An Inconvenient Truth - John Wesley and the Book of Discipline

An education can be a dangerous thing.  Going back to school by choice, well, that can just really mess you up!  Well, at least that is what I have thought since going back to work on my Certification in Spiritual Formation.  It really has been good but it has me pushing myself mentally, physically and yes, spiritually.

Of interest for me on this journey has been a simple one: what did John Wesley have to say about spiritual formation?  Now if you’re not a Methodist, this may not be of interest but we Methodists are kind of stuck with what maybe an inconvenient truth – Wesley’s 52 StandardSermons and his Notes on the New Testament are part of the United Methodist Church’s Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (see Paragraph 103).  These are far more than merely a collection of pithy notes and sayings, they represent the theological work of a transformed and transformational Christian.  We have said the writings of John Wesley matter – we don’t get to ignore them or term them archaic or of no value.  We have declared they are more than historical – we have said we need them for our work as the church.

This arena of spiritual formation is not represented in this material directly.  To find spiritual formation, you have to look under mysticism and mystics of John Wesley’s larger works.  Take your pick and use the index but forewarned, these writings represent a varying array of opinions and ones that do change over time.  More to the point, Wesley has varying opinions on different mystics even.

Not much has been available to beyond two pieces that I have found in researching this topic.  Dr. Robert Tuttle followed up his dissertation with the publishing of his book, Mysticism in theWesleyan Tradition, published in 1989.  Dr. Kenneth J. Collins, also addressed the topic of “John Wesley’s Assessment of Christian Mysticism in his submission to the Lexington Theological Quarterly.  I have long been impressed with Dr. Collins’ writings on Wesleyan-Methodist Theology and I certainly recommend both works.

What struck me as of particular value is what Dr. Collins’ writes at the end of his work.  It is four questions, taken from the whole of Wesley’s works on the subject of mysticism and Collins’ own knowledge of Wesley’s thoughts and theology.  They represent what, I think, is a thoughtful and helpful gift to us as clergy and laity to examine and reflect on practices as well as theologies and theories we seek to bring into the church.  Consider these questions posed by Dr. Collins:

1.  Is it Christologically based? 
2. Does it detract from Jesus as mediator?  (Does it stress a direct relationship with God apart from Jesus?)
3.  Is the practice rooted in the atonement?
4.  Is it rooted in the means of grace? (ex: prayer, communion, Bible reading, etc).

We may be in the extreme center, but our discipline does not allow us do theology and practice in a vacuum either and I don't mean just in relation to spiritual formation but all of our work.  It would serve us well to wrestle more fully the history and reality of our Wesleyan-Methodist Heritage in our day.   We may well find it more than just fruitful but liberating to know more fully the work of one whose heart was strangely warmed and then set on fire by God’s grace and mercy.


Anonymous said...

John Meunier said...

The four questions are great. What kind of practices that are common in the UMC do you think those questions might cause us to doubt?

Ken L. Hagler said...

John, I'm not sure off the top of my head which practices we already have that I might call in to question, though there might be. I'll ponder that. Do they raise any for you?

For me the questions have provided a process of examination for practice outside the UMC. In working on my Certification in Spiritual Formation, I used the questions as part of an examination of Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. I will be posting that in the coming month or so. I found the process to be helpful and engaging as spiritual formation continues to be part of our denominational conversation.

Both your recent blog and then Richard Rohr's post, have provided a continuing opportunity to explore how we do Methodist Spiritual Formation. It seems to me we (UM) are appearing quite selective on our use of "quadrilateral" tasks. We need questions that we'll use. I found Collin's questions very much in line with Wesley's writings and approach.

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