John Wesley

John Wesley

How Trinitarian was John Wesley? What was his view of the Creeds?

Sometimes you set your pen down and forget to take it up again. I did that a couple of years ago when I was digging into John Wesley and the Christian creeds. Fortunately, this excellent post by David Watson served as a reminder. Watson asks the question, “Was Wesley’s faith a creedal faith?” It’s a good question, given the confusion that exists over whether such aspects of Christian orthodoxy as the Trinity, the creeds, and even classical Christian doctrine were important to his teaching and ministry.

Why do I say there is confusion over such things? The reason is that Wesley is often quoted (or even mis-quoted) out of context. People who know just enough about Wesley to have heard such phrases as “Catholic Spirit” or “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand” or “think and let think” will often use such snippets as a way to underwrite their view of what a pluralistic theology should look like.

While I’m not sure whether this particular church bothered to look into the Wesleyan tradition before formulating what they call their “philosophy of ministry,” I do find it fascinating that a congregation of the United Methodist Church could ever get to the point of offering this description of God: “We believe that God is the ‘force’ that constantly goes before us…leading us through all ‘wilderness’ experiences into the promise of what we were created to be. We strive to be open to God’s surprises as we explore new expressions of sacred scripture as they are revealed to us through the Bible, through others, and through our sacred Earth (trees, animals, plants and rocks).” [1] Yet, there it is. It is a statement utterly at odds with our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. And yes, it is also at odds with Wesley’s own theological views.

John Wesley and the Doctrine of the Trinity

In an important essay entitled, “Wesley’s Trinitarian Hermeneutics,” Geoffrey Wainwright argues that Wesley’s thought was so deeply Trinitarian that he interpreted all of Scripture through a Trinitarian theological lens. Drawing on Wesley’s prayers, biblical commentaries, and sermons, Wainwright contends that “Wesley was thoroughly trinitarian in his understanding of the composition of the Scriptures, in his ways of proceeding with the Scriptures, and in his reading of the content of the Scriptures” [2]. While yes, it is true that Wesley once said he “dare not insist upon anyone’s using the word ‘Trinity'” since the term is not in the Bible itself, he also believed that the divine reality to which the term points is, in fact, the truth about who God is. [3] He contends in his sermon, “On the Trinity,” that the revelation of the Triune God “enters into the very heart of Christianity” and “lies at the root of all vital religion.” When we come to know God through true faith, the God whom we know is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, for indeed, “the knowledge of the Three-One God is interwoven with all true Christian faith, with all vital religion.” [4]logo_trinity-books copy

Elsewhere, Wesley actually puts the very possibility of salvation in a distinctly Trinitarian framework when he elaborates upon his view of prevenient grace. Salvation in the life of the believer, Wesley argues in “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” must be considered as originating not at the point of new birth but rather with God’s prior activity upon the soul. We speak of such divine work as prevenient grace, which includes “all the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God, which, if we yield to them, increase more and more; all that ‘light’ wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world’, showing every man ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God’; all the convictions which his Spirit from time to time works in every children of man.” [5] This passage is significant for how a practical theologian like Wesley thought about the Trinity — namely, that the Triune nature of God becomes most real to us not through the conceptual formulations of academic theology (important though those may be), but rather as we come to know God through the present salvation that God gives to us through grace.

Wesley’s “Creedal Faith” and the Place of the Creeds in Methodist Worship

If Wesley’s commitment to the Trinitarian view of God is occasionally suspected by eager revisionists in our day, then skepticism about the role and function of the creeds is on a whole other level. Here, at least on the surface, that skepticism has a bit more warrant. For example, Wesley once stated that early on the Oxford Methodists were tenaciously orthodox, “firmly believing not only the three creeds, but whatsoever they judged to be the doctrine of the Church of England, as contained in her Articles and Homilies.” [6] The “three creeds” here would be the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian — which are affirmed together in Article 8 of the 39 Articles of Religion. [7] Yet later in his life, Wesley became uncomfortable with the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian Creed, which have no parallel in the other two creeds. The Athanasian Creed asserts that it is laying forth the “Catholick Faith,” and says, “Which Faith, except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” The creed goes on, following the description of the divine persons, to state, “He therefore, that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.” [8]

So why the shift in Wesley’s creedal view — at least as it pertains to the Creed of St. Athanasius? It isn’t that Wesley disliked the Athanasian Creed on the whole. On the contrary, he thought its positive description of the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit represents a strong theological account of the doctrine of God. In the same place where he says that he does not believe those who do not subscribe to the creed will be damned, he notes that the “explication” of the Trinity in the Athanasian Creed is “the best I ever saw.” [9] What he did not like about the creed is its seeming assertions that those who do not think the right things about the Trinity will be condemned to Hell for their errors in thought.

To subscribe to such a view, for Wesley, would mean that faith at its heart is about intellectual assent. Taken to an extreme, it might mean that only trained theologians could be saved! Such a view is preposterous to Wesley, because he contends that faith is “not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head” but rather a “disposition of the heart.” [10] We experience present salvation most fully through the transformation of our affections, the quickening of our spiritual senses, and the inculcation of inward holiness. In other words, the way to think about the place of Trinitarian faith is not so much in a sterile assent to the words of the Athanasian Creed but rather akin to the description of the work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Wesley gives it in the passage from “The Scripture Way of Salvation” above: it is about being drawn close by the Father, enlightened with holy love by the Son, and convicted each day by the presence of the Spirit.

Does this mean that the Christian faith can’t be described creedally, or that the creeds should not be used as corporate confessions in worship? At times, some later Methodists have pushed in this direction for three reasons: first, because of Wesley’s critical comments on the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian Creed; second, because he deleted Article 8 from the Articles of Religion when he prepared a revised version of the Articles to send to the American Methodists in 1784 as they prepared to establish a separate church; and third, because Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (also sent in 1784) removes the Nicene Creed from its place in the Eucharistic liturgy. [11]

I actually think there are reasonable explanations for all three of these points. I’ll offer my point of view on them below, but first I want to highlight an often overlooked example of Wesley’s creedal faith, which comes in an important text where he was attempting to explain the broad areas of agreement between Protestant and Catholic views. That document is Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic, and he wrote it in 1749 in the hopes that Roman Catholics in Ireland (where the Methodists were beginning to operate) would read it.

Here’s how Wesley describes the foundational beliefs of Protestant Christians in the Letter to a Roman Catholic :A Letter to a Roman Catholic by John Wesley

I am assured that there is an infinite and independent Being, and that it is impossible there should be more than one; so I believe, that this One God is the Father of all things, especially of angels and men; that he is in a peculiar manner the Father of those whom he regenerates by his Spirit, whom he adopts in his Son, as co-heirs with him, and crowns with an eternal inheritance; but it is still higher sense the Father of his only Son, whom he hath begotten from eternity.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Saviour of the world, the Messiah so long foretold; that, being anointed with the Holy Ghost, he was a Prophet, revealing to us the whole will God; that he was a Priest, who gave himself a sacrifice for sin, and still makes intercession for transgressors; that he is a King, who has all power in heaven and in earth, and will reign till he has subdued all things to himself.

I believe that he is the proper, natural Son of God, God of God, very God of very God; and that he is the Lord of all, having absolute, supreme, universal dominion over all things; but more peculiarly our Lord, who believe in him, both by conquest, purchase, and voluntary obligation.

I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.

I believe he suffered inexpressible pains both of body and soul, and at last death, even the death of the cross, at the time that Pontius Pilate governed Judea, under the Roman Emperor; that his body was then laid in the grave, and his soul went to the place of separate spirits; the third day he rose again from the dead; that he ascended into heaven; where he remains in the midst of the throne of God, and the highest power and glory, as mediator to the end of the world, has God to all eternity; that, in the end he will come down from heaven, to judge every man according to his works; both those who shall be then alive, and all who have died before that day.

I believe in the infinite and eternal Spirit of God, equal with the Father and the Son, to be not only perfectly holy in himself, but the immediate cause of all holiness in us; enlightening our understandings, rectifying our wills and affections, renewing our natures, uniting our persons to Christ, assuring us of the adoption of sons, leading us in our actions; purifying and sanctifying our souls and bodies, to a full and eternal enjoyment of God. [12]

Most remarkable to me about these paragraphs is that, in a context where the need to express himself in just the right way was at a premium (i.e., an ecumenical treatise), Wesley resorts to a creedal form of writing. He is attempting to represent to a Roman Catholic audience all that “a true Protestant believes” (to use his own words). And he does so through a version of the creed. That tells us something about whether Wesley held what we might call a creedal faith. In short, he did.

To conclude, I want to offer a few notes about the three points of controversy surrounding Wesley’s valuation of the creeds as proper for Christian worship which I listed above:

1) On Wesley’s critical comments on the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian Creed: I’ve actually covered this above, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that Wesley did not believe salvation consisted in right thinking so much as a right heart.

2) On Wesley’s deletion of Article 8 from the 24 Articles of Religion he prepared for the American Methodists: There are really three possibilities here. The first is that his ambivalence about the Creed of St. Athanasius was so great that he simply removed the entire article during his revisions. (This might particularly be the case given that Article 8 states that all three creeds “may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” He certainly believed the positive clauses about the three persons of the Trinity were Scriptural, but the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian creed he believed were not.). A second possibility is that he saw Article 8 on the creeds as redundant — a possibility which may have some weight to it if he thought the purpose of the Article was to affirm faith in the Trinity. After all, Article 1 already affirms that faith, and Articles 2-4 (in the Methodist revision) speak to the doctrines of Christology and Pneumatology. Finally, a third possibility is one mentioned by Paul Blankenship in one of the few academic essays ever published on the Wesleyan revisions to the Articles of Religion, namely, that one factor in his editorial work was an attempt to fit the new situation in America. Blankenship’s suggestion is that, “The omission of Article VIII may have been in line with Wesley’s announced intention to leave the American Methodists free ‘simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church.'” [13] That is, Wesley knew that the Americans were not going to be worshiping in as formal a style as was typical in the parish church setting in England. He counted on that, because he knew what Methodist preaching services and prayer meetings typically looked like. He therefore constructed the Sunday Service to attempt to retain a liturgical form but with less structure and complexity. By omitting the Article on the creeds, he would have been bringing consistency to what would be reflected in the liturgies of the Sunday Service — which brings us to the final note…

3) On Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America removing the Nicene Creed from its original place in Book of Common Prayer’s Eucharistic liturgy: The first thing to mention here is that Wesley did retain the Apostles’ Creed in the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies. [14] He also retained the Apostles’ Creed in question-and-answer form in the Baptismal liturgy. [15] So it isn’t the case that he thought the creeds were improper or not useful in worship settings. The question rather is about which creed and, possibly, in which settings. The creed he removes from its normal liturgical placement in the Book of Common Prayer is the Nicene Creed, which is situated between the collect and the homily. So why would he do that? It might be that Wesley thought the Nicene Creed was too long, and lacking in the kind of rhythm to which the Apostles’ Creed lends itself when spoken aloud and in unison. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t he just substitute the Apostles’ for the Nicene and thus retain a place for a creedal declaration in the liturgy? Since he did not offer a reason, it is difficult to know. It should be noted that Wesley retains other Trinitarian elements to the Eucharistic service, such as the opening collect, the prayer of thanksgiving following the distribution of the elements, and the pastoral benediction at the end of the service. (He also retains a prefatory prayer to the Great Thanksgiving, which is to be prayed on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.) So it might be the case that he simply removed the creed as he removed other elements of the liturgy from the BCP, to make the service shorter (a move that would have lent greater weight to the sermon itself, the centrality of which was clearly part of typical Methodist worship). Finally, it is possible that the removal of the creed was one way to accentuate the way in which the Lord’s Supper could serve as a converting ordinance, through which people could be brought to a living faith in God. In that line of thinking, the creed could serve as a barrier because it would suggest that those who come forward for Holy Communion already have a fully formed faith in the Triune God, rather than simply a sense of unworthiness and a desire to know God. While it is regrettable that Wesley’s deletion of Article 8 and his removal of the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy had the effect of diminishing the place of the Nicene Creed from American Methodism generally, I am not at all convinced that that was his intention. I also think that his retention of the Apostles’ Creed in a number of places in the Sunday Service is plenty of evidence in favor of Wesley’s positive valuation of creedal confessions in the midst of Christian worship.

If you’ve gotten this far in this little essay, it’s likely that you have an opinion on all of this as well. Want to share it? Feel free to leave a comment below.

*See this follow-up post for a list of online essays and blog posts that focus on the Creeds in John Wesley’s theology, Wesleyan spirituality and the contemporary United Methodist Church.


Notes

[1] Statement on Philosophy of Ministry, St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church (Tucson, AZ). URL: http://www.stfrancisumc.org/who-we-are.html (accessed April 10, 2015).

[2] Geoffrey Wainwright, “Wesley’s Trinitarian Hermeneutics,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 36:1 (Spring 2001): 9.

[3] Wesley, “On the Trinity,” ¶4, in vol. 2 of the Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976—), 377-378. This edition of Wesley’s works is hereafter cited as Works.

[4] Wesley, “On the Trinity,” ¶17, in Works 2:384-385.

[5] Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” ¶I.2, in Works 2:156-157.

[6] Wesley, “On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel,” ¶I.3, in Works 3:582.

[7] In the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, Article 8 reads, “The three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture. See Brian Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 676.

[8] See Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 257-258.

[9] Wesley, “On the Trinity,” ¶3, in Works 3:377. It was well known in Wesley’s day that St. Athanasius did not actually write the Athanasian Creed, and Wesley was aware of it himself. He refers to the creed as “the creed commonly ascribed to Athanasius” in this same paragraph of the sermon. See also ibid., n.10, for the editorial comment on this same issue.

[10] Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” ¶I.4, in Works 1:120.

[11] On Wesley’s omission of Article 8 from the revised Methodist Articles of Religion, see Nolan B. Harmon and John W. Bardsley, “John Wesley and the Articles of Religion,” Religion in Life 22:2 (March 1953): 280-291. For the original text of the Sunday Service, see James F. White, ed., John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (Nashville: UMPH, 1984).

[12] Wesley, “A Letter to a Roman Catholic,” ¶¶6-8, in vol.10 of the Works of John Wesley, edited by Thomas Jackson, reprint edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 81-82.

[13] Paul F. Blankenship, “The Significance of John Wesley’s Abridgement of the Thirty-Nine Articles as seen from his Deletions,” Methodist History 2:3 (April 1964): 43.

[14] White, ed., Sunday Service, 12 and 18.

[15] White, ed., Sunday Service, 146-147.