The lessons of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” are lost on many Christians. The Divine Health (as opposed to Divine Healing) crowd hates the idea that there might be a disease that God chooses NOT to heal. The Deliverance crowd hates the thought that there might be demonic oppression from which God chooses NOT to deliver. The Word-of-Faith, Hyper-Faith crowd hates the notion that there might be a prayer that God might choose NOT to answer in the affirmative, or a presumed legal claim to a promise to which God might refuse to comply.
The blanket lesson of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is that “Christ’s grace is sufficient.” Christ asserts this claim to Paul in spite of contrary outward appearances. The main contrary circumstance was continued mortality manifested by continued need, continued pain, continued oppression, as Paul experienced in his flesh. The fact that Christ’s grace remained “sufficient” in spite of mortality demonstrates many subordinate lessons. One is that Christ’s priorities are not our own. Human suffering in itself is not outside the will of the Lord. The Spirit said of Paul, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Peter described those “that suffer according to the will of God” (1 Peter 4:19). Epaphroditus was “sick nigh unto death,” but was praised by Paul for his dedicated service (Php. 2:27).
Yet another lesson is that while we have received “the earnest of the Spirit,” and in the eschatological sense Eternal Life, believers have not yet received the fullness of that “inheritance” (2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5; Eph. 1:13 ff.; 1 Peter 1:3 ff.). Not until the Parousia (“appearing in person”) of Christ will we be “changed” to “see him as he is” and “be like him” (1 Cor. 13:12, 15:51 f.; Col. 3:4; Php. 3:21; 2 Tim. 1:10; Titus 2:13; 1 Jn. 3:2). Immortality remains a future promise and a “purchased possession” yet to be redeemed (Gal. 3:14 ff., Eph. 1:14, 1 Tim. 4:8, 2 Tim. 1:1, Heb. 10:36 f., 1 Jn. 2:25). Therefore, the Church can at times expect to experience a “foretaste” of immortality, but never its fullness, as the Spirit “divides severally as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11).
In particular, Paul was taught a lesson pertinent to “the abundance of the revelations” that he had received. Christ’s purpose was “lest I should be exalted above measure.” Paul needed “self” to be deflated enough to keep his feet firmly planted on solid ground — or rather, enough to realize that the power working in and through him was that of Christ and not a product of his own human strength, intelligence, holiness, or pedigree. No, the Lord declared, “my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Only in the failure of “self” does humanity turn to God, and only in his utter inability would Paul learn and be reminded to rely solely on the Lord.
Thus we come round to the sticking point wherein self-reliant and self-actualizing people dismiss the lessons of the thorn in the flesh. People hate not getting what they want. Even more, people hate suffering. The flesh bridles at being denied. We see everywhere people going to great lengths, trodding over laws and over other people, insensitive to principles and the rights and welfare of others, in a never-ending quest to get what they want at all costs. Christians are hardly immune to this propensity. In arguing with the lessons of the thorn, those who hate it actually demonstrate the need for it by their own carnality and lack of consecration to the Lord. They will not put up with any such burden! They sacrifice New Testament principles while stubbornly misappropriating others, in self-seeking and spiritual pride. In so doing, they risk a mighty downfall when brought to the end of their own devices by their own thorn, which is sure to come in time.
Paul came to his thorn in all earnestness. The thought of the thorns facing the carnal and rebellious is too horrible to contemplate.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes
The following is to be added to the original Part 7—Epilogue of my blog series, “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” hence included in Chapter 7 of the resulting print version, Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology. The paperback print version, with other additions, is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online booksellers.
Advocates and defenders of John Wesley (1703–1791) are quick to assert that any elements of Neoplatonism and Mysticism within the order of the Anglican Church were well-known and acknowledged, suitably dealt-with, and adequately mitigated. It is moreover suggested that Wesley, if accused of harboring any such influences, hardly introduced them himself. John Cassian, as mentioned in Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew, had introduced Evagrius to the Western Church, and “had physically brought back with him Basil’s Institutes, a work which would serve as a model for western monastic rules, including Benedict’s.” These ideas significantly influenced Thomas á Kempis and later mystics, including the Jansenists and Port-Royalists, “their Augustinian orientation notwithstanding.”1
By the Seventeenth Century, English intellectuals and divines had rediscovered many works of the Eastern Mystics, and began to publish new editions. The “Cambridge Platonists,” in particular, turned away from Aristotle and Scholasticism and renewed interest in Plato.2 Anglicanism, seeking a “middle way” (via media) of compromise between salvation by faith alone and salvation by works, found especially in the works of John Chrysostom a “forgotten strand of theosis,” as Steve McCormick describes it, in the guise of “divine-human participation.”3 But then, Thomas Cranmer, in the time of Henry VIII, had already incorporated Neoplatonic “participation” into the Book of Common Prayer, namely, his homilies “Of Salvation,” “Of the True, Lively and Christian Faith,” and “Of Good Works Annexed Unto Faith.” Together, these comprise the formal expression of Anglican soteriology.4 In 1738, John Wesley abridged Cranmer’s three homilies into “his first doctrinal manifesto.”5
The son of an Anglican rector (local priest), Wesley was steeped in Anglicanism, which he never abandoned. His father, Samuel, particularly enamored of Chrysostom, urged his son to obtain a copy of Chrysostom’s work, On the Priesthood (De sacerdotia), with the words, “Master it: digest it”; and later, “Master St. Chrysostom, our Articles and the form of Ordination.” “If I were to preach in Greek,” Samuel wrote, “St. Chrysostom should be my master.”6 John was further encouraged to study the Church Fathers, especially those of the first three centuries of the Christian era, by John Clayton, an accomplished Patristics scholar.7
Wesley learned from his father to appreciate the ancient pastoral theologians: Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasius and Cyprian (Advice to a Young Clergyman).8
Wesley later recommended the Eastern Fathers, and borrowed heavily from Chrysostom in his own Address to Clergy (1756).9 He wrote, for instance,
Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused, if they do not add to that of the languages and sciences, the knowledge of the Fathers? The most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom “all Scripture was given?” It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nice[a]. But who would not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them? With St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, [Augustine]; and above all, that man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?10
In his writings and preaching, Wesley “Frequently cited … Basil, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Ephraem Syrus, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Polycarp and (Pseudo-)Macarius.” The latter, Pseudo-Macarius, was to become a significant influence on Wesley’s doctrines: in particular, those of “Prevenient Grace” and “Christian Perfection.” While Wesley at times differs with Macarius in details, clearly “the similarities are much stronger than the differences ….”11
Wesley himself described several of the other early influences on his devotional life as well as his theology:
In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, 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 with that part in particular which relates to purity of intention….
In the year 1726, I met with Kempis’s ‘Christian Pattern.’ The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw, that giving even all my life to God, (supposing it possible to do this and go no farther,) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him. I saw that ‘simplicity of intention and purity of affection,’ one design in all we speak or do, and one desire, ruling all our tempers, are indeed ‘the wings of the soul,’ without which she can never ascend to the mount of God.
A year or two after, Mr. Law’s ‘Christian Perfection,’ and ‘Serious Call,’ were put into my hands. These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian.12
Over the course of his life, Wesley utilized a great many recent secondary works that applied Eastern principles, and (as we shall see) created others of his own. Kempis he found too pessimistic: “I cannot think, that when God sent us into the world, he had irreversibly decreed, that we should be perpetually miserable in it,”13 yet Wesley largely embraced his concepts of self-abnegation and ascent. William Law had been a mentor to John and his brother Charles.14 Law and Jeremy Taylor were both attempting to construct “patristic primitivist syntheses of the virtuous Christian life, viewing it developmentally.”15 Law had visited the Wesley home on many occasions and had a profound effect on the siblings, such that Charles Wesley suggested much later, “Mr. Law was our John the Baptist.”16 Law was one of the select individuals that John Wesley consulted before committing to his Georgia mission.17
Wesley’s enthusiasm for William Beveridge further exposed him to Chrysostom, the two combining to serve as the apparent origin of his conception of restoring the image of God (ultimately Platonic) by virtue of the “energy of love.”
Wesley found this notion, which is, again, the eastern idea of theosis, of divine-human participation, a characteristic note in the homilies of Chrysostom, and in the liturgy, the homilies, and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Wesley was to take that motif of divine-human participation in the via salutis and weave it throughout his ordo salutis [i.e., integrate a Neoplatonic “way of salvation” into his conception of the “order of salvation”].18
Sailing for Georgia aboard the Simmonds, 1735, Wesley busied himself studying the German language, along with devotional reading and his accustomed Christian disciplines. He had managed to procure a library of over sixty volumes, many of them of recent Anglican authorship, but also including Beveridge’s Pandectae, William Cave’s Primitive Christianity, and a large assortment of Eastern liturgical works.19 It was probably Cave’s book that introduced him to Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria. Thus Wesley absorbed Neoplatonic ideas “about the stages of divine ascent, holiness of heart, progressive perfection, and the affective manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.”20
During a particularly severe storm at sea, he was highly impressed by the calmness displayed by the Moravians on board. He had already studied the mystic work, Theologica Germanica.21 Arriving in Georgia, he was similarly impressed by Rev. Spangenberg, of Savannah, but hedged when the Moravian asked him, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” to which Wesley weakly replied, “I know He is the Saviour of the world,” and “I hope He has died to save me.”22 In spite of his Christian disciplines, Wesley had been all full of doubts all through the voyage. Later still, he wrote in his journal,
It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity. But what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.23
During the subsequent debacle in Georgia, Wesley obtained a Moravian hymnal, and spent three to five hours a day translating and adapting, in all, thirty-three German hymns, according to his own purposes and inclinations. Among these was the Gerhard Tersteegen hymn, rendered in English, “Thou Hidden Love of God, Whose Height,” one of four by Tersteegen that he translated, and the one most often published thereafter in English hymnals.24 One commentator suggests that “this hymn might be seen as one of the clearest reflections of Wesley’s own spiritual yearning….”25 (Yearning appears to be a common indicator of mystic propensities and appeal.) Meanwhile, Wesley also took the opportunity to experiment with new forms of liturgy, which confused and offended his congregation. A local magistrate scolded, “The people … say they are Protestants. But as for you, they cannot tell what religion you are of.”26
The Methodist mission to Georgia was a fiasco. Charles proved a maladroit secretary to General Oglethorpe; John, a tactless pastor, Ingham and Delamotte, ineffectual assistants.27
In 1738, abandoning Georgia under a cloud, Wesley returned to England, where he and Charles almost immediately became involved with the Fetter Lane Moravian group. That May, he had an emotional experience that he counted as his belated conversion, and by September, he was off to visit the German Pietists at Herrnhut.
The representatives of this tradition who influenced Wesley began with the Dominican mysticism of Johann Tauler (1300-1361), and proceeded to the distinctive Reformed spirituality of Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769).”28
Always seeking his own “assurance of faith,” Wesley asked one Arvid Gradin to provide, in writing, his definition of the concept. Gradin’s reply concluded with, “a deliverance from every fleshly desire, and a cessation of all, even inward sins”—it would seem, as it did to Wesley, a confirmation of his own developing view of Perfection.29 “Spiritually bankrupt, without peace and joy or the assurance of salvation, he embraced the Moravian approach to ‘faith alone’ and ‘full salvation.'”30 On the negative side, Wesley found Herrnhut to be in the midst of controversy with the brethren at Halle. The Hallensians regarded the necessity of an extended “penitential struggle” (Bußkampf) leading eventually to a “breakthrough” (Durchbruch) to gain assurance of saving faith, whereas the Herrnhuters had gravitated toward a quick and easy, “affective” acceptance.31 Wesley soon became disenchanted with their polemics and with Count von Zinzendorf, thereafter distancing himself from the Moravians.32 “The English writers,” he wrote, “such as Bishop Beveridge, Bishop Taylor, and Mr. Nelson, a little relieved me from these well-meaning, wrong-headed Germans.”33 Yet he continued to value many of the German Pietist hymns, especially those of Tersteegen.34
Through Wesley, it has been said, Tersteegen’s spirituality has reached millions of English-speaking people. John Nuelson, a German Methodist, granted that Wesley’s dissemination of German hymns had strongly influenced the Methodists’ doctrine of Perfection. With Tersteegen’s ideas came the influence of French Quietists, English Philadelphians, and Berleburg Bible Pietists, along with all the Patristic, mystical, and ascetic works that Tersteegen had translated and edited. He spoke in terms of a Seelengrund (a term garnered from Eckhart and Tauler), an “inward soul” capable of longing for God. This inward soul may possess an “inward inclination” (Grundneigung) able to respond to the “wooing” of Christ’s Prevenient Grace (as Wesley would perceive it), such that it “makes room” (Raum gebe) for God’s presence. From that Seelengrund, Christ purposes “to expand His gracious influence to encompass the cognitive, volitional, affective, and relational aspects of one’s existence,”35 in other words, spiritual formation. Yet Tersteegen, in spite of other Plotinian affinities, discouraged seekers from introspection, that being idolatry; rather to “turn your inward eye from yourself,” fixing one’s gaze on Christ.36 He considered the imputation of righteousness to be instantaneous, but the transformation to Christ-likeness to be progressive (contra Wesley), the goal being to renew in believers the image of Christ (so also Wesley).37
Besides Tersteegen, Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria were particular favorites of Wesley, from whom he sought devotional material and theological fodder, mining for ideas and modes of expression. Besides his aforementioned contribution to Prevenient Grace, Macarius further contributed to Wesley’s soteriology (as had Tersteegen)—one point of difference being “that Wesley understood perfection primarily as an identifiable, instantaneously-achieved state, while Macarius emphasized the tenacious entrenchment of sin in even the most mature Christian and the constant need to seek God through prayer.”38 “This great gift of God,” Wesley wrote, “the salvation of our souls, is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts. It is a ‘renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that created them.'”39 Certainly Wesley’s views on grace appear to be more closely derived from Macarius and Eastern theology in general than from, as one might expect, Arminius.40 Wesley, one will note, believed that the Fifty Spiritual Homilies were the work of “Macarius of Egypt,” a fourth-century Desert Father, rather than a pseudonymous writer now widely purported to have been a fifth-century Syrian monk, strongly influenced by Gregory of Nyssa.41
Wesley’s exposure to Ephraim of Syria, whom he called “the man of the broken heart,” goes back to his Holy Club days at Oxford. Ephraim taught self-abnegation, contemplation, theosis, and an ante-Nicene view of man yearning to return to an “angelic” original state. Michael Christensen and Randy Maddox suggest that Ephraim’s “luminous eye” figure “is similar to if not the source of Wesley’s doctrine of ‘spiritual senses'” (a concept to which Tersteegen probably also contributed, see above). “Spiritual senses,” to Wesley, include the faculty of perceiving assurance, both of salvation and Perfection.42
Wesley, it is noted, mitigated the theosis of Macarius and Ephraim, emphasizing a divine work of grace through love that he posited in the negation of the power of sin and perfection of human intent. When Wesley edited the Homilies of Macarius for his Christian Library series, he excised references to theosis as well as asceticism.43
In regard to Perfection, Wesley expressed concern to his brother Charles that the latter, by aiming at theosis, was setting the bar of holiness too high to be realistically attainable.44 Wesley, says McCormick, had gradually come to understand soteriology in the anthropological terms of a “Biblical eudaemonism,” by which man seeks holiness because in holiness man is most happy.45 Albert Outler suggests that Wesley repositioned the “ladder” of Perfection, after his own scheme, toward becoming “like” God, but short of becoming a god.46 This effectively “domesticated” or even “democratized” the (Plotinian) ascent that Eastern Mystics had taught, making “perfection” an “attainable goal.”47 In Wesley’s defense, David Bundy insists that he “took much of the [Anglican] synthesis [of Eastern theology] out of the academy, church and cloister and brought it to the people” and “adapted that synthesis in structures of discipline and accountability for laity; and who modeled what he preached.”48 It was “Methodists in America,” Outler asserts, who “contributed to a very considerable confusion by interpreting ‘perfection’ in terms of ‘the second blessing’ or ‘entire sanctification as a state of grace distinct from justification, attainable instantaneously by faith.'”49
Wesley’s writings reflect many more Eastern Mystic influences besides these three. It is widely recognized (not without considerable dispute, in regard to extent as well as provenance), that Wesley based his tract, The Character of a Methodist, and also a published poem, “On Clemens Alexandrinus’s Description of a Perfect Christian” on Clement’s picture of the “Perfect Gnostic” (from Stromateis, Book 7, see also Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew). Bundy suggests that Wesley might have been exposed to Clement’s ideas secondarily through publishing a certain book by Anthony Horneck, and that the poem might rather be attributable to John Gambold.50 But in a letter to Lloyd’s Evening Post, Wesley himself stated, “Five or six and thirty years ago, I much admired the character of a perfect Christian drawn up by Clemens Alexandrinus. Five or six and twenty years ago, a thought came to my mind, of drawing such a character myself, only in a more scriptural manner, and mostly in the very words of Scripture ….”51 Similarly, Wesley “plagiarized” (Bundy’s word) John Williams’ book, A Catechism Truly Representing the Doctrines and Practices of the Church of Rome, with an Answer Thereto, in his work of similar title; and Beveridge’s Sunodikon, sive Pandectae Canonum 55. Apostolorum et Conciliorum Ecclesia Graeca Receptorum “provided grist” for Wesley’s “mill.”52 In fact, the extent of Wesley’s interest in affective Eastern spirituality is demonstrable from many of the books he chose to “extract and abridge” in his fifty-volume A Christian Library collection, first published in 1750.53
Disenchanted with the German Mystics, wary of asceticism and apathy, doubtful of the possibility of theosis, he nevertheless mined them for useful ideas yet shied away from unqualified endorsement. In time, Wesley even broke with his past mentor William Law.54 Around 1734, Law had become an admirer of self-taught Theosophist and Mystic Jakob Böhme, who laid claim to a series of visions. In his evolving circumspection, Wesley seems to follow once again the example of Tersteegen, who turned away, even within his own circles, from potential antinomianism and the “excessive ecstasy that he perceived could degenerate into idolatrous self-edification or even demonic torment.”55 Wesley, however, “nonetheless remained in dialogue with these early mentors, edited and ‘corrected’ them, and recommended them throughout his life.”56
The results of this “programmatic”57 selectivity appears to reveal a considered determination not to publish, for the most part, primary works by Eastern Mystics. Primary works are largely absent within the corpus, for which were substituted secondary works of modern provenance. “Wesley preferred to edit and present the works of the [Anglican] and continental interpreters of the ancient texts rather than to edit and present the ancient texts themselves!” admits Bundy.58 Further, Wesley “reconstructed” mystical works, says Christensen, by replacing implications of theosis in Eastern theology with his own formulation and conception of Perfection, or effectively hiding it.59 For example, when he published twenty-two of Macarius’ Spiritual Homilies in A Christian Library, “Wesley consistently omitted references to ascetic life and to the notion of theosis….”60 As Frank Baker describes his modus operandi, Wesley’s editing “mainly involved choice, striking his pen through passages in printed works, changing the words and phrases, and supplying written links from time to time.”
After considerable hesitation he resolved to leave his human sources uncited, ‘that nothing might divert the mind of the reader’ from the brief notes themselves. He omitted without comment statements with which he did not agree. All his quotations and allusions, however, rephrased as they were in simpler language, honestly sought to represent the essence of his sources.61
The extent of Wesley’s editing and revisionism of such works (for less it cannot justly be called) is clearly demonstrated in the following passage from Macarius that diametrically contradicts Wesley’s doctrine of attainable Perfection:
So this man confesses that he is not perfect or altogether free from sin. He says that the middle wall of partition has been broken through and shattered, and yet, at some point not wholly broken, nor at all times. There are moments when grace kindles up and comforts and refreshes more fully; there are moments when it retreats and clouds over, according as grace itself manages for the man’s advantage. But who is there that has come to the perfect measure at particular seasons, and has tasted and had direct experience of that world? A perfect Christian man, one completely free, I have not yet seen. Although one and another is at rest in grace, and enters into mysteries and revelations and into much sweetness of grace, still sin is yet present within. By reason of the exceeding grace and of the light that is in them, men consider themselves free and perfect; but inexperience deceives them. They are under the influence of grace, but I have never yet seen a man that is free. I myself at times have in part come to that measure, and I have learned to know that it does not constitute a perfect man.62
The “extracted” version of this homily, published by Wesley in A Christian Library, bears little resemblance to the independent translation above, and does not contain this particular passage at all, as such.63 “Wesley, in appropriating the idea of theosis and constructing his doctrine of Christian perfection, found that the Church Fathers required editing.”64
The logical conclusion of these factors is that Wesley effectively obscured, perhaps to himself as well, elements of Neoplatonic Mysticism that contributed to his doctrines of Prevenient Grace and Perfection, in some cases by failing to recognize them for what they were, and in other cases by carefully editing out overt references to the most objectionable concepts. This consequence has unfortunately served, due to Wesley’s abiding popularity and influence, to introduce and establish erroneous views of Sanctification and related issues within a large segment of Christianity, including, via the Holiness Movement, some Perfectionist and Legalistic strains of Pentecostalism.
Even beyond this conclusion, problems associated with Wesley’s exegesis must still be addressed, for which purpose three brief examples will suffice. Wesley uses the term, “the energy of love,” to describe the “divine initiative” of God’s Prevenient Grace, the “divine-human participation” by which man may attain Perfection.65 Wesley engages Galatians 5:6, in particular, as a prooftext for this “energy” terminology. However, any first-year Greek student knows that while energein is indeed the etymological source for the English word, “energy,” the Greek word literally means “work.” Therefore, Theodore Runyon is mistaken in supposing Wesley’s rendition to be “a literal translation” of the text,66 which actually reads, “faith working through love.” Contextually, righteousness rather comes by the instrumentality of faith (Gal 2:16, 3:6, 5:5, et al.), because of love; hence it is faith, not love, that does the work (and arguably faith is cognitive and volitional; not affective, as in the case of many definitions of love). Wesley’s appropriation of the phrase, “energy of love,” as well as the concept, can be traced back, again, to Chrysostom.67
Second, being challenged regarding the statement by James (3:2) that “we all stumble in many things,” Wesley claims that “we” is just a “figure of speech,” that James “could not possibly include himself,” but rather refers “Not [to] apostles, nor true believers,” but to others who will “receive the greater condemnation.”68 These claims are devoid of textual justification; rather, are obvious rationalizations and impositions on the text due to preconceptions (“analogy of faith,” doctrinal construct) that are clearly contradicted by the passage.
Third, in prooftexting from John’s first epistle, by which he argues that a person who has achieved Perfection cannot sin (or does not sin),69 Wesley falls prey to errors common to “armchair” interpreters of that book, in particular: failing to account for the idiosyncrasies and alleged Hebraisms (too complex to detail here) inherent to it, but certainly including John’s propensity for black-and-white dualisms and pointed use of the perfect participle. Most interpreters agree that John is describing those who make a regular practice of sin, or whose activities are by virtue of their unregenerated nature always characterized by sin, in contrast to the Regenerated. Worse, Wesley makes in this same context a claim upon Kingdom promises (Zech 12:8), saying, “The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.” Thus he reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of eschatology, since the “fullness of the Kingdom” (including not only future glory but Perfection) will not come about till the Eschaton, the End. Elsewhere, among other examples, Wesley likewise fails to interpret Psalm 103:8, on the ultimate redemption of Israel, and 1 John 3:8, regarding Christ’s complete work in overcoming sin and death, eschatologically.70
In fact, a studied perusal of Wesley’s signature work, A Plain Account on Christian Perfection, on the whole reveals its proofs to amount to an exercise in unenlightened prooftexting—all done, one hopes, in ingenuous simplicity, by reason of the inadequate hermeneutical theory and tools of the day. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that as a result of his long-term quest for personal, affective assurance, Wesley produced a compromise, “designer” religion that, however it might have shaded his exegesis, served his purposes more than it offended his strict British sensibilities.
1 David Bundy, “Christian Virtue: John Wesley and the Alexandrian Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):142.
2 Mark Goldie, ‘Cambridge Platonists (act. 1630s–1680s),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2013 (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/94274, accessed March 27, 2014). The Cambridge Platonists might have had fairly direct influence on John Wesley through his father, whose friend was John Norris, see Bundy, p. 142.
3 K. Steve McCormick, “Theosis in Chrysostom and Wesley: An Eastern Paradigm on Faith and Love,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):49-50.
4 Ibid., p. 66, see also 67.
5 Ibid., p. 67.
6 Ibid., p. 50.
7 Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley (NY: Oxford University Press, 1964; paperback, 1980), p. 9, and Michael J. Christensen, “Theosis and Sanctification: John Wesley’s Reformulation of a Patristic Doctrine,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):75.
8 Christensen, p. 75.
9 McCormick, p. 50, Christensen, p. 74.
10 John Wesley, The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley (NY: J. & J. Harper, 1828), p. 70, also quoted from another source in McCormick, pp. 50-51.
11 Randy L. Maddox, “John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences,” Asbury Theological Journal 45/2 (1990):30, 31, 35; see also Outler, pp. 9-10, and Christensen, p. 74.
12 Henry Moore, The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, A. M., vol. I (London: Printed for John Kershaw, 1824), p. 161. Regarding “purity of intention,” Runyon writes, “If the intention is right, this is what really counts [to Wesley]. ‘Intention’ was a theme important to him from his 1725 self-dedication onward,” Theodore Runyon, “The New Creation: A Wesleyan Distinctive,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):12.
13 Moore., p. 124.
14 Christensen, p. 75.
15 Bundy, p. 141.
16 Moore, p. 107.
17 Ibid., p. 234, see also 190.
18 Ibid., p. 54.
19 Outler, p. 12, Christensen, p. 75.
20 Christensen, pp. 76, 85.
21 Moore, p. 190, Bundy, p. 142.
22 From Chapter 6 of John Telford, The Life of John Wesley (http://Wesley.nnu-edu/?id=88, accessed April 2, 2014). This passage is apparently taken from a printing other than that of 1900, in which this and some other passages do not appear.
23 Ibid., see also McCormick, p. 48.
24 J. Steven O’Malley, “Pietistic Influence on John Wesley: Wesley and Gerhard Tersteegen” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):49, 65, 66.
25 O’Malley, p. 57 f.
26 Outler, pp. 12-13, see also Bundy, p. 141.
27 Ibid., p. 11.
28 O’Malley, p. 49.
29 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, in Wesley and Fletcher, Entire Sanctification Attainable in This Life (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1898), p. 11.
30 Christensen, p. 76.
31 O’Malley, p. 51.
32 Tersteegen had previously questioned von Zinzendorf’s self-interest and possible antinomianism, O’Malley, p. 57.
33 Moore, p. 343.
34 O’Malley, p. 53, see also 57.
35 Ibid., pp. 49, 57-61.
36 Ibid., p. 69, incl. note 77, referring to L. G. Harvey, ed., Tersteegen, Recluse in Demand: Life and Letters, vol. I (Hampton, TN: Harvey & Tait, n.d.), pp. 125, 129.
37 Ibid., p. 65; see also Bundy, p. 153, and Christensen, p. 71, note 1.
38 Maddox, p. 31; on Tersteegen, see also O’Malley, p. 65.
39 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 25.
40 So Maddox, pp. 31, 35.
41 See Christensen, p. 85; Outler, p. 9, note 26; and a somewhat contrary view in Bundy, p. 139.
42 Christensen, pp. 81, 85, incl. note 19.
43 See Christensen, pp. 76; 85, note 22; and p. 87. For more on the awakening of spiritual senses, in the views of both Macarius and Wesley, see Runyon, p. 14.
44 Letter from John to Charles Wesley, June 27, 1766, cited in Christensen, p. 90.
45 McCormick, p. 53. “God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee’? He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy…,” Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 13, see also p. 8.
46 Outler, p. 31.
47 Christensen, p. 88, see also p. 80.
48 Bundy, p. 155.
49 Outler, p. 30.
50 Maddox, p. 30; Christensen, pp. 76, 78; Bundy, pp. 139 ff., 149.
51 Bundy, pp.139, 143, 151.
52 Bundy, p. 141.
53 “A Christian Library by John Wesley,” Wesley Center Online (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-christian-library/, accessed April 3, 2014).
54 Christensen, p. 75, Runyon, p. 13, Moore, p. 518.
55 O’Malley, p. 56 f.
56 Christensen, p. 76.
57 Christensen’s term, pp. 74, 80.
58 Bundy, p. 143, see also 142.
59 Christensen, p. 80.
60 Ted Campbell in Christensen, p. 81, note 22.
61 Frank Baker, “John Wesley, Biblical Commentator,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 71 (1989):111 f.
62 Pseudo-Macarius Homily 8:5, in A. J. Mason, Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian, Translations of Christian Literature, Series I, gen. ed. W. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke (London: SPCK, 1921), pp. 67 f.
63 See A Christian Library, Wesley Center Online (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-christian-library/a-christian-library-volume-1/volume-1-the-homilies-of-macarius/, accessed April 3, 2014).
64 Christensen, p. 88.
65 McCormick, p. 54.
66 Runyon, p. 15.
67 McCormick, p. 102, note 153; McCormick, quoted in Troy W. Martin, “John Wesley’s Exegetical Orientation: East Or West?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):136, note 114; see also Runyon, p. 15, note 30.
68 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 21.
69 See Ibid., p. 19 f.
70 Ibid., p. 41.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes
Reading this work by Karl Barth has been in many ways enlightening. One hears so much about him, both good and bad (depending upon the source), but it is hardly fair to form an opinion only on the basis of secondary evaluations. One must read Barth to give a fair estimation of Barth.
Barth first shows himself to be a true dogmatist. Using the points of the Apostles Creed as its outline, he presents to the reader an overview of Christianity as he understands it. His theology is pre-critical: he is not concerned with historico-critical data or exegesis. Rather, he begins with the Creed as it stands. It is a “given.” As far as he is concerned, it is the orthodox Church’s interpretation of Christianity which stands — it must only be rejuvenated. To Barth, it is not only unnecessary but impossible to “prove” that the Gospel is true. It is to be accepted by faith alone.
In fact, the paradox of Christianity is a recurring theme in the book. Barth is quick to allay the doubts of those who remained puzzled by what seems impossible, unnatural, or contradictory. That is to be expected, and nothing to worry about, he says. He does not attempt to explain away such things, or make them acceptable to reason, as would the typical apologist. Jesus Christ — wholly God, yet wholly man? The crucifixion — humiliating, yet exalting? The Holy Spirit — divine and yet indwelling imperfect humanity? Barth is right in this: such things defy reasonable explanation. Such things are, to the intellect, “a stumbling block, and the rock of offense.” But to the one who, like Barth, accepts by faith the paradox of Christianity, such things are “the power of God unto salvation.”
What Barth does is to begin with the Creed, the foundational truths of orthodox Christianity, and go on from there. It is his intention not to reinforce them, but to revitalize them and, perhaps, to set them as a reminder to those who have been slack. Vitality is, of course, a necessary part of true Christianity. It is the action involved in moving from a head-knowledge of the Scripture and of Christian doctrine toward the fulfillment of the Christian life. It is the visible sign of true Christianity (although mere activity must not be confused with real vitality).
But Barth only begins with the points of the Creed. From that simple and acceptable basis he expands, often tangentially, to what many would see as unbiblical philosophies. A case in point: orthodox Christianity accepts the idea of a real Hell, a real Judgment, and the necessity of rebirth (baptism to some) in order to attain eternal life. Barth accepts their terminology, but does not adhere to orthodox interpretation. Although not explicitly stated, Barth exhibits leanings toward Universalism. To fit the pattern, he redefines such terms as Hell, Eternity, and Judgment: Hell is an existing state of separation from God due to an individual’s rebellion, not a place of internal punishment. Eternity is used figuratively (?) by the Bible, representing a state of timelessness which exists until the Second Coming. And although Barth does have some conception of judgment (“By this we shall be judged, about this the Judge shall one day put the question, Did you live by grace …? Have you been a faithful servant …?” p. 152), yet in this book one cannot find a definition of “judgment” other than Christ revealing himself, and proving that he is, indeed, Lord of all. There is no punishment aspect mentioned. Furthermore, Barth makes no mention of a continued separation between believers and non-believers after Christ returns. As far as can be seen, Barth expects all men to be united at that time.
So how does Barth deal with the “eternal fire” passages in the Bible? According to him, they are metaphorical — the biblical writers were expressing the horror and discomfiture of the unbeliever’s separation from Christ (in the present world) in metaphorical terms. The literal view of Hell and a divine wrath are, to him, a product of a faulty hermeneutic. The picture of the Wrath of God, Barth claims, is a construct of artists, such as Michelangelo, who sought sensational themes for their paintings.
Barth is not without his merits. He demonstrates a high view of God. He prefers the designation of God as “the Father” to more generic term such as “the Almighty.” In fact, he reacted strongly against that term, and noted that Hitler referred to God in that fashion. Barth considers God as more, much more, than some obscure power. Father better describes God in terms of his character and his relationship to man — power is merely one of his attributes, as is Creator, and should not be separated out as a general designation. The fatherhood aspect of God is demonstrated by his grace — and to Barth, all God does is a product of his grace.
Along with Father, another favorite designation of God is “God in the Highest” Barth emphasizes that God is far above man, farther than man’s imagination extends. He is not a product of man’s need to worship an ideal “higher self.” God is GOD, and is only known by man because he has revealed himself. God is “a timeless Being, surpassing the world, alien and supreme … the living, acting, working Subject who makes himself known” (p. 38).
Likewise, Barth demonstrates a high Christology. However, he makes an unwarranted connection between Christ and Israel. Barth believes, in a nutshell, that Israel as a nation was called out, not just to be a holy nation, but to evangelize the world. Since Israel failed, Jesus Christ was sent to “fulfill” Israel. It is true that Israel was separated out from the world in order that God might reveal himself to man, and might be glorified. But was evangelization of the world God’s immediate motive? Certainly, the ordinances handed down by Moses served to set them at odds with the rest of the world. In fact, they were ordered to have no fellowship with non-believers. This speaks against the theory of an evangelical mission.
Actually, there is a great non-parallel between the missions of Israel and of Christ: Jesus Christ was sent in order to die for man’s sin, that whoever would believe in his vicarious sacrifice could attain eternal life. Israel never suffered for any sins other than its own, and God never said, “Believe in Israel.” Israel was not the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
Barth’s otherwise high Christology suffers from lack of emphasis on Christ’s redeeming work. His emphasis is upon Christ’s revelation at his Second Coming. The Christian’s fate is to be that Christ truly exists and that He will, indeed, appear one day. Then their faith shall be proven valid.
A secondary emphasis is upon Christ’s suffering — suffering as a man on the earth, and suffering at the end on the cross. But this suffering, in Barth’s eyes, is not so much to pay the debt for man’s sins, as to put man in touch with his sins, to make him realize the suffering he deserves. Man must conceptualize, mentally, his guilt. In his realization of his guilt man is saved.
Barth never commits himself to a clear statement of Universalism, but a strong implication runs throughout this book. He notes that Christ died for all men, and that is true. He goes so far as to acknowledge that some men will reject Christ — but he never implies that they will be lost. Evidently, he expects all men to be restored when Christ returns.
All in all, Barth reads like any evangelical writer. He displays a love for God and for Christ that should warm the heart of any true Christian. Certainly there are problems: he leans too heavily on his own speculation and does not use Scripture often or carefully. For instance, his misuse of Philippians 2:6, “God thinks it not robbery to be divine, that is, He does not hold on to the booty like a robber, but God parts with Himself” (p. 116). While the thought may be perfectly good and correct, the usage is faulty.
Yet the Christian reader can feel a certain kinship with Barth, as one should feel a certain kinship with a Christian of another denomination, or even a Jew who truly loves God. Certain of Barth’s ideas are, perhaps, erroneous — but Barth is not a heretic. There is no reason the Christian should not read his works, if one is a mature and discerning believer, and maybe even quote Barth in a sermon.
At the very least, Barth is food for thought — and there are plenty of people whose minds could use a little nourishment.
Originally a book report presented to Dr. Gary McGee, The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, for THE/HIS 636 Contemporary Theology, August 31, 1985. Dr. McGee deemed the report “Excellent,” and assigned the grade “A.”
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes
How to Have More Spiritual Church Worship
As described in 1 Corinthians 14, there are few worship activities that are as edifying and energizing as the verbal gifts of the Spirit. However, in circulating amongst various full-gospel churches in recent years, I have noticed an absence of verbal manifestations (messages in tongues, interpretation, prophecy) in most services. Some churches apparently go for weeks or months without hearing a fresh “word” from the Lord.
While prophecy in particular might be abused or over-emphasized in some circles, a church is ill-advised to react by trying to limit or control manifestations.
Sometimes pastors ask me what they can do to make their services more spiritual. I offer the following suggestions:
1. Pray Up
In order to be sensitive to the moving of the Spirit, the pastor or worship leader must be spiritually sensitive. Moves of God do not always come through the leader–make sure you are on the cutting edge, not the tail! Fast and pray before each service, and engage prayer warriors to bolster that intercession. Be sure you are cleaned up, prayed up, and “fessed up.” Set aside all unnecessary activities and distractions, and go into the service with your mind centered on the Lord.
2. Let Go
No one can quench the Spirit like the “man in charge.” Do not let yourself be preoccupied with the order of the service. Never change the order when the Spirit is trying to move. Wait! Be secure in your spiritual authority, unafraid that you might lose control of the service. (If you do not have spiritual authority, GET SOME!) Do not give in to the conceit that the move of the Spirit always comes through the leader. Avoid trying to manipulate the people, dictating their actions, or trying to stir up the Spirit by human means.
IMPORTANT: Do not limit the opportunity to speak to a few chosen leaders. The moving of the Spirit in Acts and Corinthians is corporate and “upon all flesh,” not limited. (As Paul wrote, “you may all prophesy one by one,” and “let one speak, and let the others judge.”)
3. Pipe Down
The Spirit does not always move in an atmosphere of noise and frenetic activity (which is prevalent these days). Moves are more likely genuine when they are spontaneous. Often, the Spirit settles on the congregation with a warm, sweet heaviness. Do not be afraid of “quiet times” or “dead air”–avoid the temptation to fill every moment with words or activity. Do not keep the music volume so loud that someone speaking in the Spirit in the congregation cannot be heard! (In a large church, place microphones in strategic areas, and instruct the congregation on their proper use.)
4. Slow Down
I have often felt moved by the Spirit to speak, but had no opportunity that would not interrupt the order of service. Since I do not seem to receive an entire message until I have begun to speak, the moment was quickly past. Again, do not let yourself be preoccupied with advancing the order of service. Do not hurry through the worship time–if it or any other activity were a mere “preliminary,” it could be eliminated! Do not treat the Spirit as such. A true word from the Lord is probably more important than your sermon!
5. Teach and Preach the Gifts
Give proper emphasis to the spiritual gifts in the church, teach their appropriate use, and encourage members to seek them. (Even the best teaching will be voided if you do not then give the people adequate opportunity to exercise the gifts.) Allow people to make honest mistakes. Correct mistakes gently and respectfully from the pulpit when necessary, in private when possible–keeping in mind the potential for public embarrassment. Realize that the gifts are for lay people, too!
If the above suggestions are followed, I cannot guarantee that a move of the Spirit will take place, but hopefully a lot of human barriers will have been removed, in order to encourage and make room for the gifts in the service. Is that not what is truly important?
©1999 Paul A. Hughes
Watchman Nee likened God’s training in humility to being backed against a wall and having one’s foot crushed, like Balaam. A Christian leader, he said, cannot represent God until being emptied of the motivation of his own opinions and thought processes, but being in active subjection to God and his Word.
Indeed, the author of Hebrews (ch. 12) harks back to Job 5:17 and Proverbs 23:22 in describing God’s chastening. He says in 5:8 that Jesus “learned obedience by the things He suffered.”
We must not rebel against God’s correction and training in humility. The Lord tries to get through to us, but if we rebel, we “kick against the goads” (Acts 9:5, 26:14).
But as far as recounting how one was made humble, there is a risk of being like the man whose church gave him a medal for humility, but then took it away because he wore it — or the man who wrote the book, Humility, and How I Achieved It.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes