Rediscovering John Wesley

By James V. Heidinger II

In my retirement, there has been a welcome change of pace. In the midst of several major family projects, it has been refreshing to have time to do a lot of reading.

One of the big serendipities this fall has been working through Basic United Methodist Beliefs: An Evangelical View with the Sunday school class that I teach at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. First published by Good News in 1986, it is now published by Bristol House, Ltd.—the original Good News fledgling publishing venture that we sold to a small group of supporters/board members in 1991. Since then, it has become a strong and impressive for-profit organization in offering excellent ministry resources for United Methodists and beyond.

Basic United Methodist Beliefs actually came from a series of articles on Wesleyan theological distinctives that began in the March/April 1983 issue of Good News magazine. Our goal was to help clarify what United Methodists believe. It was our hope that readers would rediscover John Wesley in a fresh and contemporary way. The magazine series also coincided with the approaching bicentennial celebration of Methodism in America (1984), which we felt would bring a resurgence of interest in Methodist theology.

Early this fall, I received the shipment of books for my class and was looking through the volume once again, seeing familiar names of contributors I hadn’t thought about for some time—UM leaders and teachers including Bishop Mack B. Stokes, Frank Baker, Dennis Kinlaw, Steve Harper, Riley Case, Frank Stanger, Robert Tuttle, Joel Green, Paul Mickey, and others.

21st printing.
Then came the serendipity: as my eyes moved from the table of contents page to the copyright page, I was astonished to see that the volume I was holding represented the 21st printing of the book! I was stunned and a bit overwhelmed. This small volume, with 13 chapters summarizing our basic Wesleyan doctrinal beliefs, was in its 21st printing and sported an attractive new cover design. After 23 years, it is obviously alive and well and still enjoying a robust readership. Praise God!

As I was leafing through this new edition, I discovered something else I had forgotten. As an appendix, we had included the full text of “The Junaluska Affirmation,” a sound and well-crafted statement of scriptural Christianity adopted by the Good News Board of Directors in 1975. It was a response to the new doctrinal statement adopted by the 1972 General Conference—one that challenged all members “to accept the challenge of responsible theological reflection.”

In a day of theological confusion, the Junaluska Affirmation brought a refreshing clarity to the church’s theological discussion. In 1980, Paul Mickey, who had chaired the Task Force that produced the Affirmation, wrote Essentials of Wesleyan Theology, a rich, in-depth commentary on the Affirmation.

The mood of the era. As I looked at the first chapter of the book, Dennis Kinlaw’s “Let’s Rediscover Wesley for Our Time,” I found myself reflecting on the mood of the United Methodist Church back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Kinlaw recalled a United Methodist pastor who had surprised him with the comment that “he could envision few prospects more dismal to him than a return by the church to the theology of its founder.”

Such a sentiment may sound strange today. However, for many of us associated with Good News back then, we longed for a rediscovery of Wesley’s scriptural Christianity and a return to the rich Wesleyan doctrinal distinctives.

The sad fact is that during those years, Wesley’s theology and evangelical passion were less than popular and often negatively caricatured. Rather than hearing much about Wesleyan doctrine, United Methodists were subjected to vacuous fad theologies that would come and go like seasonal colors, often accompanied by the admonition we must remember we’re a church that embraces “theological pluralism.” This left many mainline observers concluding in those days that one could be a United Methodist and believe about anything you wanted to believe. It also left us evangelicals deeply dissatisfied.

“It may well be that the current stagnant state of the church is not due to the fact that the old truths are no longer relevant,” wrote Kinlaw. “In my own travels I have observed that the old truths are unknown.”

Could it be that the denomination that boasts of Wesley as its founder reared a generation uninstructed in what he taught and believed? Sadly, during this era of turbulence and secularization, the rich and tested Wesleyan theologies of William Cannon, Colin Williams, Philip Watson, Albert Outler, and others were neglected or put aside for newer but less biblical—and certainly less Wesleyan—theologies.

Are we rediscovering Wesley? As I reflected on Kinlaw’s essay on rediscovering Wesley, I found myself thinking that this might well be what we have been experiencing these past two decades in United Methodism. While I have challenged my own assumption to guard against mere wishful thinking, I have to conclude that there is plausible evidence to support the claim that we may be today, indeed, in the midst of a significant rediscovery of Wesley for our time. Consider these few items.

First, the 1988 General Conference adopted a new theological statement in which the confusing, undefined, and misleading phrase “theological pluralism” was purposefully omitted. The key phrase characterizing the new statement was “the primacy of Scripture.” It clarified for the church that Scripture does indeed take precedence over tradition, reason, and experience—helping clear up the misunderstanding of many about the oft-cited Wesleyan Quadrilateral. With this change, we are more faithful to our Wesleyan heritage.

The 1988 statement also clarified for the denomination that we do indeed have recognized “doctrinal standards”—an important action expounded helpfully by William J. Abraham in his important work Waking From Doctrinal Amnesia.

A major chunk of Good News’ energy between 1972 and 1984 was invested in critiquing and working for change in the theological statement that espoused “theological pluralism.” Good News published The Problem with Puralism: Recovering United Methodist Identity by Dr. Jerry L. Walls.

More than 13,000 petitions were sent to the 1984 General Conference, many generated by Good News. A significant number sought to amend the Discipline’s problematic theological statement. The surprising result was that delegates named a new theological task force to prepare a new theological statement for the church, which was approved at the 1988 Conference.

At the 1988 General Conference, delegates approved a new hymnal for the church, which included scores of Charles Wesley’s hymns not found in the 1964 hymnal. For two decades now, this treasure trove of Wesley’s hymns have enriched our worship and helped deepen our understanding of our Wesleyan theological heritage.

Second, one can’t help but be impressed with the resurgence of books focused on all aspects of Wesley’s theology. Credit needs to be given where due. A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE), launched back in 1976 by Ed Robb, Albert Outler, and others, has had a major impact on the current renewal of interest in Wesley studies, with more than 120 scholars having become John Wesley Fellows.

One thinks of Kenneth Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley and The Scripture Way of Salvation, Bishop Scott Jones’ United Methodist Doctrine and John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, Thomas C. Oden’s John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity and his invaluable Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, a 2008 revision of his 1988 work by the same title. One might add Randy Maddox’s Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology and Henry H. (Hal) Knight’s The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace. Additional works by Steve Harper, Geoffrey Wainright, Robert Tuttle, Ted Campbell, Richard Heitzenrater, and others would be a part of this rediscovery of Wesley.

Several years ago, Bristol published The Albert Outler Library, an impressive nine-volume work of the papers and works of the late Albert C. Outler, one of United Methodism’s most eminent Wesleyan scholars. The series includes Albert C. Outler: The Gifted Dilettante, a delightful biography by Bob Parrott, who also served as general editor of the Outler Library project.

In reflecting on this resurgence, I would also include the important three-volume work by my friend Kenneth Kinghorn, long time professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, on The Standard Sermons in Modern English (Abingdon Press). The goal of the work was to render John Wesley’s eighteenth-century language into a form more suitable and understandable for today’s reader, but with no dumbing down. Ken told me recently that his more contemporary translation is helping Wesley’s sermons get translated into Japanese, Swedish, and Russian and most certainly will be helpful as the complete works of Wesley are currently being translated into Korean.

Two other works I must mention. The first is Riley Case’s Evangelical & Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon, 2004). This superb volume is by a former district superintendent in the North Indiana Conference who has been a long-time Good News board member and part-time writer for The Confessing Movement. He documents evangelical renewal within Methodism as the church evolved into two strands—one of established respectability in a more liberal theological tradition and the other strand being more populist, orthodox, and evangelical.

The other work is Faye Short and Kathryn Kiser’s Reclaiming the Wesleyan Social Witness: Offering Christ (Providence House Publishers, 2008). As a project of Good News’ Renew Network, this volume gave the church an important work with a balanced focus on vital personal faith and the resulting necessary expression that Wesley called “faith working by love.”

Third and last, it is highly significant that the 2008 General Conference launched a major quadrennial thrust for the denomination urging us all—churches and program boards and agencies—to focus on “Living the Wesleyan Way.” Our bishops are challenging us to give serious thought again about what it means to believe and live as Wesley did when God used him and his brother so mightily. The United Methodist Publishing House has done its part in giving the church The Wesley Study Bible, a modestly-priced and impressive resource worth getting and using until you wear it out.

Well, what shall we say to all this? Might the United Methodist Church be in the process of rediscovering Wesley? It just could be that we are. Many have been praying earnestly for years for that to happen. Perhaps we are seeing answers to those prayers. There is certainly an openness to our Wesleyan/EUB evangelical heritage that we have not seen in more than a generation.

In the last chapter of Basic United Methodist Beliefs, Robert E. Coleman writes on “How Revival Comes.” Coleman is an author, evangelism professor, and former director of the Billy Graham Institute in Wheaton who has translations of his books published in 82 languages. He reminds us that “Methodism at heart is a revival movement. When the Spirit of revival does not pervade the church, the body may survive as an institution but it is lifeless.” The basic concept behind revival, says Coleman, is “the return of something to its true nature and purpose.”

Wesley’s question to his followers remains timely for us today: “What can be done in order to revive the work of God where it is decayed?” It may well be that rediscovering Wesley will help us better understand just what the “work of God” is that we should be about, and remind us as well that it must be done with a continued fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Friends, Wesleyan revitalization and doctrinal renewal are concerns that have been right at the heart of Good News’ ministry from the very beginning. As I watch the strong and able new leadership, I know the ministry remains true.

In numerous ways, Good News continues to make a very significant contribution to renewal in the United Methodist Church. In these days of profound moral and spiritual challenge, I remain grateful for your faithful support of Good News. Our nation and world need a vital, dynamic Wesleyan witness.

James V. Heidinger II is president and publisher emeritus of Good News. He retired in July 2009.

About Adcetera