Wesley as a pastoral theologian
WESLEY AS A PASTORAL THEOLOGIAN
Theological methodology in John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection
By David B. McEwan
Paternoster. 230 pages. £24.99
ISBN 978 1 842 276 211
I suspect that most readers of this paper will rightly revere John Wesley as an evangelist whom God used in the Great Awakening and as a man passionately dedicated to extending the kingdom of Christ.
However, when it comes to some aspects of his theology, we are a little more wary. If we are Calvinists, Wesley was on the wrong side of the controversy from George Whitefield, but perhaps more problematic was his doctrine of Christian perfection. In this book, the Nazarene scholar David McEwan has done the wider church a great service by putting Wesley as a theologian in historical and theological context, and expounding his doctrine of Christian perfection. In understanding Wesley’s view, it is fundamentally important to appreciate his role as a pastoral theologian for the emerging Methodist movement. Central to his theology was the believer’s experience of love in his or her relationship to God or what Wesley called ‘the true, the scriptural, experimental religion’ of the heart.
Wesley taught not so much that a believer could have absolute moral perfection as measured by God’s law, but rather that ‘infirmities, errors, mistakes, and misjudgments, that are obvious violations of the original covenant of works with Adam, do not violate the covenant of grace as long as there is confession, repentance and gracious remediation’. As McEwan goes on to say, ‘This makes a relationship of perfect love defined by purity of intention, singleness of purpose and a heart’s passion for God possible…’. The question, of course, is whether or not such a doctrine is biblical. Wesley argues that it was, but that our understanding of Scripture must be shaped by our experience of God’s love, our sanctified reason and the Christian community.
The book is a useful, if demanding and not inspiring, introduction to Wesley as a theologian; a more popular version would help commend Wesley as a theologian more widely. However, even then I think most of us will find Whitefield’s doctrine of the Christian life more biblical and convincing.