Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley's Teachings. Vol. 1 "God and Providence." Vol. 2 "Christ and Salvation." Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. 240 pages. ISBN: 978-0-310-32815-5 and 319 pages. 978-0-310-49267-2.
Dr. Vic Reasoner
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Fall 2013. Volume 31.
Date Posted July, 04, 2013
Just when the guild scholars claim that everything that can be said about Wesley has already been said, Oden makes the claim that "nothing like this text-by-text review of the content of Wesley's teaching exists in Wesley studies."
In these two volumes Oden has quadrupled the material in his 1994 work, John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity. Oden's purpose is to demonstrate that Wesley was a systematic theologian. Thus, he arranges Wesley's writings in systematic order and demonstrates an internal consistency across sixty years.
The first attempt at such an arrangement was Wesleyana, first published in1825 and reprinted by Allegheny Publications in 1979. Wesleyana is simply a cut-and-paste arrangement of Wesley's sermons.
The second attempt at such an arrangement was Burtner and Chiles, A Compend of Wesley's Theology (1954). In this volume the editors draw from all of Wesley's major writings.
Yet Oden's work is the first real attempt to restate or paraphrase Wesley's writings. It is not a cut-and-paste job nor it is an attempt to reinterpret Wesley through the author's own paradigm. Oden works from the primary sources, not the secondary literature.
Oden observes that there is no precedent in Wesley for process theology. Wesley believed in divine revelation, supported by apostolic tradition, reason, and experience. Yet this is balanced by a section on what reason cannot do. And Scripture functions as a correction to experience. Oden sees the Wesleyan tradition as a modern example of his own theological methodology, in which he works from a patristic consensus.
Oden also summarizes Wesley's view on the inspiration of Scripture. "In classic Christian reasoning, supposed 'mistakes' in the Bible are misreadings or errors of the reader." By the Spirit the apostles were guided to testify and empowered to attest accurately. The Holy Spirit guarantees the transmission and efficacy of the written Word. "If the Spirit is truly God, the Spirit-led written Word is surely the Word of God." The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead would not deliver to us a defective written Word.
While the guild theologians have been paranoid that this view is "Calvinistic," Oden documents that Wesley built on a strong Calvinistic heritage. We cannot dismiss a doctrine just because it is Calvinistic. Yet Oden also summarizes Wesley's objections to double predestination in a withering analysis.
According to Oden, few liberal Protestants have ever heard a sermon on original sin, yet for Wesley a high doctrine of original sin is the premise and companion of a high doctrine of grace. Anyone who labels Wesley a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian has not taken into account Wesley's only full-length theological treatise - almost three hundred pages on the doctrine of original sin. Wesley deals with the doctrine exegetically, historically, philosophically sociologically, and experientially.
Preliminary grace is not natural human ability. Oden devotes an entire chapter to an analysis of the stages of grace: the natural man, the legal man, and the evangelical man. Those who are born again are enabled not to sin, yet they are not unconditionally protected from falling. "So long as one is living by faith, one is not committing sin." Oden sees the witness of the Spirit as a quintessential Wesleyan doctrine.
Wesleyan theology cannot be reduced to his doctrine of sanctification. Nor can his doctrine of sanctification be dismissed. Oden gives an adequate summary of perfecting grace.
The doctrine of eccelesiology is not treated in systematic order, since it is the subject of volume three of John Wesley's Teachings.
In his chapters on eschatology, Oden tends to avoid modern debates. But he is correct in introducing Wesley's views with a summary of Wesley's sermon, "The General Spread of the Gospel." Wesley expected the power of the Gospel to transform the world. After the general resurrection and final judgment, there is a new creation which corresponds to the new creation of the resurrected life of Christian believers.
"Whatever path modern Wesleyans have taken, Wesley himself held fast to the clear preaching of Jesus concerning a real hell more horrible than our worst imaginings."
These first two volumes are a fresh and faithful account of Wesley's theology. And they are the best introduction to his theology. Get them both!