Free grace and orthodoxy

September 1st, 2017

“Looking for a book in our College Library,” Wesley wrote in his Journal on Monday, July 6, 1741, “I took down, by mistake, the works of Episcopius, which, opening on an account of the Synod of Dort, I believed it might be useful to read it through. But what a scene is here disclosed! I wonder not at the heavy curse of God which so soon after fell on our Church and nation. What a pity it is that the holy Synod of Trent and that of Dort did not sit at the same time; which each of them established, but also as to the spirit wherewith they acted, if the latter did not exceed!”

In other words, Wesley abhorred the actions of the Synod of Dort even more than that of the Council of Trent. It undoubtedly confirmed him in his will to identify himself and his theology thereafter as “Arminian.”*

Based on Scripture alone, Wesley had already embarked on a practice of preaching “free grace.” But this encounter with the story of the Synod of Dort steeled his intent to make “Grace, free for all and in all” the centerpiece of his theology. It also profoundly affected his attitude towards “Orthodoxy.”

The principle of free grace is inherently inclusive. It has been claimed at times in ecumenical dialogue that Methodism has no theology, i.e., nothing distinct or definitive about its teaching. In fact, the movement Wesley’s message spawned and nourished was so unique to historic western theology that the divergent nature of its core conviction was “below the radar.” That is, it did not fit in any of the older categories and, consequently, was not easily identifiable.

In contrast to the theologies of the continental reformation, Wesleyan doctrine was focused on the revival that had begun under Wesley’s preaching in the months following his Aldersgate experience. By late 1739, his followers were becoming so numerous that some of them were asking him to take them under his care. He began with Charles' help to organize them into Bands and Classes, but the growth was so dramatic he soon had to recruit band and class leaders and then local preachers to assist in caring for this growing flock of “people called Methodists.” Within five years time the movement had spread over most of Southern England and as far west as Bristol. As many as two dozen leaders had taken on pastoral duties. These were without much formal training or education.

Realizing the need for some form of instruction in “Sound Doctrine,” Wesley called several of the pastors together in the first Annual Conference sessions beginning in 1744. The entire business of these first Annual Conferences was centered around considerations of: “What to teach; How to teach; and What to do, i.e. how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice.”

The pattern of these sessions was to raise questions having to do with the central doctrines of the faith and, after free and open discussion, Wesley himself would state definitively the theological teaching or practice that would be followed. The “Minutes” of these first four Annual Conference became the first doctrinal standards of the Methodist movement. They were focused on the salvation theology of the revival rather than any creedal or confessional statements. Along with Wesley’s Standard Sermons and the Notes on the New Testament, which he soon provided, these early Minutes became the official Doctrinal Standards of the Methodist movement. They embodied what Wesley referred to as “Sound Doctrine.”  

Except for three or four of the later sermons, all of these were in place by the late 1840’s. It wasn’t until 1784 that Wesley deemed it necessary to provide documents for the founding of the American church. He scrubbed the Calvinism out of the Anglican Articles of Religion and sent them along with the “Sunday Service” (in place of the Book of Common Prayer) for incorporation into what would become The Book of Discipline of The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. The Articles of Religion came late to the doctrinal tradition of American Methodism. They have never borne the weight of doctrinal authority that belonged to the confessional past out of which they came. British Methodism takes no note of them.

In the “Minutes” of the Fourth Annual Conference the question is posed, “Was there any thought of uniformity in the government of all churches until the time of Constantine?” Wesley’s reply to the query is: “It is certain there was not, and would not have been then had men consulted the Word of God only.” 

“Orthodoxy,” even the word itself, was an invention of the Romans as a means of insuring uniformity and order. This was the context that gave meaning to the pre-reformation ecumenical councils. Theological conformity had prevailed in the nation states of post-Reformation Europe, but these forms of theological order, or coerced “orthodoxies,” were passing away. The Pietist awakening emerged largely in reaction to the persecution and religious wars that had plagued the people of Europe for more than a hundred years.

In the college library at Lincoln, Wesley read Episcopius’s account of the terrible oppression and injustice the orthodox party had visited upon the followers of Arminius at the Synod of Dort. He had to have been deeply repulsed by the story of the beheading of Oldenbarnevelt. In later years, he wrote about the persecutions and executions of those who held to “wrong opinions.”  In all the years thereafter Wesley never once speaks well of orthodoxy

The persistence with which the Wesleyan Covenant Association pays homage to orthodoxy in the name of Wesleyanism is passing strange.

Wesley was determined to preach “free grace.” It was free for all people. He made league with Wilberforce. His favorite text was Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” The first of the Standard Sermons has always been from that text and is titled: “Free Grace.” It included everyone because God “despiseth nothing that he has made.” And it contained the promise of full deliverance from the power of sin because it was “free in all.”

He honed the hard edges of Calvinism and softened the condemnatory traditions of Dante’s Catholicism. A question was asked in one of the early Conference “Minutes” about whether they should preach about hell and eternal punishment. In Wesley’s response he says, “We do not insist upon it.” In one of his later sermons, he expounds upon how God’s previenient grace might well avail in the soul of a good Muslim.

Our current invitation of “Open Minds, Open Hearts, and Open Doors” is true to the authentic nature of Wesley’s theology. It is a reflection of the inclusive nature of grace that is “free for all and in all.”  By the same token there is a natural disdain for orthodoxy that is reflected in Wesley’s thought throughout his life. He left his mark on a movement that found its legs on the American frontier among a people “yearning to be free.”

* See Carl Bangs, Arminius (Francis Asbury Press, Grand Rapids, 1971) for an excellent account of Arminius' life and work and the Synod of Dort within the context of Dutch Reformation history.

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