Why Should We Care about Theology? The Significance of Wesleyan Theology for the 21st Century

(Originally Published in “Holiness Digest”)

Given all the monumental problems of the modern world, why should anyone get energized by the idea of doing theology?  Theology and doctrine are boring, and they divide people, we are told.  Any mention of theology sends shivers down many people’s spines, because they immediately think of high-flown language that is bent on making distinctions about doctrinal minutiae.  It seems so far removed from the immediate concerns of peoples’ lives and their desire to experience God.  Add to the suspicions that people have regarding the impracticality of theology the additional concerns about unnecessarily creating divisions, and you have a recipe for disinterest in theological rigor. Many people embrace the words of Thomas Jefferson, “ethics can unite people, but doctrine divides.”   Certainly, in contemporary American religious discourse there are those who argue that we need to be accepting and tolerant of others’ distinctive beliefs. Such an ethical commitment is, of course, correct. So, why should a non-academic person be concerned about theology in the Church?

In his famous sermon, “The Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley sets forth a credo for Christian thought and action: “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart.  If so, then give me thine hand.”  Rightly understood, this question and exhortation point us in a direction that points us toward the answer to the question why people in the Wesleyan tradition need to be involved in theological dialogue in the 21st century.  “The Catholic Spirit” is Wesley’s attempt to declare to his generation that there is a center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that all true believers inhabit, and this center must be our frame of reference.  During a much later and turbulent time, C. S. Lewis would seize upon this same theme that one finds in Wesley; and he would label it “Mere Christianity.”  About this center of our faith, Wesley pleaded and contended with his followers and fellow Christians, that they would believe it, continually contemplate it, never merely assume its truth, and live in it.  

Hence, Wesley’s call to a catholic spirit was no sentimental plea for a kind of doctrinal apathy and ecumenical sentimentality.  It was not a call to eliminate as much of the particular, unique and exclusive claims, and inconvenient propositions of the Gospel – all for the sake of a bland religiosity.  Rather, his commitment was to classical orthodox Christian doctrine, but not as a mere set of doctrines for their own sake.  Wesley’s devotion was to the God about whom the doctrines spoke.  But he knew that he would not have any knowledge of the God he loved and worshipped apart from those doctrines and the Holy Scriptures upon which they were based.  In this attitude we can discover anew why those who embrace the theological perspective that is articulated in the Wesleyan tradition should be fully engaged in the fray of intellectual and theological discourse in the 21st century: A clear understanding that doctrine matters.

One of the chief mantras of this age we live in is that religious dogmas are cumbersome to the life of real spiritual vitality.  What matters, we are told, is “authentic spirituality.”  However, there are two questions one must ask:  1) what is “spirituality” and 1) what makes spirituality “authentic.”  The concept of spirituality is a rather ill defined term.  Everyone from Madonna to Mother Theresa can be considered “spiritual.”  That being the case, it is even more difficult to come to terms with what it might mean to be “authentic” in one’s spirituality.  Surely it would have to mean more than being sincere in one’s beliefs and lifestyle.  Unless it means more than that we could say that every terrorist when he decapitates an innocent or bombs a wedding celebration is acting “authentically” with regard to his “spirituality.”  If being spiritual – even authentically so – cannot avoid the trap of moral equivalence (i.e. the equating of all actions as equally defensible or indefensible), then the concept of “spirituality” becomes a rather useless word.

Spiritual living is always based on a belief system; and belief systems can be compared and discussed.  This is why the claim that religious dogmas simply get in the way of real spirituality is such a pitifully naïve belief.  Doctrine is essential for authentic spirituality to occur.  Wesley’s sermon reminds us that we cannot know God properly apart from proper belief about God.  The Triune One has revealed himself to us.  In the later part of “Catholic Spirit,” Wesley urges his readers to avoid what he calls “speculative latitudinarianism.”  He declares that a Christian spirit that is generous toward others in their spiritual journeys is not based unconcerned with right belief.  It is not

“indifference to all opinions [beliefs]:  this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.  This unsettledness of thought, this being driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine, is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend to true catholicism.  A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek [i.e., he is not trying to decide what he believes].  He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.  It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his own principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, neither does it occasion any.”

Wesley knew what we would all do well to remember, that an open heart to others and an open mind to consider beliefs other than ones own cannot be built on a lack of granite-like certitude about the beliefs that are essential to the Gospel (what he called the “main branches of Christian doctrine.)  To have a welcoming spiritual demeanor requires a well-developed sense of spiritual identity and that can only come about when one has been shaped by the message of the Gospel.  Wesley knew that the only way to make sure our spiritual experience is authentic is by checking it against the revelation of the author of our very being.  Proper Christian doctrine tells us who God is and tells us who we are.  Without it we are consigned to a spiritual life that will always be driven by the next fad or the most pressing issue of the moment.  We will be left to our own devices.  The history of Christianity is filled with the phenomenon about which Reinhold Niebuhr warned liberal Protestantism of the mid 20th century.  Niebhur would have done well to take his own advice more seriously, but his admonition is nonetheless important.  Absent the guiding principles of doctrine, we will worship a God we have made into our own image, effectively damning ourselves to our own finitude.  Far from being a hindrance to vital spiritual life, working to be clear about doctrine enriches the spiritual journey.  It is a safety harness that holds us in the faith, not shackles that bind us down.  

A second reason that we need to be engaged in the work of theological reflection and articulation for the 21st century is related to the first.  Wesley’s sermon reminds us that our calling is to be self-consciously Christian and unconsciously Wesleyan.  One could put in the place of the final adjective of the last sentence others – Baptist, Reformed, Pentecostal, etc.  However, in many instances Christians have in recent years calcified in our endeavors to define each of our own theological traditions as unique.  However, our significance is found only as we enrich the Church catholic with our particular doctrinal commitments.  For those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, our goal is no more to establish or defend Wesley or Wesleyanism than John Wesley’s goal was to promote himself. The same is true about other denominational heritages, as well.  

This does not mean that we denigrate or back away from the historic understanding of Christian doctrine that is in our tradition.  But we do not promote them as “Wesleyan.”  Rather, we promote them because we are convinced that they are biblical and orthodox; and we promote them because we are convinced that as we so do we call the Church into deeper union with her Lord and with one another.  This we can and must do in conversation with others who truly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and want to understand it better.  So, in the 21st century Christians who are Wesleyan by tradition — professional theologians, clergy, and laity — should seek to be radically engaged with other Christians in prayer, service, and dialogue about what is the true core of the Christian Gospel.  Ready to give our witness to the truth in service to the Church, we will do so without defensiveness or arrogance.  This is what Wesley called his Methodists to do in “Catholic Spirit.”    

Finally, the significance of people from our tradition being involved in the theological fray of the 21st century is underscored in the very way Wesley describes the theological task in this sermon.  In “The Catholic Spirit” Wesley’s refrain is “If your heart is right, as my heart is with thy heart, then give me thy hand.”   At first glance this might seem almost to be a rejection of the importance of theological rigor.  But that is hardly what he intends, as we have seen.  While Wesley, no doubt, meant by the term “heart” something very close to what we mean – the seat of ones affections and emotions, a careful reading of this sermon will reveal that he is not asking for sentimental affection for other religious people.  Rather, Wesley’s emphasis on the heart in this sermon is consistent with his view of the way doctrinal truth functions in the life of the believer.  We are not called upon to be correct for the sake of being correct, but are called to be faithful in all of our living.  And such faithfulness finds its expression in an open heart toward those who are not convinced by what you believe.  

As we have already noted, an open heart is only possible when one is certain about the truth of the Gospel.  Wesley saw that what is always at stake is the “heart,” and the “heart” is the very core of one’s existence and identity.  A Wesleyan theology is, therefore, a discipline that must engage not just the mind and one’s reason, although it must surely do that, by calling one to believe the Gospel.  If a theology is to be truly Christian – and therefore most faithfully Wesleyan – what is believed is not held in some kind of isolated clarity in one’s mind.  

Proper belief will most assuredly shape a believer’s emotions and affections, but it won’t stop there.  Beyond the shaping of one’s system of belief and one’s affective values, a true religion of the “heart” must capture the will of a person.  We in the Wesleyan tradition have been shaped by a way of doing theological reflection that, at its best, does not forget that the response of one’s total person to the Lord of the Gospel as the Gospel of our Lord is required by the radical Gospel of our Lord.  Such a theological perspective is much needed in a culture such as ours that would divorce our beliefs from our actions, our desires from our reason, our public selves from our private moral choices.  This and the other things discussed above are, I believe, the reasons that we in the Wesleyan tradition must join the fray of the 21st century; indeed, they have been the same in every century.

Content © 2019 G Stephen Blakemore and The John and Charles Wesley Center. All rights reserved.  To utilize all of this document in a written publication, you may gain permission by written request to info@jcwcenter.org.  Permission to quote from this work in a written publication or post it in an online forum is granted, so long as proper citation is observed.

Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Dr. Blakemore is a co-founder of the JCW Center and the Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary.