Friday, 27 March 2009
A WESLEYAN THEOLOGY OF EVANGELISM by Leon O. Hynson
I discovered this excellent essay on Wesleyan evangelism at the Wesley online site. It is quite long but if you are interested in either Wesley or Evangelism it is well worth the read.The second part has been put on as a comment. Be inspired. AK
Our task in this essay is to consider a theology of evangelism that will be
1. Biblically based; 2. Historically Wesleyan; 3. Of Contemporary Significance.
Initially, it seems necessary to work with some definition of the task and the key words "theology" and "evangelism." One could, of course, develop a three-hundred page opus with a full Prolegomena to all of the classifications of theology. The Wesleyan heritage has by and large not engaged in that kind of exacting effort, although we could cite John Fletcher, Richard Watson, John Miley, Randolph Foster, or Luther Lee, as notable exceptions.
Our effort here will require a simple approach to theology. For the philosophers of religion, theology is "God talk"; for the systematic theologian it is the rational analysis of the ways of God, through consideration of His self-revelation in Christ, in Scripture, and in the natural order. The cynic has described the work of the theologian by a biting analogy: it is, said Diderot, the story of a man wandering lost in a dark forest at midnight with a flickering candle to provide a little light. Along comes a theologian and blows out the light. In a more positive vein, the definition employed in this essay will be functional: "Theology is telling the faith of the fathers in the language of the children."
Now, "evangelism"-a word which has the highest and most honorable significance, but which like many words has fallen prey to the abuses of certain persons who sometimes stress a theology of human wretchedness that would upstage Karl Barth or a do-it-yourself religion that might have driven Pelagius into the arms of Augustine. The consequences of such abuse is the state of affairs that exists today concerning evangelism. A company of "cultured despisers" of evangelism has emerged over the years, thinking of evangelism in the narrow terms set by the unlearned and ignorant.
It is easy for us to rationalize our neglect of this essential Christian work, by appealing to such unattractive examples. Mr. Wesley (not Dr. Wesley), a man of the people, saw these types in his age. On one occasion he wrote:
"Let but a pert, self-sufficient animal that has neither sense nor grace, bawl out something about Christ, or his blood, or justification by faith, and his hearers cry out, 'What a fine gospel sermon.' "
But what Wesley judged to be an aberration of the gospel and an embarrassment to a reasonable person, did not become the guideline for his Christian activity. He engaged in an incessant effort to "reform the nation and especially the Church and to spread Scriptural (note, Scriptural) holiness across the land." He became the evangelist-reformer without peer in the eighteenth century (with all due credit to Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield). He rode up and down the land for more than fifty years, telling the faith of the fathers in the language of the children; expressing it in an admirable union of the "reasonable man" with a cool mind and style (the typical 18th century Englishman) and the man whose heart was strangely warmed, who shared God's good news wherever he went. It is all too easy for us to accent "cool mind" and ignore warmth of spirit. In our world many (most?) persons live and act on the largely affective level. To preach or teach on the rationally coherent and logical level alone i8 to miss the mark with many. This is the Wesleyan concern: to appeal to heart and mind, emotion and intellect on the level where real communication occurs. Wesley wrote this introduction to the Standard Sermons:
I design plain truth for plain people: therefore of set purpose, I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations, . . . from even the show of learning, unless in sometimes citing the original Scripture.... I have accordingly set down in the following sermons, what I find in the Bible concerning the way to heaven. 1
This is evangelism in the Wesleyan manner and spirit.
This focus upon evangelism is found continually in Wesley's writing and preaching. His preoccupation was with evangelical tasks, but he did not construe that narrowly, as a few spiritual laws by which someone is converted to Christ. Wesley sought to develop the full Christian character and the mature, witnessing, sharing believer.
This is spelled out especially well in four appeals that Wesley wrote in 1744-1745. "An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion" was written first, followed by three "Farther Appeals." The content of these essays so admirably summarizes Wesley's thought that they may be taken as the summa of Wesley's theology of evangelism. Indeed, I see the title "An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion" as a definition of the Wesleyan approach to evangelism.
In these essays, Wesley is actually engaged in a polemic with certain "men of reason and religion." He appeals to them to recognize some of the essentials of evangelical faith, i.e., the heart of evangelism.
His concern is about:
1. The doctrines of Christian faith;
2. The manner of teaching them;
3. The effects which should follow the teaching of these.
In developing these concerns, we should recognize the ways they are pursued.
1. Doctrine. Three themes:
a. The doctrine of the faith that saves and that opens up new evangelical and ethical possibilities and expectations.
b. The life of Christian love (sanctification, perfect love) which enlarges the Christian's personal and social awareness and capacity for service.
c. The work of the Holy Spirit as a present (contemporary motivating) reality and presence (as opposed to those who relegate the Spirit's work to the ancient era of church history).
a. The reasoned approach to evangelism
b. The gracious appeal to the will; to an uncoerced free decision recognizing the essential freedom of persons. The right to say Yes or No. Right of private judgment.
c. Going where the people are-Field Preaching.
3. Effects-Moral change-Social transformation. Physical relief for sick and poor.
Gerald R. Cragg writes of Wesley's theology:
The particular emphasis of his theology derived from his preoccupation with evangelism. He included all the traditional elements of the Christian system of belief, but he so arranged them as to bring into the sharpest relief the doctrine of salvation.2
I. The Doctrines of Christian Faith
A. The Doctrine of Faith
Wesley's theology was an attempt to "describe the true, the scriptural experimental religion...."3 It was a theology of evangelism attuned to human failure and disorder and to God's grace and love. It was existentially sensitive, for Wesley had walked the way himself. Before he became an evangelist, he had to wrestle with his own failure, his angst, his lack of contact with Christian reality and certitude. He could not tell the way of faith until he saw with "spiritual sight," to use his metaphor, until he received the gift of faith. He could not tell the good news until he moved beyond the pre-understanding of his Oxford years to the liberating fulfillment of Aldersgate. "Experimental religion!": Religion that corresponded with life! With psychological, rational, and spiritual needs! A religion of love that calls a person into a service of love to the neighbor! Religion that works faithfully, hopefully, lovingly!
Without being too certain about the years from 1725-38 (on which good men differ), it is claimed that Wesley became an evangelist after Aldersgate. Before Aldersgate, he did not know or understand the preaching of faith. Peter Bohler had counseled Wesley in the early days of 1738. "Preach faith until you have it: then, because you have faith you will preach it." Albert Outler comments: "Wesley had preached faith until others had it-and that was what broke the drought in his own spirit."4
May I suggest that Wesley, like Luther and St. Paul before him becomes a mirror and an exemplar of the struggling ascents to faith; struggles that St. Paul depicts in Romans 10 and Luther in his anguished search to find a gracious God. Each man in his own way portrays the anguish of the human quest for the treasure that finally is seen and known as gift. St. Paul wrote, certainly out of his own experience:
But what the Scripture says about being put right with God through faith is this: 'You are not to ask yourself, who will go up into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down). 'Nor are you to ask, who will go down into the world below?' (that is, to bring Christ up from death). What it says is this: 'God's message is near you, on your lips and in your heart'-that is, the message of faith that we preach (Rom. 10:6-8).
Paul continues to claim that all who call on Christ will be saved, that to call they must believe, that faith comes out of the context of hearing the good news, that the good news must be proclaimed. The good news is Christ in whom faith discovers a spirit-transforming personal presence. And this faith is the gift of God made alive in the catalyst of preaching the Word. Those who seek the glory of the divine-human encounter by their own struggles or contributions to the relationship are only candidates for futility and despair. Doubt is sometimes a necessary preparation for spiritual illumination, for the moment of grace. However, it must finally become self- doubt and self-surrender to the giftedness of faith. Doubt is an understandable stage along the way. It is often a step in a person's progress from self- trust to confidence in God. To doubt the Almighty is not surprising; it is the shadow side of our own self-sufficiency. Soon enough, self-trust leads to the despair of human emptiness. The nakedness of Adam and Eve portrays the existential and spiritual finitude of all. We stand before God and one another naked, without recourse. Preeminently contingent or dependent, we require an adequate structure of trust. That structure is not found in our subjective resources. It is only in God whose image and likeness we bear and which bears us. We are marked by an infinite need for an infinite God.