Thursday, October 20, 2005

Did John Wesley, the Founder of Methodism, Deny "Faith Alone" ("Sola Fide")? (with Edwin Tait)

From earlier combox discussions (my first remark below is dated 10-9-05). Edwin Tait is a traditional Anglican with a Wesleyan background, who just completed his requirements for a Ph.D. in Church history. His words will be in green. John Wesley's will be in blue. I was initially responding to remarks from someone who had stated that faith alone (sola fide) was essential to any definition of a Christian.

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That's not the point of Luther's teaching (whether or not he ever used this analogy--it looks as if he didn't, though he did compare human nature to a dunghill, as I believe Dave has shown). Of course Luther thought that real transformation took place. But he thought that this was always imperfect and so could not in any sense be the basis for our standing before God.

It's completely irrelevant and unfair to accuse Luther of not believing in sanctification. Practically speaking, what he expected from Christians was not that different from what the Catholic Church expected (I'm not saying that there were no differences). The difference lay in how you deal with falling short. And even there the difference was not as great as you might think. Repent, confess your sins, receive the Eucharist--both sides agreed that this was what should be done and in this order.

If sola fide defines a Christian, then John Wesley and Methodists, the whole Wesleyan tradition, and many traditional Anglicans are not Christians.You may be comfortable with a conception of Christianity which excludes folks like John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers; I am not. And I dare say that most Protestants and even probably a majority of Calvinists, would agree.

Whether or not Wesley denied sola fide depends on how you define sola fide. I think Wesley himself (at least for much of his career) would be horrified to hear that he didn't believe in sola fide. Certainly in the years after his "heartwarming" at Aldersgate Street he claimed to believe in sola fide. But even then his view was somewhat different from both Lutheran and Reformed versions. And later in life (partly because of fierce controversies with Calvinists) he modified his earlier views and gave considerably more place to good works. My wife is far more of a Wesley expert than I am. But I think that right to the end of his life Wesley would claim that he did believe in sola fide. Whether his "sola fide" is heretical from a Catholic point of view I'm not sure. And Calvinists seem rather divided as to whether it passes muster from their point of view. Generally I think the hardline folks see it as not as bad as "Rome's" view but a dangerous move in that direction.

From my paper: Reflections on Justification:

With regard to the condition of salvation, it may be remembered that I allow, not only faith, but likewise holiness or universal obedience, to be the ordinary condition of final salvation . . . At what time soever faith is given, holiness commences in the soul. For that instant `the love of God' (which is the source of holiness) `is shed abroad in the heart'. (A Farther Appeal, 1745, Works, London: 1831, VIII, 68 ff.)

Suffer me to warn you of another silly, unmeaning word: Do not say, 'I can do nothing'. If so, you know nothing of Christ; then you have no faith: For if you have, if you believe, then you `can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth you'. You can love him and keep his Commandments. (A Blow at the Root, 1762, Works, X, 369)

1. God works in us - therefore man can work. Prevenient grace is accorded to all. 2. God works in you - therefore you must work. You must work together with Him, or He will cease Working. (Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1788, Works, VI, 511 ff.)


Wesley himself claimed to teach nothing but justification by faith. But he was not satisfied, like the pietists before him. with bringing sanctification and justification into the closest possible relation, after the Calvinist formula he was fond of recalling. More penetrating than any of his predecessors, he criticised Luther's opposition of faith to works as a sophistry. As early as the year 1739, when he started on his new course of action, he denounced what he called Luther's 'mania of solifideism'. Luther's commentary on the epistle to the Galatians, with its unbalanced depreciation of the divine Law, was in his view more likely to be pernicious than beneficial in its results. His reason was that the holiness of Christ should by no means be opposed to the holiness accessible to the Christian, but, rather, be represented as its unique source. Far from admitting, therefore, that the epistle of St. James deserved to be called an 'epistle of straw' [Luther's phrase], he called it 'the great antidote Against the poison' of a justification which required no moral change in the Christian . . .'

Wesley . . . taught more and more clearly that since the great effect of conversion was the regeneration by grace of the human will, the human will ought to work for its own salvation, and make daily progress, otherwise, even if the conversion was real in the beginning, it would become ineffective, through want of perseverance.

(Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A.V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, 221-222)
Note that the opinions date from throughout his long ministry, so it doesn't look like much changed in any fundamental sense, though I'm sure Wesley's thought developed.

The first three citations above were retrieved from the book: Wesley and Sanctification, by Harald Lindstrom (Lutheran), Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press (division of Zondervan), 1980.

There is much more data in that book, if someone wants to challenge me on this. In any event, I highly doubt that Calvinist-type anti-Catholics will now start writing polemical tracts against Methodists and Wesleyans, even though their interior logic forces them to concede that they aren't Christians (if they understand the information I provided above). That "theological righteous indignation" is reserved only for the Catholic Church.

More on Wesley's denial of "faith alone":

4. Nor, lastly, is he distinguished by laying the whole stress of religion on any single part of it. If you say, "Yes, he is; for he thinks 'we are saved by faith alone:'" I answer, You do not understand the terms. By salvation he means holiness of heart and life. And this he affirms to spring from true faith alone. Can even a nominal Christian deny it? Is this placing a part of religion for the whole? "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law." We do not place the whole of religion (as too many do, God knoweth) either in doing no harm, or in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. No, not in all of them together; wherein we know by experience a man may labour many years, and at the end have no religion at all, no more than he had at the beginning. Much less in any one of these; or, it may be, in a scrap of one of them: Like her who fancies herself a virtuous woman, only because she is not a prostitute; or him who dreams he is an honest man, merely because he does not rob or steal. May the Lord God of my fathers preserve me from such a poor, starved religion as this! Were this the mark of a Methodist, I would sooner choose to be a sincere Jew, Turk, or Pagan.

5. "What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist, according to your own account?" I answer: A Methodist is one who has "the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;" one who "loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, "Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!"


(Wesley, The Character of a Methodist, date not given; emphasis added)

Now, one will note that Wesley often states that he accepted "justification by faith alone," but he defines it differently than Luther, Calvin, Lutherans, Reformed, and Baptists do. Far as I can tell, he views it much as a Catholic would: faith and works, justification and sanctification, conversion and holiness are in close organic harmony with each other, rather than formally separated, with works playing no part whatsoever in salvation.

Many of Wesley's statements rule out the latter interpretation. His views of both justification and sanctification differ from the standard Reformed / Baptist / Lutheran understanding of these notions and categories.

Here is a fascinating overview of John Wesley, if anyone's interested: "John Wesley at 300: the man, his times and his faith," by Victor Shepherd. Example:

Of all the misunderstandings that falsify Wesley and his spiritual descendants, none is more defamatory than the assumption that the Methodist tradition doesn’t think. While it is readily acknowledged that the Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox families within the church catholic think and have always thought, Methodism, it is sometimes said, merely emotes.

Wesley contradicts this. Having insisted that his lay preachers study five hours per
day, he studied more himself. He authored grammar textbooks in seven of the eight foreign languages he knew.

He deplored as narrow, ignorant and foolish the suggestion that preachers need read only one book. Such fanaticism meant that reading only the Bible guaranteed misreading it. Those who complained of having "no taste for reading" he rebuked on the spot: "Contract a taste for it by use, or return to your trade" — and watched more than a few preachers move back to farm, shop or mine.

His reading was as broad as it was deep. No area of intellectual endeavour escaped him. All his life he kept abreast of contemporary explorations in natural science. Schooled in classical philosophy at Oxford, he probed the contemporary empiricist thinking of John Locke. Aware that history is a theatre both of God’s activity and of the church’s response, he wrote a world history.
As the passage you quote from The Character of a Methodist shows, Wesley did claim to believe in salvation by "faith alone." That was my only point. What he meant by it was definitely different from what classical Protestantism meant by it, and while I think it is somewhat different from the Catholic position, it's not radically so. (Wesley would reject any language of "merit," but how far that's just a difference of terminology I'm not sure. He would certainly reject such things as indulgences, with the implication that you can in some sense have "extra" merit. And Wesley didn't believe in Purgatory, although the modern Methodist theologian Jerry Walls has argued that Wesley's theology would harmonize well with the doctrine of Purgatory.)

As I understand it, Wesley's position was basically this: Human beings cannot save themselves by their own merits, but must accept their sinfulness and throw themselves on the mercy of God in faith. Once they do this, their past sins are forgiven and they are given the strength to lead a new life. But for final justification, a life of holiness and obedience is required. God will forgive us whenever we fall, if we repent and turn back to Him. (Wesley also distinguished between "sins properly so-called" and "faults," which amounts to a distinction between mortal and venial sin though he didn't use the term.) I believe that Wesley did at times speak of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, but in the texts that I'm familiar with he seems to be avoiding the term, and speaks instead of our sins not being imputed.

All of this is very compatible with Catholicism, and seems miles away from classical Protestantism. But then we have the fact that Wesley worked side by side with evangelical Calvinists for much of his career, and while they frequently quarreled, they recognized each other as brothers in Christ, at least most of the time. Relations soured after 1770, when Wesley repeated an earlier announcement (from 1744!) that he had previously "leaned too much toward Calvinism," and affirmed the value of preparation for grace (that people should be told to repent and do good works in preparation for justification).


That's mostly what I had in mind in saying that his position developed. Many of his Calvinist colleagues did accuse him at that point of denying sola fide. But in his earlier years most of them didn't seem to think that he was teaching a radically different doctrine of salvation, although they thought he was wrong on predestination. Since I don't think these guys were idiots, I'm hesitant to say outright that Wesley "didn't believe in sola fide." That was my point.

My own view, as expressed in my blog post on justification a couple of months ago, is that the center of disagreement really lies elsewhere than it has usually been placed. The point I made on my blog was that all evangelical Protestants agree over against Catholicism that saving faith is something qualitatively different from unformed faith. Faith in the soteriological sense necessarily involves a disposition that will lead one to live a holy life. This is an important difference, because it affects how you preach the Gospel. Do you assume that your hearers have faith, and exhort them to works of charity; or do you tell them that if they are not living lives of holiness then they don't have faith at all? The latter is what Wesley would do, and that is why he was able to cooperate (up to a point, at least) with evangelical Protestants who in many respects had a radically different soteriology.

At the same time, Wesley was able to appreciate Catholic piety far more than other Protestants, precisely because what he looked for was evidence of living faith rather than an adherence to a particular understanding of imputation, etc. With regard to soteriology Methodism, far more than Anglicanism, has a potential to be a bridge church between Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglicanism includes several radically different soteriologies. But Wesley has a coherent soteriology which open-minded people among both classical Protestants and Catholics can recognize as essentially sound.

Or they can just condemn it, which many conservative Calvinists do with great relish.

Excellent commentary, Edwin. Thanks! While his fellow Protestant Calvinists go after Wesley "with great relish," I will continue having immense respect for him. If the Calvinists have more in common with his theology than I do, they (the ones who trash him) sure aren't acting like it, are they?

I don't think they do have more in common with Wesley than you do. I think that Wesley had a lot in common with Catholicism as well--indeed, he recognized this to some extent. But he had strong prejudices (largely political) against Catholicism as a system. And it's only fair to say that Catholics of that era weren't terribly ecumenical themselves! Nowadays, I think an evangelically minded Catholic like yourself can recognize a lot more in common with Wesley than a lot of conservative Calvinists can.

The main common front, really, was against the religion of respectability in 18th-century England which identified Christianity with what evangelicals of that era liked to call "mere morality." At least for a while, Wesley and the Calvinists could cooperate on that ground. But things did go sour at the end. And modern Calvinists are particularly anti-Arminian because the Arminians took over most of Protestantism in the 19th century. So those who remain faithful to hardline Calvinism see Arminianism as a particularly pernicious threat, and Wesley is one of the figures who got it all going. (Charles Finney is another of their favorite villains, though I'm not a particularly big fan of Finney myself.)

It seems to me that Wesley in relation to the zeitgeist and established religion in England is a lot like Kierkegaard's relation to Danish Lutheranism. It's a reform and (in the very best sense) "radical" spirit, which is why I admire these two men so much. Heaven knows we Catholics need men like that too. I think that John Paul II was one of them, as is the current pope.

7 comments:

whoizme8 said...

JOhn Wesley did not deny "Faith alone" or "justification by faith alone by grace alone" as the foundation of salvation. There is a great "however" that follows and that is that he also said that if you are justified by faith there are fruits that must follow and these are in the form of love of God and love of man, issuing in good works.

Dave Armstrong said...

That is my understanding, too, yes.

Maroun said...

Hi Dave .
I began lately reading the sermons of Welsey .
Honestly , all i could say is that i love that man . A very honest and sincere Christian , especially in what concerns the relation between faith and works .
P.S. i will soon order your book , the quotable Wesley...
Thank you and God bless you my friend

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks! I do immensely admire him, too.

The book is scheduled to be "officially" published in the fall by a Protestant publisher: Beacon Hill Press, too.

Timotheos said...

“Wesley would reject any language of "merit," but how far that's just a difference of terminology I'm not sure. He would certainly reject such things as indulgences, with the implication that you can in some sense have "extra" merit."

Indeed, if I understand the Roman Catholic position correctly, most of Wesley’s aversions to “merit” were misunderstandings. From what I can tell from his “Reply to the Roman Catechism” and his “Popery Calmly Considered”, it appears that he just did not understand what was meant by the word “merit”. Per the common definition in Protestant circles at the time, he seems to have thought that, by claiming that the saints have “merit”, they thereby are gaining grace by which they or someone else may be saved from eternal punishment for sins.

This however, is blatantly false; Catholics agree that the saints’ “merit” in no way implies that they earn their salvation, or in any way saves them from any of their eternal punishment for sins.

With that understood, the vast breath of Wesley’s problem with it disappears. Given that he was an Anglican, he had no problems admitting that penance is sometimes required for the priest to install on members of his congregation before being admitted the sacrament. He does seem to have some further problems with making confession mandatory, but since he allows that a priest can in principle require penance from members of his congregation, he has to allow that this could be justified at least as a disciplinary practice.

Also, Wesley takes a high view of the Eucharist and sees it as a means of grace, so he admits that it is part of the normal means of salvation and being declared righteous. So, at the least, he has to admit that, when a person pays due penance for a sin in a confession, thereby removing the priest’s restriction to receiving the sacrament, that the priest has hereby declared the man worthy of receiving God’s grace, and to be in the (normative) fullness of salvation.

Thus, by this train of reasoning, there is nothing wrong by Wesley’s standards with a priest declaring that a man is free from some penance on God’s behalf, as long as this is understood to not be a declarative statement of God’s eternal judgment on the sinner, but merely removing the requirement to experience some temporal punishment. (And presumably what allows the priest to not require some penance is Christ’s merit and the authority he has given his priests to distribute the sacraments as they see fit, so “granting indulgences”, thus understood, shouldn’t be a problem to Wesley)

His remaining problem with “merit” would thus be whether the saints in heaven really have “merit” by which we may gain freedom from “temporal punishments”. One objection he gives here is that, even if such “merits” exist, we have no use of them, since Christ’s sacrifice gives us an infinite supply of it. This has no sting to the Catholic however, since he admits as much; Catholics just respect the finite “merits” of the saints in addition to this. This objection would have meat if Catholics thought the saints had “merit” in the sense that he takes them to say, but we have already shown he misunderstood them, so this greatly lessens the bite.

So, I think Wesley’s qualms about “merit” boils down to two rather facile and technical questions: “Can the saints’ good actions, in addition to the treasury of Christ’s, be “meritorious” enough to remove the penalties of temporal punishments?” and “Does confession truly count as a sacrament, and not merely as a sacramental?”

Needless to say, a Reformed/Baptist type would never touch any of this with a 400,000 ft. pole!

Dave Armstrong said...

Great comment. Thanks!

Timotheos said...

"And Wesley didn't believe in Purgatory, although the modern Methodist theologian Jerry Walls has argued that Wesley's theology would harmonize well with the doctrine of Purgatory."

As far as purgatory is concerned, I think what he rejected in it was the idea that you experience “hell-fire”; in other words, that the pains you would experience would be the same ones as those of the damned. What he especially found disturbing about it was the idea that your salvation could be undecided; that you might not make it to heaven from purgatory.

But here again, we find that Wesley didn’t understand what he was critiquing. Purgatory is only for those destined for heaven, so there is no concern that you might not make it to heaven; you will, but it might take some time.

Understood as such, I don’t think Wesley would have nearly the same concern about it as he seemed to at the time. This is especially true since he believed that men could progress in “paradise” while they awaited the time of the final judgment.

The only thing left I think that he might not accept would be the idea of purgatory as a time of “punishment”; his ideas seem more akin to what the Eastern Orthodox typically believe. But I think he could admit that, in principle, one could feel some remorse for the sins in their life in that state, since it seems that our psychology practically demands it.

On the other hand, I think he would want to emphasize the happiness and growth in this process, rather than the pain; how much of this is a difference in emphasis or substance, I am not sure.

So reconciling Wesley’s views with the Roman Catholic one shouldn’t be any harder than doing the same with the Orthodox.

I think all of this just goes to show how much Anglicanism has fallen; if he were alive today, I doubt he would remain such. (especially since they have embraced female ordination; Wesley made lots of hay out of Catholics allowing women to BAPTISE in emergency situations, much less bless the sacraments…)