not to say that he was incapable of such a feat – we remember that he was a distinguished graduate of Oxford – but that he never saw occasion to make this a priority.
I prefer to think that Wesley’s concern was rightly directed elsewhere, because his primary concern was for the people under his care. This led to theological discourses ‘as needed’ to address the concerns of the Methodists.
His preferred mode of conveying theology was through sermons and the Hymns, though he was also known to write letters and treatises to address specific theological critiques or controversies.
One might assume that this ‘occasional’ approach to theological discourse would produce an inconsistent (maybe even incoherent) theology, but with Wesley we find (mostly) the opposite. As a Pastoral Theologian, Wesley had in mind the needs of his people, but not just their temporary needs; even moreso, he had in mind their eternal needs. And this meant discussing regularly the grand narrative of God’s activity throughout history and humanity’s participation in God’s reality.
But he was also conscious of the tendency to focus too much attention on one thing or another, to the extent that others are neglected. And so, Wesley boiled down the theology of the church to three core doctrines, by which he believed the Methodists of his day would be know.
I have again and again, with all the plainness I could, declared what our constant doctrines are, whereby we are ‘distinguished’—only from heathens, or nominal Christians, not from any that worship God in spirit and in truth. Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.1
In Wesley’s mind, all other doctrines were related to these three. Focus on these and all other issues of faith – belief and action alike – would fall into place.
I wonder sometimes, as the United Methodist church engages in heated debate, whether we have forgotten these core doctrines as the key to our identity as a faithful expression of Jesus’ church?
When we focus only upon repentance and its related doctrines, we are left on the wrong side of the cross, not living fully into the resurrection promises of God and our new reality as his adopted sons and daughters.
When we focus only on faith, without an understanding of sin and transformation or a theology of God’s Kingdom, the question quickly becomes, in what is our faith placed and what imperatives does a true faith place on our lives?
When we focus only on holiness, we run the risk of forgetting from where we have come as sinful people, how we have been set free through Jesus Christ, and that it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are sanctified and able to love as God loves.
What if we were to return to a holistic theology, which begins with these core doctrines, then branches out? What would our ‘holy conferencing’ look like then?
- 1. Wesley, Works (BE), 9:226-27. [↩]