Wesley and the experiential Spirit

The other end of the spectrum within Western pneumatology to the institutional tendency is what T. David Beck calls the ‘experiential tendency’.

If Barth is an example of the former, John Wesley is an example of the latter. His conflict with the Anglican Church of the day revolved to a large degree around his view of the Spirit in the Christian life. Wesley was charged with being an ‘enthusiast’ (a bad thing to be obviously).

Wesley’s influence has been every bit as significant as Barth’s. His holiness theology was one of the inspirations for the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement, now the largest and most dynamic sector of global Christianity.

If justification is what God does for the believer in and through his Son, sanctification is what God works in the believer by his Spirit.

If the Christian life is a battle between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’, the Spirit can win the struggle. The believer can therefore reach a state of ‘perfection’ – which in Wesley’s terms means loving God with all of our hearts, mind, soul and strength. In this state of perfection, or entire sanctification, there is no room left to commit wilful sin.

Wesley emphasised unique functions of the Spirit. One was assurance through the inner witness of the Spirit. Another was an experience of the depth of God’s love for the individual believer. He talked about a ‘sweet calm’ satisfaction of knowing God’s grace.

The indirect sign of the Spirit’s transforming presence is the fruit of the Spirit – affections like joy and peace and love.

The big point here is the experiential role of the Spirit in transformation – whether assurance of being a child of God; overcoming deliberate sin; or seeing his fruit as a visible witness of his presence.

Wesley never stopped insisting on the perceptibility of the work of the Spirit in the day to day of the Christian life. It is this experience of the Spirit that is the key to preventing Christianity from sliding into formalism and institutionalism.

In other words, this is a theology of encounter with the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is distinct from, and complementary to, that of the Father and Son.

There are great strengths in this form of pneumatology:

– a stress of personal experience of God in and through the Spirit

– a Trinitarian framework, but one in which the Spirit has distinct agency and ministry

– a passion for holiness and personal transformation

A quick read of the previous post gives a sharp reminder of how different Wesley is from Barth.

Beck points to weaknesses in Wesley’s pneumatology:

– The Spirit’s work is too closely focused on the individual believer with the subsequent danger of individualism

– The Spirit’s ministry is therefore tied too tightly to the present time – with little reference to the OT and to eschatological hope.

– And if Barth is overly Christocentric, Wesley could be charged with being overly ‘pneumacentric’ (to make a word up). And it’s no surprise to see this tendency emerge in some forms of Pentecostalism, where there is a search for spiritual experiences of the power of God as a key to revival.

Beck’s overall argument is that neither ‘bipolarity’ of Barth or Wesley is adequate to do justice to the NT witness of the Spirit. I’ll try to summarise his path between them in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.











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