John Wesley’s “Orthopraxis”

Photo by SHVETS production at

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

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).

Wesley’s “Orthodoxy”

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

“Orthodoxy” is not a popular word these days. When someone announces they no longer believe in the Trinity or the deity of Christ, many consider it “fundamentalist” to suggest these beliefs are incompatible with Christianity. Those who do so are pictured as self-appointed doctrinal enforcers who seek to impose their own beliefs on everyone else. But this reduces the issue to personal choice. It is not my beliefs or yours, but those of the church that are at stake. They are not ours to dispose of as we will. These teachings have been received as a gift from our predecessors to be passed on to the next generation.

Wesley is a helpful guide in dealing with matters of belief. He insisted on basic orthodoxy, but was careful not to define it too narrowly. More importantly, he understood why what we believe matters.

With regard to the first, Wesley distinguished between those beliefs that were essential to Christianity from those, however important, that were not. For example, he disagreed with his friend George Whitefield over predestination and the nature of God’s grace. This was no small matter; it raised issues concerning the extent of salvation and the character of God. Yet Wesley still insisted the disagreement was among Christians. In his sermon at Whitefield’s funeral Wesley observes that “there are many doctrines of a less essential nature with regard to which even sincere children of God…are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast to the essentials of ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’” (“On the Death of George Whitefield,” § III.1, in Sermons II, ed. A.C. Outler [Abingdon, 1985] 341).

What are these essentials? Wesley has no standard list. In “The Character of a Methodist,” after noting that “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort,” he says Methodists believe Scripture is inspired by God and is the sufficient rule of faith and practice, and in the deity of Christ. It is only with regard to “opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity” that “we think and let think” (J. Wesley, § 1, in The Methodist Societies, ed. R.E. Davies [Abingdon, 1989] 33). Elsewhere he lists other essentials such as the Trinity, original sin, justification, sanctification, and redemption through the cross of Christ.

Simply believing these doctrines did not make one a Christian. As the “Homily on Salvation” of the Church of England says, “Even the devils…believe that Christ was born of a virgin…” yet remain, “for all this faith,” devils (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” § 59, in The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion, ed. G.R. Cragg [Oxford University Press, 1975] 68-69). The point of orthodoxy is not having right ideas, but a means to a transformed heart and life.

The purpose of doctrine is to point us to God and to the promises of God. Some, like the Trinity and the incarnation, are necessary if we are to read Scripture rightly—they are what some contemporary theologians call a grammar of faith. We have seen throughout history how denial of the Trinity or incarnation has led to readings of Scripture that ultimately deny the salvation God offers us in Jesus Christ.

But more than this, what we believe is inextricably linked to our experience of God and our life of discipleship. In his sermon “Catholic Spirit,” one criterion for whether “your heart is as true to mine as mine is to yours,” is the following: “Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘God over all, blessed forever?’ Is he ‘revealed in’ thy soul? Dost thou ‘Know Jesus Christ and him crucified?’ Dost he ‘dwell in thee, and thou in him?’” (§ I.13, Sermons II, 87).

What is notable in this and the six other sets of criteria in “Catholic Spirit” is how belief, experience, and life are woven together. Not to believe in the deity of Christ, who was crucified, would lead to a very different experience of salvation because it would mean a very different God. For Wesley we do not have an undifferentiated faith—it is always faith in the triune God, faith in Christ’s death and resurrection.

There are doctrines that go to the very heart of Christianity. For Wesley, to deny them is to speak no longer as a Christian. Yet his orthodoxy is hardly narrow or “fundamentalist.” Wesley’s essentials are all held by the many varieties of Protestants, and most by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as well. It is an orthodoxy large enough to contain the historic traditions, rich enough to promote creative theological reflection, and clear enough to enable us to worship and serve the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on Feb. 01, 2003 at

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).

A Heart Religion?

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

Friedrich Schleiermacher, the nineteenth century parent of liberal theology, argued that Christianity is most fundamentally not a believing or doing but a feeling — that is, an experience of God. Some have seen John Wesley as making a similar point. After all, was not Wesley a leader in a great, trans-Atlantic religious awakening in the eighteenth century in which the “religion of the heart” was a central theme?

Certainly, the answer must be yes. In his sermon “The Marks of the New Birth” Wesley warns that “true, living, Christian faith… is not only an assent, an act of the understanding, but a disposition which God hath wrought” in the heart (J. Wesley, “The Marks of the New Birth,” § 1.3, in A.C. Outler, ed., Sermons 1 [Abingdon, 1984] 418) through which one knows one’s sins are forgiven and which produces fruit such as power over sin, peace, hope, and most especially love. Wesley continually warns against faith as simply assent, and insists that Christianity essentially consists in a transformation of the heart.

Yet Wesley is saying something quite different from Schleiermacher. First, he understands Christian experience to be the result of an encounter with a God who is “other” than us, not the discovery of something already within us. (This point I will develop in a subsequent article.) Second, in emphasizing experience he is not de-emphasizing belief or practice. Rather, he is integrating all three to produce a dynamic and holistic vision of the Christian life.

Wesley, in K. Collins’ helpful terminology, is a pre-eminently conjunctive thinker (The Scripture Way of Salvation [Abingdon, 1997] 15). It is not simply that he holds together elements that others place in an either/or opposition; he sees how each element is necessary to the other. Much of the creative insight in Wesley’s theology is due to his integrative approach.

Contemporary theology has been concerned with the integration of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right practice). Indeed, praxis as a term appears frequently, and is often used to designate the kind of practice that shapes belief as well as being shaped by belief. We may learn much about God and the world through faithful Christian activity—worship, devotional life, and acts of love and justice in the world—as well as through the intellectual appropriation of doctrines.

As R.B. Steele has recently noted, a number of Wesleyans found this approach helpful but inadequate (“Heart Religion,” in The Methodist Tradition and Related Movements [Scarecrow, 2001] xxxiii). What was missing was a third element, orthopathy (right experience). Thus a truly Wesleyan theology would be marked by the mutual integration of three elements: orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxis. Or, to put it colloquially, by the integration of head, heart, and hands. My plan in subsequent articles is to show aspects of this integration. Here I will suggest how this three-way integration is helpful for living the Christian life.

One danger to the Christian life, which plagued Wesley’s own Church of England, was formalism. This could mean simply assenting to the teachings of Scripture or the church without it actually affecting one’s life. It could also mean a kind of legalism, externally obeying a checklist of things without a corresponding change of heart. The addition of orthopathy counters these inadequate forms of Christianity. For Wesley the Christian life is neither dead orthodoxy nor dutiful obedience, but a living, transformative relationship with God. We know God, not just know about God, and we acquire a new set of dispositions in the heart (orthopathy).

At the same time, the religious awakening had its own excesses. This enthusiasm, as it was called, emphasized having experiences or feelings. Some enthusiasts refrained from much of Christian practice so as not to rely on “works”; others would only act as they felt led. Wesley’s insistence on the authority of Scripture and participation in means of grace through corporate worship, devotional practices, and acts of mercy countered this enthusiasm. It did so by keeping persons grounded in God’s revelation through Scripture and tradition (orthodoxy) and active ministry in service to God and neighbor (orthopraxis).

Wesley used a number of paired terms to describe these various integrations: doctrine and discipline, heart and life, faith and works, knowledge and vital piety. Taken together, they describe a practical theology that aims to proclaim God’s promise of new life, encourage people to experience it, and enable them to faithfully live it out in love for God and their neighbor.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on Nov. 01, 2002 at

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).

Renewing Creation, Renewing the Church

Cross on a rocky hill backlit by the sun
Cross on a rocky hill backlit by the sun

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

In John Wesley’s sermon, “The General Spread of the Gospel,” he describes his vision of a Christian world. His depiction is not of a world in which everyone is a member of a church, much less one that has legislated Christian morality. It is instead a world in which “The loving knowledge of God, producing uniform, uninterrupted holiness and happiness, shall cover the earth, shall fill every soul of man” (§8). “Violence shall no more be heard in thy land,” and “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nation” (§26).

That it is God’s intention to renew creation in this way Wesley does not doubt. Yet he finds a considerable obstacle standing in the way of world evangelization, namely, the state of the church itself.

As he surveys the world, he sees both Christian and non-Christian to be strangers to true religion. While many in England would expect western Christians, especially Protestants, to be exemplars of their faith, Wesley is far from impressed. “Put Papists and Protestants, French and English together, the bulk of one and of the other nation; and what manner of Christians are they? Are they ‘holy, as he that hath called them is holy’? Is there ‘that mind in them which was also in Christ Jesus’? And do they ‘walk as Christ also walked’? Nay, they are as far from it as hell is from heaven” (§7).

Wesley believes God is presently working to renew the church as a prelude to an even greater global evangelization. As a prime example, Wesley cites his own movement. As this could be seen as a bit of triumphalism, it is important to note that Wesley continually informed his Methodists of other renewing movements of God around the world. But it is also true that the centerpiece of his theology, holiness of heart and life, made his movement distinct from much of the rest of the trans-Atlantic awakening with its focus on justification. In Wesley’s vision of renewal, it is holiness that makes the difference.

In fact, Wesley hoped this renewal in holiness was “the dawn of ‘the latter day glory’” (§16). His depiction of a renewed church is striking. With the coming of this “grand Pentecost” all will know God, have the law of God written in their hearts, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Their life together will manifest the same practices of the church in Acts 2: “they will ‘continue steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine and in the fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.’” The “natural, necessary consequence” of a church renewed in holiness “will be the same as it was in the beginning of the Christian church.” No one will claim possessions as his or her own, “but they will have all things in common.” There will be no want, for people will sell their lands and houses and then distribute the proceeds to everyone according to their need. Their desires and tempers shall be holy, and all will do “the will of God on earth as it is in heaven,” and their conversation will be gracious to hearers.

Such a vision of a church renewed in holiness, with its faithful practice, abundant love for God, and sacrificial love for neighbor seems wildly utopian. Yet given Wesley’s profound confidence in the power of God and deep conviction that God’s mission is to transform our lives and communities so that we might manifest God’s love in the world, it is theologically realistic.

In Wesley’s mind this is the key to the credibility of the gospel to non-Christians. With the renewal of the church in holiness, and “The grand stumbling-block…thus happily removed out of the way, namely, the lives of the Christians” (§21), others will see us differently, and as a result listen to us with new ears. “The holy lives of the Christians will be an argument they will not know how to resist” (§22); it will be a kind of embodied apologetic for the gospel.

Even if one does not fully accept Wesley’s vision of a holy church, his central point is hard to deny: only a church that manifests love for God in its worship, love for one another within the community, and reaches out in love to others, will be able to share the good news of Jesus Christ with credibility and integrity. Indeed, in the end, a passion for evangelism necessarily rests on the renewal of the church.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on Apr 01, 2002 at

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).