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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"John Wesley's Teachings, Vol 3" (Thomas Oden)

TITLE: John Wesley's Teachings, Volume 3: Pastoral Theology
AUTHOR: Thomas C. Oden
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2013, (304 pages).

John Wesley is one of the most prominent figures in the Christian world. Known as a reformer in England, and credited with the rise of England from the ashes of social despair and discouragement, he has preached thousands of sermons, and written even more. Widely read, he shares his knowledge, his discernment, and his wisdom far and wide. Even today, many people, especially Methodist and Wesleyan groups still continue to learn and cherish his teachings. This book, compiled from many of Wesley's writings brings together Wesley's teachings in themes. This series, masterfully worked upon by the Methodist theologian, Thomas C Oden categorizes the works into four volumes:
  1. Vol 1 - God and Providence
  2. Vol 2 - Christ and Salvation
  3. Vol 3 - Pastoral Theology
  4. Vol 4 - Ethics and Society
There is a general progression of thought in Oden's design. Beginning with God in Volume 1, Oden tries to lead readers to appreciate the theological movement from God to man, through Christ and the Church, and ultimately to society and the world at large. This volume touches on the pastoral ministry and how ministry leaders are called to minister. The scope is breathtaking. While the material is Wesley's, the arrangement of the themes of systematic theology, ministry, pastoral care, and general flow of applications belongs to Oden. That said, it is still quite correct to credit Wesley for the teachings. Written specifically for "non-professional readers," Oden attempts to present this volume of core insights of "the heart of Wesley’s argument, his intention, and his relevance for today." After distilling from Wesley's wide repertoire of writings, hymns, sermons, essays, and homilies, Oden then applies them to various aspects of pastoral care and ministry. As an avid scholar of patristic literature, Oden focuses on primary sources so that he can let Wesley speak for himself as much as possible. Like Wesley who prefers to go back to the original biblical texts instead of the popular King James Version of the Bible, Oden mines the depths of Wesley's works like "The Works of the Rev John Wesley," "The Journal of John Wesley," "The Letters of John Wesley," "The Poetical Works of Charles Wesley and John Wesley," and so on.

A) Ministry and Soul Care
“The most conspicuous feature of Wesley’s work on the church and pastoral care is his persistent focus on the church as a work of the Holy Spirit .Everything follows from this premise .The Spirit is bringing into being the communities of faith in Christ.’ (Oden, 29)
It is Wesley's conviction that pastoral theology is not something reserved for the clergy or ministers of the Church. Like Wesley, whose concern is largely for the laity, the care of souls is the responsibility of the whole laity, clergy included. After all, the laity can participate in the care of souls, and clergy is also a member of the laity. One particular point that Oden mentions is worth taking note. “Some will find this volume most useful for quiet spiritual formation.” Central to Wesley’s teachings is the role of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of pastoral care for the flock. It is shown through the “gifts and graces” of God to men called to lead in the ministry of care. He makes a close connection of vocation and soul care as follows: 
“Soul care is not strictly speaking a job, but a vocation .A job is a paid position of regular employment .A vocation is a calling from on high, transcending the economic, political, and domestic spheres .To receive God’s call, Christians must listen for his voice .” (38) 
Whether one is called to ordination or not, all are called to the ministry of the laity. The difference is the level of caring needs to be according to the gifting of the called. Having a quick and sharp mind, understanding Scripture, learning from the forefathers, and a need for steep educational qualifications are trademarks of the Wesleyan minister. Character and regular self-examination forms the spiritual syllabus of every servant. Wesley uses the word “higher calling” to indicate the seriousness of the call, not the privilege of the office. It is quite easy to discern Wesley’s conviction for the methodical structure for ministry. It must be orderly, connected, and designed in order to maximize the reach of the Holy Spirit to the rest of the flock, through the channels of the called, both clergy and laity. Some people may find Wesley’s teachings too “authoritative” for comfort. For example, the part about simply doing what the spiritual adviser says to do, without questioning or doubting, certainly does not fit into the Post-modern mindset of suspicion before obedience. On pastoral counsel, Oden has done readers a great favour by summarizing Wesley’s scattered thoughts on modern pastoral responsibilities like visiting the sick, caring for people in need, mediating conflict, and various counseling matters. It makes reading more structured and flows better along “Pastoral Theology.” Hey, Oden is a Systematic Theologian in the Wesleyan tradition after all! Soulcare is a core component of pastoral theology. Generally, healthy workers can be counted upon to do healthy work. Thus, Wesley places great emphasis on discernment, and to counsel those facing temptations, both clergy and laity. He even touches on the dark night of the soul, with ample advice on how Wesley points out four ways to discern the "darkness of mind" from "heaviness of the soul." He points back to the role of the Holy Spirit, which especially means the need to be patient.

B) Pastoral Care and Family

Ministry to families is particularly important for Wesley. Three teaching homilies speak into that, to remind all that family relationships are to be based on biblical foundations, and how God deals with humanity family-by-family, and how sin and grace can also be transmitted through the family. With great detail, Wesley lays down instructions for parents and children, from children's education to adult learning, that education is for all. Even music and aesthetics are to be used as a way to teach Christian Education. Five stages of the family life are described; namely, the single life; marriage; parenting; mature adult; and death.

C) Church and Sacraments

Church is a crucial part of any pastoral theology. The later half of the book focuses on Church ministry and the sacraments. Going back to the theology of the Church, readers will come across the 25 Methodist Articles of Religion, adapted from the Anglican Church's 39 Articles. This is still widely used by many Methodist around the world. Wesley takes pains to describe the Church as the body of Christ, and also a double emphasis on the role of the laity and the clergy to be actively engaged in this body. The call for unity is strong, and separatist stances are frowned upon. Thus, excommunications are not something easily approved of. There are even instructions for pastors who are caught in sin, whether they can be allowed to administer the sacraments. Fundamentally, the belief is that if God blesses a ministry, then one must never separate. In true graciousness, unholy ministers can still minister the sacraments because all are under grace, not merit. Wesley struggles with the issue of whether members ought to go to churches that supposedly preach erroneous doctrines. His conclusion? "They unanimously agreed, first, that it was highly expedient, all the Methodists (so called) who had been bred therein should attend the service of the Church as often as possible."

D) Baptism & Holy Communion

Of Baptism, Oden compares the Lutheran, the Anglican, and the Methodist views of baptism side by side, to show us how Wesley himself has struggled to remain within the Anglican tradition, choosing to let exclusion of certain words be his argument from silence, and at the same time, not explicitly denying his Anglican heritage. Oden's main point is to show the continuity of thought Wesley had through the various traditions. The words "New birth" and "regeneration" figure widely in Wesley's understanding of baptism. It is an outward sign of an inward grace. Child baptism is retained, so is baptism by multiple modes. Five sure benefits of baptism as a means of grace are:

  1. Those baptized experience the "value of Christ's death" and personally to our sins.
  2. Welcomed into the covenant community
  3. Becoming members of the body of Christ
  4. In baptism, one is grafted in and become members of the body of Christ
  5. In baptism, we are made heirs with Christ in the new kingdom.

Recognizing that a common fear among laity is the fear of taking the Lord's Meal unworthily, Wesley takes pains to call the Communion a "duty of every Christian," as God's providence for the soul, and a means of grace received. However, Wesley makes a distinction between consuming unworthily versus feeling unworthy to consume. Wesley also addresses the fear of routine taking of the meal that makes the whole ritual less meaningful. Oden summarizes Wesley's thought on this as follows:

"True reverence flows out of our receptivity to God, not out of our concentration on our feelings." (221)

E) Unity

For Wesley, unity is a big thing. He believes that any splits, schisms, or separatisms, are primarily issues of the heart, and do not necessarily mean churches must break up and separate. Schisms are evil. He speaks out against any partisan spirit. Even if a church is under accusations of heresy, the unity of the body of Christ must take priority. Wesley's thought is as follows:

"Suppose the church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein."
My Thoughts

This series of works on John Wesley's teachings are arranged systematically and will be a precious resource for Methodist ministers and laypersons to read, to research, and to treasure. Sometimes, just seeing the mountain of writings by John Wesley himself can discourage any prospective learner to read Wesley. In bringing together themes and issues that are very relevant to life in the Church, Thomas Oden has given us a great set of works to refer to, so that we need not re-invent the wheel with regards to trying to resolve difficult issues. While I find it helpful to get a compact volume of Wesley's thoughts and teachings, the serious student of Methodism will not use this set of works as the only resource. The way to use this book is as a launchpad to dig into the treasure house itself. This is basically for two reasons.

First, we must learn to read Wesley in context as well. While Oden is a respected theologian and scholar, there is only so much systematic theology can highlight. There is history to be appreciated. There are contexts to be understood. There is the flow of argument in Wesley's writings that can only be fully comprehended if we go back to the sources, like what Oden has done. All of these cannot be achieved just by reading this book. Serious readers will need to read beyond this book.

Second, readers need to constantly ask themselves: Is this Wesley's thought or Oden's? This is important for good scholarship will need to credit the right sources correctly. Sometimes, the thinking of both men converged. Other times, I struggle with trying to understand if Oden has interpreted Wesley correctly. This is where a knowledge of the primary sources will help immensely. This question will also remind readers to stay attentive to details. It is easy to mistake Oden for Wesley, and vice versa.

Still, I will give this book high marks for the good work Oden has put in. If you are a Methodist, you will probably want to read this book. If you are a Methodist minister, start budgeting for your library. If you are interested in how theory and practice of Methodism comes together, this book is a great way to start.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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