John Wesley: Pietist Theologian

John Wesley has been quoted as saying that doctrine is but a “slender part” of true religion. judging by this statement, especially in isolation, one might assume that Wesley was a doctrinal indifferentist. However, upon further investigation we find that this could not be further from the truth. Wesley was not indifferent when it came to the task of articulating Christian doctrine.  We see this in his numerous tracts and sermons that deal with lofty concepts of Christian theology such as the Trinity, the person of Christ, the means of grace, original sin, prevenient grace and so forth.

To understand this statement of Wesley’s, we must understand him as fundamentally a pietist theologian. John Wesley was strongly influenced by pietist thought through the writings of Johan Arndt as well as by the Moravians whom he met on his voyage to Savannah, and with whom he spent much time with in England and Germany. The pietists communicated to Wesley, through both personal correspondence and their writings, that the Christian life did not consist solely of affirming certain theological propositions, heartfelt relationship with Jesus of Nazareth was necessary for a robust Christian life as well. Christianity consisted of both illumination and transformation. That is, transformation of the individual who though once isolated and alienated from God could now enjoy deep fellowship with God, who could grow into real, scriptural holiness and truly be more like Jesus!

Wesley understood this reality all too well. Prior to his “Aldersgate” experience, Wesley was more than ready to affirm the doctrines affirmed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Wesley had plenty of good theology and yet his spiritual life was empty, he had no real relationship with Jesus, he had not yet come to recognize Christ as his “personal” Savior. Wesley could affirm many truths about Christ but only when he had a real relationship with Christ did he finally experience spiritual peace.

I think the experience of Wesley, and the other pietists, provide us with valuable lessons for today. Good theology is important no doubt, and without good theology we will not have good spirituality. However, rational assent to scriptural truths (though extremely important) is not the whole of the Christian life, it is but a part. Our task as Christians today is to balance the rational and relational aspects of the Christian life. If we drop but one we will have a truncated and perhaps even counterfeit Christianity. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the scriptures I am convinced that we can balance these two aspects of the Christian faith quite well and present a robust version of the Christian faith that speaks well to both the head, and the heart, of the people we have the opportunity to minister to.

 

 

 

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