Wesley's was a ministry of healing

March 23rd, 2017

Old Doctor Hawkins was a delightfully funny professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the fifties — the nineteen fifties, that is. He was full of pithy sayings and he was not nearly so “old” as I am now. One he enjoyed was, “My doxy is orthodoxy. Your doxy is heterodoxy.” Dr. Hawkins was not “orthodox” and he was proud of it. One old saw he liked was, “God bless the heretics, they’re the saints of tomorrow.” 

I think Dr. Hawkins would have had a ball with a lot of the current efforts to stake out distinctive turf with a new name or classification. Paleo-orthodoxy, he would have likely called “stone age orthodoxy.” He would, I think, have been amenable to my own desire to call the new breed of evangelicals "funky-fundamentalists." They really are fundamentalists, but, since some of them found the term embarrassing, they decided to be “evangelical.” They have almost ruined a good word.

Now they have taken up the banner of claiming Methodism for Orthodoxy. John Wesley would have been chagrined. He was not a fan of orthodoxy and said so repeatedly. But he was devoted to what he called “Sound Doctrine.” Confusing what he meant by sound doctrine with orthodoxy is an exercise in alternative facts.

Sound doctrine for Wesley was focused on saving souls rather than polemics. It would resonate with making disciples for the transformation of the world. Soteriology in theological studies is salvation theology. Wesley’s theology is soteriological. At least from the time he became acquainted with Moravian piety, he was a seeker and then a persistent advocate of the way of Salvation. He never lost his focus. Everything he did after 1738 was committed to making plain the Way to the Kingdom. Students of his work will recognize this in titles to his sermons. Central to everything he taught was the truly evangelical message of the unconditional love and grace of God.  

Surrounded by a cloud of devotees to the Reformed tradition, he struggled for a while with his convictions about Free Grace, i.e., whether he should preach it. He knew some of his closest friends and allies of the early days, George Whitfield and John Cennick, for instance, wouldn’t like it. They, like most of the Moravians who had played such an important role in his own faith journey, believed in election — double predestination in its baldest form. Wesley was deeply influenced by the thought of Jacobus Arminius, so he determined to break the mold and he preached, “Free Grace.”  The abundant Grace of God was Free for all and in all, he declared. It became central to his ministry and is the distinctive Wesleyan contribution to the Christian movement of his time and ours.

He and his brother Charles first gathered a little band of seekers into a class for Bible study, prayer, and mutual support. This early method of teaching and Christian nurture opened the way to multiple conversions and spectacular growth. Rapid expansion soon produced indigenous class leaders and local preachers emerged to take up the load that had outgrown the caring capacity of the two brothers. 

By 1844 it was too large to manage without form and structure. Wesley began annual gatherings of the preachers to facilitate the growth and meet pressing needs of the new movement. Foremost among those needs with so many untrained preachers was preparation for the ministry into which they were being called. Hence, all of the early Annual Conferences were devoted to discussion and instructions for the ministry.  

“Ministry Matters” is a good title for what they were about. Three basic steps were laid out for the agenda: (1) What to teach, (2) How to teach; and (3) What to do, i.e., how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice. This was followed by a series of pointed questions concerning what constitutes sound doctrine. Those present participated freely in the discussion that followed. When a subject had been thoroughly covered, Wesley himself would sum it up with a conclusive answer and directive. The first question dealt with was, what is it to be justified by faith? The second question was what is meant by faith? Then, what are the fruits of justifying faith? There follows a discussion of the relationship of faith and works, etc.  

Questions arise about what they should not teach and preach. Warnings against Calvinism and antinomianism are set forth. Much is said about the meaning of deliverance from sin and the question of sin in believers. The Witness of the Spirit and the work of Sanctification are considered at length. The ethical behavior of pastors is covered along with detailed instructions for the management of the societies’ money and the duties of each officer, such as the stewards and trustees. A list of books for reading and study is prescribed. There are admonitions to “have our minds always open to any farther light which God may give us.” One surprising question for me when I first read it was, “Can any unbeliever (whatever he be in other respects) challenge anything of God’s justice?” The answer, “Absolutely nothing but hell. And this is a point that we cannot too much insist on.”

These dialogical type discussions occur around matters of practical or pastoral theology as a pattern for annual conference sessions from 1844 through 1858. They do not resume until 1865 and after that they continued annually, though the content gradually shifted away from this focus on theological instruction in sound doctrines. It isn’t possible or desirable to cover all of the questions and the issues dealt with in the minutes of the early annual conferences in an article such as this, but they are available to the reader. I spent many hours with them in the early years of my ministry, and I think every Methodist minister should study them thoroughly.

Nothing better represents Wesley’s understanding of Sound Doctrine than these Minutes of the early Annual Conferences. Nowhere in them does the word or concept of “Orthodoxy” occur. One intriguing question that bears some relevance to the roll of orthodoxy in the history of the church is asked on Wednesday, June 17, 1747:  

“Q. 14. Was there any thought of uniformity in the government of all Churches until the time of Constantine?

A. It is certain there was not, and would not have been then had men consulted the word of God only.”

Deeply affected by his reading and study of the ante-Nicene church fathers, whose writings preceded Constantine and the Council of Nicea, Wesley thought of sin as a disease or sickness of the soul. The growing influence of Roman culture after Nicea, with its heavy emphasis on law and order, tended toward a more legalistic understanding of sin.  

For Wesley, ministry was about healing. This is reflected in the pastoral emphasis of these Minutes of the first conferences. It is consistent with the theological content of his preaching and writings. There is nothing of speculative theology or abstract dialogue. Everything was directed toward redeeming people from the corrupting and debilitating affects of a sinful condition in their persons or souls. Sound Doctrine was whatever made the message of the Gospel serve that purpose. It was pastoral rather than dogmatic, full of grace and forgiveness. It embraced the world. It was for the healing of the nations.

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