Was Wesley’s Faith a Creedal Faith?

Update (4/11/15): Since I wrote this post, a much more thorough and informative piece has been written by my friend Andrew Thompson. If this topic is of interest to you, I encourage you read Andrew’s post. 

A few friends of mine and I have been discussing the matter of whether or not John Wesley was committed to a creedal version of the Christian faith. I asked my friend and colleague Scott Kisker what he thought about this question, and his answer was, “Of course. He was an Anglican.” I suppose I could end the post here, then, but in case you’re interested I’ll offer a few additional reflections. I also want to recommend a recent post by Joel Watts, who has assembled an excellent collection of quotations from the Wesleys emphasizing the importance they placed on the Church’s creedal tradition.

“The Catholic Spirit,” is one of John Wesley’s most often-quoted sermons. It is a reflection on 2 Kings 10:15: “And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him, and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart And Jehonadab answered: It is. If it be, give me thine hand.”

In some ways, Wesley was indeed very open-minded:

I dare not, therefore, presume to impose my mode of worship on any other. I believe it is truly primitive and apostolical: but my belief is no rule for another. I ask not, therefore, of him with whom I would unite in love, Are you of my church? Of my congregation? Do you receive the same form of church government, and allow the same church officers, with me? Do you join in the same form of prayer wherein I worship God? I inquire not, Do you receive the supper of the Lord in the same posture and manner that I do? nor whether, in the administration of baptism, you agree with me in admitting sureties for the baptized, in the manner of administering it; or the age of those to whom it should be administered. Nay, I ask not of you (as clear as I am in my own mind), whether you allow baptism and the Lord’s supper at all. Let all these things stand by: we will talk of them, if need be, at a more convenient season, my only question at present is this, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart (“The Catholic Spirit, 1.11).

Yet Wesley was no doctrinal relativist. There were people in Wesley’s day who demonstrated an indifference to the particularities of doctrine. They were known as “speculative latitudinarians,” and Wesley referred to them as the “spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.” In his opinion, the person who truly demonstrated the catholic spirit “has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.”(“The Catholic Spirit,” 3.1).

For Wesley, the first five centuries of the Christian faith represented a crucial period of doctrinal formation in which the Church hammered out its doctrinal identity. His chief locus of formation in the Church’s ancient traditions was the Book of Common Prayer. Therefore while the Nicene and Apostles Creeds would have been important for Wesley, they were only a part of a much wider network of doctrinal formation that was also articulated in the Articles of Religion. It is likely, then, that he did not place a great emphasis on the creeds because its tenets were assumed as part of Anglican, and later Methodist, formation.

As Robert Wall has written,

The communion of Methodists speaks with glad hearts of Wesley’s via salutis–his “way of salvation.” This is his “grand scheme of doctrine” that unifies Scripture and both regulates and animates a Wesleyan reading of Scripture. No part of this grand scheme departs from the doctrinal loci of the church’s ecumenical creeds, especially articulated by Anglicanism’s Articles of Religion. Yet no part is more strategic to Wesley’s soteriology than the doctrine of new birth; no reading of Scripture can escape its impress. The believer’s regeneration is the lynchpin that holds justification by faith and one’s present, inward salvation” together.  (Robert W. Wall, “Reading Scripture, the Literal Sense, and the Analogy of Faith,” in Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture, ed. Joel B. Green and David F. Watson, Baylor, 2012).

Wesley, then, assumed the truth of the Church’s great creeds, and he assumed other Christians did as well. He offered the right hand of friendship to Christians of many other traditions, and yet he most certainly held that “primitive” Christianity–the Nicene-Constantinopolitan faith developed over the first five centuries of the Christian era–was key to understanding God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.