Monday, December 9, 2013

John Wesley on Enthusiasm, Reason, and Love

In 1766, John Wesley published his famous Plain Account of Christian Perfection, into which he incorporated a 1761 work of his called Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection, which took a Q&A format.  After granting the possibility that a believer could attain "Christian perfection" (i.e., entire sanctification, which Wesley approached in terms of being perfected in holy love with all one's faculties and in the core of one's being) and then lose it, the last several questions are Wesley asking himself his advice on how to guard against the misuse of this spiritual gift or how to pursue it more deeply.  Here I quote the extensive answer to Q33, his second piece of advice, as taken from The Works of John Wesley, 15 vols. (London: Thomas Cordeux, 1812), 11:230-233.
Beware of that daughter of pride, enthusiasm!  O keep at the utmost distance from it: give no place to an heated imagination.  Do not hastily ascribe things to God.  Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God.  They may be from him.  They may be from nature.  They may be from the devil.  Therefore "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God."  Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it.  You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture: yea, or from the plain literal meaning of the text, taken in connexion with the context.  And so you are, if you despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning: every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.
I advise you never to use the words wisdom, reason, or knowledge, by way of reproach.  On the contrary, pray that you yourself may abound in them more and more.  If you mean worldly wisdom, useless knowledge, false reasoning, say so; and throw away the chaff, but not the wheat.
One general end of enthusiasm is, expecting the end without the means; the expecting knowledge, for instance, without searching the Scriptures, and consulting the children of God: the expecting spiritual strength without constant prayer, and steady watchfulness: the expecting any blessing without hearing the word of God at every opportunity.
Some have been ignorant of this device of Satan.  They have left off searching the Scriptures.  They said, "God writes all the Scripture on my heart: therefore, I have no need to read it."  Others thought, they had not so much need of hearing, and so grew slack in attending the morning preaching.  O take warning, you who are concerned herein.  You have listened to the voice of a stranger.  Fly back to Christ, and keep in the good old way, which was once delivered to the saints: the way that even a heathen bore testimony of, "That the Christians rose early every day to sing hymns to Christ as God."
The very desire of growing in grace, may sometimes be an inlet of enthusiasm.  As it continually leads us to seek new grace, it may lead us unawares to seek something else new besides new degrees of love to God and man.  So it has led some to seek and fancy they had received gifts of a new kind, after a new heart, as, 1. The loving God with all our mind.  2. With all our soul.  3. With all our strength.  4. Oneness with God.  5. Oneness with Christ.  6. Having our life hid with Christ in God.  7. Being dead with Christ.  8. Rising with him.  9. The sitting with him in heavenly places.  10. The being taken up into his throne.  11. The being in the New Jerusalem.  12. The seeing the tabernacle of God come down among men.  13. The being dead to all works.  14. The not being liable to death, pain, or grief, or temptation.
One ground of many of these mistakes is, the taking every fresh strong application of any of these scriptures to the heart, to be a gift of a new kind: not knowing that several of these scriptures are not fulfilled yet; that most of the others are fulfilled when we are justified; the rest, the moment we are sanctified.  It remains only, to experience them in higher degrees.  This is all we have to expect.
Another ground of these, and a thousand mistakes, is, the not considering deeply that Love is the highest gift of God, humble, gentle, patient Love: that all visions, revelations, manifestations whatever, are little things compared with love: and that all the gifts above mentioned are either the same with, or infinitely inferior to it.
It were well you should be thoroughly sensible 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 else 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 any thing but more love, you mean wrong; you are leading them out of the way, and putting them upon 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 described in the thirteenth of the Corinthians.  You can go no higher than this, till you are carried into Abraham's bosom.
I say yet again, beware of enthusiasm.  Such is the imagining you have the gift of prophesying, or of discerning of spirits, which I do not believe one of you has; no, nor ever had yet.  Beware of judging people right or wrong, by your own feelings.  This is no scriptural way of judging.  O keep close to the law and the testimony!
 Some questions for discussion:
  1. Two and a half years ago, I posted some reflections on religious 'fanaticism' from nineteenth-century pastor Ethan Smith.  Smith charged that 'fanaticism' was "a religion, which saves man the labor of diligently searching and comparing the word of God, and of studying his own heart", and that 'fanatics' pretend to "reach at once the top of the mount", in terms of "a high and peculiar intimacy with God".  In this way, Smith charged, they "become a prey to enthusiasm and error".  How does John Wesley's portrayal of enthusiasm compare to Ethan Smith's later portrayal of fanaticism?  What distinctive elements do each of them contribute?  
  2. The early Latter Day Saint movement was often classified as "fanaticism", "enthusiasm", and "delusion" by outsiders (just as many other movements were when they were new, including Methodism itself - hence John Wesley's sensitivity toward not giving any unnecessary credence to those charges).  In light of Wesley's description of 'enthusiasm', what aspects of early Latter-day Saint religious life lent themselves most readily to that charge?  What elements of Wesley's description are least applicable?
  3. John Wesley cautions against uncritical reliance on apparent personal revelations (or visions, dreams, etc.), because there can be several possible sources: "They may be from him [God].  They may be from nature.  They may be from the devil."  Decades later, in the 1830s, Joseph Smith famously quipped: "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil" (as quoted in David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ [Richmond, MO: David Whitmer, 1887], 31).  How do these statements compare?  What is the likelihood that Joseph Smith was influenced by John Wesley here?  What are the implications of either statement, or of both statements?
  4. John Wesley went on to say that, given the inherently ambiguous nature of personal revelations/impressions, we must "try all things by the written word", that is, by the scriptures that form a standard by which such things are to be judged.  Wesley also exalts scripture ("the law and the testimony") over against the prospect of evaluating things by the standard of one's "feelings".  Why does Wesley consistently turn our attention to the scriptures as a standard?  How has this exhortation been implemented in the Wesleyan tradition?  Are there any corresponding impulses in the Latter-day Saint tradition?
  5. John Wesley warns that 'enthusiasm' remains a danger "if you depart ever so little from Scripture: yea, or from the plain literal meaning of the text, taken in connexion with the context".  Given Wesley's mid-eighteenth-century context, what sort(s) of hermeneutic might 'plain' and 'literal' suggest to him and his audience, and what sort(s) of hermeneutic might they be primarily intended to rule out?  What sorts of additional informative factors might Wesley include as part of a text's context?  (Nearby literary passages; other parts of the same literary corpus; outside knowledge of historical and cultural circumstances?)  Why would Wesley regard any deviation from this (range of) meaning as a flirtation with "enthusiasm"?
  6. John Wesley warns that 'enthusiasm' is equally a danger for one who "despise[s] or lightly esteem[s] reason, knowledge, or human learning: every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes".  He expands further on this point, urging his readers to never demean these gifts but instead to pray for more knowledge, more wisdom, and more reason.  Why does John Wesley consider these to be such "excellent gifts of God"?  Why would demeaning them risk the peril of "enthusiasm"?  How has the Wesleyan tradition regarded reason, knowledge, and "human learning" (i.e., scholarly pursuits)?  How has the Latter-day Saint tradition regarded these gifts?  How does taking Wesley seriously here impact how we read the Greatest Commandment to "love the Lord thy God ... with all thy mind"?
  7. One dimension of John Wesley's assessment of enthusiasm is that it imagines heaps of blessings that will qualitatively distinguish the enthusiast from other professing believers; whereas, Wesley retorts, the foundational blessings are so central as to be all-consuming, and the only relevant distinctions among believers are a matter of quantity.  What are the implications of these two differing views of the Christian life? 
  8. John Wesley is at his most impassioned, perhaps, when he urges that love is the infinitely superior virtue, the "heaven of heavens", the "royal way", that than which there is "nothing higher", the "highest gift of God".  Is this a Beatles-esque sentiment ("All You Need is Love")?  Does it seem likely that Wesley means that it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you love everyone?  How does Wesley understand the 'love' that he lauds as highly as he does? 

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