Singing Our Doctrine

By Les Longden –

The hymns of Charles Wesley enable us to see more clearly the Trinitarian foundations of early Methodist doctrine and teaching. Charles, no less than his brother John, read deeply in the theological literature of his day. Yet Charles always found a way to transpose academic argument into the language of praise and thanksgiving.

John was a master logician who had often served as a moderator of scholarly debates at Oxford. He used every skill of rhetoric, biblical knowledge, and theological training to convince his opponents. Charles, on the other hand, used poetic imagination and lyrical genius to transform creed and theology into songs of worship. One scholar claims that Charles created a unique genre, “lyrical theological discourse.” It was in this language that the Methodist societies sang their theology.

Charles did not discount the need for serious theological reflection. He was thoroughly “orthodox” but he insisted there was a divine reality that must be known beyond mere “right notions.”
“But ‘till our souls are born again,

We to the truth assent in vain…

The Tri-une God we cannot know,
Unless He doth the faith bestow…”

Mere intellectual assent or theological information is not enough to change lives. “Right notions have their slender use, /But cannot a sound faith produce.”
Further, Charles saw that true knowledge is grounded in love.

“Knowledge acquir’d by books or creeds

My learn’d self-righteous pride it feeds;
‘Tis love that edifies.”

The “love that edifies” is not something born out of our own will or effort; it has its origin in the depths of the Trinity itself. The Scriptural claim that “love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God” (1 John 4:7) Charles renders in Trinitarian praise:

“Begotten again, 

And born from above, 

We join in the plan

Of Infinite Love; 

Son, Father, and Spirit

Our Savior we see, 

And glory inherit

Thro’ faith in the Three.”

Love is an eternal and utterly personal reality that has its source in the dynamic relations of the Persons of the Trinity who, in the “missions” of the Son and the Spirit, have “come down” to embrace humanity:

“The Spirit is sent, pour’d out, and given

Both by the Father and the Son,

And God come down from God in heaven
Prepares, and lifts us to his throne.”

These last stanzas show Charles’ deep assurance that it is the Spirit who not only reveals God’s love to us, but incorporates us into the divine “plan of Infinite Love,” enabling us to be “born from above,” and “lift[ing] us to his throne.”

We can be grateful that Charles did not leave the Methodists with only technical theological jargon for the Trinity — words like perichoresis, coinherence, double procession, etc. — but taught us to plumb the depths of the Divine mystery in songs of prayer, praising the God who has loved us while we were yet sinners.

Leicester R. Longden is Associate Professor of Evangelism and Discipleship, Emeritus, and Director of United Methodist Studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. These hymn excerpts are taken from Hymns on the Trinity by Charles Wesley, a facsimile reprint by the Charles Wesley Society, Madison New Jersey, 1998.



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