A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
John Wesley on Experiencing the Trinity
What John Wesley thought about the Trinity was wonderfully predictable. By that I mean that anyone familiar with the way Wesley’s mind worked can readily predict the character of his trinitarianism. Since his overall cast of thought was to be aligned with classic Christian doctrine, centered on the gospel, and intensely interested in spiritual experience and spiritual progress, his trinitarianism likewise exhibits these traits.
Aligned with Classic Christian Doctrine
The English Church of the eighteenth century had its share of ordained heterodoxy in the pulpit and confusion in the pews. Educated clergy flirted from time to time with vigorous forms of anti-trinitarianism. There were alternatives to orthodoxy, in other words, but Wesley routinely chose to stand with the great doctrinal consensus and affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. “Even at his most ‘catholic spirited,’” Geoffrey Wainwright has written, “he refused his hand to Arians, Socinians, and Deists, for their heart was not right with his heart.” Wesley may have preached only one sermon devoted to the doctrine, (Sermon 55, “On the Trinity”), but he scatters allusions to trinitarian theology throughout his preaching. And in the Trinity sermon, Wesley asserts that this doctrine “enters into the very heart of Christianity: It lies at the heart of all vital religion.” View more of John Wesley’s sermons.
Focused on the Gospel
Wesleyan trinitarianism is, above all, gospel trinitarianism. The essence of salvation, according to Wesley, is “the happy and holy communion which the faithful have with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (Sermon 77, “Spiritual Worship”). This is not generic communion with God, or generalized happiness of the “whatever makes you happy” type. The happiness that Wesley identified with salvation requires the good news of what the eternally triune God has done to bring us into fellowship with all three persons. “As soon as the Father of spirits reveals his Son in our hearts, and the Son reveals his Father, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts; then, and not till then, are we happy” (Sermon 114, “On the Unity of the Divine Being”).
When Wesley said that the doctrine of the Trinity “lies at the heart of all vital religion,” he was pointing to the trinitarian reality that underlies the faith. All Christians have an experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, simply by virtue of hearing the gospel and responding with faith. This engagement with the reality of the Trinity happens whether we are conscious of it or not, and Wesley’s preaching always reposed on that objective reality of God’s triune reality. The ordinary Christian experience is an engagement with the triune reality in the gospel, which may take place without any special consciousness of distinct fellowship with each of the three persons.
Interested in Spiritual Experience
On the other hand, Wesley characteristically emphasized the value of having a conscious and informed experience of the spiritual realities of the faith. And he believed that it was possible for Christians to have a clear and distinct experience of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Wesley’s imagination on this topic was captured by the words of Gaston De Renty (1611-1649), Roman Catholic mystic who wrote, “I have generally within me an experimental realization and a plenitude of the presence of the most Holy Trinity.”