This thesis investigates the theological methodology of John Wesley as he used it in pastoral practice. The study is situated primarily in the area of the history of Christian thought and is located in the area of modern Enlightenment Studies. Wesley’s role as a pastoral theologian is established and his theological methodology uncovered from the perspective of his holistic vision of the God-human relationship being centred in love. This lays the foundation for an examination of his theological sources and tools derived from his extensive writings. Their interaction is explored through an examination of the doctrine and practice of Christian perfection as Wesley offered pastoral guidance to the people called Methodists.
There is extensive debate within Methodist circles (particularly in North America) regarding the conception and utility of Wesley’s theological method. Albert C. Outler was the key scholar who identified the components of the Wesleyan quadrilateral (Scripture, reason, tradition and experience) and proposed it as a unique and fruitful conception, with invaluable application for the Methodist movement today. Outler’s claims have been much debated and in many quarters rejected, though his basic understanding remains well-established within influential sections of the church. This thesis is an examination of Wesley’s writings in the light of the current debate to see if a more productive model can be established that will have greater resonance in a postmodern setting. After an overview of the scholarly debate on Wesley’s location and theological method in the eighteenth century, the major focus is Wesley’s own extensive writings over the course of his ministry. This is examined in three periods: 1725-39, 1740-69 and 1770-91. The study seeks to discover for each period his conception of the God-human relationship and what this implies for his theological method. The sources and tools Wesley utilised are then identified, before attention is turned to an examination of Christian perfection as a doctrine and its application in pastoral practice.
The study has found that the common assessment of Wesley as a pastoral theologian is correct and this has implications for his approach to theologising. Wesley viewed the core characteristic of God’s nature as love and the God-human relationship is to be defined by the qualities of trust and passion, rather than an intellectual comprehension of propositional truths about God. In his theological method Scripture, reason, community ethos and Christian experience are utilised in an interconnected dynamic network, energised by the presence of the Holy Spirit. God is clearly the sole theological authority and the components of the system are the means he uses for communication.
This analysis emphasises the fundamental nature of Christianity as a relationship of love, based on trust rather than an intellectual comprehension of doctrine; it is essentially a matter of the heart rather than the head. Accordingly, pastoral theology is much more important than academic, systematic theology for Christian experience and spiritual formation. Theological method must be shaped by this understanding, and so personal knowledge is always to be valued over intellectual propositions; Christian belief concerns the encounter with God as a Person rather than the mastery of a comprehensive system of doctrines. Critical to this process is the ethos of the community, which is the intimate blending of all the elements under the guidance of the Spirit. This makes Christian experience, rather than merely life experience, of vital importance. Because love and relationships are not reducible to mechanical systems that are merely intellectually comprehended, there is an element of mystery that remains. There is a difference in the way that the Spirit utilises the means when working with the doctrinal substance and the experiential circumstance of Christian perfection. The Modernist approach that is focused on dissection and analysis results in the loss of this holistic, dynamic system and its reduction to either pure subjectivism or rationalism. Wesley’s theological method is much closer to the pre-Modern approach that has been prevalent for most of history and more in harmony with much of the present developments in postmodern thought.