Assess the theological influences on the development of John Wesley’s thought

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“Wesley was himself an eclectic theologian, weaving from the diverse sources of the Christian tradition a theology and practice appropriate to his own situation”. 1 His theology drew on four sources of authority 2, in that he saw the essence of Christian life as being revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience and confirmed by reason. Scripture In his commentary on the New Testament, Wesley looked at the actual Greek text and he was prepared to alter the Authorised Version. This reflects to some extent the Dissenter background of his family.

Although his father turned his back on Dissent 3, Samuel Wesley had been brought up a Dissenter and the family came from a long line of Dissenters. John’s maternal grandfather Samuel Annesley had a house in London that became the centre of a large network of Dissent. 4 Therefore, although John Wesley had an Anglican upbringing, there was an atmosphere of questioning and intellectual debate in the family household. Wesley looked at the plain sense of Scripture departing from the tradition of allegorising Scripture.

However his questioning background led him to not only look for the literal meaning of the text, but also to understand the spiritual meaning of the passage. 5 Tradition Wesley was very influenced by the theology of the early church Fathers for example Augustine and their liturgy, particularly in his understanding of the importance of Holy Communion as a means of grace. 6 His other theological emphasis gained from the early church Fathers is the idea of sanctification as growth in holiness.

In many ways this was also an influence of the Catholic Church that still affected much of English Christianity, although this may not have been recognised by Wesley. He also drew on the ideas of mysticism and spirituality from the early Church and the Catholic Church. It can be argued that Wesley blended the Protestant ideas of justification by faith with Catholic spirituality, resulting in a rich Christian theology of grace and holiness. Wesley was also influenced by his training as an Anglican minister and it was never his desire to leave the Anglican Church.

In all his writings he stressed that the tradition of the church was of utmost importance. 7 Experience Wesley laid great emphasis on Christian experience in defining his theology. 8 He drew on his own travels to America and his observation of the Moravian Christians, 9 to outline his salvation theology of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about a response from human beings to the grace of God. However, he took care to guard against the highly emotional religion of which early Methodists were often accused. 10 Reason

Wesley was influenced at Oxford by the ideas of John Locke, who developed ideas of tolerance and the necessity of following through ideas logically. 11 This reflected the Enlightenment, which was part of the context in which John Wesley lived. 12 Eighteenth century rationalism questioned religious experience and ideas and Wesley used reason to describe the human ability to think through the issues, whilst accepting its limitations. 13 Wesley always tried to use these four sources of authority together, being aware of the danger of concentrating too much on any one of them. 4 This enabled his theology to develop in a balanced manner. The Development of John Wesley’s Theology John Wesley did not leave a systematic statement of Christian truth, 15 but the development of his theology can be seen from his sermons and notes on the New Testament and the biographies of his life.

He could be seen as a true Anglican theologian mediating between the extreme positions of Calvinism and Catholicism. 17 His theology was salvation-centred. 8 After observation of the Moravians on board ship in a storm and his crises in Georgia, he finally came to his own knowledge of assurance of salvation on the 24th May 1738. 19 These experiences enabled Wesley to develop his theology of prevenient grace and personal assurance of salvation, which reflected many Moravian ideas, particularly Peter Bohler 20 and also Armenian Christians.

This led to much conflict with his friend George Whitfield who continued to preach predestination 21 John Wesley preached free grace for all leading to a faith which naturally produced good works and holiness. 2 There was an emphasis on human response to this prevenient grace, which meant that repentance was a responsible human action. 23 His theology developed an order of salvation beginning with God’s grace, leading to human repentance. This then resulted in justification which could be instantaneous or gradual, but of which the individual was assured.

There was then a new birth and the start of a new life in Christ, followed by sanctification and a growth in holiness, which Wesley developed into the theology of Christian perfection. 5 John Wesley developed the theology of the Trinity as ” the expression of God’s primal character defined in Jesus Christ and conveyed by the Holy Spirit”. 26 His balanced use of Scripture, tradition, experience and reason enabled him to come to the conclusion that the interaction of God and humanity was at the heart of Christian life. 27 Influences on the Development of John Wesley’ Theology Several influences have already been mentioned but these will now be considered in more detail.

The influence of the Moravian Christians could be said to be crucial in the development of John Wesley’s ideas. Although his mission to Georgia was seen as a failure both by himself and others, 28 it gave him the opportunity to meet and observe these Christians from the continent with their deep, active faith and assurance which caused them not to fear even when their lives were in imminent danger 29. In Georgia, August Spangenberg challenged Wesley. 30 Peter Bohler gave personal testimony and encouragement, shaping Wesley up to the time of his conversion.

The combination of traumatic events in Georgia and the effect of these pietistic Christians, led to Wesley’s own personal deep conversion experience that surely shaped all his theology from that point on. Wesley decided to visit the Moravian community in Germany and observed their subdivision into choirs, giving the impetus for the subsequent development of Methodist classes. 32 This visit also influenced the development of a practical theology, leading Wesley to found orphanages and schools. 33 The influences of both his parents cannot be underestimated.

They taught him to question and ensured that he received an excellent education both at home, school and at Oxford. It is interesting to consider which influenced Wesley most, the Dissenting family background, or the Anglican ministry of his father, himself and his brother Charles. It could be argued that the Dissenter background gave Wesley the impetus to move beyond the boundaries of Anglican thought and practice, but it can also be seen that Wesley was a traditional Anglican in many ways and this is particularly evident in his insistence to remain within the Anglican church.

Certainly the fact that his parents disagreed on many issues, their strict discipline, their emphasis on education and their struggle against debt 34 had a great influence on how John Wesley behaved as an adult and gave him some of the tools to develop his thoughts. It is difficult to assess whether the hymns of his brother Charles influenced John Wesley’s theology or if it was vice versa. It can be judged that the hymns were an important manner of expressing and teaching his developing theology. 35

John Wesley was a great reader and even read whilst travelling on horseback. 36 He had a systematic method of studying, a highly educated and intelligent mind and an openness to ideas and reflective thought, which all helped him to read widely and interpret fully. He acknowledged the influence of Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis and William Law on his thinking about the importance of holiness. 37 In Georgia he read books by August Francke which confirmed his view of the centrality of an individual’s will being surrendered to the will of God. 8 Many of his ideas on Christian perfection came from reading a book by Robert Gell. 39 Although John Wesley suffered in his personal relationships with women, he had deep friendships with men and women during his lifetime and these enabled him to discuss and develop his theology.

One of the most important of these was the friendship with John Fletcher, who assisted Wesley in developing his ideas of prevenient grace. 40 This free grace that cannot be earned, entails ethical demands and responsibility on human beings. 1 Fletcher and Wesley both saw holiness as the true aim of the Christian life. 42 Although George Whitfield remained in conflict with Wesley, their continuing friendship and discussions helped Wesley to sharpen and define his own theology. It can be argued that for someone to truly develop a strong and lasting theology, they need a worthy opponent to take a stance against. An example of this can be seen from the early church Fathers in the disputes between Augustine and Pelagius 43 and this can also be argued for Wesley and Whitfield.

The depravities of his brother in law resulting from antinomianism, 44 would have confirmed Wesley in his ideas of the need for growth in holiness and the development of his thoughts that good works were a result of salvation. It can be seen that a wide range of family, friends, theologians and opponents were all influential in the development of John Wesley’s theology. Methodism can be seen as one of the revivals of the eighteenth century.

It could be argued that its ideas developed in opposition to the other major revival of the time, the Enlightenment. 45 Wesley remained convinced of the idea of original sin necessitating salvation from God. 46 His emphasis on Christian perfection corrected the Enlightenment view of human perfection, concentrating on confidence in God rather than reliance on self. 47 The “Age of Reason” on the other hand also gave the context in which Wesley was able to challenge, question and develop the ideas of the Anglican Church.

The influence of Catholicism on John Wesley’s theology is another aspect that is difficult to define. In many ways he would have seen himself as continuing the Protestant ideas of the Reformation and working in opposition to ideas of Catholic salvation and this was indeed the case. However with his interest in and observance of many of the ideas of the spirituality of the early church Fathers, this inevitably drew on Catholic spirituality and some of the deep experiences of his faith have similarities with this tradition.

However, it was Protestant ideas with which John Wesley primarily worked and developed. He was challenged by Luther to trust God’s grace but he disagreed with Luther’s thought that no change takes place in an individual after salvation. He agreed with Luther that God imputes righteousness, 48 but he also believed that God imparts righteousness, causing an individual to change and grow in holiness. Good works are then done as a result of this imparted righteousness.

This also disagreed with the Moravians further as they taught imputed righteousness but not imparted righteousness and therefore followed the theology of stillness, where no good works or indeed any religious observances were considered necessary. 49 Eventually then, Wesley’s theology developed in a different direction to that of the Moravian Church which had given him his initial impetus. Ironically the two main movements within the Pietistic tradition, Moravianism and Methodism both became separate churches against the wishes of their founders.

Taking his theology overall, it can be considered that the greatest influence and the most lasting effects on English Protestant Christianity were those of the Arminian tradition. The Arminian Remonstrance of 1610 countered the ideas of Calvin and stated assurance of salvation for whoever believes with an emphasis on grace and the role of human responsibility. 51 This was the continental theology, which Wesley honed and shaped to become the defining emphasis of Methodism.

His travels to America enabled him to come into contact with these ideas. His own personal experiences and gifts gave him the tools with which to shape the theology. His devotion, determination and thoroughness enabled him to take this theology all over England and Ireland and others to take it worldwide. Conclusion The influences on the development of John Wesley’s theology can be seen to be wide-ranging, arising from the present culture of his own land and that on the Continent, but also reaching back into the historical Christian tradition.

Whilst some influences like that of the Moravians are clearer to define and follow, others are not so easy to assess, such as Catholicism, Anglicanism and his Dissenter family background. However the result was a tradition of Methodism that in turn had its own great influence on England and other countries around the world, particularly in its effect on the work ethic, beliefs and integrity of a whole swathe of society. It also came to define the mainstream of English Christian belief, which can be discerned as overall following Arminian ideology.

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