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Wesleyan spirituality

Wesleyan spirituality

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Wesleyan spirituality

Jan. 26, 2007    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0611}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

One of the finest explications of the Wesleyan vision of the Christian life is Frank Whaling’s introduction in “John and Charles Wesley: Selected Writings and Hymns” (New York: Paulist Press, 1981) in the remarkable series “The Classics of Western Spirituality.”

Here is how Whaling summed up the two Wesley brothers’ understanding of the Christian life: “The glorious mystery of the Christian life included not only forgiveness for sin, but also sharing the divine nature, dwelling in God, entering into union with the divine, living in union with God, attaining perfect love for God and man, and entering into Christ’s glorification. In other words, there is a return to the notion of the early church, and especially the Eastern Fathers, that God became man so that man might become divine.”

Whaling’s essay is a good introduction to a growing body of scholarship that causes us to understand the Wesleyan heritage in a new light. To put it rather simplistically, the Wesleyan heritage infuses into the Western Christian tradition a vision of the Gospel and the Christian life that is strikingly similar to that of the Eastern Christian tradition and the primitive church.

Whaling adds that the Wesleyan heritage contributes “certain key deposits” to the entire Christian tradition. Whaling writes: “These deposits include: Charles Wesley’s hymns, the Covenant Service, faith as a living reality rather than as belief per se, perfect love, mission based upon the conviction that ‘for all, for all, my Savior died,’ the importance of laymen [and laywomen], fellowship as koinonia, the spiritual importance of organization, a creative tolerance based upon the notion that true religion is inward and social rather than merely doctrinal, and a pragmatic openness to developing situations. These are held in trust, and offered by Methodists to the Coming Great Church.”

All of these themes require an explication that I cannot provide here. Laity and clergy who would like to delve more deeply into the meaning of Wesleyan spirituality are urged to study Frank Whaling’s introduction and selection of Wesleyan texts in “John and Charles Wesley.”

What is clear is that we modern Methodists have forgotten too much of our own heritage, and this amnesia is the root cause of our loss of identity, unity, vision and sense of spiritual satisfaction.

Our church today is often polarized between the thin tradition of Protestant Liberalism, on one hand, and an Arminian version of the Protestant Reformation, on the other hand. The central core of the Wesleyan heritage is forgotten or muted. This central core is the vision of the grace of God that changes us by the experience of faith. The Anglican scholar A.M. Alichin described it as follows: “For John Wesley, as for the Christian tradition as a whole, and particularly for the Greek fathers, this change, ‘this entire renewal of the soul in the image of God in which it was originally created’ (John Wesley’s second sermon on the Sermon on the Mount), which is the work of the Holy Spirit within us, grows and is strengthened as human beings grow in the basic virtues of faith and hope and love, all of them God’s gifts, which make us participants in the divine life” (A.M. Alichin, “The Epworth-Canterbury-Constantinople Axis,” Wesley Center Online).

The key to this core of the Wesleyan heritage is our personal participation in God’s divine life by faith in Jesus Christ in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Neither Liberalism nor Protestantism sees this as central. Liberalism is preoccupied with its “prophetic” social vision, and Protestantism is bound by its preoccupation with its “evangelical” proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. Both Liberalism and Protestantism offer their gifts, but they are sterile without the personal experience of the Holy Spirit who leads us up “the ladder of sanctification” from new birth through many struggles and temptations to perfect love. This personal experience of the dynamic grace of God is conscious and luminous.

As we are increasingly becoming aware, this Wesleyan heritage of spirituality is not just one rivulet in the stream of Christian tradition, but it is the mainstream of Christian tradition, or “genuine Christianity,” as John Wesley said it was.


This article relates to Christian Tradition.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.