In his Journal Wesley, then 75 years old, disclosed that his doctrine of Christian perfection had not changed in more than forty years [1 Sept 1778]. His sermon “The Circumcision of the Heart” was written in 1733. His first tract on the subject, “The Character of a Methodist,” was written in 1739. In 1756 he wrote that he began to study the Scripture some twenty-seven years earlier (1729) and at that time began to see the doctrine of Christian perfection. In 1760 he declared that constant communion with God the Father and Son fills the heart with humble love. “Now this is what I always did and do now mean by ‘perfection’” [q 6 March 1760]. In 1778 he confided that he doubted he could write a better sermon on “The Circumcision of the Heart” than he had done forty-five years earlier [Journal, 1 Sept 1778].
In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, written in 1777, he said that he had not added one point that he had not held 38 years earlier in “The Character of a Methodist.” In fact, he said that he began this pursuit of Christian perfection in 1725. The title page for A Plain Account of Christian Perfection gives the dates 1725-1777. Although Wesley did not die until 1791, his editor, Thomas Jackson, added these words, “It is not to be understood, that Mr. Wesley’s sentiments concerning Christian Perfection were in any measure changed after the year 1777.”
Thus, the evolution of Wesley’s doctrine has been greatly exaggerated. Just as higher criticism has attempted to theorize how the biblical text might have evolved, so contemporary Wesley scholars often distinguish between the “early Wesley” (1733-1738), the “middle Wesley” (1738-1765), and the “late Wesley” (1765-1791). The result in either biblical studies or Wesleyan studies is that there is no definitive statement. The result in biblical studies is a purely human document created and edited to uphold the authority of the church. The result in Wesleyan studies is that Wesley has become “the undefined banner.”
Some Wesley scholars deny that there is any such thing as a “historical Wesley.” They delight in pointing out contradictions in Wesley and deny that he had a single consistent view of anything, whether the subject be what a Christian is or the witness of the Spirit. Such an approach provides a flexible Wesley who can be linked to whatever fad or movement is popular with the scholar. Thus, the “mature” Wesley is reconstructed to fit the agenda of the scholar. His Aldersgate experience has been redefined. Books have been written claiming Wesley borrowed his ideas from Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. He has been portrayed as basically a Puritan, a Lutheran, a Pelagian, a semi-Pelagian, and a modified Calvinist. It is now being asserted that he is Pentecostal and charismatic. It has been asserted that he changed his doctrine on original sin, the witness of the Spirit, and Christian perfection.
Francis Schaeffer made the same observation about the word Jesus as a “contentless banner.” He described theologians who use familiar words but redefine them to serve their agenda. “It is humanism with a religious banner called ‘Jesus’ to which they can give any content they wish.” He concluded, “We have come to this fearsome place where the word Jesus has become the enemy of the Person Jesus, and the enemy of what Jesus taught.”
Our final authority is Scripture and not Wesley. Yet Wesley is a reliable interpreter of Scripture. While Wesley did fine-tune his theology, he actually tends to be remarkably consistent and logical in his overall theology over the years. The fact that he may approach the same subject in different ways under different circumstances does not necessarily constitute a contradiction. Consequently some interpretations in Wesley studies are better than others because they have a more adequate grasp of the body of literature Wesley wrote. And some interpretations may be rejected because they are not consistent with Wesley overarching emphases. Therefore the position that Wesley was inconsistent with himself is useful only to those postmodern Wesleyan scholars who try to cut and paste Wesley to fit their agenda. Thus they can dismiss any objection that their finished product does not actually reflect what Wesley taught.