Monday, 14 January 2008

Wary of Wesley?

For sure, you won't get a thorough and honest exegesis of Wesley's works out of me! Not that I wouldn't want to, but I have to rely upon secondary sources, some of which are slim and sometimes unpublished. I used to own Wesley's works back when I was working toward Systematics (I'm now in biblical exegesis/theology and textual criticism), and I was enthusiastic about reading him back in the late 1980s. I do remember arbitrarily coming across a particular passage which, regardless of how I looked at it, seemed to be an explicit statement that you lose your salvation by sinning--that if you were to die before you had a chance to repent of the sin, you would go to hell.

Wesley probably suffers from the reputation of popular or even folk Wesleyanism, and I suppose it is not fair to assume that Wesleyanism = Wesley. For better or for worse, there are denominations in North America which actually appropriate the name Wesleyanism and which use the term Wesleyanism to describe their theology, theologies which might not be exactly that of Wesley himself. But please--understand my deep appreciation and kindred-heartedness toward Wesleyan groups--I am zealous for them.
Still, there needs to be a full examination of Wesley and his view of continuance in salvation. Roger Olson, in his work Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities portrayed Wesley as Arminius' most faithful follower and defends him as a defender of Reformation theology at every corner, but one wonders if all this positive portrayal may take a different turn when it comes to the issue of continuance in salvation.

It is my understanding that Wesley believed in Penal Satisfaction View of the Atonement--but only for pre-Conversion sins (!), and that Jesus' death was not a propitiation for post-conversion sins. This suggests that Wesley modified Arminius' view of the Atonement so that post-conversions sins would be pardoned by God the governor rather than declared righteous by God the judge on the basis of Christ's propitiation . Thus, for Wesley--if my understanding is correct, once the Christian comes to faith and enjoys Christ's propitation for his sins, he must appear before God the governor and ask for forgiveness should he ever sin again--or perhaps for all the big sins, at least!

Along these lines, I am told that Wesley thought that Christ's passive obedience is imputed to the believer, but not Christ's active obedience--a departure from Arminius with repercussions for continuance in faith.

It should be noted that Weseleyan groups came up with the notion of repeat regeneration from somewhere. My portrait of Wesley--fraught with my own insecurities and lack of first hand information--does seem compatible with the theology of many Wesleyan groups.

I should hasten to say that I suppose it is possible that it is unfair for me to portray this view of continuance in terms of "saved by grace through faith; kept in salvation by not sinning." I suppose it is possible that Wesley wouldn't have explained things this way. It is possible, I suppose, that Wesley would have argued that the sin itself is indication of a failure of faith--that every sin or every significant sin or every recurrence of a persistent sin is a lapse of saving faith. In which case, a fuller formulaic expression would be "saved by grace through faith; kept in salvation by grace through faith as demonstrated by not sinning," or some such.

Works VI, 526 would seem to give a statement that believers can be in and out of grace like a well oiled piston. It would seem that for Wesley, apostasy was irremedial, but backsliding, in which a believer becomes hell-bound, could be remedied by sincere repentance and a request for pardon.

All this makes me question whether it is fair to call Wesley a classical Arminian. If my understanding of Wesley is accurate, then he represents an idiosyncratic departure from Arminius and from key elements of Reformation theology.

I would be glad to be proved wrong.

1 comment:

The Way said...

This is a very interesting article, and I thank you for taking the time to post it. I am a Free Will Baptist in Ohio and am originally from Michigan. Ive been at my church for a year and a half now and have ran into a doctrinal problem in my church with our new pastor. I was teaching in my sunday school class about such things as eternal security and the Arminian responses to such teachings. A young man in class that had become a christian as a teen and then went off to live in sin for several years made the statement that he was glad he did'nt die in the sin because he would have gone to hell. I made the statement that if he was truly saved he would not have gone to hell but would have suffered loss of rewards if he had died while in sin. This set off a controversy. It seems that the Free Will Baptist Church I attend has been taught for as long as anyone can remember that dying while in sin will send a christian to hell. I have been very disturbed by this teaching, coming from Michigan I have heard this belief is in the church but never was faced with personally. When I tried to nail my pastor down on what he believes all I could get from him is that there is a gray area somewhere between living in sin and committing apostasy where the christian can go to hell prior to actually committing apostasy. While no actual scripture was given to me for this view, it seems to be based in human reasoning.