What Are The Wesleyan Distinctives That Shape And Inform Christian Higher Education Today?

William M. Greathouse
Point Loma Nazarene University
April 16, 1998


In his 1935 ground-breaking book, The Rediscovery of John Wesley, George Croft Cell of Boston University made the following claim concerning John Wesley’s place in the history of Christian life and thought: "The most important fact about the Wesleyan understanding of the Gospel in relation to the Christian ethic of life is the the early Protestant doctrine of justification by faith and the Catholic appreciation of the idea of holiness or Christian perfection--two principles that had been fatally put asunder in the great church conflicts of the sixteenth century--reappeared in the comprehensive spirit of Wesley’s teaching an fitly framed together in a well-balanced synthesis...[John Wesley] restored the neglected doctrine of holiness to its merited position in the Protestant understanding of Christianity."1

A generation later Albert C. Outler, in his volume, John Wesley, in the Library of Protestant Thought, claimed of the English reformer: "As a major figure in a major religious movement he...had glimpsed the underlying unity of Christian truth in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions... In the name of a Christianity both Biblical and patristic, he managed to transcend the stark and doctrinal disjunctions which spilled so much ink an blood since Augsberg and Trent. In their stead, he proceeded to develop a theological fusion of faith and good works, Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason, God’s sovereignty and human freedom, universal redemption and conditional election, Christian liberty and an orderly polity, the assurance of pardon and the risks of ‘falling from grace,’ original sin and Christian perfection. In each of these conjunctions, as he insisted almost tediously, the initiative is with God, the response is with [humans]."2 Outler’s label for Wesley’s distinctive doctrinal perspective was "evangelical Catholicism."3 Such evangelical catholicity is our heritage as those who follow in the steps of John Wesley (1703-1791) and, as I hope to show in this presentation, provides a uniquely significant platform from which to engage in higher education.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the fact that John Wesley was a theologian in the Church of England. His gospel was an expression of eighteenth-century Anglicanism, albeit Anglicanism with a distinctive focus, source and form.4 Our first endeavor, therefore is to locate John Wesley within the English tradition, to give his theological position its proper historical setting.

Since John Wesley was an Anglican churchman to the marrow of his bones, it is important for our purposes to note that the English Reformation, from the moment of its origin, took a distinctively different approach to the Christian faith from that of either the Continental Reformers or the Roman Catholic Church from which it had emerged.

Under the primary leadership of Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Jewell, Richard Hooker, and others--whom Henry had sent to Geneva to learn from the Continental Protestantism--the Church of England intentionally constructed a theological "middle way," a via media between Reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In formulating their theology these early divines led the way in making the Church of England "an independent branch of the Church Universal...with a positive doctrine and discipline of its own and a definite mission in the wide economy of grace"5 (a vision which found its most powerful expression in John and Charles Wesley and the eighteenth century Revival).

Hooker and his colleagues returned from Geneva to Britain in full embrace of the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith. The Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura, however, they perceived to be scriptural authoritarianism, fostered by a literalistic and exclusivistic hermeneutic. While accepting the primary authority of Scripture, the English divines felt strongly the other authorities, reason and tradition in particular, should also have a place in formulating theology. The English Reformation thus consciously and purposefully drew what it saw as the best from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions.6 "There are but two waies whereby the spirit leadeth men into all truth," Hooker wrote: "the one extraordinarie, the other common;...the one that which we call by a special divine excellency, Revelation, the other Reason."7 There was thus in Anglicanism an appeal to a "threefold fount of guidance and authority"--to Scripture, reason, and tradition-- "all alike of God, alike emanating from Him, the one original Source of all light and power."8

The English reformers sensed no need to construct a systematic theology such as Calvin’s Institutes; their efforts were rather invested in "practical divinity." Understanding the mission of the Church of England to be that of renewing "the true, primitive, catholic faith" of the New Testament and the early Christian tradition, they set forth Anglican theology in Homilies, a biblical sermons in which rang clear the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith. In formulating their creed they drew up the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion; in providing a liturgy for the people they formed The Book of Common Prayer. The Articles and the Homilies were the standards by which Wesley defended himself against his detractors in the heat of the Revival; The Book of Common Prayer was his daily guide in worship to his death. From the Thirty-Nine Articles of Anglicanism he formulated the twenty-five Articles of Religion for American Methodism while from the Book of Common Prayer he drew up his Sunday Service of Methodists in North America.9

It was as faithful Anglicans that the Charles and John Wesley birthed the Holy Club in Oxford, following their decision to enter the priesthood. "In the year of 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age," John writes, " I met with Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected; that part in particular which relates to purity of intention. Instantly my thoughts and words and actions, being thoroughly convinced, there was no medium; but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil."10 After imbibing Taylor, the reading of Thomas a Kempis and William Law deepened his purpose to be "all devoted to God." "In the year 1729," Wesley then significantly notes in the Plain Account, "I began not only to read, but to study the Bible as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion." 11

It was as a high church Anglican that John (with Charles as secretary to General Oglethorpe) went to America "to convert the Indians," only on his return from his failed mission to cry, "Who shall convert me?" Aboard ship in December, 1737, he confided in his Journal his "want" of true saving faith in Christ. But it was Moravian missionary Peter Bohler, whom he met shortly after his return to London, who finally showed him the scriptural way of justification by faith. After some months of preaching saving faith in Christ (not yet experiencing it himself) Wesley made the historic Journal entry of May 24, 1738:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where on was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation: And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. 12

A "Copernican revolution" (Cell's phrase) had occurred in John Wesley's faith and life. About thirty years later, in conference with his preachers, Wesley raised the question: "What was the rise of Methodism, so called?"

"A In 1729, two young men reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it, and incited others to do so. In 1737 they saw holiness comes by faith. They saw likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point. God then thrust them out, utterly against their will, to raise a holy people."13

If it was Peter Bohler who sparked Wesley's faith, it was Aldersgate that certified his theology and set his heart ablaze, flaming the Wesleyan Revival with its distinctive message - that God justifies sinners in order to sanctify them. Along with justifying faith, the Wesley brothers had learned (first from Holy Scripture and then from experience), God gives the Holy Spirit, who then begins a work of moral transformation that issues in entire sanctification for those who "press on" to Christian perfection (Phil. 3:10-15). Precisely her is our Wesleyan heritage - an historic via media between Protestant and Catholic views of salvation, holiness, and the Christian ethic - as an expression of the Holy God's purpose "to raise a holy people" on earth.

The truly new and revolutionary aspect of John Wesley's theology was his emphasis on Christian experience - that is, the centrality of the Person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. "The title 'holy' he writes, "applies to the Spirit of God, does not only denote that he is holy in himself, but that he makes us so; that he is the great fountain of holiness to his church; the Spirit from whence flows all the grace and virtue, by which the stains of guilt are cleansed, and we are renewed in all holy dispositions, and again bear the image of our Creator." 14

It was John Wesley's understanding of the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers that gave to his theology a new focus, source, and form. In his recognition of the role of the Spirit in Christian experience, the Anglican Trilateral (Scripture, reason, and tradition) became "the Wesleyan Quadrilateral" (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience). The new focus of Wesley's faith and ethic was on "holiness of heart and life", or Christian perfection; its new source was experience; its new form, "the restoration of the neglected doctrine of holiness to its merited position in the Protestant understanding of Christianity." 15

The term "Wesleyan Quadrilateral," coined by Albert Outler in 1964, has become a commonplace designation of Wesleyan methodology. The term, however, needs to be critically qualified, since it may be, and sometimes is, taken to imply four co-equal sources of truth; such an understanding of the Quadrilateral robs Scripture of its final authority. Although Scripture was not for Wesley the sole source of truth, it was its primary source. As we have already noted, form the year 1729, "the Bible" was for him, "the one, the only standard of truth." From that time, he was homo unius libri, "a man of one book." 16 Taking into account the primacy of Scripture in Wesley's reflection on the nature of truth, Randy Maddox observes, "Indeed, Wesley's so-called 'quadrilateral' ... could more adequately be described as unilateral rule of Scripture within a trilateral hermeneutic of reason, tradition and experience."17 How to understand and apply this so-called "rule of Scripture" is of paramount importance for Wesleyan educators. Perhaps Charles Wesley may give us a hint to our query in the hymn he composed for the opening of the Kingswood School for Methodist children: "Unite the two so long disjoined, / Knowledge and vital piety." 18 Wesleyan education at all levels seeks to wed "knowledge" and "vital piety" under the rules of Scripture.

Perhaps we are now in a position to address the question: "How do our Wesleyan Distinctives shape and inform Christian higher education today?"

Shall we begin by suggesting that for Wesleyan educators the revelation of God in the Bible, and supremely in Christ Jesus His Son and our Lord, takes precedence over human reason and all other sources of knowledge or truth? The Word God speaks to us in personal: God graciously discloses himself to us in Scripture and finally in Christ (Heb. 1:1-4). "Our first commitment, our only absolute commitment." Paul Bassett rightly claims, "is to the sovereign God as He has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Nothing is permitted equality with that commitment. All else will either be totally encompassed by that commitment and totally mastered by that commitment or shucked immediately without a backward glance." 19

Completing a phase of my graduate study, I faced this question on an examination: "How has your study in the university affected your faith as a Christian?" My answer ran something like this: "When I was sixteen I encountered God in Christ, and my life was transformed. In that encounter Jesus Christ became not only my Redeemer, but also Ultimate Reality. Everything I have studied here that I have found compatible with 'the truth as it is in Jesus' I have appropriated as a part of my faith; everything incompatible with that truth I have discarded as unworthy of my faith".

Such a faith, as Paul said, is folly to the world; but for us who believe, Jesus Christ is not only the power of God, He is also the wisdom of God. Faith in Christ transforms our existence; at the same time it brings the Spirit, who illuminates our minds and gives us Christian gnosis (1 Cor. 1:18--2:17). Edward T. Ramsdell, my Vanderbilt professor of Wesley studies, states the case in these words:

The thoughtful Christian does not, and cannot, think of his faith as irrational. He is certain that the revelation of God in Christ is the key to his own humanity and to the world in which he lives. He will acknowledge that his appropriation of the divine Word is deeply personal; yet its reasonableness is exactly its objectivity - it illuminates his total experience and is available to all men. 20

Whatever our discipline, therefore, whether it be theology or psychology, biology or nuclear physics, we teach in the confidence that the God of redemption is also the God of creation - and therefore that all truth is God's truth. It is our quiet confidence that the Bible properly interpreted (as God's self-disclosure) and science properly understood (as descriptive of God's activity in the world) do not, indeed cannot, contradict each another. It is from this perspective that we pursue our several disciplines. As we struggle with the issues that inevitably arise in our given discipline, we do so in the confidence hat the Spirit will guide us in to "all the truth" (John 16:13, NRSV) as our faith seeks understanding. As a Wesleyan I say with Anselm, "I believe in order that I may understand."

As proper Wesleyans, however, we never forget that our scholarship is secondary to our discipleship - to Jesus Christ, who calls and empowers us to love God totally and neighbor as self. Our first commitment, our only absolute commitment, is to God who has revealed himself to us in His Son. Relation faith to our particular disciplines becomes a second-order process. "Important indeed", as Paul Bassett conceded, "but second order. First, one tries to ascertain how the very process of forming the conclusions can be made an expression of believing, of loving God and neighbor absolutely. Then one moves to those intellectual conclusions, testing them in tow ways: as valid products of the given academic discipline and as expressions of absolute love to God and neighbor." 21

As Wesleyans, we are distinguished from fundamentalists on the right and from liberals on the left.

Fundamentalism suffers from the same weakness that Richard Hooker found in the Continental doctrine of sola Scriptura: scriptural authoritarianism, or biblicism, the notion that the Bible is to be taken as the sole authority, not only in matters of faith and practice but also in science and all fields of human knowledge (as for example in so-called "creation science"). The basic flaw in this position is the faulty view of revelation: Scripture is received as a revelation of knowledge about God and truth, rather that as a gracious, personal disclosure of the living God himself. This vie is also known as "propositionalism," Christian faith being understood primarily as belief in propositions rather than as trust in a Person. (Admittedly the Bible contains propositional truths, as second-order revelation, the greatest of all propositions being John 3:16.) In marshalling all its arguments to prove the "truth" of Biblical propositions, Fundamentalism unwittingly represents a triumph of reason over revelation!

If we must guard against Fundamentalism on the right, we face an even more subtle threat from Liberalism on the left. The reason this latter error poses a special threat to our Wesleyan heritage is precisely because we recognize authorities other than Scripture as sources of truth. By the very nature of its theological methodology, destabilizing forces threaten Wesleyan faith. Therefore, unless we carefully guard against a distortion of the so-called "Wesleyan Quadrilateral," tradition or reason or experience (in some form or another, or in combination 22) will subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermine "the rule of Scripture" in the faith and life of the Church we love. When this happens, we become "tossed about by every wind of doctrine" and tend to lose our identity, faith, and God-given sense of mission to "spread scriptural holiness to the ends of the earth." The more educated and sophisticated we become, the greater this danger. Frequently it is in its institutions of higher education that Wesleyans begin to lose their direction and drift towards the rocks. My own alma mater is a disturbing illustration of this ever-present threat. In a tragic story chronicled by First Things, the Roman Catholic ecumenical journal, Vanderbilt University, founded to preserve and propagate the faith of southern Methodism, has sold its spiritual birthright: originally a bastion of Wesleyan faith, today its Divinity School is riddled with theological pluralism! 23 Let this sad fact be a solemn reminder to us gathered here tonight as Christian academics.

At the risk of oversimplification I would in conclusion summarize the Wesleyan Distinctives that should inform and guide our task as persons engaged in Christian higher education:

  1. The rule of Holy Scripture in both the life and the faith of the University;
  2. The prevenience of grace in both personal redemption and the academic pursuit of truth;
  3. The preservation and propagation of the doctrine of Christian holiness

In acknowledging and bowing to the rule of Scripture over the academic community, we find this rule not restrictive but liberating: freeing not only from sin, which distorts human values and existence, but also from the darkness and futile thinking of an intellect blinded by rebellion and unbelief. But biblical liberation is also positive; it brings the knowledge of Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Bible, when received with Wesley as God's loving self-disclosure, liberates the human spirit also for a life of absolute love to God and neighbor, true servanthood as revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ, who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as ransom for many.

Furthermore, with Wesley we believe in universal Prevenient grace. The notion of Prevenient grace preserves the biblical declaration that we are saved by grace alone; it also preserves the biblical declarations about human moral responsibility. Christ is indeed "the light enlightening every man coming in to the world" (see John 1:9), making us all morally responsible. "What does this have to do with us as educators?" Paul Bassett asks.

One point to be made is that if the Holy Spirit has so gifted us and our students with Prevenient grace, you and I are never teaching in a morally neutral context. As long as we are talking about God's creatures, we believe ourselves to be talking about God's own work. But we cannot speak of Gods work without involving God. So God will be speaking in it all, trying to get us and our students to box our compasses with God as true north, as it were. Such is the seriousness of God's purpose that he will exercise every opening we give him to draw people to himself... We simply go about our teaching in the calm confidence that today, the Spirit is calling us and our students to himself and will use our work to do it... For this reason we approach our disciplines with discipline and reverence, for they will be means of grace. 24

Finally, the distinctive truth to which we freely commit ourselves as Wesleyan educators is the doctrine of "holiness of heart and life," or Christian perfection, the faith that God justifies believers in order to sanctify them, i.e., to transform them into the likeness of Christ by empowering them to love as Jesus loved.

John Wesley's distinctive conviction was that there is, in the process of sanctification, "an experience of grace subsequent to regeneration, instantaneously receivable, which renders the believer capable of acting and being in complete conformity to the Great Commandment. 25 A year before his death Wesley wrote, "This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appears to have raised us up." The Church of the Nazarene stands in this grand tradition. 26

For John Wesley, sanctification was not an emotional but a moral experience, an ethical transformation enabling believers to reflect "Christ, who is the image of God." InterVarsity Press has this month release H. Ray Dunning's treatment of this theme in his brilliant volume, Reflecting the Divine Image: Christian Ethics in Wesleyan Perspective. 27 Dr. P.F. Bresee was also distinctively Wesleyan in his conviction that the essence of sanctification is the believer's "transfiguration" into the image and likeness of God. Dr. Paul Culbertson once told me that for Dr. Bresee, the key New Testament holiness text was 2 Cor. 3:18: "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord" (KJV". From this text Bresee preached one of his finest sermons, "The Transfigured Image." God grant that we may all catch this Wesleyan vision and experience its transforming power in our lives and ministry!

On the eve of Dr. Robert I. Brower's inauguration as the fourteenth president of Point Loma Nazarene University, let us wholeheartedly and reverently commit a new to the sacred heritage which is ours as those who walk in the steps of John Wesley and Phineas F. Bresee, founder of this institution.


End Notes

  1. George Croft Cell, The Rediscovery of John Wesley (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1935), 359.
  2. Albert C. Outler, John Wesley in A Library of Prodestant Thought, John Dillenberger, chair, Editorial Board (New York: Oxford Press, 1964), viii.
  3. Ibid.
  4. "In the contempory theological situation", Outler writes, "Wesley may be more readily appreciated as an ‘ecumerical theologian’ than as the eponymous hero of a particular denomination" (Ibid, xii)
  5. A.D. Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan House, 1998), 36-37.
  6. Ibid, see 36-39.
  7. Richard Hooker, preface, Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 4 vols, Folger Library Editon of the Works of Richard Hooker, gen. ed. W. Speed Hill (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977), 1:17.
  8. Francis Pagent’s summary of Hooker, Thorsen, Weslyan Quadrilateral, 39.
  9. John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, with and Introduction by James F. White. Copyright 1984 by the United Methodist Publishing House and the United Methodist Board of Higher Edfucation and Ministry.
  10. John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1966), 9-10.
  11. "Re-Wesleyaning Nazarene Higher Education," Unpublished address to Faith, Learning, and Living Conference, Point Loma Nazarene University, June 18-20, 1985, 11.
  12. John Wesley, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., ed. by Thomas Jackson (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, reprinted 1972), 1;103.
  13. Works, 8; 238.
  14. Works, 7; 486.
  15. Cell, Rediscovery of John Wesley, 359.
  16. "Preface" to his sermons, 3, Works, Vol. 5.
  17. Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology, Kingswoods Books, Rex D. Matthews, Director (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 219.
  18. Collection. 644: cited by Richard P. Heitzemater. Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdoa Press 1995), 219
  19. "Re-Wesleyanizing Nazarene Higher Education," 13.
  20. Edward T. Ramsdell, The Christian Perspective (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 17.
  21. "Re-Wesleyanizing," 13.
  22. See William J. Abraham, Keeping Up With the Jones’ on John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture in Weslyan Theological Journal (Spring, 1993) 33:1:5-13.
  23. James Tunstead Burtchaell, " The Decline and Fall of the Christian College," 1, 11, First Things, April, May 1991.
  24. Bassett, "Re-Wesleyanizing," 18. 19.
  25. Paul Bassett, "Conservative Wesleyan Theology and the Challenge of Secular Humanism," Wesleyan Theological Journal (Spring, 1973), 8;74.
  26. See "Preamble," Manual of the Church of Nazarene (1993-97), 26.
  27. H. Ray Dunning, Reflecting the Divine Image: Christian Ethics in Wesleyan Perspective (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois, 1998).

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