Wesleyan Theology and Process Theology – August 2014

Question: Process theology has been influential and controversial in Wesleyan-Holiness theology. What about John Wesley’s thought to you find most amenable to process theology?

Publication Month: August 2014

I appreciate this question. For a fuller answer, I refer to my book on Wesley, Grace and Responsibility. I think the reader will see that I find most of Wesley’s teaching highly amenable to process theology. Indeed, I think that historically they belong to the same tradition. Like Wesley, process theology comes from an Anglican background. Of course, it is mediated through philosophers, but the two most influential ones, Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, share that background.

This background is quite different from a Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist one. Catholicism promotes philosophical theology but exercises dogmatic control over its philosophers. Lutherans and Calvinists want theology to be Biblical rather than philosophical. Anglicans are open to philosophical influence in their thinking without exercising dogmatic control. Explicit philosophy is not prominent in Wesley, but he was certainly not anti-philosophical. Hence the prominence of philosophy in the process tradition has not been offensive to Episcopalians and Wesleyans. Further, its independence from dogma is also acceptable. In this tradition one expects “reason” to be supportive of good Christian thinking rather than a threat. This is how process theologians experience it.

I’m sure the reader understands that these are sweeping generalizations not intended to reject Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist contributions. Wesley as a good Anglican deeply appreciated the Reformers. His Aldersgate experience was a response to a reading from Luther. He called his views a hairsbreadth removed from Calvinism. Among Protestants of his day he was remarkably appreciative of Catholics. Like most Anglicans he felt himself in continuity with the early “church fathers” a continuity shared by Roman Catholics as well as the Eastern Church. All of this systems of connection is claimed by process theology as well.

Above all, Wesley was biblical to the core. I know of no more biblical preaching than his. But precisely because it is authentically biblical, he is not Biblicist. He does not teach sola scriptura. He appreciates tradition but he does not require acceptance of what are often regarded as orthodox doctrines developed in that tradition. Process theologians could not ask for more. We believe that process philosophy opens us to understanding scripture much more in its own terms than has been true in the past. For a long time the shaping of thought by Greek philosophies led to filtering biblical thought in a way that distorted it. Even the Reformers who tried to free themselves from these distortions were not really successful in doing so because they did not think through to an alternative set of glasses. Even the translations into European languages suffered as a result. Wesley to a greater extent than most really allowed the biblical vision to express itself through his preaching. We celebrate this.

The most serious distortion of the Bible as a whole and the gospel in particular came about through the “translation” of “Shaddai” by “almighty.” In the Bible God’s power is certainly emphasized. Often, but certainly not always, this is depicted as controlling power. Jesus pictured it quite differently. Nowhere does the Bible present God as omnipotent. But in the early church it was often supposed that glorifying God appropriately led to attributing all power to deity. This played the positive role of making the subordination of imperial power to divine power evident, but it has had truly terrible consequences. One of these is the idea of predestination. The Roman Catholic church wisely, but not very coherently, resisted this. Calvin unwisely, and not very coherently, reasserted it, wrongly assuming that it was biblical. Arminius sought to develop a coherent Calvinism that justified the responsibility that Calvin had located with individuals, but he lost his battle, and the victors affirmed a Calvinism with which Calvin himself would have been uncomfortable. Wesley identified himself with Arminius.

Neither Arminius nor Wesley explicitly worked out the implications of this view for the nature of divine power. But Wesley at least avoided the language of omnipotence, recognizing its close association with the idea of predestination that he so strongly opposed. Process theologians rejoice that he did so, knowing the harm it causes. Today we can go further, first showing that it is unbiblical, and then showing that it is irrational, even nonsensical. The Bible makes sense and is believable. What is called Christian orthodoxy does not and is not. Let’s be biblical and work with the philosophy that helps us be that.

The congeniality with Wesley goes farther still. Some forms of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, make one sharp division among people. They are either saved or they are not. Some think this is a matter decided by God. Those who share Wesley’s view that human decision is involved often focus on a decisive moment of conversion. Of course they affirm here, almost uniquely, the working of the Holy Spirit. Wesley, in contrast, sees the Holy Spirit working in everyone in relation to their own free and responsible decisions throughout the whole of life. It is at work before “conversion” (Wesley speaks of “justification “); it continues working in much the same way in sanctifying. The fact that one has experienced “justification” does not insure that one will not return to a pre-justified state. The theologian does not decide such matters by imposed doctrine but by observing what actually happens. This is all pure process theology.

Today, process theologians would build on Wesley’s empiricism. The study of what actually happens in the lives of people can and should be extended even beyond the bounds of the Christian community. I believe that Wesley himself would favor this. He responded to outsiders with remarkable openness and appreciation. The world of outsiders has grown. Process theologians feel no separation from Wesley in enlarging our study and reflection to include the spiritual history of humankind.

The specific question has to do with Wesleyan-Holiness theology. This reflects a split among Wesley’s followers. No one questions that for Wesley, at every stage of spiritual growth, the aim is to become more fully loving of God and neighbor. Perfection in love is the overarching goal. Still, there has been a tragic split among his followers.

There are passages in Wesley that suggest that perfection in love or “entire sanctification” is an achievable goal and even associate its achievement with a particular moment in a person’s life. One could judge that once that goal was reached, there was nothing more to be aimed for. This second blessing, entire sanctification, can be understood to differ from the first, therefore, in not being part of an ongoing process but being its completion.

If that was really Wesley’s view, then this is a point at which process theology parts company. We do believe it to be impossible that there are occasions in our lives when God’s aim for us, the aim of perfect love, is actually attained. That attainment may be repeated in subsequent moments. But this is not the end of growth. In each moment, what is available to be loved changes. This provides an endless opportunity for extension. One may confront more and more challenging enemies, which are harder and harder to love. There is no guarantee that love will extend to them as well. We do not want to deny the possibility that in every successive moment perfect love will again prevail. But any belief that one has arrived at final achievement will make continuing success less likely. It is my opinion that this process formulation is more Wesleyan than the seemingly static one that too often is presented as Wesleyan. But of course I do not want to pretend to know what Wesley would say. If Wesley held to the static view, then process theology disagrees with him.

The mainstream of Wesleyan thought split with those who emphasized holiness in a way that sounded like the completion of the journey. Sadly, this has led to an overall decline of emphasis on growth toward perfect love among many Wesleyans today. I indicated that I think the idea of static fulfillment is not truly Wesleyan. I can say much more emphatically that a decline of seriousness about reshaping our lives so as to become more truly loving of both God and fellow humans is a betrayal of the Wesleyan heritage. It is my hope that process theology can help to renew seriousness about the quest for ever more wholehearted and ever more expanding love.