On November 15, 2017 I heard two interesting papers: “John Wesley and His Reformational Worldview (by Daryl McCarthy) and “Compassionate Service in Spiritual Formation”(by Matt Friedeman). These papers were given in the Wesleyan Study Group during the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society. (The above picture is a panel discussion that was held as part of the same study group.) What particularly got my attention was the unplanned agreement between the two papers.
“Compassionate Service in Spiritual Formation” highlighted John Wesley’s urgent concern for acts of mercy and justice. According to Wesley, all believers must be personally involved on a regular basis in such things a feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, and visiting those in prison, if they are to grow in grace. The presenter affirmed that the Wesleyan tradition had a “bias for action.”
McCarthy’s paper confirmed this understanding of Wesley. He argued that Wesley had a Reformational or Christian World and Life view on the basis of what Wesley did, not on the basis of what Wesley said or wrote. In addition to evangelism and discipleship, Wesley was involved in all sorts of social ministries (bettering the poor, visiting prisoners, improving the conditions of working people) and interested in virtually all branches of learning (medicine, agriculture, economics, etc.) and their practical application. His actions showed that he believed Christ was the Lord of all of life.
These two papers bear witness to the strength of the Wesleyan Movement—a commitment to action. But, as is so often true, this strength is also a weakness, for, as McCarthy’s paper indirectly testifies and Friedeman’s confirms, this emphasis on action has been accompanied by a corresponding lack of concern for theological thinking. The Wesleyan Movement has produced no worldview proponent comparable to Abraham Kuyper. Almost no contemporary, broadly influential theological writings reflect a Wesleyan viewpoint. Right thinking about God, however, is crucial to right action, as well as to proper spiritual formation and effective presentation of the faith to unbelievers.
Furthermore, this emphasis on action can easily subvert the God-centered orientation essential to the Christian life because it focuses on what we do. Too often the result of this self-focused orientation has been sterile legalism accompanied by unbiblical authoritarianism and the un-Christianizing of people who don’t follow our man-made rules (i.e. “do what we tell them to do”). Paul tells us that all of our “action” is meaningless without love. Furthermore, “Labor that does not spring out of worship is futile and can only be wood, hay, and stubble in the day that shall try every man’s work” (A. W. Tozer)
Intimate knowledge of God and true God-oriented worship are dependent, not on speculation, but on humble, right thinking about God based on divine revelation. A missionary friend of mine told me about an experience he had when he was a student at Fuller Seminary. Geoffrey Bromley was his advisor. One day in conversation with Bromley my friend said that he wasn’t interested in theology. Bromley’s shocked response went something like this: “Not interested in theology? Theology is the study of God. You’re not interested in God?” Proper theological thinking is crucial because God is God and is worthy of the best grace-aided thinking that we can offer Him. He is to be intelligently worshipped. Careful meditation on God’s self-revelation is a necessary safeguard against idolatry. We are to love God not only with all our “strength” but with all our “mind.”
Let’s change the self-oriented word “action” to the God-oriented word “obedience.” We are talking about the study of God (theology, “theo” = God, “ology”= “study) and obeying God. The object of both is to worship God truly and come to know Him intimately.
We worship God and come to know Him both by doing our best to understand Him through studying His self-revelation and by obeying Him. The two work together. We study about God. Then we put the insight we have gained into practice through obedience. This obedience brings us closer to the Word of God and thus facilitates our understanding. Understanding leads to obedience. Obedience facilitates understanding. Modern Biblical interpreters call this intersection of understanding and obedience “the hermeneutical spiral.” Jesus articulated it when he said, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know whether my teaching is from God” (John 7:17, Phillips).
Neglecting theology while focusing on action, then, runs the risk of dishonoring God, misdirecting our intended obedience, and focusing on ourselves and what we do rather than on God. It can easily degenerate into legalistic bondage. All of our thinking and our obedience is subservient to our knowing and loving him—which is the purpose of our lives! It is only within this interaction between thinking about God and obeying God in the context of Worship that theology and obedience function effectively in spiritual formation as God intended.