Wesleyan Tradition

I continue some reflections on United Methodist believing as part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist theology that is being led by our lay leaders. This is an excerpt on Wesleyan tradition from my book United Methodist Beliefs (available from Cokesbury).

From our Anglican roots United Methodists got the notion that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, these are four means of theological reflection (sometimes referred to as the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” because John Wesley employed the four in his thinking[1]) and the criticism of our practice of theology. Note that Scripture is the first of the four, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’ By “tradition” we Methodists mean that which was thought and taught by the church at all times and places before we got here, that rich, bubbling inheritance from the teachers of the church, the creeds, hymns, and prayers that guide us and preserve us from having to reinvent the wheel, spiritually speaking, in each generation. Reason is our active, thoughtful, analytical engagement with this biblical and traditional material, that confirmation of revealed truth within our own thought about the world, since this is, in truth, God’s world. Experience is that personal and communal confirmation of the reality and the work of the Triune God in our lives, the way in which God’s creative, transforming, revealing work is demonstrated and made undeniably real in our own lives.

Tradition reminds us that we are not the first to walk with Jesus as disciples, and we walk not alone. The saints guide us. Christianity did not leap from the New Testament into our hands; twenty centuries of witness guide us in our contemporary appropriation of this faith. We meet no great idea in this faith that our forebears did not think before us and, conversely, we struggle with no heretical bad idea in the contemporary church that did not bedevil the church before we got here. We had tradition before we had Scripture, for Scripture is the faithful expression of the experience of those who were Israel and the first church. Yet with other Protestant Christians we regard Scripture as a judge of the fidelity of the church’s tradition and a constant source of cross examination of tradition.

We therefore find that one of the weaknesses of some forms of contemporary spirituality is that they are, well, contemporary. They are little more than with the times, a merely current expression of present ideas. Superficiality is the inevitable result of a failure to think with the saints.

Early Methodist preachers were accused of fostering dangerous innovation. They responded that they preached the historic faith of the Church of England as found in the Articles of Religion (which are still printed toward the beginning of our Discipline), the Anglican Homilies (a collection of authoritative sermons from great Church of England preachers), and the Book of Common Prayer. Wesley’s followers saw themselves, not as creative innovators, but rather as faithful traditionalists who were recalling the Church of England to its historic affirmations.
Not long ago a woman told me that she had a long struggle becoming close to Jesus. She had meditated, prayed, and read. Then she happened upon a history of the Methodist movement in Britain and from that she concluded, “When a Methodist is apart from the poor, a Methodist is just not much of a Methodist.” That insight, derived from an encounter with tradition, led her to commit to a prison ministry that goes into women’s prisons and prays with and for the inmates. “Those women have made a true disciple of Jesus out of me,” she said. So don’t tell us United Methodists that history is about the dead ideas of dead people!

One blessing of thinking as a United Methodist is that our theology is constantly challenged and enriched by a confluence of various historical traditions – most recently, the marriage of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church (1964). And we have the blessing of being a worldwide, global movement. Our earlier world mission efforts are bearing fruit in our present interaction with young, vital Methodist-related churches around the world. So when we gather for General Conference in Fort Worth this year to talk doctrine and program, we gather as believers with a wide array of cultures and histories who speak a dozen different languages.

Thank the Lord, we don’t have to invent this faith for ourselves. Tradition empowers our discipleship in a new time and place.

William H. Willimon

4 thoughts on “Wesleyan Tradition

  1. Friday in Atlanta a good many of your Baptist friends will be listening to your homestate Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina speak on the challenge of Immigration. Easily googled up is the Ryan Lizza piece from the December New Yorker on the troubles Graham faces in his Senate race on the matter. I hope you will share what you learn from Graham in the midsts of his Baptists Brethren, and the New Yorker Piece; share in a Wesleyan Moment with Senator Jeff Sessions; to give some urgent framework to these meditations on the poor.


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