Walking as Jesus Walked

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Perplexed about Wesley

The review below of Jason Vicker's book Perplexed about Wesley appeared in Good News Magazine last year.

“What makes John Wesley so perplexing?” That opening question sets the stage for Jason Vickers’ stimulating book. Associate Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Vickers asks: How do we read Wesley today? The question has implications beyond academia.

What makes John Wesley so perplexing? For Vickers, three things stand out: First, despite Wesley’s insistence to preach “plain truth for plain people” interpreters over the years have argued otherwise. For example, though Wesley said he would not leave the Church of England many scholars believe that his actions pointed toward establishing a new movement, if not denomination; and though Wesley said he was a “High Church Tory” in a confessional state several recent interpreters maintain that he was really a proto-liberal democrat all along. Inconsistencies persist as well as suspicions.

The second thing concerns the age in which he lived. Scholars disagree about Wesley’s interactions with his times on several fronts, seeing him either as a reactionary who sought a “primitive” Christianity with miracles and demons to boot, or a thorough-going progressive adapting the faith to modern trends. Both perspectives buy into a common secularization theory regarding eighteenth century English society; however, as Vickers notes, both also fail to see the nuances and complexity of the age.

The third thing that perplexes the study of Wesley is the extent to which we fail to recognize the unity in Wesley’s theological, ecclesiastical, and political commitments. Here, scholars have difficulty with what they see as Wesley’s democratic impulse on the one hand and his hierarchical style of leadership on the other. Indeed, as Vickers states, Wesley was quick to say that Methodists were “no republicans and never intended to be.” In fact, often overlooked in this debate are Wesley’s skills in maneuvering Methodists between competing political loyalties and philosophies. It is difficult to know, for instance, given our own democratic proclivities, what to do with Wesley’s statement “mark the man who talks of loving the Church, and does not love the King.” Similarly, it is also difficult to know how to interpret his commitment to the monarchy with his view of unlimited atonement; that is, “the people have no role,” but “salvation is for all people.” Coherency in Wesley studies has been difficult to find.

Enter Vickers’case for the unity of Wesley’s ecclesiastical, political, and theological thought. Vickers opens his work with a brief overview of Wesley’s life. Students of Wesley will find nothing new here, though they will notice how Vickers navigates the terrain of eighteenth century England,depicting Wesley as a man of the Church of England and a monarchical constitutionalist. Again,nothing new,but it supplies a helpful review.

Chapter Two is the pivotal section, revealing how Wesley was a man of his times. Vickers states why reading Wesley out of context only leads to more inconsistencies while reading more into Wesley fails as well. Vickers’ key here is the Anglican stabilization thesis as a way beyond the perplexity: As an Anglican priest and supporter of the crown, Wesley exhibited a keen awareness of the need for the stability of a confessional church and state. By placing the Trinity and sacraments at the center of the Christian life Wesley not only sought to renew the church but cultivate stability beyond it. Therefore, Wesley’s political theology combines the essentials of orthodoxy with the spirit of generosity, maintaining both church and state on the one hand while allowing room for toleration on the non-essentials on the other, avoiding extremes on all sides. A thread of consistency begins to appear.

But the thread is woven tightly. Here, Vickers picks up Theodore Weber’s latest work, arguing how convincing Weber’s thesis is with respect to Wesley’s theological politics of a confessional state: Wesley’s High Church Anglicanism supports his Tory inclinations. However, Weber’s proposal also perplexes: Pointing out inconsistencies in Wesley’ political theology, Weber notes how Wesley’s hierarchical vision of God does not cohere with his understanding of constitutionalism; that is,if Wesley affirms that God is ultimately bestowing authority from above through the King, how can he also affirm authority from below through the people? If God has provided the benefits of salvation to all, how can only a few have rule? Vickers’final chapter sets the stage for his closing argument.

What makes for consistency in Wesley’s thought? The answer is covenantal Arminianism – the view that God intends salvation for all but that through Christ’s covenant on the cross repentance and obedience are also necessary; for without obedience there is no real faith, and without faith the universal scope of salvation goes unrealized. Therefore, as Vickers states, a strong compatibility exists between Wesley’s view of the atonement and his constitutional monarchianism: “Just as the constitution restricts the absolute power of the King, so the atoning blood of Christ constrains the absolute power of God. Moreover, because the constitution precedes the birth of English subjects, the rights and liberties that it grants can in no way be thought of as deserved. Similarly, because the covenant of grace precedes the birth of all people, its benefits are a matter of sheer generosity. In both cases, the appropriate response is "gratitude and joyful obedience.” Covenant, church, and constitution are all matters of divine gratuity, offering forms of grace before our faithful response.

What are the benefits of reading Wesley in this way? The first is honesty. Wesley resists easy conformity to the whims of our age. Dealing with Wesley on Wesley’s terms is a first step toward understanding Wesley’s gifts and limitations for the church’s renewal. Hijacking Wesley for narrow theological and political purposes is a non-starter. The many portraits of Wesley, while illuminating, must be kept in balance, whether dealing with Outler’s “folk theologian,” Rack’s “reasonable enthusiast,” or Synder’s “radical renewalist,” to name a few. Wesley resists historical conformity. The same goes for applying other frames of reference to Wesley as well; e.g., viewing him either as a proponent of “process theology” or as a proto-liberal of democracy. Vickers’ book helps in this regard.

Second is the link between covenantal Arminianism and divine providence. As spiritual director and evangelist, Wesley was able to discern God’s hand in the church and world; the Spirit was being poured out on all flesh. And yet, seeing God’s hand in all things, including Wesley’s theological, ecclesiastical, and political commitments, lends credence to the argument as to why Wesley stayed in the Church of England and yet led the Methodists: He realized that leaving either would be tantamount to turning against God.

At the core of Wesley’s faith was a robust vision of God’s grace, being realized in faithful obedience. It’s a vision that resonates today.

Vickers states in the Introduction that this volume is intended for a broad academic audience, especially students of church history, theology and politics. Fair enough, but it would be too limited. Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed needs thoughtful reading among leaders in the church; that is, it needs the kind of reception that will rekindle our imaginations, reminding us all that what ties the various pieces of Wesley together (as well as ourselves) is God’s transforming grace, and that such pieces, while often in tension, do not have to be so perplexing.

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