Feast of John and Charles Wesley

March 6, 2008

Monday this week was the Feast of John and Charles Wesley according to the Anglican liturgical calendar. Somehow we always miss this one in the Nazarene Church.

This is more or less a link post, but let me introduce it with just a few thoughts. Wesleyan theology, now more than ever perhaps, is crucial for the witness of the Church of the Nazarene within the broader Catholicity of the church and also within the broader culture. We have ceded too much ground to other movements and have become content to call ourselves evangelicals, emergents, protestants or any number of other things. This has led to a forgetfulness of Wesleyan theology (mostly under the smoke and mirrors of saying Wesley wasn’t a systematic thinker). But Wesley was a broad thinker and brought holiness thought to bear on many subjects and phenomena (economics, sacraments, scripture, eschatology, science, to name a few). If we as theologians in the Nazarene Church are to avoid on the one side the banality of generic evangelicalism and on the other side a complete disengagement with the laity of the church, then the Wesleys need to be our starting point, the fountain from which we think the holiness movement and it’s larger place within the Catholicity of the church’s witness.

Let this not be mistaken as a call for a firmer grip on our “identity” as Nazarenes whatever that might be. David Belcher over at Sanctifying Worship has illuminated how Christian pefection has become not only the central doctrine of the Nazarene church but also that by which we have begun to define our identity: “and thus the beginnings of a potential rift are already forming (since inevitably the necessity to form an identity for ourselves is motivated by some kind of claim, some kind of possession…and I think we all know how possession begets competition, and competition division).”

Rather, let this call back to a starting point in Wesleyan theology be a kind of letting go, letting our identity be de-handed, or given back out of the plenitude of the gift already given. For is this not how Wesley thinks the gift in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection? Wesley speaks of good works but this may just as well be substituted in his theology for concepts of identity or indeed any gift:

Charity cannot be practiced right, unless, First, we excercise it the moment God gives the occasion; and, Secondly, retire the instant after to offer it to God by humble thanksgiving…to unite ourselves to God, in whom the soul expands in prayer, with all the graces we have received, and the good works we have done, to draw from Him new strength against the bad effects which these very works may produce in us, if we do not make use of the antidotes which God has ordained against these poisons. The true means to be filled anew with the riches of grace is thus to strip ourselves of it.

Good works do not recieve their last perfection, till they, as it were, lose themselves in God. This is a kind of death to them…Fire is the symbol of love; and the love of God is the principle and the end of all our good works. But truth surpasses figure; and the fire of Divine love has this advantage over material fire, that it can re-ascend to its source, and raise thither with it all the good works which it produces. And by this means it prevents their being corrupted by pride, vanity, or any evil mixture. But this cannot be done otherwise than by making these good works in a spiritual manner die in God, by a deep gratitude, which plunges the soul in Him as in an abyss, with all that it is, and all the grace and works for which it is indebted to Him; a gratitude whereby the soul seems to empty itself of them, that they may return to their source, as rivers seem willing to empty themselves, when they pour themselves with all their waters into the sea.

When we have received any favor from God, we ought to retire, if not into our closets, into our hearts, and say, “I come, Lord, to restore to Thee what Thou hast given; and I freely relinquish it, to enter again into my own nothingness. For what is the most perfect creature in heaven or earth in Thy presence, but a void capable of being filled with Thee and by Thee; as the air which is void and dark, is capable of being filled with the light of the sun, who withdraws it every day to restore it the next, there being nothing in the air that either appropriates this light or resists it? (112-113)

Returning to Wesleyan theology as our starting point means essentially this. It doesn’t mean a competition of Wesleyan and Catholic thought, or Wesleyan and reformed thought, but simply a stripping off of any and every claim to pride or ownership of something that should belong exclusively to God. Holiness and its doctrine are not a possession, but always only a gift that must come to us anew every moment, a gift we must become dispossessed of in order to receive it anew and aright. How might this starting point help us to think the aforementioned topics in theology in light of this kind of holiness thinking? So let us throw off these other generic and banal tags and labels and let us call ourselves Wesleyans, let us call ourselves holiness people.

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3 Responses to “Feast of John and Charles Wesley”

  1. Ryan,
    Great post man, I couldn’t agree more. We should have talked about this last week in church. Next year, we’ll have to remember.

  2. Ryan L. Hansen said

    Actually, I forgot about it until yesterday. Oh well, I knew it always came up around the WTS.

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