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Theologians Craft Wesleyan Agreement for a Divided Methodist Era

64 scholars sign document they hope will ground more Christians in holiness doctrines.
Theologians Craft Wesleyan Agreement for a Divided Methodist Era
Image: Dsdugan / Wikimedia Commons
Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury depicted in stained glass at a church in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

Sixty-four scholars and theologians have signed on to a “Wesleyan witness,” a six-part, 62-page document they hope will shape the future of Methodism, define orthodox Wesleyanism, and ground more Christians in the story of sanctification and restoration through grace.

“This is classic, orthodox Wesleyan theology,” said Asbury University New Testament professor Suzanne Nicholson, who is one of the authors. “The power of the Holy Spirit is greater than the power of sin. It doesn’t matter your class, your race, your gender, God is at work among the faithful, and that leads us to a full-orbed devotion to who God is.”

“The Faith Once Delivered” was first drafted in January at a summit for “The Next Methodism.” Scholars allied with the evangelical wing of the United Methodist Church, as well as holiness and Pentecostal denominations, came together, formed five working groups, and co-wrote statements on five theological topics: the nature of God, Creation, revelation, salvation, and the church. A sixth section on eschatology or “the fullness of time” was added later.

Three editors—Wesleyan scholars Ryan Danker, Jonathan Powers, and Kevin Watson—revised the final document. It was published online by the John Wesley Institute on Monday.

Danker, who is director of the institute, told CT the document is not intended to be polemical, or even really original. The hope is to offer “a constructive voice” that clearly articulates the Wesleyan understanding of Christian orthodoxy.

“These are faithful Wesleyan scholars who are committed to the faith once delivered, to Nicene Christianity,” he said. “Methodism is entering a period where it’s going to need to divide itself again, and this happens any time there’s a division. We go back to the Scriptures and the church fathers.”

The United Methodist Church (UMC), which has about 31,000 congregations in the US, is currently dividing over LGBT issues. The denomination agreed to a division plan in 2020, but has twice delayed the meeting where the split could occur, citing COVID-19 concerns. In May, some traditionalists decided not to wait any more and launched the Global Methodist Church (GMC). So far, nearly 100 congregations have begun the process of leaving the UMC and joining the GMC.

According to Danker, the division stems from competing understandings of holiness. The traditionalists connect the doctrine to purity and questions of sexual ethics. The progressives connect it to inclusivity and acceptance.

The bigger problem, from his perspective, is the Methodists who have prioritized institutions and organizational structures over everything else.

“In the middle you have an institutionalist, moderate core who have really lost a vision for holiness,” he said. “They’re interested in creating an umbrella under which various viewpoints can exist in unity and harmony, but what actually unifies is simply having people under the umbrella.”

“The Faith Once Delivered,” on the other hand, attempts to bring Christians together around the theological narrative of the restoration of the image of God in humankind. It does not mention homosexuality and only speaks of marriage once.

The document starts with the attributes of God. The subsequent sections spell out how the image was given in creation but marred through sin; how it is revealed in human history through the incarnation of Christ and the testimony of Scripture; restored in us through salvation and sanctification; can be lived out in the church; and is ultimately glorified in our resurrected unity with Christ.

“Finish, then, thy new creation,” Charles Wesley once wrote, “pure and spotless let us be. / Let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee.”

This theological articulation isn’t just for Methodists dealing with division, according to Pentecostal theologian Dale Coulter.

“The immediate catalyst of it was what was happening in the UMC,” he said, “but when we got together, everyone was in agreement we’re not writing this to address that. We’re writing this in hopes of articulating an orthodox Wesleyan witness.”

Coulter hopes it will be used by his own denomination, the Cleveland, Tennessee-based Church of God, and by a wide range of other Christians as well. The document is small-c catholic, he said, and frequently references early church fathers and medieval theologians in addition to the Bible and the writings of John and Charles Wesley.

It is also deeply Trinitarian, talking about Creation and restoration as the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Coulter, who worked on the Trinitarian language in the document, said it sets out a robust “Christological and pneumatological” vision, rooted in Scripture, tradition, and spiritual experience, and has an expansive view of salvation.

“This statement attempts to show that salvation is, in the words of John Wesley, ‘from the dawn of grace in the soul to its restoration in glory,’” Coulter said. “We’re not fixated on justification, which leads to this dichotomy between evangelism and social justice. We’re focused on holiness. Wesleyanism tries to articulate a holistic theology centered in holiness.”

Some supporters of “The Faith Once Delivered” hope the document will raise the visibility of Wesleyan theology among evangelicals, offering them an alternative to the more dominant Calvinism. Mark Tooley, a conservative Methodist commentator, jokingly called the document “our synod of Dort,” referring to the 17th-century meeting where Reformed theologians came together to articulate the five points of Calvinism.

“They crafted a document that was approachable and accessible,” Tooley said. “It clearly articulated Calvinist ideas and it’s had influence for 400 years. Hopefully this document will have 400 years’ influence.”

Today, many evangelicals can’t name any of the specifics of Wesleyan theology. When Reformed evangelicals fight over women in ministry, social justice, structural racism, and even whether or not empathy can be a sin, few turn to the Wesleyan tradition for another perspective.

Wesleyanism is more egalitarian, with a long tradition of women in ministry. It’s more optimistic, and stresses the availability of God’s grace to everyone. But, according to Tooley, even young Methodists often don’t know that and don’t know where to turn for a Wesleyan view.

“They know who John Piper is, but they can’t name an orthodox Methodist thinker,” he said. “And that’s Methodism’s fault. It’s not the Reformed’s fault. It’s Methodism’s.”

“The Faith Once Delivered” could change that by elevating Wesleyan scholars. The John Wesley Institute is also planning more summits, including one this summer focused on social witness.

The document is also designed to be used in churches. It is broken down into short sections with numbered paragraphs. A small group or Sunday school class could read the document alongside John Wesley’s sermons, Charles Wesley’s hymns, and the Bible verses referenced in the text.

After she finished grading papers at the end of her semester at Asbury, Nicholson sat down with “The Faith Once Delivered” to read it in one sitting.

“I think what this does is provide a grounding and breath of fresh air,” she said. “It really led me to praise God. This is a document that should lead people to joy at what Christ and the Spirit and the Triune God has done for us. That’s beautiful.”

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