Introduction

Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) is an institution of the Church of the Nazarene and therefore a Christian university in the Wesleyan tradition. The purpose of this document is to clarify what we at PLNU mean by “the Wesleyan tradition.” In addressing this, we will draw upon the writings of John and Charles Wesley, the practices of the early Methodists, and the subsequent development of Wesleyan theology. We also are writing with concern for what it means to be a Christian institution in the Wesleyan tradition for the educational context of PLNU.

Section I: The Wesleyan Tradition

Wesleyan thought and practice have their origins in the Evangelical Revival in 18th century England, one of the most significant revivals in Christian history.[1] It has continued to have a major impact on the world today through numerous movements and denominations, including those in the Methodist family (e.g., United Methodist Church, African Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal, Zion), the American Holiness movement (e.g., Church of the Nazarene, Wesleyan Church, Salvation Army, Free Methodist Church, and Church of God—Anderson), most Pentecostal denominations (e.g., Church of God in Christ, Foursquare Gospel Church, Church of God—Cleveland, and the Assemblies of God), and many independent evangelical churches.

John and Charles Wesley were leaders in the Evangelical Revival and founders of the Methodist movement and the Wesleyan tradition.[2] The Wesleys were ministers in the Church of England (or, the Anglican Church) who sought to revive the Church of their day and renew it in the spirit and power of the early Church. John (1703-1791) is especially known for his leadership, organizational ability, and extensive writing. Charles (1707-1788) is regarded for his poetry and hymns, which powerfully express the spirit and theology of the Wesleyan tradition. Many of the Wesley hymns remain popular today.[3]

Early Methodism was characterized by a sense of the presence and power of God. Tens of thousands of people responded to the ministry of the Wesleys as they called people to repentance and holiness of heart and life through their preaching, music, and writings. The Wesleys created small groups in which seekers and converts held each other accountable for the pursuit of holiness—that is, complete devotion to God and love for neighbor. In this sense, to be Wesleyan is to be committed to Christ and Christian discipleship in Christian community.

The Wesleys’ ultimate goal was the transformation of believers through an emphasis on spiritual disciplines and practices that cultivate hearts and lives of holiness.[4] This emphasis is reflected in their approach to theology, often referred to as practical divinity, and is expressed in the form, context, and content of the Wesleys’ writings. Rather than creedal confessions or systematic theological statements, the Wesleys communicated their theology through sermons, hymns, spiritual journals, occasional tracts, and the minutes of conferences (at which the doctrinal and practical disputes of early Methodism were addressed). The language and content of these writings were saturated with scripture. They reflect both the social context and pastoral concern of the development of the Wesleys’ thought as leaders of a revival movement. Indeed, most of the Wesleys’ writings are concerned with practical matters of Christian faith and doctrine in relation to the spread of the Evangelical Revival and support of the Methodist societies.

Another important aspect of the Wesleys’ theology was their proclivity for holding together in dynamic tension a wide variety of seemingly divergent theological sources and traditions. Many scholars refer to this as a via media (“middle way”). In large part this was a reflection of their training in the Anglican tradition. From its founding in the 16th century, the Church of England has attempted to maintain a broad alliance between Catholic- and Protestant-leaning groups in England, and to hold together in one fellowship a broad variety of sometimes dissenting voices. For this reason Anglicans often claim that their church forges a kind of theological and religious via media, especially between Roman Catholicism and classical Protestantism, that seeks to avoid the excesses while embracing the strengths of each.

In the spirit of the via media, the Wesleys drew upon the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition in their teachings and ministry. They drank deeply from the well of early Church writers from both East and West,[5] were influenced by Continental European figures (both Catholic and Protestant), and were of course immersed in the thought of a wide variety of leading Anglican theologians and philosophers.

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[1] Leading historian Mark Noll has listed the Wesleys’ “conversion” and subsequent role in the Evangelical Revival as one of the ten most significant events in the history of Christianity. Cf. his Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Baker Academic, 2001).

[2] There was also a non-Wesleyan/Calvinist contingent within early Methodism, but it generally faded away (except in Wales) following the death of its chief proponents, George Whitefield and Lady Huntingdon.

[3] These include “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “And Can It Be,” “Arise My Soul, Arise,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

[4] Scholars refer to this as “orthokardia”—that is, a “right heart” or “love” for God. For Wesleyans, this is not to de-emphasize orthodoxy (“right worship/belief”) or orthopraxy (“right practice”) but as a complement to these. See especially Gregory S. Clapper, The Renewal of the Heart Is the Mission of the Church: Wesley's Heart Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Cascade Books, 2010).

[5] Church historians often rhetorically “split” the early Christian church into East and West to describe the distinct languages and cultures of the Roman Empire and the diverging theological concerns and styles that would eventually lead to the formal “split” between the Catholic Church (West) and Orthodox Church (East) in the 11th century. 

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