By Henry “Hal” Knight III
The term “orthopraxis” was introduced into Christian theology by liberation theologians in the 1960s. It was meant as a corrective to an orthodoxy that affirmed all the right things about God and yet was complacent about (or worse, complicit in) systemic injustice and oppression.
“Praxis” denotes a way of relating theory and practice. It seeks to avoid both unreflective practice and theory that does not lead to transformative action in the world. Instead, praxis involves an ongoing critical reflection on practice that leads to the revision of theory, even as theory serves to direct practice. What makes praxis “ortho” is its consistency with the understandings and imperatives of Christian faith.
Liberation theology is informed by social theory that discloses the nature of systemic injustice. “Orthopraxis” is then focused on socioeconomic change on behalf of the oppressed. But the term can take on wider meaning. It can refer to Christian discipleship more broadly, and raises the question of how our actions as Christians are or are not consistent with the faith we profess. It is in this wider sense that we can speak of “orthopraxis” in Wesley’s theology.
From one angle, Wesley moves from theology to practice. He insists that inward holiness leads to outward holiness; that is, a transformed heart leads to a transformed life. Our discipleship is therefore dependent on and flows out of our Christian character.
Yet this is theology understood not simply as doctrinal concepts. It is a “practical divinity,” in which theology serves the purpose of pointing us to God’s promises, opening us to receive God’s grace and enabling us to grow in a relationship with God. The goal of theology is not assent but for us to experience those realities which the doctrines describe.
The practices that emerge from this practical divinity are works of piety (such as worship and devotion) whereby we enact our love for God, and works of mercy which enact our love for our neighbor. This reflects Wesley’s belief that love for God and neighbor is at the center of the Christian life. But works of piety and mercy are not only expressions of our love, but means through which the Holy Spirit empowers our growth in love. They are “means of grace,” and it is as we participate in them that we grow in sanctification.
It is here that we see orthopraxis in Wesley’s theology. For reflection on our practice of works of piety and mercy enables us to understand more fully both God’s love and what it means for us to love. Early Methodists gathered together in small groups every week to discuss how to live out their faith, giving them regular opportunities for this reflection.
Wesley was aware of the difference engaging in works of piety and mercy, and reflection on that activity could make: “One reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that…one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it—and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart” (“On Visiting the Sick,” in A.C. Outler, ed., Sermons III [Abingdon, 1986] 387-88).
Thus persons might hold orthodox beliefs and even say they love their neighbor yet actually not do so due to “voluntary ignorance.” Wesley knew that it is through actually being with the poor that one learns how to love in a manner that truly reflects the love that God is.
What is at stake in Wesley’s “orthopraxis” is more than living out our sanctified intentions. Certainly if we intend love (holiness of heart), we want to do so effectively (holiness of life). Yet as we encounter a variety of circumstances and seriously reflect on our ministry, we come to know more deeply and clearly what love is, and the Holy Spirit enables us to grow in that love. In this way we come increasingly to mirror God’s love in the world.
This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on March. 01, 2003 at CatalystResources.org
Dr. Henry H. Knight III is Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology. His books include From Aldersgate to Azusa Street: Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Visions of the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2010) and A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Abingdon, 1997).