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.

17 thoughts on “Was Wesley’s Faith a Creedal Faith?

  1. 10 to 1, someone will only read this post and cite 3 lines from that sermon of Wesley’s.

    I find it interesting that the early Methodist groups met and considered orthodoxy as based on the big 3 creeds — even tho John was a bit murky on the latter one.

    The assumption that the high church Anglican was somehow non-creedal is mindblowing.

  2. I would go so far as to say that not only was Wesley and those early Methodist creedal, sacramental and liturgical but that Wesley would be appalled by what has happened to the to many United Methodist as they have abandoned the creeds from being a source of doctrinal authority, abandoned them in their worship in favor of a coffee bar and praise team and stopped using them to teach their catechism in exchange for a some “come to Jesus tent meeting” version of discipleship. Wesley was a high church, sacramental, liturgical evangelistic Anglican and it is time that we reclaim this identity for ourselves as United Methodist.

  3. I think it’s quite clear in the explicit writings of John and Charles that both were indeed committed to the truths embodied and expressed in the three creeds included in the Anglican Articles of Religion.

    But then when it came to crafting these into the Articles of Religion for Methodist in North America, John dropped the Article on the Creeds entirely.

    And when it came to including the creeds in the liturgy he sent over for adoption and use, he completely omitted both the Athanasian Creed (which didn’t appear in the ritual proper of the BCP, anyway, but in its own section after morning and evening prayer and before the Great Litany, which he did not omit) and the Nicene Creed (or ANY creed) at Eucharist, which he intended to be celebrated every Sunday. What he actually gave Methodists then was no doctrinal commitment to the creeds per se, any of them, and only the Apostles Creed for use, assuming they actually used the services of morning and evening prayer he also provided, or a version of the Apostles Creed as found in the baptismal rite.

    And he did all of this with no comment anywhere I know of about why he did so.

    So we’re left with a conundrum. On the one hand we have lots of clear written evidence attesting to his belief in and faithfulness of himself and the Methodist movement to the three creeds. On the other we see him omitting the Article on the Creeds from the Articles of Religion, removing all forms of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds from the ritual he provided, and leaving the Apostles Creed only in morning and evening prayer and the baptismal ritual.

    The conundrum isn’t about what the Wesleys believed or said they expected Methodists to believe. It’s about what John actually did with the creeds when he took the opportunity to adapt Anglican doctrine and ritual for us.

    The Methodists over here did not bind themselves in any way to all of Mr Wesley’s writings, not even as United Methodists would do in their union to the Standard Sermons and the Notes upon the New Testament, but only to the Articles and the ritual. And then they pretty well gutted the ritual in 1792, removing morning and evening prayer and with it the Apostles Creed from the one place it may have been fairly commonly used, and leaving behind a truncated (by an unauthorized change in the print shop in 1786) version of the Apostles Creed in the baptismal ritual.

    What in your mind, Dr Watson, seems best to account for these discrepancies between the Wesleys statements defending the centrality of the creeds for himself and for Methodists and these historical actions by John and early American Methodists which would seem at least to raise considerable questions about the importance of the creeds to John and the Methodists?

    I’m not asking to put you on the spot. I’m really curious what you think about this!

    • Thanks Taylor…..this was my understanding of Wesley’s approach to American Methodism……it begs the question in our day of worldwide Methodism, what is the creedal understanding of our church?

    • Thanks for these insights and questions, Taylor. I tend to think of it this way: The reason that many UM’s are pushing for more emphasis on the creeds today is that we have seen the collapse of doctrine in the UM tradition. The so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” has undercut the extent to which the Articles and Confession can actually be seen as binding. If you believe, as I do, that the great truths of the faith have soteriological value, then this is a problem.

      In Wesley’s day, there was no quadrilateral. One could basically assume that the basic truths of the faith were held and taught in Anglican and Methodist communities. As I’m sure you know, Wesley’s England was a confessional state. So the article on the creed would likely have seemed redundant. Further, as you note, Wesley did not entirely remove the creeds from use among Methodists. He only removed the article on the creed.

      I don’t think John Wesley ever would have dreamed that his movement would achieve the level of doctrinal apathy that we have seen in the UMC. What was assumed in Wesley’s day may need intentional re-appropriation in our own.

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on these matters.

      • David,

        I find myself befuddled by Mr Wesley’s decision to remove the Article on the Creeds, or even not to edit it to remove the Athanasian Creed (which his writings demonstrate he affirmed in principle, but not in the letter, particularly not in the anathemas), and his wholesale removal of the Nicene Creed (or ANY creed) from the Eucharistic liturgy. That the 1792 GC thought it could simply eliminate Morning and Evening Prayer entirely, and with it ANY regular rehearsal of the Apostles Creed, says to me at least two things. First, American Methodists weren’t using these liturgies, so saw no need of them as a whole and second, they didn’t see any value in creeds in regular weekly worship at all. That Mr Wesley had deleted the Article on the Creeds may have given some support to the removal creeds from regular Methodist worship entirely within 8 years of the founding of the MEC over here.

        I can imagine how that happened. Methodist worship, per se– what most Methodists did AS Methodists in their Society Meetings– probably never had creeds. Mr Wesley required Methodists also to attend Anglican or other services where some creed was very likely rehearsed weekly on Sunday mornings. But this was not worship THEY were leading AS Methodists. It may have seemed an add-on to them, not an essential.

        Add to that the reality of the typical 12 point charge, in which the typical Methodist society-become-congregation would have an elder present (someone who may have had at least some schooling or experience in leading Anglican-style worship) maybe four times per year, and the worship that was happening 48 Sundays out of 52 was going to have to be more lay-led, as was that of the Methodist Society meetings (on Sunday nights) they had known before Mr Wesley required them all to use a revised Anglican liturgy for Sunday mornings– and maybe evenings, too, if this is why he included the ritual for Evening Prayer as well.

        I can imagine those as the kinds of issues at play that led to these outcomes. But I don’t know how we could say any of that definitively, because, from what I can tell, these kinds of things aren’t documented. It’s at best a speculative if plausible explanation.

        We truly need the grounding the Articles, Confession, Sermons and Notes can supply. And I agree with you that the fuzzy (and lamentable as implemented) “quadrilateral” idea has replaced our de jure standards to become, however inadequately, almost our singular de facto doctrinal standard. We can and should and must do better at teaching and helping people live out the doctrinal standards we have identified de jure.

        But… I’d argue that’s a fool’s errand unless we have some compact, memorable and widely shared statement that effectively underlies and summarizes what those varying kinds of documents (articles, confession, sermons and notes) in their highly disparate and scattered ways are speaking from and getting at. And I’d suggest the Nicene Creed is that robust, compact and sufficiently thorough statement that could do this among us, as in fact it had among most American Methodists who were attending Anglican Eucharists until Mr Wesley separated us from the Church of England on this side of the pond.

        Perhaps Mr Wesley thought we didn’t need the Nicene Creed in regular worship (and so in our collective memories) if we continued to meet as congregations on Sunday mornings, as Societies on Sunday evenings and in class meetings during the week. Maybe with all of those points of contact to reinforce our doctrine, spirit and discipline, we didn’t need to muck up the flow from the reading of the gospel to the sermon by putting in a creed just there (as in the 1662 BCP).

        But what we know happened was the society meetings quit functioning as society meetings pretty early on, and the class meetings became either something else entirely or were in such a state of decay or collapse that GC could make them, in essence, optional in the 1840s. (I’d say the records I’ve seen indicate this was about a 20 year delay of the point at which class meetings, at least among “white” Methodists over here, were in essence defunct).

        So even if we take it that John Wesley and the early Methodists meant well by what they did in effectively elmininating creeds entirely not only from their doctrinal standards but from their weekly worship, and so their collective memory, I think we have to acknowledge we may have learned the results were not good and, in fact, we do need the creeds, especially the Nicene.

  4. I appreciate very much David’s blog and also Taylor’s reminders about the history of American Methodism. Taylor reminds us that the Wesleyan heritage was appropriated differently in America. I think a question for the UMC or any Christian communion today is whether or not we are committed to the apostolic faith as it has been received in the catholic tradition, which is summarized by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 (our Nicene Creed). There is an excellent explication of this creed published in “Confessing the One Faith” by the World Council of Churches in 1991. This book is intended to provided a basis for the explication of the apostolic faith which is necessary for churches to recognize the apostolic faith as a condition for achieving a visible unity among the churches through a common confession of the apostolic faith. “Recognition” involves three things: each church is called to recognize 1) the apostolic faith in its own life and practice; 2) the need for repentance and renewal as a consequence of seeing where they are not faithful to the apostolic faith; 3) other churches as churches where the apostolic faith is proclaimed and confessed. In other words, to be a church in the historic and full sense of the term is not merely to be Wesleyan, Reformed, Lutheran, etc., but to be apostolic and catholic, and the identity of any communion as the church involves recognizing the apostolic faith in the three ways described in “Confessing the One Faith.” I hear David urging us today to take this recognition very seriously and indicating that this kind of recognition is not inconsistent with the Wesleyan heritage.

  5. Pingback: John Wesley, Americans, and Sectual Experimentation - Unsettled Christianity

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