Today's piece is written by Barry E. Bryant. Rev. Dr. Bryant is Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
“Look at the inkblot and tell me what you see.” That phrase has long been associated with the Rorschach inkblot test and the response says more about the one doing the looking than the nature of what is being seen. Reading Wesley can often be something akin to a Rorschach test. What one sees in Wesley says as much about the one doing the “looking” as it does about what is being “seen.”
The first thing to consider is the nature of what may be seen in Wesley. Of course this is not unique to Wesley or his readers and looking at Wesley is not an entirely subjective experience. There is more meaning and structure in Wesley than what’s in an ink blot. There are reasons why some see what they see in Wesley and there is a variety of things to be seen. Wesley was an intellectual pack rat and an accumulator of ideas over a long period of time. He lived in every decade of the 18th century and during those decades while the essence of what he thought remained constant the nuance of his thinking changed and varied over time. At all times he sought coherence.
While he considered himself a “man of one book” obviously he didn’t read only the Bible. He read a plethora of books on a variety of topics, ranging from Greek and Latin poets, to Shakespeare and Milton, to natural science and philosophy, to secular and sacred history, to Biblical studies and a wide spectrum of theology. He was also an indiscriminate reader. He read those with whom he agreed and disagreed, writers who comforted and enraged him, writers whom he imitated and appreciated.
As much as he read, he also listened to the experiences of others. Wesley’s journals, diaries, and letters reveal someone who valued the testimonies of how grace had transformed Methodist lives. These narratives in all of their complexities had a significant influence on the shaping of Wesley’s theology, leaving some to conclude it is a practical theology by nature.
All this resulted in an eclectic and ecumenical theology that reflected a variety of traditions: Puritan, Pietist, Anglican, Apostolic, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist, and an emerging Methodist tradition. In all this he tried to hold together faith and works, an Arminian understanding of predestination, robust doctrines of original sin and prevenient grace, a doctrine of personal sin and Christian perfection, and his Anglicanism with his evangelicalism.
It should be no surprise then that so many different traditions find something in Wesley that resonates with their own theology. Indeed, different people look at Wesley and see different things in the Wesleyan Rorschach, and this is how we end up with so many different “Wesleyans”: Methodist Wesleyans, holiness Wesleyans, process theology Wesleyans, evangelical Wesleyans, fundamentalist Wesleyans, and Pentecostal Wesleyans, just to name a few.
At this point an important distinction needs to be made regarding the term “Wesley” and “Wesleyan,” and “Methodist” and “Methodism.” Not all Methodists are Wesleyan, and not all Wesleyans are Methodist. Each of these groups of Wesleyans are on a quest for coherence and an organizing principle, or a single concept that helps all the material gain more coherent meaning, assuming that coherence is gained through the use of an organizing principle.
In the very least an organizing principle functions as a type of “thesis statement,” or as a way of arguing a particular theological point. On the other hand, and more significantly, an organizing principle can function as an interpretive lens through which all the material is seen and understood.
Is there a single concept around which one might definitively organize Wesley’s theology? Probably not, particularly given the very nature of the complexities, first of the material at hand, and more significantly because of the complexities of the interpretive process itself. Indeed, the arguments for an organizing principle in Wesley are plentiful and varied, often resulting in conflicting conclusions. This is not a bad thing. Having a variety of organizing principles actually demonstrates the nuanced complexity of Wesley’s theology and accounts for the theological variety in his theological progeny.
Each one reads Wesley in a peculiar setting with a different set of assumptions and even a differing set of presuppositions that are in turn shaped by Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition (now there’s another topic). These presuppositions often predetermine the outcome. The problem with the way some use organizing principles is that it is a way of justifying the exclusion of some of the more difficult, disagreeable, and possibly some irreconcilable parts of Wesley’s theology. From there it is easier to exclude other “Wesleyans.” The Wesleyan tradition is a big tent with lots of room. So, what do you see in Wesley?