Methodist Theology

Paul Chilcote

Methodist theology is elusive. When John Wesley attempted to describe The Character of a Methodist (1742), he began by telling the reader what a Methodist is not. The distinguishing marks of the Methodist, he observed, are not a peculiar set of opinions, notions, doctrines, actions, or customs. Methodists are those, he claims, who have the love of God shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto them: those who love the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind, and with all their strength. God is the joy of their heart and the desire of their soul. They walk as Christ walked. The Wesleys’ purpose was spiritual renewal – a rediscovery of faith working by love. A theology did undergird their efforts and beliefs, to be sure, and it quickly took on a normative character. Over time, formative expressions of Methodist theology further defined the spiritual heirs of the Wesleys in multiple historical and cultural contexts as the movement expanded, literally, around the globe. This article tells the story of Methodist theology and the various streams that emerged from its Wesleyan headwaters.

1 Wesleyan origins: normative Methodist theology

Methodism arose within the Church of England during the eighteenth century as a movement of spiritual renewal parallel to the Great Awakening in North America. John Wesley (1703–1791) and Charles Wesley (1707–1788), who gave leadership to this revival, were loyal Anglican priests and dedicated their lives to the rediscovery of ‘primitive’ or ‘scriptural Christianity’. The brothers sought to help people experience God’s transforming love, realize their true identity as God’s children, and spread ‘scriptural holiness’ throughout the world. They viewed their theology and practice as aligned with the Anglican heritage in which they stood. Their vision of a lived Christian theology can be encapsulated in the simple phrase ‘faith working by love leading to holiness of heart and holiness of life’ (see Gal 5:6). They sought to bring balance to the Christian life and restore vitality to the church they loved, undergirding the Methodist movement with a robust and normative theology of grace and love.

1.1 Background and influences

Throughout their lives, the Wesleys remained inextricably bound to the Methodist Connexion they founded. Their native Anglican theology and practice shaped the movement, and Methodism shaped their theology and practice. They organized a network of spiritually catalytic Societies, divided into smaller more intimate units known as band and class meetings. These structures for accountable discipleship liberated those who were awakened by the experience of God’s grace, engendered faith, and provided nurture for growth in grace and love. Methodism quickly established its identity as an ‘evangelistic order’ within the Church of England. The Wesleys stressed holiness from the outset, but their experience increasingly urged the importance of the fullest possible love of God and neighbour. Their attempt to live authentic lives in Christ, and the controversy that frequently swirled around them, sharpened their theology.

Albert Outler (1908–1989), a significant authority on Methodist theology, claimed that John Wesley mastered the art of plastic synthesis (see Outler 1975). Wherever Wesley found truth he embraced it. From among the many sources of the brothers’ shared theology, several streams of influence stand out: Anglicanism, Puritanism, Pietism, and the early church fathers. Their Anglican heritage inculcated in them a vision of the church as an apostolic community; a corporate understanding of a communion of faith connecting believers to God and one another through time and space. While rooted in the principles and practices of the Protestant Reformation, they understood this inheritance primarily through the lens of English religious history. They embraced the rediscovered concepts of faith and grace through the magisterial reformers but sought to synthesize these concepts with the emphasis on holy living found in the more ancient Orthodox and Catholic traditions. They inherited a deep appreciation for English Puritanism from their parents. This included a love of the primitive church and the spirituality of earliest Christianity, simplicity of life and worship, and holiness of life. The Wesley home combined English Puritan sentiments with the deeply rooted theological heritage of Anglicanism. The mature theology of the Wesleys combined an Anglican holiness of intent – the desire to please God in all things – with a Puritan interior assurance – the sense of abiding in God’s favour.

As a consequence of their connections with Continental Pietism (particularly German Moravians), the Wesleys stressed the importance of ‘heart religion’, counterbalancing the Deistic rationalism of the Enlightenment era. They embraced the concept of growth in grace made possible through the intimacy of small groups, adopting the Continental model of ecclesiolae in ecclesia (little churches within the church). The Pietist emphasis on the dynamic nature of faith – the faith ‘by which’ not simply ‘in which’ one believes – warmed their hearts. Patristic sources (like Pseudo-Macarius) provided an equally dynamic vision of the goal of the Christian life, reinforcing a therapeutic conception of redemption as the restoration of the imago Dei through participation in Christ (theosis; see Rackley 2020). In both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, the Wesleys discovered and emulated a rich eucharistic spirituality.

The Wesleys frequently turned to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1662 edition), and particularly The Book of Homilies (1662 edition) of the Church of England, to provide theological definition and instruction. The Wesleys emphasized adherence to the basic Christian affirmations and rejected attempts to define Methodism according to its distinctive doctrines, conceding only that they placed emphasis on particular themes. They sought primarily to reclaim a more ancient, holistic, or synergistic approach to the divine/human encounter. In general, their theological strategy was to reclaim elements of Anglican theology that – in their estimation – had been neglected, obscured, or forgotten. In this regard, one of their most enduring contributions was the restoration of the Lord’s Supper to a central theological position and within a robust conception of the means of grace. If any claim could be made for an axial theme in their theology, it must be the doctrine of salvation, envisaged as a dynamic, relational process.

The Wesleys’ theology was also forged on the anvil of controversy. Highlighting this dialectical aspect, some scholars categorize John’s theology in contrast to Moravian, Calvinist, Latitudinarian, or Catholic teaching (see Outler 1964). The Wesleys countered the ‘quietist’ attitudes of extreme Pietists with a dynamic view of God’s mediated presence and activity. They countered perceived ‘antinomianism’ among Calvinists with an understanding of life in Christ, rooted in grace but fulfilled in the law of love. Regarding Christian ethics, they disparaged all forms of passivity toward the demands of the gospel for actual righteousness. Through his several Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion (1743), John Wesley provided an apologia for his own theology and practice which sought to stem the tide of rationalism and unbelief in his beloved church. His Letter to a Roman Catholic (1968, first published 1749), in which he sought to identify theological resonance and dissonance between them, provides a summary of the doctrine or regula fidei common to all Christians.

1.2 Theological orientation, standards, and methods

1.2.1 ‘Practical theology’ as normative

Despite their classical Oxford training, the Wesleys showed little interest in conforming to traditional academic canons concerning the theological enterprise. While John Wesley had the training, tools, and temperament to excel as an academic theologian, his call was in a different direction. Perhaps owing to the influence of their mother, Susanna, the brothers retained a fixed distinction between practical and speculative theology. Their life experiences confirmed that the Christian community in the world was the proper matrix for theology. They devoted their sizeable energies to practical theology, John Wesley as a ‘folk’ and Charles Wesley as a ‘lyrical theologian’. What Maddox claims of John applies equally to Charles:

Wesley would not have understood the defining task of theologians to be developing an elaborate system of Christian truth-claims for the academy. This task was, instead, nurturing and shaping the worldview that frames the temperament and practice of believers’ lives in the world. (Maddox 1999: 23)

Both John and Charles Wesley were serious theologians, with well-established theological activities, standards, methods, and emphases rooted in their Anglican tradition while reflecting an earlier Christian model of ‘practical divinity’.

1.2.2 Theological engagement and doctrinal standards

The Wesleys produced sermons; catechetical, liturgical, and devotional resources; guides for scripture study; theological essays; journals; and letters. John Wesley published more than 450 separate works, ranging from brief pamphlets to extensive theological treatises. The definitive edition of The Works of John Wesley (1984), composed of thirty-five volumes and still under production, divides his writings into eleven basic categories. A gifted preacher, John Wesley published a large corpus of sermonic essays, principally his Sermons on Several Occasions in four volumes (1746; 1748; 1750; 1760), most of which touch upon critical theological topics. Although he preached approximately 40,000 sermons during his active ministry, only 151 exist in published form today. His Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1755) provides a critical engagement with the canonical texts. While his published sermons serve as the primary window into his theology and practice, this biblical commentary and a number of other apologetic theological writings provide balance and perspective. Four publications stand out: The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies (1747, first published 1739); The Character of a Methodist (1742); A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists (1749); and A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1821, first published 1766), arguably his magnum opus.

Charles Wesley composed more than 9,000 hymns, approximately 180,000 lines of poetry. He prepared hymn collections on major theological themes like Hymns on the Trinity (1767a); articulated his christological views in ‘festival hymns’ and four collections of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739; 1740; 1742; 1749a [vol.1]; 1749b [vol.2]); and explored themes related to atonement in Hymns for Those that Seek and Those that have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ (1747a). In 1762, he produced the most extensive poetical commentary in any language on the entirety of the Bible consisting of 2,349 sacred poems. His collection of 166 Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (1745) demonstrates the centrality of the Eucharist in Wesleyan spirituality. A gifted poet, Charles Wesley left behind an informal standard for theology in the 525 hymns of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists (1780).

Virtually all Methodist denominations define a small collection of theological documents as ‘doctrinal standards’. Two documents, in particular, retain an honoured status (see Book of Discipline 2016): John Wesley’s Notes, which explore the human condition apart, the saving work of God, and the Christian life of holiness; and John Wesley’s Standard Sermons, which contain what most Methodists consider to be his core beliefs.

In addition to these, American Methodists include several other landmark documents as components of the Wesleyan theological legacy. Wesley redacted Twenty-Five Articles of Religion from the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles for use the Methodist church in America in 1784. The United Methodist Church added the Evangelical United Brethren Confession of Faith to its doctrinal standards in 1968 and acknowledged two additional documents, Wesley’s General Rules and ‘Our Theological Task’ (see Book of Discipline 2016), as guides for theological reflection and action.

Methodists do not view these standards and landmark documents as a system of formal theology to be imposed on the church in dogmatic fashion. They do not understand themselves to be a ‘confessional’ tradition despite their adherence to the Apostles’ Creed. Rather, these documents function as standards of preaching and belief which should secure loyalty to the fundamental truths of the gospel of redemption and ensure the continued witness of the church to the realities of the Christian experience of salvation.

1.2.3 Conjunctive theological method

The Wesleys’ way of doing theology was as important as the theology that they undertook. They employed a ‘conjunctive’ or ‘synthetic’ theological method that held together aspects of theology often conceived as antithetical. Wesleyan soteriology illustrates well their ‘both/and’ approach with its synthesis of ‘faith and works’ or ‘justification and sanctification’. Finding truth in the competing assertions of ‘divine initiative’ and ‘human responsibility’ in salvation, they articulated a ‘third alternative’ to the polarities of ‘Augustinian pessimism’ and ‘Pelagian optimism’. But this synthetic approach pervades all aspects of their theology, articulated in the conjunctions of law and gospel; Word and sacrament; personal and social holiness; works of piety and works of mercy; physicality and spirituality; Christianity and culture. This conjunctive method aligned well with their intentional model of practical theology (for further reading, see Chilcote 2004; Collins 2017; Maddox 1995.)

1.2.4 The ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’

Albert Outler coined the term ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’, a concept related to the issue of authority in Methodist theological discourse. In an attempt to identify the theological accents of the Methodist tradition, Outler spoke of how Wesley modelled the dialogue of a fourfold matrix for theological reflection, describing scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as interrelated authoritative sources or norms for the guidance of Methodist theological reflection. In this model, ‘the living core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason’ (Book of Discipline 2016: 82). The Wesleys clearly and repeatedly affirmed that the Bible was the sole rule both of faith and practice. By tradition, the Wesleys meant paradosis: the essential content of the received faith tradition of the apostolic witness. By the use of reason, the community of faith orders its theology and practice on the basis of rational discernment and cogency of thought. Methodists conceive experience specifically as the understanding and appropriating of faith in light of the believer’s own life. The image of a windchime has been used to visualize this model. The three subsidiary norms like chimes are suspended from or rooted in the scripture base, but all the elements interact holistically in dynamic ways.

The Wesleys’ dynamic view of scripture as the primary source of authority is also reflected in particular hermeneutical principles through which they attempted to bring the Word to life. First, they promoted a concept of ‘double inspiration’. The Holy Spirit not only inspired the original authors and communities that gave shape to scripture but continues to inspire Christians and communities as they engage the Bible in their own time. The Wesleys connected the authority of ancient texts inextricably with the application of scripture in life. Second, the Wesleys adhered to the Protestant principle of analogia fidei. This ‘proportion of faith’ hermeneutic consisted of two interrelated practices. (1) Scripture must interpret scripture (scriptura qua scriptura). Scripture itself, in other words, adjudicates disputed aspects of the biblical witness. Likewise, any part of scripture must be understood in relation to the general tenor of scripture as a whole. (2) John Wesley, in particular, extended this principle to scripture vis-à-vis Jesus Christ – what he described as the analogia Christi. He viewed the revelation of God in Christ as a lens through which to read and interpret all scripture.

1.3 John Wesley: theologian of the ‘Way of Salvation’

The salient themes in John Wesley’s practical theology include the foundation of the grace and love of God; the way of salvation; accountable discipleship in a community of grace; compassionate mission in God’s world; and the quest for holiness. Wesley built his theology on the foundation of the grace and love of God. This keynote of grace informs his conception of both creation and redemption. Affirming the fundamental goodness of God’s creation, Wesley was drawn ineluctably to the scientific enquiry of his day. His interests ranged from the therapeutic benefits of electricity to the triumphs of Newtonian physics. He engaged actively with the ideas of contemporary natural philosophers (scientists). He encouraged his preachers to read widely in scientific literature and incorporated scientific topics in his preaching. Rather than bifurcating creation and redemption, he viewed these twin arenas of Christian doctrine as aspects of the same gracious activity of God.

In his sermon ‘On Working Out Our Own Salvation’, he defines the two grand heads of Christian doctrine: grace as it pertains to the work of God for us in Jesus Christ and grace as it pertains to the work of God in us through the power of the Holy Spirit (Wesley 1984–present: 199–209 [vol. 3]). God’s grace – defined as God’s unmerited love – restores one’s relationship with God and renews God’s image in the believer. In his sermon on ‘Free Grace’, Wesley affirms that God’s grace is a free gift, in all, and for all (Wesley 1984–present: 544–563 [vol. 3]). While grace is essentially God’s offer of relationship and restoration, Wesley differentiates prevenient, convincing, justifying, and sanctifying in order to describe the way in which people experience God’s love at various points in the spiritual journey.

In Wesley’s practical theology, the way of salvation functions as the central axial theme around which all other doctrinal concerns revolve. He provides the most succinct summation of the critical elements of this process in his Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained: ‘Our main doctrines are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account the porch of religion; the next the door; the third, religion itself’ (Wesley 1984–present: 227 [vol.9]). He views these three relational concepts as essential components of God’s dynamic redemptive action:

  • Repentance. Wesley defines repentance as true self-understanding.
  • Faith. Wesley defines faith as genuine ‘trust’ (fiducia).
  • Holiness. Wesley defines holiness in terms of God’s restoration of Christlike love. Holiness of heart and life, or sanctification, is the process that leads to the ultimate goal of perfect love.

This dynamic view of life in Christ required a community for the growth of the disciple.

Accountable discipleship in a community of grace defined the early Methodist movement. In this regard, Wesleyan Methodism differed greatly from the Calvinistic Methodist tradition under the leadership of revivalist preachers such as George Whitefield and Howell Harris who failed to consolidate their followers by means of a dynamic group structure. This alternate wing of the evangelical revival was eventually absorbed into various Presbyterian traditions that were more amenable to its theology and practice. The small groups of the Wesleyan Societies, on the other hand, were laboratories in which the practices of discipleship were nurtured. A holistic spirituality that combined works of piety and works of mercy facilitated both a redemptive experience of God and an active engagement in the social transformation in the world. Both evangelical and eucharistic in its orientation, the revival embraced both sacramental grace and evangelical experience as necessary counterparts of the Christian life.

While the terms ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’ were seldom used at the time, John Wesley rediscovered the biblical idea of a missional church: a community of faith characterized by its compassionate mission in God’s world. He reclaimed mission as the church’s reason for being and evangelism as the heart of that mission; as such, he developed a holistic vision that refused to separate faith and works, personal salvation and social justice, physical and spiritual needs. He embraced a radical vision of God’s activity in the world and lived in hope of the realization of God’s reign in history.

Wesley described the doctrine of Christian perfection as ‘the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up’ (Wesley 1931: 238 [vol.8]). In 1766, he published his Plain Account of Christian Perfection in order to demonstrate the consistency of his vision with regard to this telos of the Christian life. In his final, mature phase, John Wesley defined Christian perfection as the fullest possible love of God and neighbour.

1.4 Charles Wesley: lyrical theologian of ‘Love Divine’

What John Wesley articulated in sermons, biblical commentaries, and theological treatises his younger brother, Charles, expressed in poetry. His ‘sung theology’ continues to shape the theological world of the Methodist tradition. Charles functioned, like John, as a practical theologian who oriented his theological work around the needs of ordinary people. Charles Wesley was a ‘lyrical theologian’ who created ‘a vibrant, lyrical theological memory individually and corporately for Christians and the church as a whole’ (Kimbrough 2013: 72).

In his hymns, Charles Wesley explicates his understanding of doctrine and its purpose. First, propositional faith functions properly to elicit living faith. For belief to be real, it must be lived out in concrete actions in life and it is this enacted belief that unites the believer with God (Scripture Hymns. Vol. 2: 406 [vol.2]). Secondly, he asserts that intellectual assent to spiritual truth falls short of saving faith and can even impede a genuine, faith-filled relationship with God. He distinguishes clearly between the faith of assent and a ‘true and lively faith’ gifted to the believer by God (Trinity Hymns: 101). He dedicates theology, in other words, to the service of transformation. Wesley’s ‘lyrical credo’ consists of at least three constitutive elements parallel to his brother’s primary themes: trust in God, salvation through faith, and holiness leading to ‘perfect love’.

1.4.1 Trust in the God of promise

Wesley builds his theology on the foundation of the God of promise, goodness, and truth who can be trusted in all things. He explicitly connects these aspects of the divine character with primal human concerns like hunger and thirst and a God who nourishes, particularly employing the image of the meal. God’s promises are manifold. God promises and gives the Spirit, meets the faithful in prayer, and provides belonging, inner harmony, and connection.

1.4.2 The work of grace

Charles Wesley articulates one of the most central themes in Wesleyan theology: faith working by love. He explicates the twin dimensions of saving grace. Firstly, if those who seek God do not resist the gracious activity of the Spirit of Christ in their lives, then forgiveness and pardon define their lives as the disciples of Jesus. Secondly, God also offers liberation and healing through the work of grace; grace functions in a therapeutic manner to restore and make whole. With regard to these central aspects of redemption, Wesley sings both ‘Write forgiveness on my heart’ (Hymns & Sacred Poems 1749a: 133) and ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free’ (Hymns & Sacred Poems 1739: 117).

1.4.3 Holiness as perfect love restored

The path to Christian perfection (sanctification) and the telos of perfect love represent a third important facet of Wesley’s lyrical credo. This reflects his expectation for all believers to grow into the perfect love God has promised in Christ: the fullest possible love of God and neighbour. Charles Wesley, like his brother, emphasizes twin dimensions in this process: holiness of heart (internal holiness) or love of God (a vertical dimension) and holiness of life (external holiness) or love of neighbour (a horizontal dimension). According to Wesley, faith leads to love in the Christian life, and to be loving or holy is to be truly happy.

The Spirit sanctifies believers by indwelling their lives. This process of sanctification entails both an apophatic (emptying) and cataphatic (filling) process or rhythm. Unlike his brother, Charles views this as a lengthy process; few believers become fully loving all at once. His vision of this ‘one thing needful’ – a theotic Christlikeness – entails the restoration of the imago Christi in the believer until they find themselves ‘Lost in wonder, love, and praise’ (Redemption Hymns: 12).

1.5 Critical elements of a normative Wesleyan practical theology

This review of John and Charles Wesley’s theological foundations, methods, and themes reveals a normative Wesleyan practical theology consisting of five key elements:

  • Transformation. The inherent purpose of theology, according to the Wesleys, is personal and social transformation, not the mastery of ideas or theological concerns.
  • Contextuality. The Wesleys were concerned about developing contextually appropriate embodiments of the gospel, not formulating timeless principles or definitions of truth.
  • Conjunctivity. The Wesleys embraced an integral or holistic conception of Christian faith and practice that was intellectual, affectual, and volitional.
  • Praxis. The Wesleys conceived the practice of the Christian faith as the starting point and the goal of theological activity in which real life sparks engagement and reflection.
  • Singing. The Wesleys sang their theology in community with other Christians who used this fundamental practice to express both words to and words about God.

2 Divergent streams: formal Methodist theology

At the close of the eighteenth century, the mantel of Methodist theology passed to the next generations of leadership in a movement that was becoming a church in both British and American contexts. Having identified a distinctive and well-defined headwater in the practical theology of John and Charles Wesley, Methodist theology diverged into several streams within different historical and contextual settings. As may be expected, questions relating to the continuity and discontinuity of Methodist theology within Wesleyan theology loom large in these developments. In the changing and challenging terrain of the following two centuries, Methodists struggled to maintain the conjunctive nature of original and normative Wesleyan theology. The formal theologies that emerged further reflect changing attitudes to questions about authority and the foundations of Christian theology. Beyond the immediate divergence observed in the British and American traditions, several further distinctive streams of Methodist theology emerged: holiness, liberal, neo-Wesleyan, and contextual theologies. Methodists in all these streams sang their faith, giving popular voice to their theological vision and practice.

2.1 British successors to the Wesleys

Although the practical theology of the Wesleys reveals an internal coherence of thought, neither brother was a systematic theologian in the formal sense. John William Fletcher (1729–1785) was the first to assume this role with the publication of his five-volume Checks to Antinomianism1820, first published 1770–1775), a systematic Arminian apologetic against Calvinist predestinarianism. Adam Clarke (1762–1832) emerged as the great biblical scholar of nineteenth-century Methodism; his eight-volume commentary on The Holy Bible (1817) remaining as a primary theological resource for many years. This commentary has stood as an enduring signpost to the primacy of scripture in Methodist theology.

Richard Watson (1781–1833) may be properly designated the principal British Methodist systematic theologian of the nineteenth century. His Theological Institutes (1823) served as the principal theological text for several generations of Methodist clergy on both sides of the Atlantic. These three men self-consciously sought to preserve continuity with the practical theology of the Wesleys, albeit in a more scholastic or academic mode. As Methodism moved further into the new century, however, it tended to align increasingly with the dissenting traditions in Britain and jettisoned its original Anglican moorings. Some of the emerging theological voices of the new church sought to develop their theology as distinct from Anglicanism, and new revivalist movements such as the Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians filled their ranks with Reformed dissenters (see Beck 2018 and Langford 1998a).

2.2 Americanized theology

The different cultural setting of Methodism in America cannot be overemphasized. Initially, American Methodist theology retained a sense of connection with its origins: ‘John Wesley constituted the background; the sovereignty of God and human sinfulness, the content; and personal salvation finally realized in sanctification, the goal’ (Langford 1998a: 80–81). But in their efforts to compete with Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, who were shaped by John Calvin’s Institutes and the confessionally-based philosophical theology of Jonathan Edwards, Methodists eventually diverted from the Wesleys’ practical theological methods in the development of their own scholastic compendiums of theology. John Miley (1813–1895), for example, attempted to ‘update’ Wesley for ‘modernity’; his two-volume Systematic Theology (1892) remaining a standard Methodist text for decades. Eventually, the citation of the Wesleyan sources in works such as this receded over time and a chasm began to form between Wesleyan and Methodist theology.

These formal theological developments stand in stark contrast to the experience of rank-and-file Methodists, particularly those seeking to live out their faith on the frontier. Methodist camp meetings reinforced heart-religion, emphasizing the monumental spiritual changes wrought by the Spirit in the lives of individuals. The ecumenical nature of these events also led to a more broadly defined evangelicalism within Methodism. Under the influence of Second Great Awakening revivalists such as Charles Finney (1792–1875), conversion per se became an increasingly central theme. The lyrical theology of Frances Jane ‘Fanny’ Crosby (1820–1915) epitomized these developments and contributed to the increasing chasm between academic and popular theological discourse. Her ‘gospel songs’ emphasized the reality of personal salvation through Jesus Christ; the intimate relationship between the redeemed sinner and the Saviour; the helplessness and complete dependence of the recipient of salvation; the experience of rest and security available to those who trust in Jesus; the summons to strive for Christlikeness of character; a highly individualized view of salvation; and an emphasis on heaven. These theological concerns pervade Crosby’s most famous hymn:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. (1873)

2.3 The holiness theology stream

Phoebe Palmer (1807−1874), mother of the holiness movement in the United States and the Higher Life movement in Britain, was a product of this Second Great Awakening. In contrast to emergent conversion-centred theologies, Palmer’s own spiritual quest led her to place a renewed emphasis on holiness in Methodist theology. Her ‘Tuesday Meetings’ for the promotion of holiness in New York City in the 1830s promoted a lived theology centred in experience, rooted in the doctrine of holiness, and emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit. Bible studies figured prominently in this movement, particularly the examination of the saints in scripture. Palmer’s endorsement of spontaneity, and her insistence on the possibility of instantaneous transformation in the religious life, fit easily into the revivalist temperament of the period. She insistently raised the question, is there not a shorter way to the holy life? Her answer was yes. For more than three decades, she promoted her so-called ‘parlor holiness’, developing a unique ‘altar theology’.

Palmer published her vision of this ‘shorter way’ in a widely circulated book, The Way of Holiness (1843). Her view of ‘entire sanctification’, a ‘second definite work of grace’, rested on three propositions:

  1. the Holy Spirit delivers believers from original sin as a consequence of their personal consecration and faith
  2. these capacities are inherent powers in Christians as a result of prevenient grace or conversion
  3. believers can experience entire sanctification any time they want.

This holiness movement gave birth to several Methodist-related denominations including the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Church, and the Salvation Army. Despite Palmer’s recovery of holiness as a critical Methodist theological tenet, many viewed her interpretation of holiness as an aberration of authentic Wesleyan teaching.

2.4 The liberal theology stream

Developments following the American Civil War presented challenges to Methodist theologians as the church stood on the threshold of a new century. Changing attitudes about the Bible, new philosophical perspectives, unresolved problems related to racism and social injustice, and the waning of revivalist evangelism in an age of respectability demanded a robust response from the church. In response to this changing terrain, formal Methodist theology took a decided turn in the direction of philosophical theology and away from its earlier biblical moorings. Within the life of the church, some of the seismic shifts in Western culture also shaped the response of Christians to these concerns. In the late nineteenth century, Methodist theology reflected three significant shifts: movements from otherworldliness to this-worldliness, from passivity to activity in the world, and in ethical practice from symptomatic relief to systemic reform.

Methodist theologians in both England and North America were interacting more with currents in their respective cultures. As such, a stream of liberal or modernist Methodist theologians emerged whose work attended closely to the various ‘modern’ challenges submitted to classical Christianity. Their work assumed an apologetic posture in relation to their ‘cultured despisers’. An appeal to experience drew the particular attention of Methodist liberals as the area of ‘experience’ was a significant element of their theological inheritance and, as such, provided a potent response to the challenges of the day. Rather than driving a wedge between religion and science, the theologians of this stream entered into dialogue with the scientific community and brought their insights to bear upon matters of faith. While some attempted to retrieve their Wesleyan heritage in substantive ways, the vast majority ignored the Wesleys, questioned their theological veracity, and viewed their methods as products of an outmoded age.

2.4.1 Boston personalism

A form of classic theological liberalism known as ‘Boston Personalism’ emerged at Boston University School of Theology under the influence of Border Parker Bowne (1847–1910). Bowne’s efforts to defend the Christian faith ‘led to an appreciation of the positive value of biblical criticism, a more optimistic evaluation of human nature, and an intellectual interpretation that could contend with the significant intellectual issues of the time’ (Langford 1998a: 120). This philosophical theology revolved around the concept of ‘personhood’ as the key to reality. Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873–1953), the great systematic theologian of this tradition, characterized evolving Methodist liberalism in six terse points: the centrality of Christian experience, the immanence of God, the true humanity of Jesus, critical study of the Bible, atonement as moral influence, and a positive sense that the kingdom of God is being realized in history (see Knudson 1950).

For half of a century, this school of thought dominated American Methodist academic theology, particularly shaping the leadership of the church. One of the most significant second-generation personalists, Georgia Harkness (1891–1974), was appointed the first female professor in a major theological seminary, Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary). Described as an ‘evangelical liberal’, she embraced the principal concerns of classical liberalism: continuity amid diversity; the importance of human experience; an optimistic view of life; truth wherever it might be found; social justice and change; and centring all things in God. Her attempts ‘to draw themes together, to keep many dimensions in relationship to one another, to make a full-orbed presentation of what she called redemptive evangelical doctrine’ reflect her penchant for conjunctive thinking and practice (Langford 1998a: 199). One of her most popular theological texts, Understanding Christian Faith (1947), demonstrates her ability, like John Wesley, to speak ‘plain words for plain people’. Moreover, Boston Personalism reached beyond the bounds of Methodism, serving as a foundation for the civil rights platform of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Four particular personalistic themes resound in his writings: the inherent worth of all persons, a personal God of love and reason, the moral law of the cosmos, and the social nature of human existence (see Burrow 2006).

2.4.2 The social gospel

The Personalist recovery of a dynamic vision of the ‘kingdom of God’ and its realization in history resonated with the pioneers of the Social Gospel movement who sought to reclaim the centrality of the God’s kingdom in Christian theology and practice. Methodist ‘social gospelers’ sought to apply the principles of Jesus’ ministry to the transformation of society, to establish a new social order by eliminating the social evils of poverty and racism. In 1907, Frank Mason North (1850–1935) organized the Methodist Federation for Social Action to direct the church’s attention to the human suffering among working class families. In hymns like ‘Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life’ (1903), North promoted a new vision of ‘kingdom life’ for the Methodist community:

O Master, from the mountainside
make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
among these restless throngs abide;
O tread the city's streets again.
Till all the world shall learn your love
and follow where your feet have trod,
till, glorious from your heaven above,
shall come the city of our God!

In 1908, the Methodist Episcopal Church produced a ‘Social Creed’ that gave official sanction to these ideas and furthermore reclaimed the inherent relationship between personal piety and social action in the Wesleyan tradition (see Brown 1942). It elevated human experience, freedom, and responsibility and demonstrated the implications of theology for social ethics, bringing increasing awareness to a social and global consciousness.

2.4.3 Process theology and open and relational theology

By the mid-twentieth century, personalist metaphysics had been eclipsed by new philosophical trends. ‘Process philosophy’ represented a new philosophical theism built on the metaphysic of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), a noted English mathematician. Fundamentally, he argued that reality consists of processes rather than material objects. The concept of ‘creativity’ stands at the very centre of his philosophical system. Process thinkers privilege becoming over being, events over substance, and ‘organisms’ over matter. Moreover, they developed a ‘naturalistic theism’ that provided a foundation for mutuality between theology and science (see Natural Theology). While broadly ecumenical in its appeal, several Methodists played a significant role in the application of process thought to Christian theology. John B. Cobb, Jr. (b. 1925), a premier ‘process theologian’ who locates himself within the liberal tradition, established a Methodist epicentre of process influence at Claremont School of Theology in California.

‘Process theology’, according to Cobb, ‘may refer to all forms of theology that emphasize event, occurrence, or becoming over substance’ (1976: 19). He stresses the relational character of God and the way in which God is affected by the world through relation to it. Three particular themes reflect the philosophical underpinnings of this view: (1) Process and change characterize the universe; (2) God contains the universe but is not identical with it (‘panentheism’); (3) God relates to all through ‘persuasion’ and not by exerting unilateral control (‘coercion’).

For Schubert Ogden (b. 1928), another prominent Methodist process theologian, the central issue is the nature of God. He reconceives all the traditional attributes of God under the aegis of ‘creative becoming’ and binds his conception of redemption to ‘the unity of history and nature and the intrinsic value of every creature’ (1979: 112). In Trinity in Process, among other works, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (b. 1933) explores a relational theology of God along the lines of process theology.

Thomas Jay Oord (b. 1965) coined the term ‘open and relational theology’ in his articulation of a theological vision that has challenged traditional ways of conceiving God, and while not strictly process-oriented, he reflects some of the same concerns (see Oord 2021). With other ‘open theists’ he shares two critical convictions: (1) God experiences time moment by moment (open); (2) God and creation relate in such a way that all give and receive (relational).

Oord’s theology affirms that love is the ultimate ethic, all creatures possess some measure of freedom, all creation matters, life has purpose, science points to important truths, and transformation is possible. He affirms all the conclusions of science while embracing the view of a God who acts in this world. Statements that reflect the considerations of these theological approaches, such as ‘we are relational beings in a relational world loved by a relational God’ reflect optimism in God and creation moving into an open future.

2.5 The neo-Wesleyan theology stream

The neo-Wesleyan stream of Methodist theology consists of two distinct but interrelated currents. In the middle of the twentieth century, a ‘neo-Reformation’ movement within the Protestant tradition renewed interest in the theology of the magisterial reformers. It did not take long for Methodists who resonated with these developments to rediscover the theological relevance of John Wesley, their own founding figure. ‘neo-Wesleyan theology’ emerged, in part, as a rediscovery and re-evaluation of Wesleyan theology – an ‘ad fontes current’ within Methodism. Simultaneously, and following the lead of Karl Barth in Europe and Reinhold Niebuhr in the United States, ‘neo-orthodox’ theologians levelled serious critiques against what they considered to be the naïve and wrong-headed optimism of liberal theology. Within Methodism, this movement can be described as a ‘counter-liberal current’ within the larger neo-Wesleyan stream.

2.5.1 An ad fontes current

There were glimpses of a rediscovery of John Wesley as early as 1935, but the real watershed in terms of renewed interest in the theology of the founder came with the 1964 publication of John Wesley by Albert C. Outler, an anthology appearing in the Library of Protestant Thought series. His depiction of Wesley as a serious theologian, albeit of a different order, helped fuel a renaissance in Wesley studies, later to include Charles Wesley.

Outler’s contributions toward a new and elevated view of John Wesley as a theologian cannot be overestimated. His reappraisal led to an initial defence of Wesley’s ‘folk theology’ as a legitimate, albeit less elevated, form of theology. He insisted subsequently on the authentic and creative character of Wesley’s model of practical theology vis-à-vis ‘first order’ theology. His primary discoveries emphasized elements of Wesley’s theology long neglected, completely misunderstood, or never fully uncovered. In Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (1975), he located Wesley more squarely in his Anglican context and brought new insight to the three pillars of Wesleyan theology: repentance, justification, and holiness. His introduction to John Wesley and his exhaustive analysis of Wesley’s sermons (Wesley 1984–present: [vols. 1–4]) demonstrate the wide range of influences upon Wesley’s doctrine, looking to patristic sources primarily for his understanding of Christian perfection.

Robert E. Cushman (1913–1993) contributed to this rediscovery as well. In Faith Seeking Understanding (1981), he explicates six basic propositions aligned with Wesley’s vision. In this platform, faith is about God finding us, not us finding God; life in crisis seeking reconciliation; a moral, not an intellectual, problem; the experience of alienation and reconciliation; ‘awareness’ of need, not the vindication of God’s truth; and the way in which Jesus overcomes estrangement from God and others (Cushman 1981: 54-69).

In his book, The New Creation (1998), Theodore ‘Ted’ Runyon (1930–2017) deviated from the typical model of exploring John Wesley’s theology as the order of salvation; he began his analysis with the imago Dei and described Wesley’s vision of how God recreates this image of creative love in people. Several contemporary scholars continue to advance this work of Wesleyan theological studies. In Responsible Grace (1994), the current general editor of the Wesley Works Project, Randy L. Maddox (b. 1953), locates John Wesley’s soteriology in the larger framework shaped by Eastern Orthodox therapeutic understandings that emphasize sanctification as an ongoing form of spiritual maturation. Kenneth J. Collins (b. 1952) summarizes Wesley’s theology as a vision of the Christian life revolving around the axial theme of ‘holy love and free, co-operant grace’ in The Theology of John Wesley (2007). Paul W. Chilcote (b. 1954) explores the conjunctive nature of the theology of both Wesley brothers in Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision (2004) and explicates the principal themes of Charles Wesley’s ‘lyrical theology’ in A Faith That Sings (2016), examining the distinctive elements of his theology through the lens of his hymns.

2.5.2 A counter-liberal current

Edwin Lewis (1881–1959), who had been schooled as a Boston Personalist, experienced a radical conversion during his work on the Abingdon Bible Commentary (1929), claiming that this exercise enabled him to rediscover the Bible for himself. Growing increasingly suspicious of his inherited liberal theology, he published A Christian Manifesto in 1934. In this text, he decried modernism and called upon Methodists to reaffirm the reality of God, the authority of the Word of God, the fact of sin, the divinity of Christ, the cross as the supreme event in the divine-human story, and the gospel as God’s provision for the salvation of the whole world. Deeply influenced by Lewis at Drew University, Carl Michalson (1915–1965) prepared Worldly Theology, an existentialist manifesto for Methodists addressing the role of faith in crises, published posthumously in 1967.

The confluence of the two currents within this stream can be discerned in the work of two particular theologians. Thomas C. Oden (1931–2016) subsumed his passion for Wesley under the aegis of a larger ‘paleo-orthodoxy’ project, which represented an effort to advocate classical Christianity in the face of postmodern challenges. The British Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright (1939–2020) reflected similar tendencies in his attempt to wed the ancient liturgical heritage of the church with Wesley’s primitive Methodism. He produced a systematic theology entitled Doxology (1980), building upon a ‘pictorial method’ to demonstrate the inseparability of worship and theology and to identify the worshipping community as the proper matrix of theology. Three ‘pictorial statements’ present his main theses: (1) a medieval tomb sculpture depicting Christ on the cross with outstretched hands holding the sun and the moon; (2) a Charles Wesley hymn representing God’s great self-emptying (kenosis); (3) a dialectic narrative of God presently experienced and God’s consummation yet to come.

While Stanley M. Hauerwas (b. 1940) reflects the counter-liberal current within contemporary Methodism, he also ‘represents practical divinity in a thoroughgoing way’ (Langford 1998a: 223). Theology and ethics are distinct but inseparable, as are theory and practice. Practice shapes understanding, which in turn shapes practice. Theological conviction must be embodied; faith must find expression through action. Long associated with ‘narrative theology’ and ‘post-liberal theology’, he works within the tradition of ‘virtue ethics’. Hauerwas, like the Wesleys, puts ‘character’ and its formation at the very centre of his theological agenda, explicated most richly in his highly acclaimed book, The Community of Character (1981).

2.6 The contextual theologies stream

The fourth stream of Methodist theology, due to its contextual definition, subdivides into a number of branches. Even before the emergence of the revisionist trends of postmodern theology, many had argued for the inescapable contextuality of all theological discourse. This reaction against the Enlightenment claim for universally demonstrable and applicable truth-claims stipulates that all truth is inextricably bound to unique and diverse cultural and historical contexts. Postcolonialism and ecumenical dialogue led to an increasingly positive valuation of contextuality in theology, particularly as previously muted voices joined the chorus. These developments necessitated a complete ‘rethinking of the essential nature of theology, looking for ways to relate it more integrally to the praxis of specific communities of faith’ (Maddox 1999: 50). In this arena, Methodist theologians have made substantial contributions to the Black and Womanist, liberation and feminist, and various indigenous branches of this widening stream.

2.6.1 Black and Womanist theology

Black theology in America found its earliest expression in the hymns of Charles A. Tindley (1851–1933), one of Methodism’s greatest lyrical theologians. While honest about the centrality of suffering in the story of his people – their crucible – the theology of his hymns also strikes a note of hope about a social gospel that can transform the world – their resurrection. The context of oppression and discrimination out of which Tindley wrote shaped his sung theology in ways unique to the Black experience. Three particular themes dominate: the pilgrim way of suffering – the experience of the Black community (personal holiness); the goal of heaven – a counter-vision to the injustice of this life (apocalyptic hope); and the salvation of Jesus – a celebration of the joy and liberation of salvation through an ‘elder brother’ (moral transformation of evil by love). He encapsulated his theology in the following signature hymn:

When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me.
Thou who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me. (Tindley 1905)

James H. Cone (1938–2019), a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, questioned the white supremacist perspective of theology in an initial and watershed volume on Black Theology and Black Power (1969). The following year, he systematized his themes in a second volume, A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), identifying the enslavement of Black people as the central problem that American theologians must address. Cone describes this volume as ‘a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ’ (Cone 1970: 17). Employing a hermeneutic that begins with the reality of oppression and a methodology that views these concerns through the scriptural lens of ‘the Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus’, he insists that the God of the Bible battles oppressors and actively seeks freedom for those in bondage by engaging actively in the human situation. While ‘blackness’ functions as a symbol for all oppressed people, he stresses the importance of the Black community as the matrix of authentic theology, that place in which people discover their worth and find meaning together.

Anthony G. Reddie (b. 1964), founding editor of the international journal Black Theology, is a British Methodist of Caribbean descent. In works such as Black Theology (2012) and Black Theology, Slavery and Contemporary Christianity (2016), he articulates a participative approach to theology in community that interfaces Black theology and decolonial, transformative education.

Jacquelyn Grant (b. 1948) is a Methodist founder of Womanist theology, a movement which gives voice to the concerns and theological perspectives of Black women. As a doctoral student, Grant studied under James Cone. Her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus (1989) explores christological themes from the perspective of Black women who are both ‘the oppressed of the oppressed’ and ‘the particular within the particular’.

2.6.2 Liberation and feminist theology

In an effort to decolonize theology and speak to the concerns of oppression in Latin America, a number of Methodists addressed these tasks directly, none more effectively than Argentinian José Míguez Bonino (1924–2012). One of the founders of Latin American ‘liberation theology’, he attempted a thorough-going application of the gospel to his cultural setting in a book of that title in 1986. Míguez Bonino levelled acute criticisms against forms of Methodist theology that ‘yielded to a radical individualism and has adopted the values of reigning cultural, economic, and political powers’ (Langford 1998a: 239). Esther and Mortimer Arias succinctly define the core of his theology, ‘His theme is the Kingdom and his leitmotif is love, incarnate love, mediated in history through human solidarity and commitment to the oppressed’ (Arias and Arias 1980: 131). His agenda upended traditional theological hermeneutics, starting with the plight of the poor and oppressed who engage in a communal praxis of the biblical witness.

Bonino paved the way for a number of other liberation theologians who applied his ‘praxis method’ in their own contexts. Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. (1942–2020) levelled a critique against ‘first world’ values, economic systems, and institutionalized injustice. In his Introduction to Theology (1976), he provides an initial presentation of his deconstructionist agenda. He identifies latent liberationist themes in the creeds, liturgy, and critically assessed scripture, affording a vision of a just God deeply engaged with the poor and oppressed. Methodist women’s voices give expression to liberation as well. Three words dominate The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (2002) by Rebecca S. Chopp (b. 1952): proclamation, emancipation, and transformation. The most significant feminist theologian of Methodism, she locates the praxis of solidarity with suffering persons at the heart of the Christian vision in The Praxis of Suffering (2007).

Joerg Rieger (b. 1963), a German-born liberationist, understands theology to be a transformative agent in the world. With much of his work focusing on global economic injustice and the dehumanizing effects of ‘empire’, he advocates ‘deep solidarity’ with those harmed by unjust systems. He develops these ideas in books like Remember the Poor (1998) and Christ and Empire (2007). In No Religion but Social Religion (2018) he and a team of Methodist scholars interface these themes with the Wesleyan theological inheritance.

Simei Monteiro (b. 1943) gives lyrical expression to these themes of emancipation in songs that capture the spirit of her native Guarani culture. The metaphor of pilgrimage or journey pervades her hymns, amplifying the themes of familia, communidad, and justicia:

If walking is our vocation, surely we’ll walk with each other.
Our faith will be great and glorious and it will move even mountains.
We’ll open frontiers of challenge removing all human barriers
because we now follow Christ in hope and joyful solidarity. (Montiero 1995)

2.6.3 Indigenous theology

Methodists helped pioneer the ‘modern missionary movement’ that emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century. While many missionaries communicated a gospel captive to their own culture, it was only inevitable that their converts would shape this message and its practice into forms consonant with their own lives and contexts. In the twentieth century, greater attentiveness to the contextuality of all theology led to the rise of a number of Methodist Indigenous theologies across the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia. E. Bolaji Idowu (1913–1995) led the Methodist Church Nigeria from 1972–1984. He immediately initiated a program of church reform, emphasizing the need for autonomy and indigenization. In fact, this reflected longstanding concerns he had already articulated in a book entitled Towards an Indigenous Church (1965). One of the early exponents of ‘ethnotheology’, he engaged in efforts to rediscover and correct misconceptions about the religious ideas of his own Yoruba people. In Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief (1995), he examines the conceptions of God, morality, and ultimate meaning through this lens, making preliminary claims about the contributions of the African religious heritage to the Christian faith.

Kwesi Abotsia Dickson (1929–2005) employed similar methodological approaches in relation to the recovery of his Akan heritage in Ghana. Like Idowu, his study of African religion and culture preceded his engagement with Christian theological concerns. In his most significant theological work, Theology in Africa (1984), he sought to explicate the inseparability of culture and religion. While providing a very thorough introduction to the subject, Dickson’s work does not go much beyond a status quaestionis, setting out the agenda. A genuine indigenization of theology can be found in the work of Mercy Amba Oduyoye (b. 1934), a self-described African liberation and African women’s theologian. In particular, she addresses the questions of how African religion and culture influence the experience of African women and how economic systems oppress them. In 1986, she published Hearing and Knowing, her first theological reflections on Christianity in Africa. This work is a precursor to her edited volume, Beads and Strands (2004), in which she focuses on African wisdom related to community and neighbourliness.

Patrick Matsikenyiri (1937–2021), the foremost contributor to sacred song in African Methodism, sings and dances theology in community. Born in Zimbabwe and having lived through the struggle for independence from colonial rule, African music carried him and the Methodist community through some of the most difficult days of this journey. Matsikenyiri forged an indissoluble link between the political and contextual realities of life and spiritual liberation. He subscribed to a ‘lived lyrical theology’, undergirded by the famous Shona proverb: ‘If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.’ Even his texts that cry out for justice resound with a keynote of joy. In virtually all his compositions, the rhythmic melodies and dancing schemes communicate a contagious spirit of rejoicing. His most famous song, ‘Jesu tawa pano’ (‘Jesus, We Are Here’), originally composed as a gathering song for Holy Communion, excites the community into ‘jubilant praise’. The sung words and the danced rhythms of this song communicate a theology of joy experienced and lived in community.

One of the significant non-Western Methodist theologians of the mid-twentieth century was Daniel T. ‘D. T.’ Niles (1908–1970) of Sri Lanka. His theology represented a broad amalgamation of his Hindu heritage in Tamil culture, Charles Wesley’s hymns, the spirituality of E. Stanley Jones’ Ashram movement, and his multiple activities in the ecumenical movement. His most significant contributions are to be found in his efforts, tentative and exploratory as they were, to interface traditional Western theology with his Asian culture. He placed particular emphasis on the concept of the Trinity because of its affinity with the Asian idea of ‘wholeness’. Having described evangelism as one hungry person showing another hungry person where to find bread, his book Eternal Life Now (1947) presents his ideas through this missional lens.

Before his election to the United Methodist episcopacy, Emerito P. Nacpil (b. 1932) served as professor of theology and president of Union Theological Seminary in Manila and director of the Association of Theological Schools in Southeast Asia. He emphasizes the need for Christianity to be expressed in a multiplicity of cultural forms. Participation in culture, and not necessarily its critique, must characterize living communities of faith today. The following values govern his efforts to express an indigenous Asian theology: awareness of the diversity of cultures; recognition of real human needs; development of healthy and resilient communities; and engagement in constructive change on the basis of ethical imperatives.

Choan-Seng Song (b. 1929), one of the most widely published Chinese theologians, orients his theology around the shibboleth of Western Christian individualism and the way in which it alienates Asian peoples from their native cultures. Borrowing much of his methodology from liberation theology, in works such as Third-Eye Theology (1979), Theology from the Womb of Asia (1986), and The Believing Heart (1999), he introduces the theme of ‘story theology’, steeped in Asian motifs. Although having spent most of his professional career as a theologian in the United States, the South Korean scholar Andrew S. Park seeks to integrate the Asian concept of han – a critical tenet in his ‘theology of the wounded’ – and the Christian doctrine of sin in The Wounded Heart of God (1993).

All these Methodist contextual theologies acknowledge the inseparability of lived Christian faith and concrete socio-historical contexts. They are incarnational in the sense of recognizing God’s activity in all that God has created in its diversity and specificity. They are sacramental in the sense of perceiving God’s presence in the ordinary aspects of real life, including the struggle for meaning and justice. They are dialogical in the sense of celebrating the identity of ‘the local’ as a concrete form of Christian expression engaged in mutually enriching and challenging conversation with other contextual embodiments of the faith.

3 The witness of global Methodism

The World Methodist Council – comprised of eighty Methodist, Wesleyan, and related United and Uniting Churches, and representing eighty million members in 138 countries – adopted two significant theological statements. While not binding upon the member churches in any formal way, these documents articulate a clear and cogent self-understanding of those who stand in the legacy of the Wesleyan heritage.

Interestingly, the earlier document, Social Affirmation, demonstrates the outward posture of missional churches in relation to the world. Adopted in Nairobi in 1986, this statement:

  • affirms the Triune nature of God;
  • rejoices in every sign of God’s kingdom, including all expressions of love, justice, and reconciliation and the proper use of God’s good gifts;
  • confesses the individual and corporate sins of exploitation, greed, and abuse that ultimately endanger the earth and all life upon it;
  • commits individuals and communities to God’s kingdom work in the world, to the cruciform way of Jesus and the struggle for peace with justice in community.

The distinctive feature of this affirmation is not so much the content as the posture of the Methodist community in relation to God’s world. The document defines the Methodist theological tradition by its outward orientation and its partnership in the missio Dei (‘mission of God’).

The second document, adopted at Rio de Janeiro in 1996, articulates the Wesleyan Essentials of the Christian Faith, thereby constituting an extremely significant perspective on the theological affirmations of Methodists. Like the first statement, it begins with an affirmation of the basic Christian affirmations. But in addition to this, it expresses a Methodist aspiration to bear witness to Jesus in the world, to proclaim God’s love and grace to and for all people, to embody God’s love, and to celebrate God’s rule. The statement celebrates a profound optimism in God’s grace as a gift that can heal, reconcile, and make new. It affirms that faith must come to life in action, that active love requires sensitivity to context and culture, and that the life of holiness holds conversion and justice, piety and mercy, faith and love together. This statement defines the Methodist theological tradition by its optimism in God’s grace and love in the face of brokenness and sin, its commitment to translate faith into action, and its holistic vision of lived faith.

4 The character of Methodist theology

Given the diversity of theological expression within Methodism, are there any dominant characteristics that convey the enduring sense of a ‘Methodist tradition’? Do efforts to define Methodist theology remain elusive under the circumstances and given the complex story of Methodism to which it is inextricably bound? As this article demonstrates, there are many Methodist theologies, which we have delineated in four primary streams subsequent to originative Wesleyan theology. An exclusive appeal to ‘Wesleyan theology’ does not permit escape from this conundrum because, while Methodism cannot be understood apart from its origins, theology advanced beyond the Wesleys. While an ‘organizing principle’ or a ‘grammar’ might be identified for the theology of John Wesley, or distinctive Methodist streams, do these various pieces that constitute Methodist theology actually fit into a coherent whole?

Early twenty-first century polarization, reflected in Methodism as well as society, raises serious questions about cohesion within the tradition. Different understandings of scripture and how it functions within the community of faith – the underlying cause of much division – threaten to fracture Methodists along the fault line of biblical hermeneutics. Despite the obvious difficulties, British Methodist Brian Beck inquires, ‘are we theologically more coherent than we think we are?’ (2018: 123).

Several simple observations on an operant level provide insight with regard to these hard questions. Perhaps one of the most unique features of Methodist theology is the fact it permits such diversity; the elusive nature of theological distinctives may itself be a major characteristic of the tradition. This posture of openness – openness to different truths, cultures, contexts, voices – describes much of what this survey has revealed. The inclusion of women in this story, in itself, illustrates the open character of Methodist theology. Likewise, Methodist theologians across the spectrum emphasize the possibility and necessity of transformation in life – transformation of individuals, communities, social systems, the world. This purpose of transformation permeates Methodist theology and reflects the understanding that faith must be translated into action, bringing about purposeful change, growth, and restoration. Methodists are a singing people who have communicated and inculcated their theological vision through the power of singing. ‘And may God give us faith to sing always’, declares Fred Pratt Green (1982): ‘Alleluia!’

The content of the various Methodist theologies does not provide cohesive elements to fashion a distinctive theological tradition. Early twenty-first century developments, particularly increased polarization inside the church, ought to be enough to make this clear. Rather, the posture of Methodist theologians and communities, their understanding of the purpose of theology, and the power of singing the faith define Methodist theology as an open, transformative, and sung celebration of God’s grace and love.


Copyright Paul Chilcote ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Chilcote, Paul W. 2016. A Faith That Sings: Biblical Themes in the Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
    • Chilcote, Paul W. 2020. Singing the Faith: Soundings of Lyrical Theology in the Methodist Tradition. Nashville, TN: Foundery Books.
    • Langford, Thomas A. 1998a. Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
    • Wesley, Charles. 2022. ‘Charles Wesley’s Published Verse’, The Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition.
    • Maddox, Randy L. 1994. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Kingswood Books.
    • Marsh, Clive (ed.). 2006. Methodist Theology Today: A Way Forward. London: Continuum.
  • Works Cited

    • Hymns and poems

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