A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
Foreword to Reasoner’s Fundamental Wesleyan Systematic Theology, Volume 3
Fundamental Wesleyan Publishers, 2021
Victor Paul Reasoner of the Fundamental Wesleyan Society has published a three-volume systematic theology from the conservative Wesleyan perspective. Vic asked me to write a foreword for one of the volumes, and I was glad to do so. The forewords for volumes 1 and 2 were written by William Ury and Chris Bounds, and mine is in volume 3 (though it addresses the whole set). These volumes are 500-page hardcovers, available from the Society. Here is the complete text of my Foreword.
About a decade ago, in preparation for writing a book about the theology of John Wesley, I began reading back through his sermons. Wesley’s sermon “Salvation by Faith” begins with a paragraph about grace that ranks among the greatest expositions of the theme ever written by a Christian thinker. It begins “All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty or favour…” and goes on to race through the theme of God’s unmerited generosity and mercy toward his creatures. Here Wesley is at his best: expansively surveying the entire vista of biblical revelation; subtly weaving together Old and New Testament phraseology with evocative power; shaping his argument in a way that is silently guided by major thinkers from the history of the church; and earnestly aiming his words at the definite mark of transforming his audience.
Still basking in the power of Wesley’s exposition of God’s “free, undeserved favour” (“man having no claim to the least of His mercies”), I glanced down at the footnote. I was reading an early twentieth century edition Wesley’s sermons, edited and annotated by Edward Sugden, and his historical introductions to the sermons were full of helpful background information. But Sugden’s footnote to the first paragraph of the first sermon, rather than providing contextual information, sought to correct and improve its theology:
The conception of God as absolute Sovereign, which underlies this paragraph, fails to recognize the true relationship between God and man which our Lord reveals to us, when He teaches us to call God ‘Our Father.’ Even creation implies a certain claim by the creature on the Creator; still more does Fatherhood involve a claim on the part of the children. Having brought us into being under conditions for which we were not responsible, God (we say reverently) is bound as our Father to provide for those needs which are thereby occasioned; and above all, for our salvation from sin. [Sugden, Wesley’s Standard Sermons 1:37.]
I was astonished. What astonished me was not that there are theologians who try to develop the biblical doctrine of God’s fatherhood in a way that suppresses and denies the equally biblical doctrine of God’s lordship. This is a standard move for certain forms of liberal Protestantism, and it’s easy to recognize Sugden as that sort of theologian. What astonished me was that this sort of disagreement had lodged itself in the footnotes of Wesley’s own sermons; that Sugden would seek to correct Wesley’s fundamental doctrine of God right here at the opening of Sermon 1; that an editor standing in Wesley’s tradition would substitute liberal Methodism for Wesley’s own doctrine in a book that made Wesley’s sermons available to a contemporary audience.
The contrast is stark. Wesley asserts the fundamental theological insight at the very heart of his world-changing message, that God moves toward us in sheer, undeserved mercy because we have no claim upon him by which we could demand our rights as owed to us. Sugden contradicts him: “God (we say reverently) is bound.” This is not a minor detail of theology; this is the basic character of the relation between God and creatures, in its metaphysical as well as its moral dimensions. Wesley passionately affirmed a deeply traditional view; the modern interpreter takes an opposite view. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Anybody who knows the history of the movement’s literature knows that Wesley has had a large number, and a wide variety, of friends like this. There are many ways to claim the name “Wesleyan” while being directly opposed to the fundamental things Wesley and the first Methodists stood for.
But there are also many ways of being loyal to the theological legacy of John Wesley, and Vic Reasoner’s Fundamental Wesleyan Systematic Theology is one of them. These volumes represent a markedly conservative style of doing theology in the Wesleyan way, focused on practical spirituality and written primarily for an audience more churchly than academic. This kind of Wesleyan theology used to be very easy to find in the devotional and theological literature of the movement, but it has grown rarer and scarcer in recent decades. Like many Wesleyan theologians, I get questions every week from earnest, conservative evangelical believers who have heard a distant rumor that there is such a thing as a non-Calvinist way of being a serious, Bible-believing Christian. What they are usually looking for is fairly focused: they want to hear a clear account of the doctrine of salvation that takes the inerrant Scriptures to be God’s word, but doesn’t fall into the problems created by the Calvinistic system. They want something like Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology or Grudem’s Systematic Theology, but Wesleyan in soteriology.
Reasoner’s Fundamental Wesleyan Theology will meet those readers at the level of their expectations. They will find here a definite Wesleyan soteriology, but they will find something more: a complete systematic theology that ranges across the whole field of Christian doctrine. Its Wesleyan perspective is more clearly asserted in some places than in others, because Reasoner has the good judgment not to brandish his Wesleyan commitments constantly. In many doctrinal areas, the volume is an exhibit of what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity;” in others it is simply Protestant in distinction from Roman Catholic; and in the places where the difference makes a difference, it is decidedly Wesleyan.
Reasoner is perfectly willing to fight when necessary, and the volumes have their fair share of anti-Calvinist rhetoric. While Calvinistic readers can’t be expected to be pleased by these passages, they do have the merit of drawing some clear lines and establishing some clear definitions. In my opinion, the most anti-Calvinist parts of the project usually give off more light than heat; they are not controversy for its own sake but for the sake of clarity. Nor is polemics the primary goal of this project; the goal is the clear exposition of the doctrines of the Christian faith as seen from the Wesleyan perspective. The following passage is a good exhibit of the ratio of positive content to polemical thrust:
Methodism affirms the restoration of the Spirit to be an actual fruit of redemption, mitigating the consequences of original sin. Nor will it tolerate the Calvinistic distinction between common grace and special grace, holding that all grace was intended to lead unto salvation. However, we avoid the implications of universalism, holding that preliminary grace is not the regenerate life. [Reasoner, Fundamental Wesleyan Theology, 1:63.]
Note that Reasoner leads with the powerful doctrine of salvation worked out by the Trinity: the redemption completed by the Son and administered by the Spirit. Then, to clarify the doctrine, sharpens it by contrast to Calvinist teaching on the one hand, and the opposite error of universalism on the other. This is the method he broadly follows throughout the work, especially in areas that require controversy with other Christians.
One of the greatest contributions of Reasoner’s volumes is the way he summons the great voices of Methodist theology, making them present for contemporary readers who may not have encountered them elsewhere. There is of course John Wesley, quoted frequently and aptly. But next to him stands William Burt Pope, the long-neglected genius of Methodist systematic theology. Reasoner has incorporated copious quotation from Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology, because there is a great resonance between Reasoner’s project and Pope’s own, of thinking systematically through the implications of the Methodist revivals at three-volume length. Reasoner has taken on board the more recent scholarly rehabilitation of Arminius himself as a theologian of divine grace; the works not only of Mueller, but also of McCall and Stanglin among others have demolished the caricatures of Arminius and restored his works as a resource for contemporary theology. The predominating influence of these three major sources (Wesley, Pope, and Arminius) often gives A Fundamental Wesleyan Theology the atmosphere of a more confessional theology (like Bavinck or Hodge) rather than a classroom textbook (like Erickson or Grudem). For the same reason, the doctrine of God here tends to be fairly classical: God is eternal and immutable in a strong sense, entering into intimate, covenantal connection with his fallen creatures without compromising his perfectly realized life in its trinitarian fullness. Arminius, Wesley, and Pope are solid anchors against the undercurrents of more recent, less classical theisms. Finally, Reasoner is also in command of an entire library of eighteenth and nineteenth century Methodist, Wesleyan, and Holiness authors. Anyone with an ear for these voices will come away from these volumes with a tidy reading list of fascinating, largely forgotten figures to look up, and look into. A Fundamental Wesleyan Theology also carries out its theological project in dialogue with a large number of standard sources often used in recent systematic theologies, but it is the inclusion of the older Wesleyan and Arminian resources that set the work apart.
Reasoner’s Fundamental Wesleyan Systematic Theology has a particularly conservative profile, shaped mostly by the desire to present Bible doctrine in systematic form. Its view of revelation centers on a doctrine of Scripture as inerrant and verbally inspired, a holy book that supports the practice of inductive Bible study across the canon. Its doctrine of God, as just mentioned, aligns with the high doctrine of the ancient, medieval, and Reformation church. Its view of creation is ex nihilo in six days. Its Trinitarianism presents the great, common tradition of the Christian doctrine with a distinctly Wesleyan emphasis, since its Christology emphasizes the eternal sonship of Christ and its pneumatology spans all of salvation history. The Wesleyan distinctives show up even more characteristically in the argument that atonement is universal rather than limited, and in an especially well-developed section on assurance of salvation that emphasizes the witness of the Spirit. There are some unusual dialogue partners and engagements along the way: dispensational is a regular foil, not only in eschatology but in the interpretation of Scripture; Phoebe Palmer’s transformation of holiness teaching is critiqued incisively; and questions about legalism and worldliness are treated in dialogue with a church sub-tradition that objected to the use of wedding rings.
The Wesleyan movement overall has a tendency to focus on experience. The emphasis is always on the vitality and immediacy of being rescued and transformed by the encounter with God in Christ. It would be hard to be a Wesleyan without singing; it is fairly common to be a Wesleyan without doing extensive work in systematic theology. Theologians, especially of a systematic temperament, can serve that dynamic movement in a very powerful way by teaching the grand, objective truths of the Christian faith. These truths (Trinity, incarnation, atonement) are so vast and comprehensive that they are more likely to loom gigantically in the background of our Christian experience than to blaze at the center. But they are no less fundamental. Without the grand, objective realities, there would be no intense, subjective experience. When a theologian gives shape and voice to the full range of systematic theology, what is added to the church is a special stability, a connecting-up of things that seemed jumbled together and unrelated. This is the ministry of theology in service to the church, and to see it flourishing is to recognize one sign of spiritual health.
Professor of Theology
Torrey Honors College at Biola University