Wesley the Evangelical

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu..

This is one of a series of five lectures delivered at Point Loma University, San Diego, February 2,000. Published by permission of the author.


Wesley was an evangelical in the sense that he undertook to supplement the activity of the Church of England with a program aimed at bringing the gospel to the masses of estranged people and helping them to transform their personal and social lives. Cobb enumerates genuine Wesleyan qualities which “evangelicals” today should give up, and those which they should emulate.

I am a Wesleyan. In one sense I have always known that. Although in my childhood I attended chiefly ecumenical Protestant churches in Japan, I knew that I was a Methodist. I was baptized by a Japanese Methodist bishop, and I joined a Southern Methodist church in Georgia at the age of seven. By then I was aware that Methodists looked to John Wesley as their founder. In high school I remember arguing with Presbyterian friends about predestination.

In another sense, I make the statement today with greater emphasis than I have in most of my adult life. My concerns as a young adult were with Christian faith in general -- whether I could continue to be a believer at all. At that juncture it mattered little to me whether the belief would be Catholic or Protestant, much less whether it would be Lutheran or Methodist. The piety of my youth had been shattered by its encounter with modernity, and I teetered on the brink of total abandonment.

I attended the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, an institution with liberal Baptist roots. I attended the First Baptist Church of Chicago because of its openness to Japanese-Americans during World War II and its Japanese pastor, Jitsuo Morikawa. My teachers at the Divinity School were Episcopalian, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregationalist. Wesley was not a significant figure in my theological education.

On the other hand, it never occurred to me to change denominations. If I could be a Christian believers at all, I had no desire to be anything but a Methodist. Eventually I qualified for ordination as a Methodist by taking courses in the correspondence school. The North Georgia conference was suspicious of my Chicago-informed theology, but I squeaked through.

For three years I taught at a little Methodist junior college in Appalachia. Then I went to Emory University. I taught a broad swath of courses. The theological issues in a Methodist seminary dealt with the Reformers, by whom one meant Luther and Calvin, and with their contemporary heirs, Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, and the new quest for the historical Jesus. As a "process" theologian, my struggle was to get a foothold in the conversation.

Actually at Emory I did not teach systematic theology. I taught historical theology, and in doing so I did make the point that Wesley should be taken seriously in that discipline. But I spent more time teaching philosophy and humanities in the university than historical theology in the School of Theology. Wesley was one of a hundred figures to whom I gave some attention.

When I came to Claremont in 1958 I was at last able to teach what mattered most to me, that is, what I thought Christians could responsibly believe in the twentieth century. Of course, I still spent much more time introducing students to the great theologians of the twentieth century than propounding my own ideas. In neither category did Wesley figure significantly.

Nevertheless, my interest in Wesley grew. On the occasions when I read about him or dipped into his writings, I was impressed. Also, I became aware that I was more deeply influenced by him than I had realized. As I reflected on the differences between Wesley and the earlier reformers, I saw that these were quite similar to my differences with the Neo-Reformation thinkers who dominated the mid-century discussion. I realized that I was Neo-Wesleyan in much the same sense that they were Neo-Lutheran and Neo-Calvinist.

I remained somewhat suspicious of the whole "neo" approach. And I was suspicious also of the "back to Wesley" tendencies among some Methodists. My own sensitivities accented the enormous intellectual and cultural changes that had occurred in the past two hundred years. Wesley as an eighteenth-century thinker was not as remote from us as Luther and Calvin, but the distance remained great. I knew that it my own religious crisis, reading Wesley would have been no help.

Also, one of the great contributions of Wesleyan denominations seemed to me to be their ecumenical character. I do not mean only that they participated in councils of churches. I mean that in their seminaries, or at least in those of the United Methodist Church, the emphasis on Methodism was muted. Lutheran seminaries accented Luther and the Lutheran confessions. Presbyterian seminaries accented Calvin and the Reformed tradition. Both favored professors who stood in those traditions. We Methodists sought the best professors we could get with little regard to their denominations. The back to Wesley movement seemed to encourage a denominationalism that would be a backward move for Methodism. I wanted Wesley to be heard as one part of a much larger heritage, not singled out as especially normative.

I have stated this in the past tense. That does not mean that I have changed my mind drastically. I am still far more concerned for the future of ecumenical Christianity than for that of my own denomination or the Wesleyan movement as a whole. But my perception of the situation has changed.

First, I have become clear that my concern for ecumenical Christianity instead of denominationalism was also Wesley’s. Indeed, the Methodist tendencies in that direction are derived from him. There is, therefore, in principle, no tension between going back to Wesley and locating him as simply one figure, however impressive, in the ecumenical tradition.

Second, and more important, I gradually realized that my denomination, like most of the old-line denominations, was in serious trouble. In the fifties and sixties I had taken the denomination for granted as the context in which I would work. My ecclesiastical politics were directed to influencing the denomination in the direction of my concerns and convictions. But the decline of the denomination as a whole called for different responses. I regret to say that I was all too slow in shifting gears.

In so far as I have shifted gears and taken some responsibility for the health and future of my denomination, my major efforts have been directed toward renewing lay theology in the church. I became convinced that one major reason for decline was that theology had become an academic discipline rather than the articulation of the faith of ordinary Christians. Unless lay people came to their own confession of faith and were committed to the beliefs at which they arrived, I could not, and cannot, foresee a healthy renewal in the life of the denomination. I did not consciously come to this conviction under the influence of Wesley, but I have little doubt that as the leader of a great lay movement he would agree.

Third, I saw that as the denomination overall declined, instead of drawing together, its leaders became more intense about their differences. Fragmentation accompanied decline. The Methodist ethos that had enabled people of diverse views to work together in mutual respect was an early casualty of numerical losses. That ethos, I now saw more clearly, was itself derived from Wesley.

In this situation I began to think that a return to Wesley, however qualified it must be by the centuries that separate us, could help us to recover the ethos of mutual appreciation and support and a common vision of who we are together and where we want to go. This would not end disagreements about homosexuality and the nature of Biblical authority, but it might provide a context in which these disagreements could be less threatening and Methodists might be more willing to make room for differences.

These judgments have not turned me into a Wesley scholar. I am indeed grateful that there are Wesley scholars around from whom I can learn, and I commend their work to you. Obviously, I like the work of some better than that of others, and on some points I am prepared to enter the argument despite the acute limitations of my scholarship.

There is today a tendency to accent the interpretive character of every statement about a past thinker. Some theorists treat these statements more as new constructions than as clues to the real intentions of the past thinker. This is a healthy reaction to any claim that our historical reconstruction is purely objective or neutral. No Wesley scholar today can avoid selectivity and bias in representing Wesley to us.

But it would be unfortunate if, recognizing this relativity of all our interpretation, we gave up the constant testing of our interpretations against the received texts in the community of scholarly interpreters. I want to commend the society of Wesleyan scholars for their ongoing work in this respect. I think we are much closer to the historical Wesley as a result of their careful scholarship.

My role, however, is not to be a part of that community. I am not a Wesley scholar. I am a theologian who recognizes the influence of Wesley in my own work and who sees the potential of Wesley to help the United Methodist Church and perhaps other Wesleyan denominations as well. I hope my use of Wesley is responsible. I certainly do not want simply to read back into him what I think is needed today. But I am engaged in asking questions of him that were not in his mind. To ask what a past thinker would say about a current issue introduces a level of speculation that gives a central role to the interests of the interpreter. I want to acknowledge that before I proceed.

This lecture and the following three begin with a consideration of segments of the contemporary United Methodist Church. I have selected evangelicals, liberals, liberationists, and process theologians for consideration. My thesis is that all of these can find support in Wesley. It is also my contention that all have failures and weaknesses that need serious criticism, and that much of this criticism can be developed in dialog with Wesley. I hope that those of you who are members of other Wesleyan denominations will find some relevance in these reflections.

Evangelicals, liberals, liberationists, and process theologians, in their present forms, by pressing their several agenda, are tearing the church apart. My thesis is that genuinely Wesleyan evangelicals, Wesleyan liberals, Wesleyan liberationists, and Wesleyan process theologians would respect and appreciate one another. Disagreements would remain, but they would be greatly reduced. And together they could launch a new evangelical movement appropriate to the twenty-first century.

Indeed, the list of types of contemporary Methodists could have been considerably extended. There are also the Orthodox, the post-liberals, the liturgical traditionalists, the multiculturalists, the institutionalists, and those primarily interested in spirituality or in bodily and emotional healing. These also can find support in Wesley. I will comment further on these other groups in my concluding lecture.

I should acknowledge that one or another of the forms of Wesleyanism I have just listed might well be a better candidate for full-length treatment than process theology. Although process theology has some following, it hardly functions as a form of Wesleyanism analogous to the others. A few who have adopted process theology are evangelicals or liberationists; but most, are liberals. This has skewed the use of process categories in particular directions.

My attention to the relation of process theology to Wesley is, therefore, self-indulgent. It is a topic of particular interest to me. And this is the topic on which I am best qualified to speak.

One more acknowledgment of limitation is in order. I realize that I am addressing an audience that is not primarily United Methodist. Nevertheless, as I speak of the contemporary situation and its need of Wesley, my reference is chiefly to the United Methodist Church. I am not sure to what extent my comments are relevant to other Wesleyan churches. It is my impression that most of them have stayed closer to Wesley, or at least tried harder to do so, and have been less caught up in the diverse movements that have swept the denominations that became the United Methodist Church. Certainly they have done much more to keep Wesley studies alive, and for that we United Methodists owe them a great debt. On the other hand, some of them may have read back into Wesley a more conservative, dogmatic, or moralistic mentality than he in fact exhibited.

It is time now to turn to the specific topic of this lecture. To assert that Wesley was an evangelical is the most obvious of my claims. If Wesley was not an evangelical, who was? In my judgment, shared by many, he was the most important leader of the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. Of course, he was an evangelical!

Nevertheless, that does not mean that all characteristics of those who claim the label, "evangelical," in our time apply to Wesley or that he would support everything that is being done under that rubric today. Hence there is a need to sort out the meanings of the term. For example, I am going to argue in the next lecture that Wesley was a liberal. Today the word "evangelical" is typically paired with "conservative," and it is characteristic of those who call themselves "conservative evangelicals" to be sharply critical of liberals. Of course, Wesley would also be critical of many forms of liberalism, but it is important that today's evangelicals not read their opposition to liberalism in general back into Wesley.

Of course, there are many respects in which Wesley was conservative. Indeed, this is true of all Christians, including those who call themselves "liberals." To be a Christian is to conserve the truth of the Christian gospel. This involves retaining beliefs that are not supported by the culture generally. Often these beliefs were more widely held in the past than they are in the present. They may, indeed, be in radical opposition to dominant elements in the culture. In many contexts in our nation today, especially in our universities, to affirm the reality of God is a very conservative act.

On the other hand, when "liberal" means simple accommodation to the culture, then there are good reasons to attack liberalism. Just as Wesley does not fit today's model of the conservative evangelical, so also his liberalism was quite different from that of many contemporary liberals. For one thing, Wesley's liberalism was certainly not opposed to evangelicalism!

Now we can ask, what was the heart of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century? It was the belief that the gospel had utmost importance for all people individually and that this placed a supreme obligation on believers to bring the message to those who had not heard it. Since the established churches were not reaching large segments of the population, evangelicals could not be content with ordinary churchmanship. They must organize to bring the message to those who needed to hear it even if this brought them into tension with the established structures. No one worked at this task more constantly or effectively than John Wesley.

Those who call themselves "evangelicals" today are also often in the forefront of efforts to bring the gospel to those who have not heard it effectively. In this they are in healthy tension with the dominant tendencies of the United Methodist Church. For various reasons, most United Methodists have redefined evangelism as inviting their neighbors to go to church with them, and even this kind of evangelism is spoken about more than it is practiced. To whatever extent "evangelicals" actually bring the gospel to the vast numbers of people in our society who need its message, they stand in the tradition of Wesley and rightly claim his mantle against the dominant trends in my denomination.

Furthermore, today's evangelicals rightly recognize that a major reason for the failure of Methodists to witness to their friends and neighbors is a lack of confidence that they have anything of great value to share. This is the "liberalism" they rightly deplore. Here, also, today’s evangelicals stand fully with Wesley and bring needed critique.

Today's evangelicals rightly identify the loss of conviction about Biblical authority as a major source of the decline of evangelical fervor in the United Methodist Church. Here, again, they can claim the heritage of Wesley. No preacher has ever been more biblical than he. His sermons are often little more than rearrangements of biblical texts with a few connectives thrown in! He lived and thought in the language of the Bible. He saw the world through biblical spectacles.

Finally, today's evangelicals continue a tradition of deep personal piety. This involves the cultivation of a sense of closeness to God, experience of the Spirit, and intimacy with Christ. There is an expectancy of divine aid and guidance, a trust in providence, a readiness to respond to God's call. There is also an examination of motives, a readiness to confess one's failures and sins with real feeling, and a cultivation of loving relations to others.

Of course, I speak in idealistic terms. But evangelicals give time and attention to these dimensions of faith, many of which have been lost in much of the church as piety was redefined as pietism and rejected. Today in circles where this has happened keen interest has arisen in "spirituality." People hunger for deeply-felt religious experience of the sort the evangelical tradition has never lost. But the focus on spirituality leads more in the direction of mysticism than of the piety Wesley ultimately encouraged. It often separates the inner life from the outer life in a way that evangelicals avoid. Inner serenity often replaces love of God and neighbor as the primary goal. Evangelicals who are more faithful to Wesley avoid these dangers.

In these ways, many features of contemporary Wesleyan evangelicalism give authentic expression to the impetus from Wesley. Evangelical services often call for personal decision in ways that most other Methodist services do not. They challenge youth more effectively than most Methodists and evoke decisions for full-time Christian service at a higher rate than others. No doubt more evangelicals are able to engage their neighbors in serious discussion of their faith than is true of most other Methodists. Probably a higher percentage of evangelicals than of Methodists generally consciously and intentionally make their personal decisions, day by day, on the basis of their faith. Almost certainly they give more time to Biblical study and prayer than most others. It is likely also that they give more generously of their substance. Methodism needs its evangelicals!

Unfortunately, all this, commendable as it is, is still a far cry from Wesley's own evangelicalism. Wesley undertook to supplement the activity of the Church of England with a program aimed at bringing the gospel to the masses of estranged people and helping them to transform their personal and social lives. Contemporary Wesleyan evangelicals, at least in the United Methodist Church, have taken only one major initiatives in this direction, the establishment of a separate board of foreign missions. They did so because they wanted missionaries to deal with personal conversions to Christ and avoid liberationist entanglements. In general their claim to be evangelicals is more that they believe in evangelism than that they practice it on any large scale.

Indeed, the difference between many contemporary Methodist evangelicals and Wesley is greater than this would indicate.

First, evangelicals today often associate their position with that of holding fast to traditional doctrines. No doubt there is some justification for their belief that the lessening of knowledge and conviction about these doctrines has left a void that leads to lack of evangelical fervor in the church as a whole. But Wesley himself was more impressed by the fact that people could disagree on many of these matters and yet commit themselves with equal fervor to the evangelical task. He did not insist on holding to any particular Christology or doctrine of the Trinity, for example.

One might argue that this difference in attitude toward doctrine reflects a difference in our situations. In his day diverse views were held with real conviction such that people acted on them. Today people are lacking in such conviction. To renew it, some evangelicals argue, traditional doctrines must be vigorously reaffirmed. But if this is the argument, its supporters must recognize that they cannot claim the mantle of Wesley for this approach. And thus far the practical gains from trying to re-impose orthodox teaching have been modest indeed.

If evangelicals would direct their criticism chiefly to the absence of conviction and fervor, so widespread, in the church, they could play a very positive, and authentically Wesleyan, role in promoting serious doctrinal study in the church. But too often they direct their attack not at this great weakness of the church but at those who do have fervent beliefs leading to commitment and action, when these beliefs differ from the one's held by evangelicals. It is here that their departure from Wesley is most harmful.

Second, some evangelicals call for a renewal of an otherworldly outlook. Certainly much of the revivalism associated with the American frontier urged people to consider the rewards and punishments that were promised after death. The erosion of fear of Hell has played a significant role in ending the effectiveness of that kind of evangelism. Some evangelicals want the church to reemphasize its belief in life after death as a place of judgment.

No one doubts that Wesley believed in life after death. But what is surprising is how little he appealed to fear of Hell or even to the expectation of rewards after death. His preaching focused overwhelmingly on growth in love in this life worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It was hunger for this deep personal transformation that he evoked in his hearers.

Third, in the public sphere, the most visible aspects of the evangelical witness today are typically moralistic, and the moralism is often related to sexuality. In Wesley's teaching sexual matters are hardly mentioned. He held believers to very high standards, but these were all derived from his understanding of the implications of the love of God and neighbor.

This moralistic tendency in contemporary evangelicalism also leads evangelicals to play a divisive role within the church. They have made themselves especially visible by leading the attack on homosexual activity. Here they have insisted that the national church restrict the freedom of annual conferences with respect to ordination and the freedom of local congregations with respect to the kinds of services they are allowed to hold. In short, in order to impose their views on the church as a whole they have insisted on centralizing authority in the national church and using that authority to demand that many -- bishops, clergy, and lay people -- act contrary to their consciences. This is profoundly unWesleyan!

Fourth, the understanding of biblical authority they use to justify this program is one that few Methodists would employ in other areas. It is not one that draws support from Wesley. His biblicism comes from immersion in the Bible and testing everything in terms of the conviction that God is love and of the love commandment. The current evangelical biblicism turns a few scattered condemnations of certain homosexual practices in the ancient world into a law against all forms of homosexual activity today.

Obviously, I am not being neutral or dispassionate on this matter. I think that denying freedom of conscience to a third of its members has been a profoundly unWesleyan act of the United Methodist Church. When Christians must choose between obeying church rules and their convictions about what God calls them to do, a good many will follow God's call. The efforts of the denomination to prevent this, led and goaded by its evangelicals, are creating tensions that may lead to schism. The claim that this suppression of conscience of fellow Methodists must be done in order to be faithful to the Bible is remote from Wesley's own biblicism.

Let me hasten to say that I do not know what Wesley's views on homosexuality were. There is no indication that he thought much about the matter. Nor would I dare to conjecture "what Wesley would say if he were alive today." His lack of attention to sexual behavior might lead him to say that any Christian should be prepared to be celibate if the active expression of sexuality would be an offense to others. That would mean that he would oppose homosexual unions. On the other hand, he might judge that all persons should find that way of life that best enables them to love their neighbors as themselves and God with all their hearts, minds, and soul. He might judge that, for some, faithful relations with another person of the same gender would be best. What he would not do, I am convinced, is build a political campaign within the church to exclude all who judge differently on this matter and who would act on their judgment.

More broadly we may ask how Wesley would view the contemporary evangelical movement as a whole. Would he regard it as expressing his spirit and his deepest concerns? I do not think so.

What, now, would it mean to recover an authentic Wesleyan evangelicalism in our day? It would build on the existing piety of many ordinary Wesleyans, whether or not they label themselves as evangelicals.

These Methodists believe that their relation to God as Holy Spirit through Christ is of supreme importance for their lives. They hunger for a deeper realization of the Spirit's presence and working within them. They seek through prayer and Bible study to find God's will for their lives. They know that growth in grace expresses itself in their love of God and neighbor. They know that their love is halting and imperfect, but they try to let it determine their actions.

They know also that love of neighbor has very real and concrete meaning. It means attentiveness to the neighbor's needs and willingness to respond even at considerable personal cost. It means that this response is more important than the accumulation of personal wealth or attaining success in the eyes of the world. They know also that responding well takes thought and is learned partly by trial and error.

They understand that neighbors are not only those who live nearby but also persons on the other side of the world. Concern for them cannot express itself as directly. It may mean giving money in support of education, health care, or agricultural missions. It may mean support of legislation that will benefit them.

They believe deeply that the life of love that the Holy Spirit is working within them is one that is needed by others as well. They see many around them whose lives are misdirected toward the accumulation of earthly goods even at the cost of human relationships. They see some who have turned to alcohol or other drugs to ease the emptiness and despair of a meaningless life. They are convinced that the deepest need of these people is to hear the good news that God loves all and is ready to work savingly in the lives of all who will allow that to happen. When they can do so in ways that do not push others away, they witness verbally to their beliefs.

They know that their churches are far from perfect, but they believe in the importance of the fellowship of believers and in gathering for worship. They want their children to be brought up in that fellowship and to be encouraged to seek God's will for their lives. They give generously of their time and talents and money to support their church. They emphasize the positive contributions of church leaders rather than their weakness and disagreements. They strive for unity and harmony in the body of Christ.

They love the United Methodist church but not in such a way as to question the work of God in other denominations. They support working with other Christians wherever that helps to further God's work in the world. They want mutual understanding and appreciation, not suspicion and competition.

They know that people are often most comfortable in the company of persons much like themselves. They know that suspicion and hostility can develop toward those who are different, even toward those who share the Christian faith. They know that historically many Christians have been racists and nationalists in ways that are deeply contrary to the gospel and to Wesley's message and mission. They regret the community's sins and their own participation in them, and they seek to repent in the full sense of changing direction toward a love of those who are different that enables all to contribute freely to the common good.

When they encounter Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus, they are open to seeing goodness in them as well. Knowing that God works in all, and recognizing the wisdom and virtue in the lives of those who do not affirm Christ, they thank God for these people as well, and are open to learning from them. But they are also ready to witness to them of their own experience of Christ.

Are there many United Methodists like this today? I think the answer is Yes, but I fear the number is declining. On the one side, the open spirit of many of them has eroded their confidence in the universal importance of Christ. They have become more relativistic and less sure that they have something to offer others.

On the other hand, the danger of losing the specifics of their faith has led others to follow leaders who call for closure. Openness to the Spirit is then understood to channel their thinking and acting in prescribed ways. They are taught to oppose other factions in the church and to become militant in promoting particular views about personal morality.

Can this polarization be reversed? That is my hope. That would require that those whose confidence in the centrality of Christian faith has been eroded recover that confidence. It would require that those who, in order to defend that centrality, have moved to closure and legalism return to their former openness. This cannot happen by simply reversing what has happened in recent decades. It can only happen by moving forward in particular ways.

I am proposing that reencountering Wesley can help. I am proposing that there will be much more hope of help if, as these people reencounter Wesley, other groups of United Methodists also do so. In the next lecture we will consider Wesleyan liberals and their relation to Wesley.