“After the sermon John Taylor stood in the Churchyard, and gave notice as the people were coming out, ‘Mr. Wesley, not being permitted to preach in the church, designs to preach here at six o’clock.’ Accordingly at six I came and found such a congregation as I believe Epworth never saw before. I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father’s tombstone, and cried, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink: but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ ”
So we are introduced to the famous scene of Wesley’s week of “Tombstone Sermons.” It is worth considering what he was standing on, for his father’s epitaph runs as follows:
As he liv’d, so he died
In the true Catholic Faith
Of the Holy Trinity in Unity,
And that Jesus Christ is God incarnate,
And the only Saviour of Mankind.
When we ask whether Wesley has anything to say to those who seek a revival of the true power of the Christian faith in the world today, we have found a place to begin. The prophet of revival stood with his feet planted upon the scriptural, orthodox, and traditional doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and universal free Grace.
Despite the great economic and social differences between eighteenth century England and the world of today, there is a striking intellectual similarity. In reaction against the religious strife of the previous century, and under the influence of the first movements of modern science, the educated classes were seeking “a reasonable religion.” The England in which Wesley’s father lived witnessed a decline of spirituality and of religious conviction, and a growth of unorthodoxy. Associated with this there was, on the credit side, a gradual ebb of ancient superstition, brutality, and intolerance. It was the Age of Elegance, and the Age of Reason.
AGAINST THE TIDE
It is most significant that when at length God worked a revival of religion, he chose as his chief instrument a family which had swum against this tide of unbelief, and which during a period of reduced theology had remained faithful to the ancient creed. One is not claiming that it was Wesley’s strict churchmanship or his orthodoxy that generated the revival, but the fact remains that God laid his hand of approval upon a man such as this. Surely it will be so again. If in this matter we may learn from Wesley, we then conclude that the hope of revival is in firm dogmatic Christianity and not in any “new theology” adjusted to the presuppositions of what passes as modern thought.
Many conservatives will say, “This is just what we want to hear!” Therefore, another side of the question must be brought to mind. It may be claimed that in every age the revival and renewal of Christianity consists in a return to its fixed, original, and authentic principles—to the religion of Scripture with its witness to the facts about Christ, and to the creed of the ancient and undivided Church which is the Mother of us all. However, revival is never a mere return to the past. It is a return to a new, deeper, and more comprehensive understanding of “the faith once delivered to the saints.” This was certainly the case with Wesley. He was a conservative, but a progressive and flexible conservative.
THE ARMINIAN EVANGELICAL
As a high churchman, Wesley was brought up an “Arminian,” that is, an anti-Calvinist. Thus in the Wesley of “the heart was strangely warmed,” in the high churchman turned evangelist, we see brought together that which in the previous century had commonly been held separately. In days when upholders of universal free Grace were mostly stiff traditionalist churchmen, and when evangelicals were mostly Calvinists, John Wesley was the Arminian evangelical. He made a clear and strong witness to salvation by divine Grace, yet unentangled in predestinarian speculation. This synthesis has become the chief contribution of Methodism to theological understanding.
It is interesting that the Wesley whom we see in retrospect as the reviver of traditional orthodoxy in a day of widespread unbelief appeared to the men of his day as a liberating influence. He was the venturesome thinker of “strange new thoughts,” although from the viewpoint of the ages they were not really new. The true “old time religion” is the confident reaffirmation of historic facts and fixed principles when preached by men who are alert to the mental climate and the language of their day.
WESLEY AND THE BIBLE
Many will ask, “What would Wesley have to say about the Bible were he to return today?” It is not easy to say for certain, but the answer I propose is an example of the principle I have laid down. It is clear that Wesley was in his day an upholder, though perhaps not an absolutely uncompromising upholder, of the doctrine of the literal inerrancy of Scripture. This does not by itself prove very much, for in his time everyone, even unbelievers who ignored the Scripture, assumed that divine inspiration and literal inerrancy were closely associated. We may say with complete confidence that Wesley would have today no sympathy whatever with views of the Bible which banish the authentic and historic portrait of Christ. In the face of much modern radical criticism, he would stoutly defend the substantial trustworthiness of the gospel account of the birth, life, words, works, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord. He would say that these are to be understood as real history, and that the whole validity of the Christian faith depends upon this. He would have no comprehension whatever of the notion that some of these mighty events may be true as ideas in the faith of the Church, but not true as facts. However, the present writer judges, in the light of Wesley’s general mentality, that he would not today insist that the authentic and historic portrait of Christ was drawn and recorded in a manner exempt from the normal processes of literary composition. He shows himself well aware that what one makes of the Scripture depends to a great extent on the soundness and reason of one’s tradition of interpretation.
Were Wesley to return today, we can hardly doubt that he would be a hopeful observer of the present “conversations” between British Methodism and the Church of England. He struggled all his life to keep Methodism within the Church of England, and to teach his followers to love the Book of Common Prayer. Today he would live in hope that the time has come when constructive steps may be taken to realize his original aim. He would deplore as hindrances to the work of God the unconscious but wounding condescension of some Anglicans, and likewise the defensive inhibitions of some Methodists. He would teach that the wide extension of ecclesiastical fellowship is the way to spiritual cross-fertilization, and that this in turn is God’s channel for spiritual renewal.
Wesley was not the greatest preacher of the revival. He is remembered as its greatest Churchman and disciplinarian. Without the closely-knit Society, he rightly said, the fruits of the preaching would be a “rope of sand.” Supremely God gave to him the gift of government, and he would say today that the divided sects of Protestantism need the gift of government, of wise and strong ecclesiastical discipline, if they are to bear effective witness today. This is not everywhere a popular message, for the practical effect of it is to disturb and upset the conventional routine and the vested interests of the familiar and cozy ecclesiastical organizations of Methodism.
We leave on one side all hazardous speculations as to what would be Wesley’s modern denomination. It is not too lightly to be assumed that he would necesearily be a Methodist! Two things however are certain. He would be in earnest about binding the churches in fellowship. And he would be ardent to unite them in practical evangelism.
How Much More God
Man spends his strength on granite and on steel,
He builds his structures reaching for the sky.
Above their puny pretense, quite alone,
The timeless mountains stand aloof and high.
Man writes his name in symphony and song,
Along the path where weary mortals plod
He seeks articulation. There remains
More music in the silences of God.
Man flings his feeble flutters into space
And prides himself on progress and on change.
The silent stars, eternities away,
Maintain their secret orbs remote and strange.
Man breaks the alabaster of his heart.
But all the precious ointment, sacrificed
To voice his human love, is lost beside
God’s love, unspeakable, in Jesus Christ.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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