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Why Does Desmond Ford’s Biographer Lament Our Wesleyan Heritage?

Those of us who write about others usually reveal much about ourselves. I believe that Milton Hook does this in Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist (Riverside, Calif.: Adventist Today Foundation, 2008). Among other things, he tells us that he is not happy with the Wesleyan heritage that we Seventh-day Adventists share.

Hook’s unhappiness with what we have inherited from John and Charles Wesley and their colleagues in eighteenth-century England is one of his book’s continuing threads. Early on, he refers to a colleague’s “Wesleyan fundamentalist’s perspective on salvation themes” that contributed to his eventual “hostility toward Des and his gospel emphasis” (70). Toward the end of his account, he writes that this same colleague subsequently used phraseology that “was vintage Roman Catholicism from the Councils of Trent.” He states that “it was also the raw Wesleyan perfectionism” that caused a prominent Seventh-day Adventist scholar “to wring his hands in dismay, predicting a reversion to its emphasis in the 1970s” (302).

He notes that Ford admits that for some time “there still lingered in his thinking some traces of the justification plus sanctification model of salvation, so pervasive in the SDA church” (93; emphasis in original). He observes that “the Wesleyan strand had rope-like proportions in early Seventh-day Adventism and persisted at length” (97). He writes that another colleague, “perhaps ignorantly, was coaxing the constituency back to the Roman Catholic Councils of Trent and the second blessing of Wesleyanism, the two sources that advocated self-generated righteousness with God’s assistance as the essence of sanctification” (288–89).

Hook makes it clear that he is unhappy with the teachings of John Wesley as such, and not merely their distortions. He writes that the complaint that one of our critics ignores the Wesleyan revival “is based on the common SDA fallacy that John Wesley improved on the model of the earlier reformers, when in fact Wesley muddled the gospel, especially sanctification, and Adventism inherited that confusion.” He explains that this critic, “quite rightly so, compared Adventism to better reformers than Wesley” (212).

I understand Hook to mean that the theological paradigms of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the sixteenth century were better than Wesley’s in the eighteenth. I take the opposite view. I believe that Wesley’s theological model was superior.

I agree that Wesley’s theology did have some problems. One of these is the idea of a “second blessing” in which God removes our “bent to sinning.” Another is that he frequently used the word perfection in ways that conveyed meanings that he explicitly disavowed. A third problem is his failure wholly to break with the doctrine of the immortality of the human soul. A fourth is what he says about “spiritual senses” as a way of knowing, though I have the uneasy feeling that I may not fully understand him on this. Fifth, although this is a bit embarrassing, as a citizen of the United States, I wish his way of thinking had made it possible for him to be more supportive of the American Revolution!

One of the things I most appreciate about John Wesley is that he often contested religious bigotry, and that he did this well before many others. As a lifelong priest in the Church of England, which has long thought of itself as a “third way” between Roman Catholicism, on the one hand, and the Protestantism of leaders like Luther and Calvin, on the other, he didn’t care whether an idea was Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Greek Orthodox. His theology was more concerned with truth, all things considered, when putting primary emphasis upon Scripture, than labels.

Another thing I cherish about John Wesley is that he rejected the doctrine of predestination in both of its historic forms. He opposed the idea that from all eternity God determines who will be forced to suffer damnation and who will be given the free gift of salvation. He also rejected the idea that God selects some sinners for salvation but not others, much like a lifeguard who chooses to rescue some but not all of those who are drowning because they disregarded the warning signs.

This is where Wesley’s theological gestalt differs most decisively from Luther’s and Calvin’s. When I consider them at this juncture, Wesley’s alternative comes across to me as a huge improvement. It puts more emphasis upon God’s love than God’s sovereignty and this strikes me as a very important move in the right direction.

Like Ellen White, who was one of his theological descendants, Wesley believed that our relationships with God are interactive, something only thoroughgoing believers in complete predestination can deny. But as far as I know, he did not teach “self-generated righteousness with God’s assistance as the essence of sanctification.” To the contrary, I understand him to mean that what we do is always a grateful response to what God is already doing, that our own responsibility for how we act is always responsive to how God always acts. If I am mistaken about this I would like to be corrected with long passages from Wesley’s own writings.

Wesley did not think of the interaction between God and humanity as a zero-sum game, such that the more God does the less we do, and the less we do the more God does. Rather, God’s initiatives soothe and strengthen us so that when we favorably respond to them we always become more, not less.

Wesley’s emphasis on “social holiness,” particularly his efforts against slavery, is a third thing for which I am grateful. In 1774, he published “Thoughts on Slavery,” an essay that examined its horrors from historical and economic as well as theological and ethical points of view. “Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary choice,” he implored. “Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do unto every one as you would he should do unto you.”

Not long before he died, Wesley penned his last letter. It was to William Wilberforce, the energetic foe of slavery that Ioan Gruffud plays in the recent movie Amazing Grace. “Go on in the name of God and in the power of his might,” he wrote, “till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

Although it is by no means flawless, I am proud of our Wesleyan heritage!

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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