By RYAN N. DANKER
The Sermons of John Wesley form an essential part of the Wesleyan Methodist theological corpus. Any person who would want to know "the way to heaven" according to Wesley would look to these sermons. The Wesley Center for Applied Theology is pleased to present to the public these essential Wesleyan materials. One will find in them the work of a true theologian, a theologian who, throughout his life, searched for the great truths of God and preached a message of responsible grace to the people of eighteenth century Britain which is still vital and contemporary for us today.
As with all historical persons, events, and documents John Wesley himself must be understood in his own Anglican context. John Wesley never left the Anglican Church. He was an ordained priest in the Church of England and continually fought to keep the Methodist Connection within the Established Church. He was a mixture of evangelical and High Church tendencies which one can see from his emphasis on both the liturgy and sacraments but also field preaching regardless of parish boundaries. Nevertheless, John Wesley was still a High-Church eighteenth century Anglican divine.
Anglicanism cannot be seen as just another form of Protestantism. The Anglican Church did not split from Rome over theological issues; such as justification by faith as the Continental Protestants. The Church of England split mainly over issues of authority and has grown to become its own distinct form of Christianity. Some have claimed that Anglicanism bridges Roman Catholicism and Continental Protestantism. The "via media" [middle way] that came out of the Elizabethan Settlement could be seen as Anglicanism in a nutshell.
Theology within Anglican circles was done differently from that of the Protestants and Catholics. Anglican theology was mainly directed toward liturgical endeavors (i.e. homilies, prayers, litanies). Randy Maddox has stated: Due to its unique history of development, the Anglican tradition understood the standard forms and practice of theology differently from their continental counterparts (both Roman Catholic and Protestant). Instead of identifying "serious" theological activity with the production of scholastic summaries/defences of doctrine, Anglicans followed the example of the early church in focusing this activity on the production of such formative materials as creeds, collections of catechetical homilies, and liturgies (Maddox 216).Much has been said concerning the fact that John Wesley never wrote a "systematic theology". Some have gone so far as to claim that he was not a theologian at all due to this fact. But from what we have seen within the context of Anglican theology, John Wesley is a classic Anglican divine (theologian). The Sermons of John Wesley would then be considered a major, and important, part of his theological writings.
A METHODIST BOOK OF HOMILIES
Within Anglicanism the official theological documents were the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the Book of Homilies. These homilies (sermons) were to be read to the people of the Church of England and were considered a standard for religious orthodoxy. Thomas Cranmer, who also wrote the original BCP, compiled the first book of homilies. Cranmer was burned at the stake by "Bloody Mary" and today is considered an Anglican martyr.
Wesley, as an Anglican, understood the importance of a standard set of sermons for the people. Richard Heitzenrater states in his book, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, "Wesley no doubt has the function of the Book of Homilies in mind as he designed these volumes - homiletical material that provided a solid doctrinal basis and boundary for homiletical proclamation by uneducated preachers" (Heitzenrater 177).
Wesley not only supplied the preachers with sermons but also with the fifty-volume Christian Library in which he placed and edited the works of the Church Fathers and Divines as an educational tool for this preachers. The Sermons can be seen within this same pedagogical genre for Wesley.
For a full understanding of the Methodist movement one must understand that the majority of the "preachers" enlisted by John and Charles Wesley were lay persons. Methodism began in the educated cradle of Oxford University and the Holy Club was made up of intellectuals seeking a higher spiritual plain but as the movement went out into the fields and grew the need for those without ordination or a divinity degree became overwhelming apparent. Preachers were enlisted by Wesley but then understood that educational material, provided by Wesley himself, must be read and that the good preacher was actually educated in many areas including: science, philosophy, history, and divinity. Wesley placed a great emphasis on education. This, of course, is to be expected. From his childhood on, Wesley was given some of the best education in England. From the detailed accounts of his early education with his mother and father, to his training at Charterhouse and Oxford it is not hard to see why Wesley saw education as important. Wesley wanted the best-educated preachers he could come up with but when he saw that the preachers must come mainly from the laity he set into motion ways to educate them. The Sermons were a main part of this endeavor. The preachers, generally lacking formal education, received many resources in their training. The early Minutes of Conference has listed specific publications that Wesley had written for doctrinal guidance. In 1746, he had published the first volume of a projected three-volume series of Sermons on Several Occasions. The preface indicated clearly Wesley's intentions: the reader will see "what those doctrines are which I embrace and teach as the essentials of true religion" (Sermons 1:103). His hope was to reach "the bulk of [humanity]," to design "plain truth for plain people," to be homo unius libri - a person of one book, the Bible, wherein one could find "the way to heaven" (Heitzentater 176).THE WESLEYAN STANDARDS
The first of these projected three volumes of sermons published in 1746 was followed by the second in 1748, the third in 1750, and the fourth in 1760. In 1763 something called the "Model Deed" was written and approved at conference, which set John Wesley up as having power to dismiss and appoint preachers. This thus gave him theological oversight over the entire Methodist movement. Within this agreement was established the Standards. The Standards for Methodism were from this point on John Wesley's Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament and his four-volumes of sermons. Sugden wrote in the Introduction of his edition of the Standard Sermons: The doctrinal standards to which every minister of the Methodist Church is required to conform is legally defined in the Model Deed as follows: 'No person or persons whomever shall . . .be permitted to preach . . . who shall maintain, promulgate, or teach any doctrine or practice contrary to what is contained in certain Notes on the New Testament, commonly reputed to be the notes of the said John Wesley, and in the first four volumes of sermons commonly reputed to be written and published by him (Sugden 4).The Standard Sermons, then, would include the forty-four sermons found in these four volumes. We have included a specific table for these sermons. In 1771 John Wesley, himself, printed his collected Works and actually included nine more sermons than the four volumes previously printed. In subsequent printings of the Standards, though, Wesley did not include these nine. One must understand that there are more Wesley sermons than just the Standards. Having Standard sermons does not relegate the others to unimportance. The Standards are just the ones, as well as the Notes, which ministers within Methodism are required to follow. The Standard Sermons are still considered a part of the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church, the largest Wesleyan body in the world.
Wesley envisioned the Methodist movement to be a movement of revitalization. The movement was to revitalize not only the Church of England without, but also the hearts of men and women within. The grace of God to be found in the means of grace and the life lived in the love of Christ are seen as the essential elements of Wesley's theology. Albert Outler has stated, "The heart of Wesley's gospel was always its lively sense of God's grace at work at every level of creation and history in persons and communities" (Outler 98).
The Sermons represent a part of Wesley's written understanding of God's redemptive work. One must remember, though, to look at these sermons with an understanding of what period of Wesley's life they were written. Most scholars follow the understanding that Wesley had three distinct time-periods within his life. The first would be pre-Aldersgate (birth to 1738), the second his more Protestant period (1738 to 1765-70), and the third his more mature period (1765-70 to 1791). The sermons must be understood within their respective periods. The reason for this understanding is not that Wesley changed all of his theological opinions between these periods but that Wesley was one who believed in experiential divinity. Experience had a place among Wesley's sources of theology and just as a person grows in age and stature, so they grow in knowledge and love of God. Outler states: None of these sermons stands alone; none is norm for all the others. Wesley can quite readily be quoted against himself when this passage or that is taken out of context. His sermons are bound to be misread unless they are understood as experimental statements and restatements of his vision of the Christian life (Outler 87).Wesley's primary goal was always to present the gospel as well as he could with the best understanding he could. He firmly believed that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ was sufficient to cure the oppression of sin found in the human heart. One will find holiness to be an essential doctrine in the reading of these sermons. Wesleyans to this present day still believe that holiness of heart and life is essential to the Christian sojourn. Love perfected in the individual, mirrored after the example of Jesus, will always be a mainstay of a Wesleyan understanding. Wesley stated in his own preface to the Sermons, "I have accordingly set down in the following sermons what I find in the Bible concerning the way to heaven; with a view to distinguish this way of God from all those which are the inventions of men" (Outler 106).
Wesley's theology transcended the past divisions of the Church including Catholic and Protestant as well as East and West. One can find in his writings an eclectic collection of ideas and concepts from all corners of the Christian Church. One can read his sermons and find sources from the early church, the eastern divines, the Catholic mystics, and the Protestant Reformers. Kenneth Collins writes: "In light of this, it is tempting, no doubt, to emphasize one of these poles to the detriment of the other such that our reading of Wesley will appear either as a "Protestant" or as a "Catholic" one. However, it is best to forgo this attempt and instead to rejoice in the breadth of Wesley's theological perspective and in the nuances of his carefully crafted theology. In doing so, not only will we be able to see, perhaps, a larger Wesley than we have previously imagined, not only will we be equipped with the theological wherewithal for rich dialogue with a diversity of theological traditions, but we will be also be free, most important of all, to bear witness to the hope and promise of a distinctively Wesleyan via salutis ["way of salvation"] (Collins 207).
Collins, J. Kenneth. The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley's Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1997.
Heitzenrater, P. Richard. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1995.
Maddox, L. Randy. gen.ed. Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism. Nashville: Kingswood Books. 1998.
Outler, C. Albert. ed. The Works of John Wesley: Volume I, Sermons I, 1-33. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1984.
Sugden, H. Edward. ed. John Wesley's Fifty-Three Sermons. Nashville: Abingdon. Second Printing, 1984.
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