Jonathan Goforth, that great missionary and revivalist to China from 1887-1934, was once speaking in Toronto, Canada. Included in his remarks were some references to Mr. Wesley's teachings. While in the midst of his delivery, a Methodist minister arose and made the startling statement that he believed, "Our theology today is better than that of Mr. Wesley's." Goforth readily responded by asking the minister, "Have you caught the fish that Mr. Wesley caught?" The minister abruptly sat down, quickly ending his presumptuous challenge. Goforth then added, "There must not have been too much wrong with Wesley's theology if he caught the fish and you haven't."
It cannot be denied that the theology of the holiness movement, though often claiming to be Wesleyan, has evolved with various changes and emphases since Mr. Wesley's day. A close study of Wesley's sermons and other writings, followed by a study of the history of the holiness movement and various teachings together with the personalities who influenced those changes over the last century and a half, will bear this out.
Can it, however, be said that Mr. Wesley's theology and doctrinal teachings did also evolve with change during his long life of ministry? There are those who would have us believe this to be so. ‘Tis true that one may possibly find some insignificant shifts in Mr. Wesley's thinking over the years. To give but one example, he once thought that those who had experienced entire sanctification could not easily fall from grace. Observation over a successive period of time changed his mind. To be sure, the writings of the mature Wesley may be preferred to those of his earlier ministry, but so could it be said of any and all spiritual leaders. The candid reader will rather find an amazing uniformity of thought and doctrine between the young and elderly Wesley. Whatever the negligible changes one might find in Mr. Wesley's theology, they do not present sufficient justification for an abandonment of his theology in favor of the many alterations to which so-called Wesleyan theology has been subjected since the nineteenth century. No Bible expositor ever relied more heavily upon scriptural support for his teachings than did Wesley. His writings are literally stitched with Scripture. Furthermore, in old age he would claim that he had not significantly changed his theological views. "I was musing here on what I heard a good man say long since, —‘Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I could seven years ago.' Whatever others can do," says Mr. Wesley, "I really cannot. I cannot write a better sermon on the Good Steward, than I did seven years ago: I cannot," he continues, "write a better one on the Great Assize, than I did twenty years ago: I cannot write a better on the Use of Money, than I did nearly thirty years ago: Nay," says he, "I know not that I can write a better on the Circumcision of the Heart, than I did five-and-forty years ago. Perhaps, indeed I may have read five or six hundred books more than I had then, and may know a little more History, or Natural Philosophy, than I did; but," says he, "I am not sensible that this had made any essential addition to my knowledge in Divinity." Then with a final statement of strong conviction he assures his readers of this: "Forty years ago I knew and preached every Christian doctrine which I preach now" [Journal, 1 Sept, 1778].
Having studied the writings of Wesley and Fletcher for many years, this writer finds altogether unsubstantiated the claim by some scholars that the written works of the saintly Fletcher had a significant modifying and refining influence upon the theology of the founder of Methodism. Furthermore, one will also find an uncommon adherence to Wesley's theology in the writings of his Methodist coworkers, including John Fletcher, Joseph Benson, Adam Clarke, Richard Watson, Joseph Sutcliffe and other eighteenth and early nineteenth century advocates of scriptural holiness. In contrast, numerous are the differences we find in the theological thought among later holiness proponents.
Would to God more of today's holiness leaders would venture upon a thorough investigation of the writings of early Methodist leaders. It would not be surprising if they should happily find a clearer understanding of biblical truths in general and the teaching of scriptural holiness in particular. As one holiness leader stated, "Too long our people have struggled along without recourse to the best of the old authorities." It is nevertheless encouraging to learn of the growing number of scholars, ministers and teachers who are presently discovering new and fresh insights into those truths that God owned and used to bring about the great Wesleyan revival of the eighteenth century.
In the Wesley Memorial Volume, published in 1880, William Burt Pope concluded, "The staple and substance of Methodist theology is essentially that of the entire Scripture as interpreted by the catholic evangelical tradition of the Christian Church. . . . It has no more borrowed from the Remonstrant Arminians than it has borrowed from the Protestant Lutherans. It agrees with both these so far as they express the faith of the New Testament; but no further. It has had, indeed, in past times a conventional connection with the name Arminian; but its Arminianism is simply the mind of the Catholic [or universal] Church down to the time of Augustine. . . . It might be said, with equal propriety or want of propriety, that it has learned some of its lessons from Calvinism. Certainly it has many secret and blessed relations with that system; not with its hard, logical, deductive semi-fatalism, over which Absolute Sovereignty reigns with such awful despotism, but with its deep appreciation of union with Christ, and of the Christian privileges bound up with that high principle. . . . No community falls back more absolutely or more implicitly than Methodism upon the supreme defense of the entire Bible which our Lord's authority gives it. . . . And it may be asserted with confidence, though without boasting, that there is no communion in Christendom the theological writings of which are so universally free from the tincture of doubt or suspicion as to the supremacy of the Bible."