I really enjoyed auditing a class on Methodist theology this past summer (“We have a theology?” I joked more than once). But I still don’t feel as conversant as I’d like to be in John Wesley’s thought. On top of that, the Barth project is on hiatus, and my leisure reading could use some focus and structure. Not to mention a change of pace, and Wesley is certainly that compared to Barth. So, I have a new goal: read all of John Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions. Side goal: write the occasional blog post on the experience. Here goes.
Sermons on Several Occasions consists of 141 of them. Sermons, I mean. The title is very descriptive of the content. So I’ll leap right into the Preface to the first series (sermons 1-53). Here John Wesley introduces the sermons to follow and their general overarching theme: the way of salvation. I’ve picked out a few features of this preface that seem to be of note.
First, his sermons are sermons, designed for the preaching of the gospel to the people (ad populum); they are not designed as systematic treatises, nor are they written for theologians. They are written to be “plain truth for plain people.” If he’s a theologian he’s clearly doing what Barth called “irregular theology,” but his priorities are such that it may be unfair to label him as a theologian at all. He’s much more of a pastor, albeit a pastor who understands that discipleship is a deep responsibility, and so worth the critical care and precision of articulation we tend to call theology. But even with that Word-care and precise articulation, he makes it clear that he’s trying as hard as he can to be unpretentious.
Second, John Wesley is an evangelical. (If the previous sentence offends you, try it again with the prefix “proto-” in front of the ‘e’ word. If that didn’t help, I’m afraid that’s all I can do for you.) He says things like, “I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book.” Wesley cares a lot about salvation and how it ‘works.’ For him it works only because of Jesus, and he aspires to be a homo units libri — a man of one book (the Bible, of course). The salvation way of Jesus, disclosed in the Bible, is distinguished from all other ways, is before all other ways.
Of course Wesley is not a contemporary North American evangelical. But while he never handed out a single “Have you heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?” booklet, he is heavily preoccupied with salvation. And while he gets somewhat heavy handed with “heart” language, he very much thinks that Christianity can’t really separate the ‘interior’ from the ‘exterior.’ And while calling him an inerrantist would be anachronistic at best, he does lean heavily on the Scriptures and treats them as primary and authoritative. While it would be irresponsible to read Wesley and hear in him the words of our fundamentalist neighbors, it would be just as irresponsible to read Wesley and not hear some room for rapprochement with them. God has acted to save the world, and Wesley is trying to take that very seriously.
Third, Wesley knew there were other people who knew more than him, and even offered them advice on how they might change his mind (plain proof of Scripture + kind patience). And then he went so far as to say that truth is not the primary determinative category for Christian discipleship — love is: “For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love!” But if Wesley isn’t a contemporary North American evangelical, neither is he saying that it doesn’t matter what we believe or think as long as our ‘heart’ is in the right place. I read him here as being in the same line as James Smith’s argument in Desiring the Kingdom: people are not primarily thinking things, but desiring — loving — animals. It's not that our minds don't matter, it's just that they aren't in charge. Wesley is concerned with the love of God for us, and our love back to God. Because that's where the action is.
“The God of love forbid we should ever make the trial! May he prepare us for the knowledge of all truth, by filling our hearts with his love, and with all joy and peace in believing!”
Next up: Sermon 1, "Salvation by Faith."