Tuesday, June 08, 2004

John Wesley: a "Catholic Methodist"?

By Dave Armstrong (6-8-04)

Since discovering very "Catholic" things about various Protestants seems to be quite the thing these days, I was fascinated by this information I picked up today from Alastair Roberts. I love Wesley! But now I think he is even cooler than I did before: 

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I came across this interesting letter a few months back. It is addressed to Wesley’s wayward brother-in-law, Westley Hall.

December 30, 1745.

DEAR BROTHER,—Now you act the part of a friend. It has long been our desire, that, you would speak freely. And we will do the same. What we know not yet, may God reveal to us!

You think, First, that, we undertake to defend some things, which are not defensible by the Word of God. You instance three: on each of which we will explain ourselves as clearly as we can.

1. ‘That, the validity of our ministry depends on a succession supposed to be from the Apostles, and a commission derived from the Pope of Rome, and his successors or dependents.’

We believe, it would not be right for us to administer, either Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, unless we had a commission so to do from those Bishops, whom we apprehend to be in a succession from the Apostles. And, yet, we allow, these Bishops are the successors of those, who are dependent on the Bishop of Rome. But, we would be glad to know, on what reasons you believe this to be inconsistent with the Word of God.

2. ‘That, there is an outward Priesthood, and consequently an outward Sacrifice, ordained and offered by the Bishop of Rome, and his successors or dependents, in the Church of England, as vicars and vicegerents of Christ.’

We believe there is and always was, in every Christian Church (whether dependent on the Bishop of Rome or not) an outward Priesthood ordained by Jesus Christ, and an outward Sacrifice offered therein, by men authorized to act, as Ambassadors of Christ, and Stewards of the mysteries of God. On what grounds do you believe, that, Christ has abolished that Priesthood or Sacrifice?

3. ‘That, this Papal Hierarchy and Prelacy, which still continues in the Church of England, is of Apostolical Institution, and authorized thereby; though not by the written Word.’

We believe, that, the threefold order of ministers, (which you seem to mean by Papal Hierarchy and Prelacy,) is not only authorized by its Apostolical Institution, but also by the written Word. Yet, we are willing to hear and weigh whatever reasons induce you to believe to the contrary.


But don't break out the champagne yet. Alas, there is some bad news, too. Dr. William Tighe added this sobering bit of information:

Well, yes, but when did John Wesley write this? In later life, he abandoned his earlier belief in the apostolic succession of bishops, and came to believe that presbyters and bishops were the same office; hence his consecration of Asbury & Coke as “superintendents” for American Methodists in (when? 1782?); subsequently they termed themselves “bishops.” Charles Wesley, who had not, like John, abandoned his earlier beliefs about Catholic Church Order, reproached John bitterly for these “consecrations.” Wesley, like Luther, changed some of his ideas as time went on – and for both of them the changes were away from historical Catholicism, not towards it.

It's a bummer, but this is what Protestantism tends to do, doesn't it? Move away from historic Catholic Christianity . . .

Alastair replied:

Yes, I was aware of that. However, this letter from Wesley does come 7 and a half years after his evangelical conversion. Wesley certainly did not see his evangelical convictions to be incompatible with his high ecclesiology for many years.

And this is an excellent consideration, assuming that Wesley did adopt a "lower" ecclesiology later in life. He managed to believe this "Catholic" stuff for seven years after adopting an evangelical stance and undergoing a profound personal experience of the Holy Spirit, and saw no radical inconsistency in that.

There are all sorts of examples of this, where the beliefs of prominent Protestant figures don't fit into the modern ("post-modern"?) evangelical mold: Luther's belief in the Immaculate Conception and baptismal regeneration, Bullinger's seeming acceptance of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Wesley's quite Catholic notions of sanctification and rejection of sola fide, Keble, Pusey, Newman and the Tractarians, C.S. Lewis' casual acceptance of purgatory and prayers for the dead, widespread Protestant belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and the wrongness of contraception until very recent times (and a growing movement going back to that stance today), etc. G.K. Chesterton made one of his perceptive analogies between Protestant "borrowing" or continuing lots of different Catholic beliefs and practices, to Robinson Crusoe going out to the wrecked ship again and again to retrieve more things.

I think Protestants ought to ask themselves why that is. Is it not rather obvious that Rome remains, and indeed always has been the standard for the parameters, nature, and shape of historic Christianity? Time and again, Protestant movements discover (or I should say "rediscover") some "new" truth, only to realize that we Catholics had held it all along, from the beginning. It's shipwrecked Crusoe going back to the "ship" of historic Catholicism, which is still sitting out there. Once this happens over and over, I think some folks (like myself in 1990) will start thinking of converting to this remarkable Church which seems to somehow (despite all its outward warts and flaws and laxity and/or ignorance of many of its members) "get it right" over and over. Ronald Knox made the journey across the Tiber. He wrote in his recounting of that odyssey:

I read . . . Milman's (soundly Protestant) History of Latin Christianity . . . he comments upon the extraordinary precision with which, time after time, the Bishops of Rome managed to foresee which side the Church would eventually take in a controversy, and "plumped" for it beforehand . . . Each time Rome . . . thinks today what the world will think tomorrow . . . the Catholic party is the party in which the Bishop of Rome was, and nothing else . . . The Papacy seemed to be the thing which medieval Christendom was certain about . . . I had taken no new intellectual step: I saw the same set of facts, and my intellect made an entirely different report of them . . .

I had been . . . fully prepared to find, that the immediate result of submission to Rome would be the sense of having one's liberty cramped and restricted in a number of ways . . . My experience has been exactly the opposite. I have been overwhelmed with the feeling of liberty . . . You can carry a weight so long that you cease to feel it; instead, you feel an outburst of positive relief when it is withdrawn. The suppressed uncertainty of mind was like a dull toothache that had been part of my daily experience . . . It was not till I became a Catholic that I became conscious of my former homelessness . . . I now found ease and naturalness, and stretched myself like a man who has been sitting in a cramped position . . . Nor do I feel cabined and cramped because intellectual speculation is now guided and limited for me by actual authority, as it had been . . . . by my own desire for orthodoxy.

(A Spiritual Aeneid, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950 ed., 192-196, 218-220, 222)


wonderboss said...

Not really true about his "lower ecclesiology", Dave. He never abandoned belief in apostolic sucession, he just convinced himself (because of the great need in America) that a presbyter can ordain other presbyters in certain circumstances. He never allowed Coke and the others to call themselves bishops, only "Superintendants." They took to using the title themselves after he was gone. Look up this topic in the online "Wesley in Company with High Churchmen" and you'll get his entire thought on the topic throughout his lifetime.

Dave Armstrong said...

Fair enough (and good news). I'll be able to study these matters in much more depth as I do research for my upcoming quotations book.