Professor Joe Dongell delivered this groundbreaking address helping us refocus on the true core of John Wesley. In this second installment, he supports his conclusion that, according to Wesley's writings, we are aiming too low by making power and purity the highest priorities in our Christian lives.
Part 2. As I made my way through the 14 volumes, the complete works of John Wesley, through the journals, all 150 sermons, treatises of various sorts, and letters, I found myself utterly surprised, even stunned, by what I read. Something spectacularly prominent emerged, like a church steeple piercing the clouds to rise far above all else. I'm talking about love. That's right. Love.
I had, of course, known that some Wesley scholars, like Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, David Cubie, and (more recently) Thomas Oord, had already picked up on this theme. I have been appreciative of their work, but for a variety of reasons I had not really been captured by it. Love, at the outset, seemed to me too shallow a matter, not sturdy enough to support the substantive content of Christian Truth, and too subjective to shoulder the load of specific moral instruction for serious Christian discipleship. Furthermore, I had worries about how an emphasis on love would sweep us into strange and destructive theological waters. Over the last century and a half it has been clear that "love-oriented" theologies have generally been moving away from classical orthodoxy. [We can name some of these: Universalism, Liberalism, Open Theism, Process Theology, and Pan-sexual Affirmation. In each of these, love has been placed at or near the center of thought.] Of course I also knew that the expression "Perfect Love" was occasionally mentioned in the Wesleyan Holiness Movement as something (somehow) equivalent to Entire Sanctification, or to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. But once mentioned in passing, talk of love seemed to play a minor role (at best) in most Holiness exposition, being quickly overwhelmed by the Movement's intense higher interest in purity and power.
But after reading through Wesley for myself, it seemed to me that love rushed through all 14 volumes like a tsunami (this is the third wave I want to talk about). My handwritten index tracking substantive references to love in each volume had taken the appearance of a dense forest. It seemed that Wesley was standing on his head and shouting to draw attention to love. I want to take the time to read for us just a few of the many dozens of passages from Wesley's own hand praising love as the comprehensive Christian commandment, as the highest possible Christian aspiration, and as the burning center of Wesley's whole mission:
[In the following excerpts I have taken the liberty of condensing, at times, Wesley's wording, and occasionally supplying an antecedent identified only in the large context. I believe I have not distorted his thought in doing so. All references are drawn from the standard "Jackson" set of Wesley's works.]
1) From his sermon, "The Circumcision of the Heart" V: 207
[Love] is the essence, the spirit, the life of all virtue. It is not only the first and great command, but it is all the commandments in one. In [love] is [found] perfection and glory and happiness. The royal law of heaven and earth is this, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.'
2) From his sermon XCII "On Zeal" VII: 60-2, 67
In a Christian believer, love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart and reigns without a rival. …This is that religion which our Lord has established upon earth. . . . This is the entire, connected system of Christianity: And thus the several parts of it rise one above the other, from that lowest point, the assembling of ourselves together, to the highest, -- love enthroned in the heart.
[Love], then, is the great object of Christian zeal.
[So] be most zealous of all for love, the queen of all graces, the highest perfection in heaven or earth, the very image of the invisible God.
3) From his sermon (CXXXII) on the occasion of "… Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel" VII: 462
What is Methodism? [It is] the old religion, … " nothing other than love, the love of God and of all mankind; the loving of God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as he first loved us, -- This love is the great medicine of life; the never failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world; for all the miseries and vices of men. . .
4) From his sermon (XXXVI) "The Law Established Through Faith" V: 462
Love is the end, the sole end, of every dispensation of God, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.
5) From his sermon (LXXXIII) "On Patience" VI: 488
From the moment we are justified, till we give up our spirits to God, Love is the sum of Christian sanctification; it is the one kind of holiness [there is, the degrees of which are simply differences] in the degree of love.
6) From his treatise "The Character of a Methodist" VIII: 341
Who is a Methodist? A Methodist is one who has "the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;" one who "loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength."
7) From his treatise "Principals of a Methodist Farther Explained" VIII: 474.
Religion itself we define [as] "… loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves; and in that love abstaining from all evil, and doing all possible good to all men." "Religion we conceive to be no[thing] other than love; the love of God and of all mankind; the loving God 'with all our heart, and soul, and strength, and the loving of every soul which God hath made, every man on earth as our own soul.
Wherever [there is love], there [is] the whole image of God.
8) In a "[Letter] to Mr. John Smith" XII: 78-79
The purpose of the commandment, of every command, of the whole Christian dispensation, is love. Let this love be attained, by whatever means, and I am content; I desire no more.
9) In a "[Letter] to a Young Disciple" XII: 445
But you have all things in one, the whole of religion contracted to a point, in that word, "Walk in love, as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us." All is contained in humble, gentle, patient love. In effect, therefore you need nothing but this.
10) In "A Letter to Mr. Alexander Hume" XII: 458
[My preachers] will teach you that religion [consists of] holy tempers and holy lives; and that the sum of all [this] is love.
11) In "A letter to Miss Betsy Ritchie" XIII: 55
[W]e know there is nothing deeper, there is nothing better, in heaven or earth, than love! There cannot be, unless there is something higher than the God of love! Here is the height, here is the depth, of the Christian experience! "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him" (I John 4:16).
12) In "Explanatory Notes on the NT," commenting on I John 4:8 "God is love":
This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. [Love] is [God's] darling, his reigning attribute [shedding] an amiable glory on all his other perfections.
13) In "Explanatory Notes on the NT" commenting on I John 4:19 "We love him, because he first loved us:"
This is the sum of all religion, the genuine model of Christianity. None can say more: why should any one say less, or less intelligibly?
And climactically (in my view),
14) From "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection," Section 25, in answer to Question 33 [the last third of the answer]
[One cause of] a thousand mistakes is [this:]… not considering deeply enough that love is the highest gift of God; humble, gentle, patient love; that all visions, revelations, [or] manifestations whatever, are little things compared to love; and that all [other] gifts . . . are either the same with or infinitely inferior to [love]. [Therefore, you] should be thoroughly [aware] of this – the heaven of heavens is love. There is nothing higher in religion; there is, in effect, nothing else; if you look for anything but more love, you are looking wide of the mark, you are getting out of the royal way. And when you are asking others, "Have you received this or that blessing?" if you mean anything but more love, you mean wrong; you are leading them out of the way, and putting them [on] a false scent. Settle it then in your heart, that from the moment God has saved you from all sin, you are to aim at nothing more but more of that love describe in the thirteenth [chapter] of [First] Corinthians. You can go no higher than this, till you are carried into Abraham's bosom.
I could not dismiss these kinds of declarations by Wesley as just so much sermonic exaggeration, or spiritual hyperbole. Claims like these are too frequent, too precise, too deliberate, and too programmatic to be set aside so easily. I found these claims sprinkled I across every genre of Wesley's writings, and across the whole span of his long and fruitful ministry, so far as I could tell. Now I'm wondering if in describing ourselves as "Wesleyan," we ought to start with love as the hierarchically supreme matter reigning over all other agendas!
It is crucial to notice that Wesley is saying something more than that love is "important," a claim with which all Christians could agree without dispute. Rather, Wesley has a specific understanding of how love works across the whole Christian life, and how love is the operational, functional center of all things. So I want to put before you just 5 proposals (out of many more we could examine) that sketch out some of the contours of how Wesley understood love, an understanding that he derived (validly and insightfully, I am now convinced) from Scripture. [To be concluded in the remaining two installments! Ed.]
Dr. Joseph Dongell is professor of biblical studies and director of Greek studies at Asbury Theological Seminary where he has served for over 25 years. He is an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church.