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Embodied Orthodoxy: In Reply to @umjeremy (#AndCanItBe)

One of my tweeted excerpts from Tom Noble’s essay on authentic Wesleyan theology has met with some interesting response. Here’s the tweet in question:

Our UMC must listen to Tom Noble: “When they abandon Nicaea & the Reformers, they cease to be ‘mainline’ & become sidelines.”

The replies to that post were varied (and which can be read here), and that exchange has elicited a somewhat more lengthy response from Jeremy Smith, a United Methodist pastor in Oklahoma. Jeremy’s concern appears to be twofold. First, he is critical of my view that a joint website to propagate Wesleyan theology ought to have a statement of faith that reflects not only Wesleyan distinctives but historic Christian orthodoxy as well. Second, Jeremy is concerned by readings of Wesley that (he charges) over-systematize his thought. He is also worried about what he sees as “creedal zeal” among some present day interpreters of Wesley, which, Jeremy contends, was foreign to Wesley’s own theology. He writes:

Wesley gave us more than Creeds. Wesley gave us more than a systematic theology to ascribe to. He gave us journals, commentaries on the bible, sermons and letters: the lived realities of faith as a model for us to build on. A lived faith-a practiced faith-is closer to John Wesley than any Creed could possibly be (bold original).

A “lived faith”, we are to understand, more accurately authenticates Wesleyan theology today, and certainly more than any creeds. I hope I’ve accurately summarized Jeremy’s view, and let me say here that I’m grateful to him for this post. Anytime someone takes the work of another seriously enough to engage with it in an extended way (regardless of the extent to which they agree) it is to be appreciated. I aim to take Jeremy’s points with likewise care and seriousness.

To the first of the above criticisms I’ll simply say that, were a joint website to come into being, the desirability of some sort of statement of faith or statement of unifying beliefs has been suggested and commended by a number of people involved in the #andcanitbe discussion. This idea is not uniquely mine, and I cannot take the credit, regardless of how much I might like to have it and of how deeply Jeremy desires to grant it.

I want to engage the second concern a bit more deeply. But first we need to be sure we are clear on the nature of the disagreement. The story is told of how Matthew Arnold once fielded the critique that he was becoming as dogmatic as another fellow named Carlyle. Arnold replied, “That may be true; but you overlook an obvious difference. I am dogmatic and right, and Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong.” I am defending creedal orthodoxy (with a Wesleyan accent), which is an activity sometimes (and often unfairly) maligned as unhelpfully dogmatic. But when two people are disputing one another’s claims about authentic expressions of a particular theological perspective, the question is not of who is being dogmatic but of who is right. As Chesterton said, “Truths turn into dogmas the instant they are disputed,” and we are certainly in the midst of dispute. Clarity about the nature of the disagreement will go far in keeping it a charitable one.

Jeremy objects dogmatically to the boundaries by which I define authentic Wesleyan theology. He has an alternative definition with necessarily alternative boundaries. What must not be missed is that we agree that boundaries exist; we agree that not every voice gets it right; we also agree that those voices that get it wrong should be corrected. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be writing these long essays on why the other one is wrong. Jeremy’s concern results in a double criticism of (1) the way I define authentic Wesleyan theology and of (2) my critique of those who, in my view, use the label inappropriately. What must be recognized is that Jeremy is liable to his own critique. I understand “Wesleyan” like this and not that. He wants it like that and not this. He is worried that my view excludes voices that are properly Wesleyan, but his view is likewise exclusive; the difference is which group gets excluded. He wants me to be more open; I’m asking the same of him.

Now on to the matter of creeds and their alleged contrast with a lived faith. Leaving aside for the moment the issue  of “faith” and “creed” being virtually synonymous (a reality that only elevates the peculiarity of the supposed contrast), I would argue that Jeremy unnecessarily creates a dichotomy where none truly exists, between doctrine and life, creed and experience.

To set the “lived faith” of Wesley as manifest in his sermons, letters, journals, and commentaries over and against “Creed” is problematic and misleading if only because Wesley’s many and various writings, those “lived realities of faith” that he modeled for us so well, are full of creedal and doctrinal language. The suggestion that Wesley was more interested in the lived experience of faith than he was doctrinal formulation is at best an over-simplification and at worst a false dichotomy. He was interested in both. He gave us both.

This double gift can be seen in the way Wesley’s lived faith was intertwined with creedal language and doctrinal formulation. Commenting on the well-known opening verses of the Gospel of John, Wesley speaks of the “unity of essence” between the Father and the Son. This is language that anyone acquainted with the development of the ecumenical creeds will recognize as drawing directly on the homoousios of Nicaea. I agree with Jeremy that when Wesley gave us these commentaries, he gave us a lived experience of faith. And it is in that very place of Wesley’s lived experience that he also gives the Nicene Creed. 

Jeremy also points to the sermons as evidence of Wesley’s non-creedal lived faith. But one need only peruse the table of contents to find homiletic titles like “Justification by Faith”, “Original Sin”, “On Divine Providence”, “Of Hell”, and “On the Trinity”. Would a man uninterested in passing along creed and doctrine give his sermons such doctrinally formulaic titles? Wesley’s sermons were certainly about the lived reality of authentic faith, and they were full of dogma and creed. This is a good place to point to Wesley’s interest in placing himself firmly within the stream of the Protestant Reformation. In Sermon 20, “The Lord our Righteousness”, Wesley gives extended quotes from Calvin’s Institutes to substantiate his commitment to a Protestant formulation of justification. The sermons are precisely where his dogmatic material is to be found. 

Perhaps most telling is Wesley’s published Journal. Every seminarian knows of Wesley’s strangely warmed heart at the meeting on Aldersgate Street. Perhaps no other passage from Wesley presents us more clearly with “the lived realities of faith.” And yet there we also find doctrine. Here’s the famous quote from May 25, 1738, with the underlying doctrines added in parentheses:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface (influence of the Continental Reformers) to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart (the new birth) through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation (salvation by faith); and an assurance (the witness of the Spirit) was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (justification by faith).

That Wesley published his journal for public reading may even suggest that he wanted the reader to pick up on these underlying doctrines. It wasn’t mere reflective happenstance; he put it this way on purpose. Wesley intentionally described what is arguably the most important experience of his life with the very language we find in his articulations of key doctrines. These few examples (and there are many more) show clearly why Tom Noble can say that any authentic expression of the Wesleyan tradition will embrace both Nicaea and the Reformers. 

So, Jeremy’s assertion that “a lived faith…is closer to John Wesley than any Creed could be” falls rather flat because it perpetuates a false dichotomy that cannot stand up to scrutiny when measured against Wesley’s own writings. Rather than setting life and creed against one another, Wesley weaved them together into a magnificent tapestry that tells the story of transformation and renewal. Wesley’s lived faith embodied historic Christian orthodoxy. He brought the Creeds to life in his preaching and writing. For him, experience and doctrine were inseparable. Indeed, we might even say that, for Wesley, experience brought doctrine to life, and doctrine gave him the language to articulate his experience of God’s kindness. 

John Wesley did not abandon creed in favor of the lived realities of faith. He transmitted the catholic faith line by line in the many pages that came from his pen. On every page he calls us to experience the very One of whom the creeds speak, the One who is “one in being with the Father,” and who “for us and for our salvation…came down from Heaven.” Wesley would have us enjoy the life given only by him who “rose again on the third day,” and he would have us seek the kingdom that “will have no end.” And just as Wesley longed to see renewal in the Church of his day, he would likewise have us encounter afresh “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” There is no lived experience of faith apart from the confession: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ his only Son.” Soli Deo gloria. 

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