Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley's Teachings: Ethics and Society (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014). 329 pages. ISBN: 978-0-310-58718-7
Dr. Vic Reasoner
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2014. Volume 3.
Date Posted Nov., 2013
The purpose of Oden's four-volume set, John Wesley's Teachings, was to survey and analyze the whole range of Wesley's teachings. In Oden's earlier work, John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity (1994) he did not deal with Wesley's ethics. While Oden makes a compelling case that Wesley was a systematic theologian, Oden has little to work with in compiling a systematic Wesleyan ethic. Oden argues that Wesley should be listed among the major ethical thinkers of the eighteenth century. A stronger case could be made that the Methodist revival produced social reform. Wesley does not address many of the great ethical issues of our day, but does supply some overarching principles. His emphasis, however, is on internal character and not on governmental policy.
In volume 4 Oden surveys the ethical holiness of John Wesley. Methodism is more than a doctrine; it is a lifestyle. Faith is the starting point for evangelical ethics. In the section on social holiness he describes the Methodist practice of small group accountability. This was Wesley's major contribution to ethics.
The second section deals with economic ethics. Here Wesley advocated a work ethic and self denial. He taught an avoidance of debt and extravagance. He preached generosity and charity. He taught modesty in dress because extravagance robs from the poor. Thus, Wesley emphasized simplicity in dress as a mean to an end. The later American holiness movement made dress standards the mark (or at least the uniform) of belonging to the holiness movement.
Wesley did address the evils of gambling, alcoholism, prostitution, and slavery. He is famous for his advice on the use of money, but when it comes to time management his main advice is to get up early.
When we come to Oden's third section, political ethics, he has less relevant Wesley material. Wesley followed the conservative, nonjurist political views of his mother and felt the American Revolutionary War was unnecessary. I am more in sympathy with the political views of Samuel Wesley who supported William of Orange in his overthrow of James II because he had broken faith with the English citizens. John Wesley was simply wrong in his predictions that the American revolution would result in the disaster of the French anarchy. The French Enlightenment was rebellion against God. The American revolution was rebellion against George III. While Wesley was horrified at the civil disobedience manifested at the Boston Tea Party, I am also in sympathy with the modern Tea Party movement. Wesley attributes the American revolution to pride which took over after the First Great Awakening waned. Many historians however, see the First Great Awakening as the foundation for the war for independence.
In Wesley's Christian Library, the bulk of Volume 16 is letters written by Samuel Rutherford. However, Wesley seems to have taken no notice of Rutherford's great treatise, Lex Rex, written in 1644 which was the theological basis for the American revolution. Oden makes a valiant effort to salvage something from Wesley's Toryism, but he does not have much to work with. There is no discussion of the ethics of just war.
While I am a proponent of Wesley's theology, when it comes to politics I agree with Francis Asbury in his review of Wesley's A Calm Address to our American Colonies, "I am truly sorry that the venerable man ever dipped into the politics of America. My desire is to live in love and peace with all men; to do them no harm, but all the good I can. However, it discovers Mr. Wesley's conscientious attachment to the government under which he lived. Had he been a subject of America, no doubt but he would have been as zealous an advocate of the American cause. But some inconsiderate persons have taken occasion to censure the Methodists in America, on account of Mr. Wesley's political sentiments" [Journal, 19 March 1776].
The final section of this volume is labeled theological ethics. Here Oden devotes over a hundred pages to a restatement of Wesley's thirteen discourses on the Sermon on the Mount. While the Sermon on the Mount is the major Christian statement on ethics, Oden adds little to Wesley's exposition.
The final chapter of this book is a helpful overview of Wesley's systematic theology on law and grace. While Oden is faithful in his representation of Wesley, there is little in this volume that addresses the great moral and ethical questions with which the Church wrestles today.