John Wesley's Theology of Perfection - Developments in Doctrine & Theological System.
When Wesley published his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection in 1766 his aim was primarily twofold.1 In the wake of the great revival of the early sixties multitudes were professing the experience of perfect love and Wesley wanted to counsel them further regarding the path of inward holiness. But besides this pastoral concern there was a more immediate one. Many charged Wesley with being inconsistent in his message of full salvation. Thomas Maxfield (Wesley's "son in the gospel") and a young recruit, George Bell, spearheaded a version of attainable perfection that proved to be in sharp contrast to John Wesley's version of perfect love.2 Besides being inconsistent, they further accused Wesley of changing his message over time.3 Critics outside of Methodism seized upon this brand of revival enthusiasm to attack Wesley over his beloved doctrine of Christian perfection.4
In response Wesley felt compelled to clarify his thoughts and to present a definitive apology of his perfection doctrine. So in 1764 he took the time to comprise an eleven-point summary of his perfection beliefs and in 1765 he put into writing those beliefs in his definitive work on the subject, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. As John Peters so aptly put it, the Plain Account represents the "most comprehensive exposition" of John Wesley's doctrine of full salvation.5 Though the book went through several editions in Wesley's lifetime and was recommended by him to earnest seekers of the experience, the question of Wesley's consistency has remained an open question. It is this latter question that engages this present study. To answer this question we must examine carefully what holiness meant to Wesley at different periods of his career and track his theological journey.
John Wesley enjoyed a very lengthy career.6 Beginning at Oxford and his hometown surroundings, he later ministered in America and throughout England, and became a founding leader of the burgeoning evangelical awakening of the eighteenth century. While it is commonly reported that he preached over 40,000 sermons and traveled around 250,000 miles during his lifetime, Wesley was also embroiled in controversy much of his career. At times this controversy centered on his perfection theology. All these factors played a role in shaping his convictions and thoughts regarding salvation from all sin. But to fully grasp how Wesley's doctrine took shape and why it took the path it did, we must return to his Oxford period and map out the theology which first informed his perfection beliefs. This is where this study begins. After this we can then proceed to demarcate the theological path Wesley traveled as his perfectionist leanings evolved into a complete, mature theological system. Only in this way can we answer the question with any satisfaction as to whether Wesley was consistent or not in his message of holiness, and if so, to what degree. In this way our present volume moves beyond volume one. That volume focused on Wesley's doctrine of perfection as articulated in the Plain Account. The purpose was to clarify what Wesley's mature doctrine looked like, and to empower students of Wesley to dig deeper into the nuances of his perfection theology. This study compliments volume one by capturing the development within Wesley's theological journey over the course of his long career, thereby empowering a firmer grasp of the subtle nuances that informed his theology of perfection at different periods of his career. Hopefully, the reader will receive the blessing of not only learning to appreciate the faith journey John Wesley traveled, but will be stirred to reflect more deeply on the subject of Christian discipleship as well.
Something should be said about my approach and guiding principles. As was just noted, Wesley's career was exceedingly long. Accordingly, historians have found it helpful to divide his career into three periods: early, middle, and late.7 Early Wesley covers his time at Oxford and in America, until he set foot again on English soil in early 1738. Middle Wesley picks up the story leading to his Aldersgate "heart-warming" conversion and his involvement in the evangelical revival, and ends in the mid-sixties when his theology and message coalesced into its mature articulation. Late Wesley continues from this point until his death on March 2, 1791. The three-epoch scheme has been helpful to understand the broad contours of his lengthy career. The reader should note that in this present study I often use these labels to identify Wesley's thought at specific eras of his career.
But in the attempt to present an in-depth study explaining how Wesley's theology of perfection developed over time, and to probe into the reasons why it took the path it did, I found the three-period scheme cumbersome and less than helpful. My research led me to look for a different framework to explain the why's and how's of Wesley's doctrinal evolution. For starters, this a doctrinal study, not a biographical one. While history plays a large part, it is not the central focus of the book. So I searched for a framework more suited to my purpose. Also, Wesley's perfection theology takes on major shifts within each era of the three-period model. As we will learn in section one, Wesley moves from one theology of perfection to another in a matter of approximately two-plus years following his Aldersgate conversion. A framework was needed that would highlight these doctrinal transitions. So a four-gospel scheme was chosen to structure the evolution of Wesley's thought. Each gospel is titled to help the reader remember the essential idea or related concepts of that particular perfection theology. It is hoped this will make the development of Wesley's perfection theology easier to remember and recall. In the chapter Evolving Contours8 this subject is addressed more fully as a five-period approach is used to historically review the main contours of Wesley's perfection theology within his long career.
While the locus of this study is the development of Wesley's perfection theology, a secondary theme emerges as the study progresses. Like a subplot, the story of how Wesley's doctrine of perfect love matured also parallels the formation of his theological system. I am referring specifically to the order of salvation (ordo salutis). A related term used heavily in this book is the "faith journey," which refers to the spiritual journey toward full renewal in God's image. The reader will soon learn that Wesley's doctrinal development is inextricably bound to his own faith journey. In many ways, Wesley's theology serves as a mirror of his own faith journey to find God and his fullness. So this study shows how Wesley's perfection beliefs profoundly shaped his theological system (hence the longer subtitle: Developments in Doctrine & Theological System). This broader interest led me to refer often to Wesley's "theology of perfection" (or its shorter version "perfection theology"). My purpose in using this language is to convey that this study is more comprehensive in scope than volume one by seeking to look at how Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection informed his theological system and visa versa. Hence the book's main title: John Wesley's Theology of Christian Perfection.
Connected to the above is the need to identify Wesley's views at each period within his ministry. To do this I have relied on Wesley's own literary corpus, not on secondary literature about him. I deliberately chose to place the footnotes at the bottom of the page to make them easier for the reader to check the sources as they move through the book. Along with identifying Wesley's views at specific periods is my purpose to highlight the factors which shaped and changed those views. We want to understand the reasons behind the development of his thought, not just the thoughts themselves. This entails probing into Wesley's letters and other writings for important clues.
A similar purpose is to recognize those trends which influenced his doctrinal development. Again, this requires we pay close attention to the details embedded in Wesley's many writings. For by doing so we will recognize subtle shifts emerging within his perfection theology. If there is one area I feel I open myself up to potential criticism it is in this area of emerging trends. I realize some will probably want to chastise me for overstating my positions at times. For example, in chapter four I speak of works being reintroduced into Wesley's perfection theology. It would be easy to point to a number of Wesley's earlier writings to rebut my point. But after much thought on the subject I still hold to my guns: what we see in the latter sixties is an emerging trend in Wesley's thought regarding works in the salvation process that culminates in the controversial 1770 Minutes. I believe such language is warranted to emphasize the point being made. No doubt others will see it differently than I do. Others will want take issue with some of my terminology, like the use of "states" to identify specific stages in the ordo salutis.9 But Wesley did use such terminology himself, and it accurately conveys his expectations of specific attainments at each stage in the discipleship process. So the use of such language is defendable and warranted, but must not be pushed to an extreme.
One more point. While this is not an historical study, nor a biographical one, it does pay close attention to chronology when quoting Wesley or referring to his views. This methodological principle is essential if we are to accurately grasp any shifts within his perfection theology. Utmost care must be maintained at this point. Yet, Wesley himself was not always helpful in this area. Since he was no systematic thinker he seldom worried about being comprehensive whenever he addressed a subject. Though this is to be expected in his letters (which are situational by nature), it is true of his sermons and other writings. Wesley often simply expresses the points he needs to make at a given time. So we must remain sensitive as to how Wesley quotes and publishes himself. Now that I have covered the methodological principles guiding this study we can turn to an overview of the book's organization and design.
Organization & Overview
The book is divided into three major sections, followed by an extensive Appendix. Section I addresses the early develops within Wesley's theology of perfection from 1725 to the early 1740's when his two-works gospel became a staple in his theological system. Section II picks up the story in the early sixties and traces further developments within his mature perfection theology over the next three decades. After this, Section III addresses how to best make sense of Wesley's holiness views and the evolution of his thought. Let's now look at each section in turn.
In Section I the reader is introduced to the three gospel systems that will inform Wesley's perfection theology: Holiness, Faith Alone, and Two Works of Grace. Chapter one presents a thorough survey of the theology that informed Wesley's early perfection beliefs. Though this chapter is the longest, it is crucial since it lays the foundation for the rest of the book. In Wesley's Oxford period lie the seeds which will later blossom into his mature theological system. So a careful reading of this chapter is indispensable to the rest of the book. Those less familiar with Wesley's early sermons and letters will find an ample amount of quotations in the text and footnotes, offering a plentitude of support for the conclusions drawn. Some of these might surprise the reader, like Wesley's already evangelical leanings, his belief in present forgiveness of sins (though he did not equate this with justification as he does later), and his robust doctrine of salvation assurance.
We next trace the steps which led Wesley to embrace the Moravian gospel of salvation by faith alone, in Christ alone, through the Spirit alone, in an instant alone. Though Aldersgate is the best known event in the life of John Wesley, the theology which informed that event is much less known and is often misunderstood. Possibly, even less understood is the influence which Moravian stillness theology played in Wesley's expectations at Aldersgate. We will learn how stillness served to fuel his struggles over assurance in the months following Aldersgate. Yet it was through the fires of personal struggle, combined with continuing controversy between the revival's key players, that Wesley's theology of perfection eventually embraced a gospel of two works. This story is covered in chapter three and sets the stage for later developments within his mature theological system.
Section II picks up the story when Wesley's Gospel of Two Works enters a new phase of major development. The sixties opened with a powerful revival that emphasized the instantaneous gift of full salvation. But as volume one in this series so poignantly reminds us, the revival soon sank into open schism. It was the revival and schism which finally compelled Wesley to reevaluate his own perfection beliefs. As a consequence Wesley began to alter the emphasis within his holiness message, and, most significantly, led him to rethink his own faith journey following his Aldersgate conversion. This personal crisis I call "Aldersgate II." So powerful was this spiritual upheaval within Wesley's self-understanding that it propelled his perfection theology and ordo salutis into new directions. But I leave it to the reader to take the journey through chapter four and discover for themselves what I believe is one of the most significant insights of this study.
As Wesley's two-works gospel matured so did his doctrine of sin. To understand this process, chapter five examines the structural organization of Wesley's doctrine of sin. In addition, this chapter explores how Wesley related the Christian doctrine of original sin to his theology of perfection. Few studies offer a better survey of the subject, and none offers a better visual explanation through a series of connected charts. We next turn to Wesley's letters to pick up significant insights into the maturation of his thought. Chapter six looks at his later correspondence to gain a better appreciation of what perfection meant to the early Methodists. Interesting bits of insight are gleaned about their struggles and the obstacles they faced as they sought to attain and retain the experience of perfect love.
Next, we close Section II by examining how Wesley's robust doctrines of prevenient grace and the servant state broadened his ordo salutis. This opened the door for a much stronger inclusivist understanding of salvation within his theology. At the other end of the faith journey spectrum the hope of a fully restored new creation inspired Wesley to envision the process of perfection beyond the article of death. As redeemed humanity will rise one day to the level of the angels, so at the resurrection the animal kingdom will be loosed from its servitude to "irregular passions" to rise to the level of the human race in present intelligence and knowledge of God. Thus, in chapter seven we see John Wesley's theology of perfection attain full maturity in its articulation and development.
In Section III we shift directions and take a more panoramic view of Wesley's long journey. We begin by returning to A Plain Account of Christian Perfection to isolate the essential themes of his mature doctrine of heart holiness. The Plain Account serves as Wesley's most comprehensive statement from his own pen regarding his beliefs concerning perfect love. After this, in chapter nine, we reflect on Wesley's mature understanding of the faith journey, or as we theologically refer to as the ordo salutis. Through the help of several charts the major stages of spiritual development are identified along with their chief characteristics. In this way, our study adds an additional blessing by leading the reader to ponder the nature of discipleship itself. If God's redemptive goal is to conform his children to the image of Christ, how is this accomplished? And, what marks each stage in the life transformation process? What we will learn is that Wesley's lifelong passion to articulate a cogent doctrine of perfect love provides a lens by which we can tackle these questions for ourselves.
The next chapter takes another historical review of Wesley's career to bring out those factors which shaped his perfection theology through the decades. Several factors of a historical and doctrinal nature are identified as profoundly shaping his thought. In this way the reader gains additional insights into what influenced the development of Wesley's doctrine of perfect love. Finally, the last chapter probes into the question of an Achilles heel in Wesley's message of full salvation. I will leave it for the reader to agree or disagree with my conclusions. But the question of whether Wesley was consistent demands we ask the question.
We can now turn to the Appendices. These are a series of specialized studies of a smaller nature and cover a variety of topics (this is one reason why I did not make them chapters). Their purpose is to enrich more fully the reader's understanding of Wesley's doctrine of holiness. There are seven in number:
Timeline on Wesley's Doctrinal Development: Covers the entire period under study in this book (1725-1791).
John Wesley's Confessions: This appendix examines Wesley's four January 1738 journal confessions to show that the last one (the post-script to journal extract one) was not written in January 1738 as is often assumed. Therefore, the theology contained in the last confession reflects not his earlier theology but his Aldersgate system.
Early Testimonies of Perfect Love: These early testimonies are ordered according to Wesley's three gospels. In this way they confirm the conclusions of this study. This collection can also be compared to those in volume one so the reader can compare how Wesley's message of holiness possibly changed over a period of twenty-plus years.10
The Evolution of the New Birth: In this appendix I show that Wesley's understanding of the new birth was interwoven with his doctrine of perfect love up until the early sixties. When reading many of Wesley's earlier sermons and writings this study reminds the reader to be cognizant of this fact.
The Roots to Wesley's Servant Theology: The servant state profoundly shaped Wesley's later doctrinal development and empowered a robust doctrine of prevenient grace within his mature theological system.
Clement of Alexandria: A Second Century Wesleyan?: This small study compares Wesley's views to that of Clement on the subject of perfection and holiness. In this way the reader can appreciate how Wesley was inspired by this church father.
Doctrinal Resource Lists: Included here are all the significant references in the entire Wesley corpus (sermons, letters, journal, and other writings) to empower personal study of the shifts and growth in Wesley's perfection theology. The references are grouped according to the four gospel framework used in this study. Plus, the references for Wesley's servant state and his doctrine of sin are included.
All together this book represents one of the most exhaustive and penetrating studies available on the development of John Wesley's theology of perfection. It is my hope the reader will come to appreciate the faith journey Wesley traveled in forming his understanding of a perfect love which conquerors all sin, both inward and outward; while at the same time acknowledging the sober reality of this present age that awaits full redemption in the new creation.
The John Wesley Christian Perfection Library
With the release of this second volume the series is one more step toward completion. A few words about the series are in order. The original idea of doing a series came from the publisher as the first volume was being prepared for release. At the time three volumes were envisioned. The first would be on Wesley's Plain Account followed by a second and third volume dealing with historical and systematic issues. Volume two is now released. But during the process of writing this present work I realized the need for a companion reader that would reflect Wesley's doctrinal journey. So a fourth volume was conceived (now volume three in the series): The John Wesley Reader on Christian Perfection. The Reader will (1) organize Wesley's writings according to the four gospel scheme used in this volume, and (2) compliment volume one by including sermons, letters and writings not included in the Plain Account. My purpose is to provide a comprehensive two-volume corpus suitable for study and learning.11 Together, the first three volumes of the series will offer the most comprehensive foundation available to build a solid understanding of John Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection.
The last two projected volumes will attempt to bring Wesley's doctrine of perfection into dialogue with our contemporary context. Wesley was no systematic thinker. His most comprehensive work on the subject, the Plain Account, includes only a select number of writings from his early and middle periods. Volume four will draw upon the text of the Plain Account in an organizational way to present Wesley's perfection doctrine in a systematic format. This volume will be titled: John Wesley's Doctrine of Christian Perfection: Systematic Formulation for Contemporary Relevance. The Doctrine will compare Wesley's views to that of the Holiness Movement to bring out further clarification of his unique contribution to subject of Christian holiness. Moreover, each chapter will offer the reader a study guide by which they can develop their own views. In this way volume four will empower the reader to build their own biblical and systematic theology of holiness.
During the process of writing this present volume a fifth volume was also conceived. It requires no insight to say that the world has changed dramatically since Wesley's day. The need to communicate the scripture truth of heart holiness is arguably greater now than ever before. Yet many holiness organizations are stymied in their ability to present a cogent message of holiness today.12 While I don't pretend to think I can solve the issues that confront us, I do believe a study into how Wesley promoted his message could be helpful to his descendants today. Thus, John Wesley's Preaching of Christian Perfection for the 21st Century will explore the variety of means he used to communicate to his generation. From this we can explore avenues which we could use today to spread Scriptural holiness among the nations.
To conclude, John Wesley believed the essence of Christian perfection to be that God so transforms the believer's dispositional nature, that his love, even his perfect love, becomes the natural and habitual characteristic of the Christian's life; yet a life still characterized by ignorance, mistake, temptation and trialall the human frailties that are inescapable in this life. To this end John Wesley gave himself completely and without reserve:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom all secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.13
1 See Volume One: John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection:
The Annotated Edition, 11-16; hereafter Plain Account or PA.
2 Works J 3:126; PA chs 20-22, 25:105-167.
3 PA 27:3 n.
4 See JW’s letter to John Newton (JWJ 5/14/65); PA chs 27-28 and notes.
5 Christian Perfection and American Methodism, 32.
6 In terms of this study 66 years (from 1725 to 1791).
7 Chapter 10 explores this subject in greater depth. See also PA 1:3 n.
8 Chapter 10. In this study the terminology of evolution is used periodically to
convey the process of development and maturation within JW’s perfection
theology. While some may feel uncomfortable with this term the reader should
remember its general and broader use than the question of origins.
9 Many prefer to speak of via salutis, the way of salvation. Compare Kenneth
Collins’ perspective (The Scripture Way of Salvation, 70) to that of Randy
Maddox (Responsible Grace, 157).
10 PA ch 24 end note.
11 Besides JW’s text the Reader will include introductions showing how the
particular texts fit into his doctrinal development.
12 By saying this I cast no aspersions. The reasons are many and complex. The
statement just reflects current reality. My own denomination (The Church of
the Nazarene) is currently wrestling with the issue (Quanstrom, Mark R. A
Century of Holiness. Beacon Hill: Kansas City. 2004).
13 White, Jame F. John Wesley’s Prayer Book: The Sunday Service of the
Methodists in North America. OSL Publications: Akron, 1991; 125.
For another classic from a later Methodist Reformer on the same subject see Asa Mahan's Scripture Doctrine of Christian Perfection. 1837, 1875. Vol. 11 in the New 20 vol. Series: Life and Works of Asa Mahan. $16 HC
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