“John Wesley’s Moral Theology” by D. Stephen Long

Long first wants to assert that John Wesley’s theology can speak for today precisely for the reason that it does not play by the rules of modern ethics. In fact, Long shows that Wesley was not an empiricist or pragmatist, as some have speculated. Rather, Wesley provided a moral theology that was more akin to Augustine and Aquinas than it was to Locke, Hume, or Kant. Because Wesley did not imbibe in the modern view of ethics, it does not also suffer the same destructive fate as modern ethics.

Eighteenth century philosophy provided a framework in which God and the good could be distinguished, separated, and even in contention with one another. The division of truth, beauty, and goodness undermined the very foundation of their being, as Wesley argued. The “good”, in essence, became a law or principle unto itself with no need for reference to a greater power. Thus, theology and ethics were ruptured. Theology, for many, became a dispensable practice since ethics was a “higher form of morality.”

Much of this separation between theology and ethics can also be attributed to the division of will and intellect. Long suggests that it is proper to understand the will and intellect as working in conjunction, rather than one coming before the other in a causal way. In connecting truth and goodness, Long notes:
This entails that doctrine and ethics are not finally separable. In opposition to this, modern scientific ethics separates the good and the true such that one would not need to know anything to be good, for there is finally nothing good but a goodwill. A person could be ignorant of truth and still be good. (69)

This not only ruptures theology and ethics, but centers “the good” within each human person.
Human secularism is not a far cry from this position. When this becomes the prevailing attitude, God, as for Nietzsche, is a non-entity. There is no root or ground for truth, beauty, or goodness. All that remains is the will to power, which renders ethics a tool to accomplish what makes one happy. Wesley’s “moral theology” would have rejected this sentiment outright, believing that such things are intimately connected with the Creator. As such, they cannot be self-contained values but are subsumed within the Triune God’s very character and nature.

Similarly, if God and the good are separated and found within each individual, then morality is no longer dependent upon the Church. Thus, as Hume posits, religion is the enemy of true morality and is an unsustainable discipline. Instead, according to Hume, morality is largely based upon the societal structures and desires for what they perceive to be the good. The “phantasm” of the good renders one capable of assuming that our thoughts are actually God, rather than our ideas and imagination being grounded in God. However, Wesley combats this notion vehemently, recalling our participation in Christ as participation in the divine mind (i.e., the commandments). It is only in grounding our ideas in God that we can appreciate and understand the fullness of morality (God’s will).

Wesley stood apart from the “disinterested” ethics of his day. Instead, he followed the principle of metaphysical participation. In other words, Wesley believed that we could participate in the divine life and mind through Jesus the Christ. Because Jesus was both fully human and fully God, he united the two in such a way that metaphysical participation was possible. It was not merely a phantasm of the mind, but a legitimate way of knowing God and who we were created to be.

Part of this bodily participation emphasized within Wesley’s framework is distinguished in three ways: do no harm, do good, and attend to the sacraments. However, Wesley did not believe that this was sufficient for salvation, but rather could become a mere “righteousness of the Pharisees.” Wesley maintained, as per Jesus, that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. This does not mean that we are not to be hypocritical. The Pharisees were very devoted observers of the Law. Rather, their failure lies in neglecting the weightier matters of the Law and their efforts were not enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s life-giving power. Or, holiness of heart did not provide the impetus behind those practices.

Yet, Wesley’s caution did not keep him from maintaining the importance of attending the sacraments and living out the commandments. In fact, they were vital to a life of holiness, but they simply were not sufficient alone. Thus, Wesley seeks to maintain these practices while waiting on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of those who practiced charity and observed the sacraments. Inward and outward holiness of life had to be held together.

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