Wesley the Liberal

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.


The author holds that the most unequivocal way in which Wesley was liberal was in his insistence on human participation in the process of salvation A second respect in which Wesley was clearly liberal in his own time was his attitude toward those with views differing from his own. However, today the false identification of liberalism with the absence of conviction and disciplined living receives far too much support from the practice of many who think of themselves as liberals.

My dictionary gives as its first meaning of "liberal" a political definition. To be liberal is to support "political views or policies that favor non revolutionary progress and reform." In Wesley’s day that definition fit the Whigs rather than the Tories. But Wesley was a Tory.

The progress and reform advocated by the Whigs was in the direction of the free market and capitalism. The Tories resisted many of these changes. They created greater freedom for the middle class but on the whole, at least initially, undercut the social structures that gave some security to the poor. Retrospectively we associate these changes with the extension of democracy, but it in evaluating Wesley’s politics, it is important to recognize that it was primarily a matter of giving more power to those who were gaining wealth in the process of industrialization. It was not empowering the workers or benefiting the poor.

The meaning of "liberal" in economic terms is quite similar. It supports the freedom of those who have money to use it as they will. It opposes governmental restrictions on market activity. Again, it benefits the bourgeoisie, but often at the expense of the poor as well as the landed gentry who were the mainstay of the Tories.

In politics the meaning of "liberal" gradually changed. Today we often consider those who support the freedom the market against governmental controls as the conservatives. Those who want the government to insure that workers and the poor have a fair share of the nation’s wealth are the liberals. I judge that Wesley’s support of the conservatives of his day was more like the liberalism of today than like contemporary conservatism. Hence, even in the political field, contemporary liberals can claim his support.

Of course, calling Wesley a liberal in these lectures refers primarily to theology and churchmanship rather than to politics. In this area it is just as true to say that Wesley was a liberal as that he was an evangelical. Just as being an evangelical does not make Wesley entirely supportive of all contemporary evangelicals; so being a liberal certainly does not mean that Wesley would support everything that is said and done by contemporary religious liberals. Testing today's liberalism against that of Wesley can help to refine what in that liberalism can contribute to the healthy future of Methodism and what needs to be purged.

Perhaps the most unequivocal way in which Wesley was liberal was in his insistence on human participation in the process of salvation. He associated his thought with the liberal Arminius against the dominant conservative Calvinism that insisted on the doctrine of predestination and all its consequences. He made this emphasis on human participation central to his message.

For this reason, almost all Wesleyans, even those who most emphasize their conservatism, are liberal in this sense. Almost all affirm human participation in the decisions that shape spiritual destiny while affirming also the priority and primacy of grace. Sadly, few have understood the subtlety of Wesley’s doctrine, and many, including those most active in seeking to win souls for Christ, have emphasized the capacity of the human will to respond to God’s offer. As Robert Chiles pointed out, during the nineteenth century, American Methodism as a whole shifted from Wesley’s teaching of free grace to an emphasis on the freedom of the will.

Once this move was made, there were two directions to go, neither of them faithful to Wesley. The more conservative direction was to emphasize that one can choose to believe and live as one is required by God to do. To fail to make this choice can then be depicted in frightening terms, whereas great rewards can be promised for a righteous choice. This move leads to legalism.

The other, "liberal," possibility is to celebrate the human freedom and dignity bestowed by God upon us. Human personality is sacred. We are encouraged to take responsibility for our own lives, to follow our convictions, to realize our full human potential. Of course, we are to respect the sacred worth of all other persons as well, and in all of this we are to be grateful to our Maker and express this gratitude in worship and life. This way lies a Christian humanism that is semi-deistic.

Those who follow the two directions noted are often suspicious of one another. The conservatives rightly see that Wesley’s passionate quest for true righteousness is muted among liberals. The liberals rightly see that Wesley’s deeply spiritual account of the Christian life in terms of love of God and neighbor and all that means is turned into a set of do’s and don’ts by many conservatives. But neither really appreciated Wesley’s vision of God’s grace bearing us forward in the Christian life.

Actually, aspects of both distortions are often found in the same people. Moralistic tendencies were present among liberals as among conservatives, although the list of do’s and don’ts was likely to be different. And too many conservatives lost the passion for true righteousness while priding themselves on holding on to traditional beliefs. An authentically Wesleyan emphasis on God’s empowering and liberating grace is still rarely heard in Methodist preaching.

I am saying, therefore, that on a very central point, Methodist liberalism departed from Wesley’s liberalism. I affirm Wesley’s liberalism and deplore what replaced it. Nothing is more important for the future of Methodism than a recovery of Wesley’s doctrine of grace and responsibility. I will return to this in the lecture on Wesley and process theology, since it is my claim that process theology can help to clarify and support

A second respect in which Wesley was clearly liberal in his own time was his attitude toward those with views differing from his own. The liberal position in the Church of England was Latitudinarianism. The idea was to enable Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals to accept one another as fellow members of one English church. Wesley was certainly Latitudinarian in his view of the Anglican church.

More surprisingly, Wesley carried the same attitude into his own movement. He welcomed people of diverse theological orientations and convictions into the Methodist organization. He did not impose his personal views upon them.

Still more surprising was his attitude toward those outside the Protestant fold. He took considerable risks in his appreciative approach to Roman Catholics. On the other side, he acknowledged the genuine piety of Unitarians. It was more important to relate to such people in love than to attempt to convert them.

Such views were liberal in Wesley’s day. This charitable attitude toward those with different views within one’s denomination is all too rare in our own day. Extending an appreciative and cooperative spirit toward those who are usually excluded from the fold is a challenge to Wesley’s followers today as it was then.

Today the acute issue confronting Christians is whether they can or should extend to those outside the Christian family a similar appreciative and cooperative spirit. Newly confronted with this issue in the second half of the twentieth century liberals have responded affirmatively. This shift has deepened the rift between them and conservatives. Our question is how the legacy of Wesley cuts on this matter.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wesleyan liberals shared with evangelicals enthusiasm for the conversion of the heathen. But as liberals learned more about those whom they were seeking to convert to Christianity from other religious traditions, they became less sure. The Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1896 was a turning point in liberal thought. The Layman’s Commission headed by William Ernest Hocking was another step.

In general, liberals did not withdraw support from missions. The Report of the Laymen’s Commission did not call for that. But liberals wanted to emphasize meeting the recognized needs of other people rather than converting them to Christianity. They favored a more dialogical approach in which Christians could learn from others as well as teach them. Liberals continued to believe that Christianity had certain advantages or superiority over other religious traditions, and these they wanted to share. But the more conservative view that all who belonged to other communities were damned or depraved was no longer convincing to them.

Can liberals appeal to Wesley for support in this more positive appraisal of other religious traditions? Surprisingly, they can. Of course, Wesley was preoccupied with bringing the gospel to those within Christendom who had not appropriated it. With the exception of Native Americans, he was not engaged in missions to those outside of Christendom. I am not aware of any efforts on his part to convert Jews. He developed no systematic position on the question of the rightness of converting sincere members of other religious communities to Christianity. I am sure he would not have turned anyone away, but he did not organize missions for this purpose.

Such comments as Wesley made about persons of other faiths were surprisingly positive. He found the behavior of supposedly Christian people at least as barbaric as that of any "heathen." His openness to the actual situation would have led him, almost certainly, to admiration for Buddhist and Hindu saints, had he known them. It would be idle to speculate what theory he would have developed about the sources of their virtues and how these are related to Christ. But it would not have been true to his character to deny the wisdom and virtue he encountered because it was not associated with beliefs similar to his own.

Unfortunately, too many liberals have taken another step, one that carries them far away from Wesley. Having recognized the values of other traditions, they regard the position to which they are drawn as outside of faith. They associate Christian faith with the Christian exclusivism that they now reject. Their liberalism leads them to the edge of the believing community, even to viewing it with some detachment. One of the factors eroding the spirit and commitment in the United Methodist Church is the relativistic tendencies that are so widespread among liberal members.

There is no support in Wesley for this weakening of conviction. For Wesley it is Christian love that leads us to be open to what is positive in others. If the evidence led Wesley to recognize wisdom and virtue in members of other communities, it would be as a Christian believer that he would affirm this. Some Christian doctrines might require modification, but his convictions about the supreme importance of loving God and neighbor would in no way be weakened.

This openness to persons of other faiths is closely related to another central tenet of liberalism. Christians should be open to truth and wisdom from whatever source they come. The distinction here between liberals and conservatives is usually a matter of degree, but the degree is important. Conservatives cannot reasonably claim to be uninfluenced by scientific and historical knowledge in their understanding of their faith. Liberal Christians continue to give the central place in the formation of their thinking to the Bible and the Christian tradition.

Nevertheless, conservatives fear that liberals allow changing cultural attitudes to shape their commitments, and liberals see conservatives as defensive in relation to new knowledge. There is justification for the criticisms each levels at the other. Nevertheless, I believe that a nondefensive openness to psychological and sociological knowledge, as well as to the natural sciences is more faithful to Wesley, despite the fact that the consequences of such openness may lead to ideas that were foreign to him. In short, I am stating my conviction that on this very important point, Wesley would support contemporary liberals.

Thus far we have considered topics on which there is considerable continuity from Wesley’s time to ours. Here we will turn to one that took one dramatically new form for Christians in the nineteenth century. The question of how to judge what is our authentic heritage from Wesley on this matter is more speculative.

A remarkable development in the nineteenth century was in the field of historical scholarship. Much of this development was closely related to efforts to understand Christian origins. A central question for many was how to understand Jesus as a real historical figure.

The formulation of the question already had theological assumptions built into it. If Jesus was God-incarnate, then the effort to understand him as a historical figure – that is, in terms of standard historical scholarship – was misplaced. Nevertheless, the quest for the historical Jesus took place and involved a quite new approach to scripture in general.

One defining element of liberalism has been its openness to the findings of this scholarship and to rethinking doctrine in light of it. Conservatives are more cautious about doing so, determined to preserve especially beloved ideas and teachings against the acids of modernity. Fundamentalists, of course, reject the critical historical approach to the Bible altogether, pointing out that it is based on the assumption that the Bible is a human document like others to which the same methods of scholarship can be applied.

One cannot reasonably declare of an eighteenth-century thinker what position he would have taken on a nineteenth-century issue. But if the eighteenth-century thinker is somehow authoritative for us today, it is difficult to avoid this kind of speculation altogether. One could make a case for all three answers.

One can find statements by Wesley that could support Fundamentalism. Certainly he shared with most Christians of his day a strong sense of the inspiration of scripture. His argument that because there are claims to inspiration within the Bible, the authors must either be inspired or liars has a Fundamentalist ring.

On the other hand, the rigid literalism we associate with Fundamentalism was not characteristic of Wesley. Think of his skillful handling of Romans 8:28-30 in his Notes on the New Testament. He was open to the relevance of historical knowledge to the interpretation of texts. Since his own approach to all reality was from a perspective soaked in the Bible, however, he would certainly not have abandoned this point of view readily! He might have taken a non-Fundamentalist conservative position.

One can also make the case that those Wesleyans who refused to be defensive in relation to the new scholarship were faithful heirs of Wesley. Wesley was an enthusiastic proponent of scientific knowledge, believing that it contributed to our understanding of God. As the same kind of scholarly, critical inquiry was turned on human history, it is hard to think of Wesley drawing limits. I doubt that he would have refused to apply these critical methods to the study of Israel as well. Liberals can claim to be his true heirs.

I personally want to claim him for a fourth position, one that supports critical scholarship but engages it critically in terms of its assumptions. I’ll return to this in the lecture on process theology. This can be regarded as a form of liberal theology; so at this point I will simply argue that Wesley would support no holds barred biblical scholarship and rethink his teaching in its light.

Within the Wesleyan family, the institutional split between liberals and conservatives was chiefly over the desirability of maintaining Wesley’s teachings on the Second Blessing and perfection in love. As this point it is apparent that the conservatives had Wesley’s explicit teaching on their side. Wesley taught that God could give us a purity of heart that was free from all motives other than love of God and neighbor. He taught that this gift could come suddenly to those who truly desired it and believed. Some segments of the Wesleyan movement placed on this a great deal of emphasis. One could also argue that they distorted Wesley’s teachings in some respects, but that is not my point here. The liberals who abandoned this teaching clearly broke with explicit doctrines of Wesley. Can they in any way claim to be faithful to Wesley in this break?

I think the answer is Yes. The appeal must be away from Wesley’s explicit teaching and to his reasons for those teachings. If similar reasons could lead his followers to change the teachings, they can still appeal to Wesley’s authority. Why, then, did Wesley teach the possibility of entire sanctification in this life?

Of course, he justified his teaching from the Bible. But the biblical support for entire sanctification is less than that for predestination. Most biblicists do not teach it. The presence of biblical support was not the reason for the teaching.

I believe that he taught this doctrine for two main reasons. First, he found convincing the testimony of some that they had arrived at this state of perfect love. He was disappointed that some of them subsequently fell from this condition, but this did not lead him to deny that they had held it, and that others continued to do so. Of course, he knew that many who sought this condition failed to attain it, including himself. He also knew that not all claims were valid. In short Wesley tried to formulate his teaching to conform to the evidence.

Second, Wesley was deeply concerned that believers never grow complacent. The idea that the Christian life always includes sin allowed for such complacency. Wesley wanted his followers to open themselves constantly to the working of grace within them to overcome the remaining sinful motives. He was not willing to set any limit to what God can do with a human life. That implied that perfect love is a possible gift of God. The force of this concern that people not become complacent about their present condition is strikingly, if puzzlingly, expressed in his idea that even those who have attained entire sanctification should keep growing.

In the nineteenth century, many Wesleyans became troubled about the outworking of this teaching. Their reasons for rejecting it were largely shaped by the evidence. They saw the preaching of entire sanctification as leading to self-deception on the part of many. This self-deception was too often accompanied by a kind of self-righteousness that Wesley would have abhorred. Liberal Wesleyans decided that an emphasis on the Second Blessing as an immediate possibility for all believers did more harm than good.

To oppose emphasis on a teaching on practical grounds does not necessarily mean that one denies the truth of the teaching. Some liberals thought that perfection in love is possible. But they thought that its occurrence would rarely be connected with dramatic experiences. They thought also that any who attained to this state would be unlikely to advertise the fact. And finally they thought that none of us are really in position to judge such matters about others or even with regard to ourselves. These reasons for de-emphasizing the doctrine can claim to be faithful to Wesley.

In the late nineteenth century another reason for turning from this doctrine of Wesley emerged in the form of depth psychology. Eighteenth-century writers were less aware of the unconscious depths of the psyche than either earlier or later thinkers. With a fuller awareness of these depths, the possibility of determining the purity of motive must be more radically acknowledged. The fact that those who honestly felt that they had attained perfection in love found later that they were not in this condition adds weight to the assumption that there is more to human experience than what can be discerned by honest introspection. I believe Wesley would have been open to being informed by this kind of psychology.

But liberals cannot claim Wesley’s support if their account fails to urge believers on towards greater holiness of life. Here liberals have been mixed. On the one hand, there is a strong liberal emphasis on righteousness or virtue. Many liberals continue the Wesleyan emphasis on love as the one truly Christian motivation. Neo-Orthodox theologians pointed out that liberals were naively optimistic about the possibility of living a life of love and even of solving social problems by loving actions. Liberals can, thus, urge people to become more loving, never resting in the extent to which they fulfill this ideal.

Nevertheless, the absence of the emphasis on grace creates a rift between the typical liberal call for love and that of Wesley. Liberals too often make it seem that the achievement of love is within our power, that we can choose to be more loving. For Wesley, every advance in love is the work of grace, even though that grace will not effect love apart from our openness to it. Still, liberals may be closer to Wesley on this point than their Neo-Orthodox critics. In any case the liberal de-emphasis on the Second Blessing does not in itself entail the liberal tendency to emphasize free will instead of free grace.

I have been speaking of Methodist liberalism within the context of the ongoing Wesleyan movement. I have argued that liberals, like evangelicals, can claim considerable support from Wesley, but that both groups in their present form have departed from valuable parts of Wesley’s thought and spirit. I want to conclude this lecture by discussing Wesley’s likely response to what presents itself as mainstream evangelical thought today. I believe that such a comparison will show that Wesleyan evangelicals today are themselves liberal.

On June 14, 1999, Christianity Today published a manifesto entitled "Evangelical Essentials." How would Wesley view this understanding of evangelical Christianity?

The first striking comparison is the content of what is essential. Wesley did affirm some teachings as essential. To the best of my knowledge he never undertook a systematic account of what these are. But his references to them suggest that they are quite few and are quite directly related to the heart of Christian experience. If disagreements about doctrine do not strike at the heart of Christianity, then mutual tolerance is called for.

Robert Chiles has found three key places where Wesley tells us what the essential doctrines are. At one place, he lists original sin, justification by faith, and holiness; at another, repentance, faith, and holiness; and at a third, the new birth and justification by faith. It is true that on various occasions he mentions other doctrines as essential, including more objective ones such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity. But on these matters he still allows considerable leeway as long as the teaching continues to support the understanding of Christian life as the movement from sin to holiness on the basis of God’s free grace.

The recent statement of evangelical essentials also calls for "unity in primary things, with liberty in secondary things, and charity in all things." But its tone is very different. Here there seems to be a careful effort to draw boundaries and to exclude liberals. The intention is to formulate the one correct definition of many doctrines even where it is not clear that different formulations would have any deleterious effect on Christian experience or on how the believer lives. In short, while Wesley’s approach is irenic, the contemporary evangelical approach is polemical.

One issue on which the manifesto is emphatic and clear is Christian exclusivism. Those who do not receive Christ "will face eternal retributive punishment," regardless, apparently, of the quality of their lives. Indeed, the boundaries of salvation are drawn even more narrowly. One must not only personally affirm the humanity of Christ, his incarnation, and his sinlessness, but one must also maintain that all of this is essential to the gospel. I find it doubtful that Wesley personally thought in this way. I am confident that he would not have asserted that those theologians who affirm that the humanity of Jesus was a sinful humanity would be damned for such a belief. And I am certain he would not have required that all who wanted to join his movement think in exactly this way.

Perhaps the greatest difference in this form of evangelical theology and that of Wesley is a matter of emphasis. To a Wesleyan’s eyes, a word striking by its rarity in the document is "love." To be fair it is not absent. At one point God is called "loving." We are called to love God’s truth. And it is emphasized that Christian love for other Christians should not be restricted by differences of race or gender.

But this is a far cry from Wesley. One can read the whole movement of grace as increasing love for God and neighbor in the believer’s heart. Sanctification is the process of love more and more fully dominating the motives of the Christian. And the grace by which we live manifests God’s love for us. Love of neighbor may sometimes focus on fellow Christians but it certainly is not limited to them.

One place where there may be some Wesleyan influence in the manifesto is in the strong statements made about sanctification. There is unabashed affirmation that there is growth in the Christian life. Sanctification is "the transformation of life in growing conformity to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit." There are statements of this sort that Wesley would endorse enthusiastically.

On the other hand, he would be less comfortable with the insistence that righteousness is imputed. According to the manifesto, it is essential be believe that the actual transformation effected by the Holy Spirit is the outworking of imputation. For Wesley an emphasis on imputation is uncongenial.

Wesley would have been likely to respond to much of this document that he could assent to its content. I doubt that he would personally object to bodily resurrection, ascension, and enthronement, although these are not the themes of his teaching. Nevertheless, he would have been uncomfortable. Although the document does not explicitly affirm predestination, its picture of God and God’s role in the world leads in that direction. And he would certainly have opposed including all of this in essential doctrine.

Furthermore, I have argued that on some of these points the changing situation and growing knowledge of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have led Wesley to come down at a different place. I suspect that he might affirm that what is resurrected is the spiritual body of which Paul spoke rather than the fleshly one. I suspect that he would avoid language about ascension and enthronement that have spatial and local implications. In general, I believe he would minimize the importance of the more mythological-sounding doctrines of traditional Christianity in favor of those most closely related to the Christian life.

In conclusion, I emphasize that the differences between Wesley and this affirmation of evangelical essentials differentiates him from the mainstream of current evangelical teaching far more than from today’s Wesleyan evangelicals. The problem for them is that those who now most frequently define evangelicalism are more Calvinistic than Wesleyan. When Wesleyans emphasize that they also are evangelical, they are drawn toward this Calvinist form. The danger is that they become more insistent on particular doctrinal formulations, including some that are not closely related to Christian experience and life. In their reaction against liberalism, they may move from Wesley’s irenic approach to difference to a more polemical one. When this happens, to other Wesleyan ears, their message does not sound like good news.

But it is clear that much of contemporary liberalism has moved even further from Wesley. Too often, Wesley’s openness to differences becomes indifference to doctrine. His respect for people of other faiths becomes relativism. The agreement that we are not Fundamentalists or evangelicals as defined by this manifesto is clearer than the positive affirmation of the Gospel.

Wesley was a liberal, but for today’s Methodist liberals to become true Wesleyan liberals will require a commitment and dedication that are too often lacking. The false identification of liberalism with the absence of conviction and disciplined living receives far too much support from the practice of many who think of themselves as liberals.