Why I am United Methodist Part IV

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Conjunction-junction … whats your Function? (continued)

Head and Heart
It is often said the farthest distance on any human body is the distance between one’s head and one’s heart. Wesleyan theology emphasizes a Christian spirituality that holds the two together. Ours is not an anti-intellectual faith that requires one to “check your mind at the door,” nor a faith that is located solely in the emotive realm of human existence. Wesleyan spirituality is pentecostal in the very best since of the word and it is equally committed to learning, reflection, the pursuit of wisdom, and rigorous use of the intellect. Put simply, God gave us a mind and expects us to use it; God gave us the ability to feel and experience life, and such gifts should not be denied either.

Take Albert Outler’s description of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Taken together, Methodists often refer to it as a way to think theologically and guide spiritual discernment.

Scripture remains the primary source and criteria for making theological judgments. Tradition, distinguished from traditionalism, is the rich history of the church and of Israel contained in the Old and New Testaments and the past 2000 years of church history. We look to tradition precisely because we are here because of it, and every generation needs to both honor and learn from how God’s Spirit has worked in the lives of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith. Reason, exercised by a critical mind, is necessary to both comprehend Scripture, Tradition, and Experience and use the higher faculties of the intellect; it is part of what distinguishes the human species from every other creature. Experience, contrary to what some might think, is not a catch all for whatever a person may feel, but a way to ask questions of our experiences like: “does it bear the fruit of the Spirit? does it demonstrate evidence of the gifts and graces of God?”

As Albert Outler states:

But Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus, he [Wesley] insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary propositions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven, that clinched the matter.

Thus, we can see in Wesley a distinctive theological method, with Scripture as its pre-eminent norm but interfaced with tradition, reason and Christian experience as dynamic and interactive aids in the interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.

…This complex method, with its fourfold reference, is a good deal more sophisticated than it appears, and could be more fruitful for contemporary theologizing than has yet been realized. It preserves the primacy of Scripture, it profits from the wisdom of tradition, it accepts the disciplines of critical reason, and its stress on the Christian experience of grace gives it existential force. – Albert Outler

Though Wesley never actually articulated the quadrilateral in quite this way, he did practice his ministry in a way that utilized the importance of all four in both interpreting Scripture and reflecting on the practice of ministry in various contexts. John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, where his heart was “strangely warmed,” is well known. What is equally important was his commitment to study, reason, and learning. For Wesley, and for all United Methodists, head and heart are both important to Christian discipleship.

Personal and Social Holiness
We worship a God who desires intimacy with us. As the Psalmist reminds us, this God is a personal God who knows us better than we know ourselves::

13For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth. – Psalm 139:13-15

Christian faith is personal, but never private. God cares about what we do with our time, our money, our gifts, and our bodies. Far from being a distant and abstract deity, this God calls us by name and reorders our living and our loving. From its very beginnings in the revival in England, Methodism has emphasized this truth.

At the same time, Wesley was deeply convinced that personal holiness of heart and life was ultimately social as well:

“Christianity is essentially a social religion, and to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.” – “The gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” – John Wesley

Take the word “methodist” as an example. It was a derogatory term used by detractors to put down Wesley and his fellow Oxford students who gathered regularly for prayer, study and mutual accountability. The group, also known as “the holy club,” was the object of derision from others on campus. The name “methodist” stuck. Wesley and his colleagues were methodical in practicing their personal piety (fasting, prayer, searching scriptures) and doing so in a corporate, social context that meant “watching over one another in love” and holding each other accountable for how they lived out their daily discipleship.

The famous Wesley quote above has often been misunderstood because of the world “social.” Though Wesley was committed to issues of social justice, compassion, and advocacy, this is not what was meant in this context. Wesley was referring to the necessity of Christian fellowship and friendship for growing in holiness. It has often been said that the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century invented the idea of small group ministry That may be overly reductionist, but there is some truth in the sentiment, especially when one closely examines the gatherings of societies, bands, and classes that were the result of early Methodist preaching and teaching.

For Methodists, salvation and sanctification can never be reduced to a private, “me and Jesus only” enterprise. Christians are not to neglect meeting together on a regular basis, as is the habit of some (Hebrews 10:25), but are called to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) and to do so within the Body of Christ called church.

Can one feel close to God hiking alone in the mountains or floating along in a kayak one brisk Sunday morning? Sure. I have had a few of those experiences myself (though I chose a different day of the week!). Are such individual experiences sufficient for one who desires to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? Wesley’s answer was clear – absolutely not.


  1. >Didn’t know where else to put this, but I’ll address your inquires on my site if you’re still interested. Btw., I have a good friend at Duke in the Cognitive Psych dept.

  2. this may have been written two years ago, but I do believe I heard this preached this morning…

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