Types of Wesleyan Philosophy: The General Landscape and My Own Research

by Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe, and is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. To find out more about him or view more of his works, visit his website or the Center for Open and Relational Theology.

Paper Delivered as the Presidential Address of the Wesleyan Philosophical Society. Lexington, Kentucky. March 2003.


The bulk of this paper provide descriptions of four elements in a typology. It describe types of Wesleyan philosophy in terms of interests that those in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society might pursue. When discussing the final element, the direction Oord sketches the direction he would personally like to pursue in his own Wesleyan philosophical scholarship. Part of the rationale for this essay amounts to an apologetic for the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.  And part of the reason this essay was written is to encourage those with philosophical inclinations seriously to consider becoming active in this fledgling society of Wesleyan scholars.

“How well do philosophy and religion agree in a man [sic] of sound understanding!”

– John Wesley (Journal, Tuesday, July 3, 1753)

The bulk of this paper entails my descriptions of four elements in a typology. I describe types of Wesleyan philosophy in terms of interests that those in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society might pursue. When discussing the final element, I briefly sketch the direction I personally would like to pursue in my own Wesleyan philosophical scholarship. Part of my rationale for this essays amounts to an apologetic for the Wesleyan Philosophical Society. And part of the reason I offer this essay is to encourage those with philosophical inclinations seriously to consider becoming active in this fledgling society of Wesleyan scholars.

1. Wesleyans Doing Philosophy

The first type of philosophers who belong in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society might be called “Wesleyans Doing Philosophy.” This type is the most inclusive, because it includes all Wesleyans who endeavor to examine an idea philosophically. Those in universities and colleges, graduate and undergraduate students, nonprofessionals and Christian leaders–all Wesleyans who value the philosophical enterprise–are invited to join the Wesleyan Philosophical Society. Welcome are Wesleyans who characterize themselves as analytic, continental, feminist, pragmatist, process, Thomist, etc., and those whose interest lay chiefly in aesthetics, Eastern philosophy, epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, political philosophy, etc.

Many contemporary traditions have stressed the philosophical importance of one’s community, identity, and social location. Prominent voices in feminist philosophy have suggested this, and Wittgenstein’s category of the “forms of life” commends something similar. The “Wesleyans Doing Philosophy” type might be understood to acknowledge that one’s location and history often, if not inevitably, affects one’s identity and aims. The broad Wesleyan community will likely shape, at least to some degree, the form, ideas, or issues of philosophy that a Wesleyan philosopher pursues. Of course, how being a Wesleyan shapes one’s philosophy may be difficult to detect. Hindsight often provides a clearer view.

2. Examiners of Wesley’s Philosophical Thought

The second type of philosophers who belong in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society are “Examiners of Wesley’s Own Philosophical Thought.” While John Wesley is not known for writing philosophy, many scholars and laity did not know the great degree to which Wesley read philosophy and attempted to formulate his own thought in reaction to the philosophers of his day. Barry Bryant’s paper at last year’s WPS conference and Laura Bartel’s paper this year, among others, explore the influence that philosophy had on Wesley.

Not only did Wesley study philosophy at Oxford and not only did he become regarded as a formidable logician while a graduate fellow there, but he also often defended the importance of philosophy throughout his life. When mentors like Peter Böhler said, “My brother, my brother, that philosophy of yours must be purged away,” Wesley disagreed. In fact, he read widely in philosophy and recommended that his preachers and others with whom he corresponded read philosophy as well.

Among the philosophers Wesley is known to have read are notables such as Aristotle, Augustine, Francis Bacon, George Berkeley, Boethius, Robert Boyle, Joseph Butler, Cicero, Samuel Clarke, Rene Descartes, Johnathan Edwards, Erasmus, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Gottfried Leibnitz, John Locke, Malebranche, Cotton Mather, Isaac Newton, Pascal, Plato, Thomas Reid, and Voltaire.

I have begun a list of philosophy books that Wesley mentions having read or that he recommended. Upon realizing that the list was growing huge, I came to my senses and ask Randy Maddox for help. Fortunately, Randy is in the process of constructing a record of all the books, philosophical and nonphilosophical, that Wesley mentions having read. He culled out a list for me of about 80 philosophers whose works Wesley mentions.[1]

The titles of Wesley’s own philosophical essays reveal his interests: “A Compendium of Logic,” “Of the Gradual Improvement of Natural Philosophy,” “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” “The Imperfection of Human Knowledge,” “Remarks upon Mr. Locke’s ‘Essay on Human Understanding,’” “An Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” “Thoughts upon Necessity,” and “Thoughts upon Taste.” Most of Wesley’s constructive philosophical writings were in the arena we think of today as philosophy of science and what in his day was referred to as “Natural Philosophy.” In many ways, Wesley worked to integrate truths and theories in the science-and-religion interface.

The importance of philosophy for Wesley is evident in his essay “Address to Clergy.” In this piece, he instructs his ministers to examine themselves by asking a set of questions. I find the fifth line of questioning particularly interesting, and I offer it here in full, despite its length. Wesley instructs ministers to ask themselves:

Am I a tolerable master of the sciences? Have I gone through the very gate of them, logic? If not, I am not likely to go much farther, when I stumble at the threshold. Do I understand it so as to be ever the better for it? to have it always ready for use; so as to apply every rule of it, when occasion is, almost as naturally as I turn my hand? Do I understand it at all? Are not even the moods and figures above my comprehension? Do not I poorly endeavour to cover my ignorance, by affecting to laugh at their barbarous names? Can I even reduce an indirect mood to a direct; a hypothetic to a categorical syllogism? Rather, have not my stupid indolence and laziness made me very ready to believe what the little wits and pretty gentlemen affirm, “that logic is good for nothing?” It is good for this at least, (wherever it is understood,) to make people talk less; by showing them both what is, and what is not, to the point; and how extremely hard it is to prove anything. Do I understand metaphysics; if not the depths of the Schoolmen, the subtleties of Scotus or Aquinas, yet the first rudiments, the general principles, of that useful science? Have I conquered so much of it, as to clear my apprehension and range my ideas under proper heads; so much as enables me to read with ease and pleasure, as well as profit, Dr. Henry More’s Works, Malebranche’s “Search after Truth,” and Dr. Clarke’s “Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God?” Do I understand natural philosophy? If I have not gone deep therein, have I digested the general grounds of it? Have I mastered Gravesande, Keill, Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, with his “Theory of Light and Colours”? In order thereto, have I laid in some stock of mathematical knowledge? Am I master of the mathematical A B C of Euclid’s Elements? If I have not gone thus far, if I am such a novice still, what have I been about ever since I came from school?

That last line strikes me as especially provocative. Wesley is saying to his preachers, “Don’t stop thinking philosophically or reading philosophy books at graduation!”

Of course, Wesley sometimes said pejorative things about philosophers. He, like us, thought some philosophies more beneficial than others. My favorite derogatory words are his comments on David Hume. He called Hume “the most insolent despiser of truth and virtue that ever appeared in the world” and “an avowed enemy to God and man, and to all that is sacred and valuable upon earth” (Journal, May 5, 1772).

When Wesley speaks of philosophers or philosophy in a negative way, he generally distinguishes the kind of philosophers about which he speaks. He speaks of “senseless,” “brute,” “heathen,” “miserable,” and just plain “bad” philosophy or philosophers. The most common disparaging adjective he uses to label philosophers with whom he disagreed is “minute.” He had read George Berkeley’s work Alcriphon or the Minute Philosopher, in which Berkeley railed against deists. Berkeley designates these deists “minute philosophers” because of their inability to take a large view of things. Wesley seems also to have despised those who never step back and see the big picture. In his mind, Hume was one of these despised “minute” philosophers.

In sum, the Wesleyan Philosophical Society welcomes those who want to examine closely Wesley’s own philosophical thought and its influences.

3. Adherents of Consonant Philosophical Traditions

The third type of philosophers who belong in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society are those who might see themselves as “Adherents of Philosophical Traditions Consonant with Wesleyan Thought.” Of course, at the heart of this type lay questions about the exact nature of what is Wesleyan. Certainly these questions are up for debate. Nevertheless, a fair number of individuals have claimed that some philosophical traditions are especially consonant with what they believe are basic Wesleyan themes. By way of illustration, I briefly mention five such traditions.

First, some have regarded the general tradition of empiricism, exemplified by John Locke among others, as consonant with Wesleyan thought.[2] Wesley himself adhered to the basic empiricist dictum, “nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses.”[3] Adherents of the empiricist philosophical tradition should feel comfortable exploring the themes of empiricism in the Wesleyan Philosophy Society.

Second, some Wesleyans have noticed basic similarities between Wesley’s thought and the common sense style of argumentation developed by Thomas Reid and the Scottish Commonsense Realists. James E. Hamilton, for instance, has argued that “there was in Wesley and other early Methodists a commonsense approach to theological matters which bore an affinity to Reid’s philosophical method.”[4] Hamilton traces common sense philosophy’s extensive influence upon Methodist scholars to underscore his point.[5]

Third, the contemporary tradition of pragmatism is consonant, in many ways, with the appeals that Wesley made to the relationship between a proposition’s usefulness and its truth. Wesley’s appeal to experience as a test for truth, along with his inclination for what he called “practical divinity,” might provide fruitful ground for explorations into pragmatism’s relationship with Wesleyan thought. Mark Mann points out some similarities in his essay “Postmodernity and Pragmatic Wesleyanism: Peirce, Wesley, and the Demise of Epistemic Foundationalism,” which can be found on the Wesleyan Philosophical Society website.[6]

A fourth philosophical tradition believed to be consonant with Wesleyan thought, and one that appears to be making a comeback, is the personalist tradition. Boston University’s version of personalist philosophy has been particularly associated with Wesleyan thought.[7] Borden Parker Bowne, the instigator of this personalist school, profoundly influenced the work of Wesleyan-oriented scholars in the first half of the twentieth century. Bowne provided Wesleyans, says Thomas A. Langford, with “a generative philosophical foundation for theological construction.”[8] This made Bowne’s philosophy “the seminal source of the most generally influential school of theology produced by American Methodism.”[9]

The fifth tradition, some of whose themes are consonant with Wesleyan thought, is the process philosophical trajectory. A few of these themes are explored in the recent book that Bryan Stone and I co-edited.[10] Other than the essays in our book, John Cobb’s book Grace and Responsibility (on Wesley’s theology), and a few theological articles appreciative of the Wesleyan/Process consonance, not much has been done to explore possible correlations. In fact, the only explicitly philosophical essays comparing process thought to Wesleyanism to be published may be an essay by John Culp titled, “A Wesleyan Contribution to Contemporary Epistemological Discussions,”[11] and my own work that shows David Griffin’s postmodern process philosophy as consonant with themes in Wesleyan thought.[12]

4. Constructors Developing Wesleyan Concerns

Mention of my own work brings me to the fourth type of philosophers who belong in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society. This type consists of “Constructors of Philosophies that Develop Wesleyan Concerns.” Those who wish to do constructive philosophy take steps beyond identifying ways in which Wesleyan thought and various philosophical traditions are consonant. They wish to take Wesleyan-orienting concerns and propose novel philosophical hypotheses that expand such concerns. Let me cite a few possibilities for this enterprise in constructive philosophy.

A philosopher might examine Wesley’s notion of spiritual sensation as a perceptive capacity and then build an epistemology that incorporates Wesley’s concerns and yet transcends his spiritual sensation category. Or, one might take themes in Wesley’s notion of social existence and construct an ethics that assimilates key Wesleyan insights while adding concerns and insights from contemporary ethical discourse. Or, one might take Wesley’s concerns about freedom and its limits and proffer a new theory of causal libertarianism. The possibilities for constructive philosophical work that develops Wesleyan concerns seem immense.

As one whose work fits this fourth type, I should note that my own recent inclinations pertain to developing a metaphysics of prevenient grace. I will sketch out my thoughts on a metaphysics of prevenient grace in the final paragraphs.

By “metaphysics,” I mean a comprehensive proposal for how things work that is empirically oriented, provisional, intentionally inclusive, speculative, and aspiring toward greatest plausibility. As I see it, an adequate metaphysics attains factual adequacy, logical consistency, rational coherence, and explanatory power. By “prevenient grace” I mean God’s loving action prior to every creaturely event. I see God as an interactive person whose pantemporal life consists of successive moments of experience. While God’s nature is unchangingly eternal, God’s experiential life changes in give-and-take relations with nondivine others.

The keys to my thoughts on a metaphysics of prevenient grace surround God’s creative activity as one necessarily related to creatures. As one who is essentially relational, God has always been interacting with some world or another (which entails an explicit denial of creatio ex nihilo).[13] This necessary relationship between God and the world entails that divine relatedness is an aspect of the divine essence. Just as God did not decide various features of God’s “Godness” (e.g., God did not voluntarily decide to exist), an essentially relational deity does not voluntarily decide to be relational. To say it another way, it is a property of the divine essence that God relates to all existing creatures, all of the time.

The essentially- and omni-relational God that I envision acts first to instigate each moment of creaturely life. This action provides non-divines with essential aspects of their event-constituted being. In this sense, all non-divine entities are, in the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher, “utterly dependent” upon God. Among those aspects that God provides to creatures is power for free response, which becomes a necessary dimension of a creature’s ontology. God’s prevenient action also sets the basis for the epistemic dimension of creaturely existence–awareness of truth, beauty, and goodness through perception. And God’s prevenient actions provide creatures with a range of possibilities for moral action, which is the heart of creaturely ethical endeavors.

God’s essential relatedness and omnipresence entails that God cannot withdraw or fail to offer the multi-dimensional gift of existence that creatures require in their moment-by-moment life decisions. This metaphysical claim affords me a basis for overcoming obstacles ostensibly insurmountable for other metaphysical schemes. For instance, it provides solutions to questions in theodicy (God cannot prevent evils committed by free creatures), religious epistemology (God’s communication is never unilateral and thus never absolutely crystal-clear), evolutionary providence (God works cooperatively within the created order to urge creatures toward greater complexity), as well as questions in other domains.


A variety of philosophers, philosophies, and philosophical enterprises are welcome in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society. John Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition grant philosophers a rich resource for what I believe can be exciting and useful philosophical work. Perhaps those involved will both embody in themselves and observe in others the sentiment of these words by Wesley: “How well do philosophy and religion agree in a man [sic] of sound understanding!”[14]

For more from the author Thomas Jay Oord, see his website https://thomasjayoord.com or the Center for Open and Relational Theology https://c4ort.com

  1. Randy Maddox, “Wesley on Natural Philosophy” and “Wesley on Philosophy” (unpublished bibliography, in progress).

  2. Some who have explored deeply the connections between Locke’s and Wesley’s epistemologies include Richard E. Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984), Frederick Dreyer, “Faith and Experience in the Thought of John Wesley,” American Historical Review 88 (1983): 12-30, Clifford J. Hindley, “The Philosophy of Enthusiasm: A Study in the Origins of ‘Experimental Theology,’” London Quarterly and Holborn Review 182 (1957): 99-109, 199-210; Rex D. Matthews, “‘Reason and Religion Joined’: A Study in the Theology of John Wesley” (Th.D. diss., Harvard University, 1986), Yoshio Noro, “Wesley’s Theological Epistemology,” Iliff Review 28 (1971): 59-76, Mitsuo Shimizu, “Epistemology in the Thought of John Wesley” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Drew University, 1980), Donald A. D. Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990); Laurence W. Wood, “Wesley’s Epistemology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 10 (1975): 48-59. It is generally agreed that Wesley was profoundly influenced by Lockean empiricism through Peter Browne’s Procedure, Extent, and Limits of Human Knowledge (London: William Innys,1728).

  3. Wesley mentions this in his sermons “On the Discoveries of Faith” (Works 4:49), “Walking by Sight and Walking by Faith” (Works: 4:51), and An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (Works 11:56).

  4. James E. Hamilton, “Epistemology and Theology in American Methodism” Wesleyan Theological Journal 10 (1975), 72.

  5. Ibid., all. See also Hamilton’s “Academic Orthodoxy and the Arminianizing of American Theology,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 9 (1974), and Leland H. Scott, “Methodist Theology in America in the Nineteenth Century,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale, 1954.

  6. See, for instance, Mark H. Greer Mann, “Postmodernity and Pragmatic Wesleyanism: Peirce, Wesley, and the Demise of Epistemic Foundationalism,” paper given at the Annual Meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society (1999) and published on the Wesleyan Philosophical Society website (http://david.snu.edu/~brint.fs/wpsjnl/Mann01.htm).

  7. See my discussion of Boston Personalism’s relationship with Wesleyan theology in “Wesleyan Theology, Boston Personalism, and Process Thought,” in Thy Name and Thy Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue, Bryan P. Stone and Thomas Jay Oord, eds. (Nashville: Kingswood, 2001), Appendix; and “Boston Personalism’s Affinities and Disparities with Wesleyan Theology and Process Philosophy,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 37:2 (Fall 2002): 114-129.

  8. Thomas A. Langford, Wesleyan Theology: A Sourcebook (Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1984), 149.

  9. Thomas A. Langford, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983), 175.

  10. Bryan P. Stone and Thomas Jay Oord, eds., Thy Name and Thy Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue (Nashville: Kingswood, 2001).

  11. See Thy Name and Thy Nature is Love, ch. 10.

  12. See Thomas Jay Oord, “A Postmodern Wesleyan Philosophy and David Ray Griffin’s Postmodern Vision,” Wesleyan Theological Journal. 35:1 (April/May, 2000); and “Prevenient Grace and Nonsensory Perception of God in a Postmodern Wesleyan Philosophy,” in Between Nature and Grace: Mapping the Interface of Wesleyan Theology and Psychology (San Diego, Calif.: Point Loma Press, 2000).

  13. The vision of an essentially relational God that I propose corresponds well with the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and with various Christian voices of the early church. Regarding Genesis, Jon D. Levenson leads a growing number of scholars who openly acknowledge that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not present therein. “We must face the implication of the affirmation that God, as the creator of the world, confronts forces that oppose divine creation,” he suggests. “To say that creation is directed against something should be taken as a denial of the venerable doctrine of creatio ex nihilo” (Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994; New York: Harper & Row, 1987], xix). Early Christian theologians and philosophers, including Philo, Justin, Athenagoras, Hermogenes, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria found no good reason to affirm the creation-out-of-nothing hypothesis. Philo, for instance, postulated “a pre-existent matter alongside God” (Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early Thought (trans. A. S. Worrall [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994], xiii). My proposed vision of an essentially relational deity finds much in common with these early church scholars and with the Christian canon. For other work arguing the inadequacy of creatio ex nihilo, see Sjoerd L. Bonting, Chaos Theology: A Revised Creation Theology (Ottawa: Novalis, 2002), James Edward Hutchingson, Pandemoneum Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (Pilgrim, 2000), David Ray Griffin, “Creation out of Chaos and The Problem of Evil,” in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, 2nd ed., Stephen T. Davis, ed., (Atlanta: John Knox, 1999), Catherine Keller, The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (Routledge, 2003), and Michael E. Lodahl “Creation out of Nothing? Or is Next to Nothing Enough?” in Thy Nature and Name is Love, 217-238. Amos Yong offers an intriguing look into creation possibilities in his essay, “Possibility and Actuality: The Doctrine of Creation and Its Implications for Divine Omniscience,” Wesleyan Philosophical Society Online Journal [http://david.snu.edu/~brint.fs/wpsjnl/v1n1.htm] 1.1 (2001).

  14. John Wesley, Journal (Tuesday, July 3, 1753).