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 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).

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