The Meaning of Wesleyan Roots

Essential Character-
istics of Wesleyanism

Guest Essay by Kent Hill

President, Eastern Nazarene College




















Kent Hill

Last century, the famed English essayist Edmund Burke asserted that a university is "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

The notion that the living ought to have some vital connection with those who are long since dead is quite foreign to us. The past is past, and besides, we carry around a deep prejudice and arrogance that we are somehow more open, more advanced than those who have gone before. And so today Presbyterians and Baptists know little about John Calvin. Catholics know almost nothing about Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. And frankly, Nazarenes and Free Methodists may know surprisingly little about John Wesley, and the distinctives which have infused our tradition and given birth to colleges like Seattle Pacific University.

The post-denominational age is a positive development in many ways. Surely it is a good thing that today Christians at their best are seeking real and important common ground. It is my thesis, however, that it is possible - indeed necessary - to draw strength from our denominational traditions, while at the same time encouraging a healthy and genuine ecumenism. I believe that by understanding and embracing the following eight characteristics of Wesleyanism, Seattle Pacific can be faithful to the best of its past while serving the Church universal.

What does it mean to be Wesleyan?

First, to be Wesleyan means to recognize the primacy of Scriptural authority. John Wesley never left any doubt as to his convictions in this area. In a letter in 1739, he unequivocally stated: "I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures...." Wesley was so serious about Scripture playing the primary role in what he thought and how he lived, that his sermons and letters are infused with Scriptural phrases. It became part of his very language.

Second, to be Wesleyan means to be consciously and proudly part of the broad, ancient tradition of the Christian faith. We do not belong to a religious sect that came into existence in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1777, at the founding of City Road Chapel in London, Wesley described the movement of Methodism this way: "Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old no other than love, the love of God and all mankind." If we are true to our Wesleyan heritage, we not only may, but are obligated to, draw broadly from Christian tradition.

Third, to be Wesleyan not only allows, but requires, that we be ecumenical. Though John Wesley believed strongly in his theological convictions, he never lost sight of the fact that the Body of Christ is much bigger than any one tradition or theological perspective. He neither swept under the rug important theological divisions that existed, nor allowed those differences to cloud the larger reality that what we hold in common through the creeds is of primary importance. In Wesley's ecumenism, there was a commitment to a common humanity in Christ.

Fourth, to be Wesleyan means to affirm the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Salvation is grounded in the merits of Christ's righteousness and is appropriated by faith, which is a gift of God's grace. Wesley insisted that we must respond to God's gift through acts of obedience that flow out of faith. Wesley believed that humans can never do enough to merit salvation; still he taught that God in his sovereignty grants us a measure of freedom to respond to his transforming grace, and if we refuse to respond, then we will neither be saved or transformed.

Fifth, to be Wesleyan means to recognize the grace of God as "transforming," as well as "pardoning." This lies at the crux of what can be called the central theological distinctive of John Wesley's thought - the quest, by God's grace, for holiness or sanctification. Grace is more than the "creative grace" that has formed all things. It is even more than the "pardoning" grace that forgives us of our sins. It is the "transforming" grace which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enables us to conform ever more to the image of Jesus Christ.

Sixth, to be Wesleyan means to be effective apologists of the Christian faith. John Wesley's life and ministry reflects a compelling response to the command recorded in I Peter 3:15-16: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience...." (NIV) If we reflect a Wesleyan perspective, we will cultivate opportunities to use Scripture, broad Christian tradition, reason and experience in defense of the faith. And we will do it in a way that shows restraint and love in the face of criticism.

Seventh, to be Wesleyan requires commitment to discipleship and accountability. Specifically, it requires of us a commitment to the importance of structured Christian discipleship. In June 1779, Wesley wrote in his journal: "This very day I heard many excellent truths delivered in the kirk (church). But, as there was no application, it was likely to do as much good as the singing of a lark." In addition to participation in small accountability groups, Wesley insisted on the importance of private devotions, participation in larger church meetings, the taking of the sacraments, and acts of mercy.

Eighth, to be Wesleyan means to be involved in compassionate ministries. John Wesley always believed that it was imperative that a follower of Jesus Christ be simultaneously committed to the essential vertical relationship with his or her Creator, and to the necessary and redemptive relationship to the rest of God's Creation. If the latter is not present, Wesley insisted that there is something fundamentally wrong with the former. No position could be more clearly rooted in Christ, who stated in Matthew 25 that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (NIV)

The challenge of Seattle Pacific University is to hold fast to that which has stood the test of time and which is worthy of passing on to the next generation.

A Wesleyan legacy is much more important than the honoring of an individual, however great he may have been. It is much more significant than any tradition, however impressive that tradition may be. It is precious precisely because it points to that which is the source of all truth - the Living God.

Key words for us in the Wesleyan tradition - words consistent with the mission of Seattle Pacific University - are faith, community, grace, freedom, hope, transformation, witness, discipleship and service. May we reflect in every appropriate way the fire and power of those Wesleyan words.


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