“I believe that . . .” “I have faith in . . .” What we believe is what we trust—what we know to be a truthful account of reality. Critical reflection on what we believe is “theology.” Everybody does theology, even when we don’t know that’s what we’re doing. Theology (literally, “talk about God”) is what we do when something very bad happens (“Why me?”) or something quite wonderful happens (“Why me?”). The one whom you address in such moments is your God, even if you’re not conscious of the one to whom you are speaking. Why am I here? What’s the point of it all? Is this all there is? After death, what? Who is God? What does God want from me? Theology deals with these deep, dangerous questions that defy easy answers—which may be one reason most people get nervous if ever their preacher should announce, “And now I’m going to do some theology.”
Some complain that Christian theology is too complicated. The truth is that orthodox theology is thought that is no more complicated than what is required to speak faithfully of a God who became flesh, our flesh, a God who is one as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One more complicating factor: Theology is not only our words about God but also God’s words to us. We believe that God in Christ not only has spoken in the past but continues to address and summon us today.
I don’t mean to say that everyone does good theology. Good, faithful, specifically Christian theology doesn’t come naturally. Orthodox theology is imaginative thinking that is formed by and responsive to Scripture, the faith of the church, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit right now in our lives. There is well-formed, informed theology, and then there is theology that is merely “what seems right to me” or “here is the latest idea on Twitter.”
Do not attempt theology at home! Faithful Christian theology is a group activity. Our God is so wonderfully complex, dynamic, mysterious, and counter to who we expect God to be that you need help from your friends—saints, past and present—to think about the Trinity. As Wesley said, Christianity is a “social religion”—you can’t do it alone.
The good news is that you don’t have to come up with words about or words from God—theology—on your own. Wesleyan Christians are those who think about God along with the Wesleys and the church to which they gave birth. The theological revolution begun in eighteenth-century England has now spread to every corner of the globe. “Warm hearts and active hands” is a good summary of theology in the Wesleyan tradition.
You don’t have to be a Wesleyan to do faithful Christian theology, but forgive me for thinking that it really helps. John and Charles Wesley’s discoveries about God still astound and challenge us today. The worldwide renewal of the church launched by the Wesleys has exceeded their wildest dreams. Wesleyan “practical divinity” (John Wesley’s favorite description for his sort of theology) is as revolutionary and as badly needed today as ever.
Mark 10:17 says that a rich man stopped Jesus and asked a deep theological question: “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” Jesus, who appears to have had a low tolerance for prosperous types, brushed him off with, “Obey the Ten Commandments.”
“I’ve obeyed all the commandments since I was a kid,” replied the man.
Then Mark says, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him”—the only time that Jesus is said to have loved a specific individual. Then, in one of the wildest demands Jesus ever made of anybody (because “he loved him”?) Jesus told the man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.”
With that Mark says that the man got depressed and departed, leaving Jesus to lament, “It is very difficult to save those who have lots of stuff.”
The Wesleyan in me loves Jesus’s response to the man’s big theological question. Refusing to be drawn into an intellectual bull session about “eternal life” (which Jesus discusses only rarely), Jesus hits the man with ethics here on earth—the Ten Commandments, redistribution of wealth, moral transformation, discipleship. Here this rather smug, successful person attempts to lure Jesus into abstract, speculative theology; but Jesus, after citing scripture, forces the man to talk about obedience and action. Jesus doesn’t say to him, “think,” “ponder,” or “reflect.” Rather he speaks to him only in active verbs: “Go . . . sell . . . give . . . follow me.”
It was a wonderfully Wesleyan theological moment. The man wants a relaxed discussion; Jesus gets practical and demanding. Never did Jesus say, “Think about me!” He said, “Follow me!” All the man may have wanted was an open-minded exchange of vague, spiritual ideas about “eternal life.” What he got was a call to go, sell, give, and be a disciple.
When Wesley discusses this passage in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, he focuses on both Jesus’s love for this person and the need for loving personal response: “The love of God, without which all religion is a dead carcass.” Then Wesley exhorts, “In order to obtain this, throw away what is to you the grand hindrance of it. Give up your great idol, riches.”
I think Mark 10:21 is the only place in the Gospels where someone is called by Jesus to be a disciple and refuses. Yet for all that, it’s an explicitly Wesleyan discipleship moment. God’s love is gracious but also demanding. Wesley was suspicious of any theology that couldn’t be put into practice; warmed hearts and good intentions were no substitute for active hands. And the point of having deep conversations with Jesus about what to believe is to be better equipped to obey Jesus. Theological reflection on Jesus is in service of better following Jesus. And even Jesus’s demands upon us, his call for relinquishment and giving, are gracious testimony to his love for us. To think in this fashion is theology in the Wesleyan spirit. In his tract “The Character of a Methodist,” Wesley noted that Methodism is distinguished not by unique doctrines but by a shared commitment to theological renewal and active obedience to a living Lord. “Plain truth for plain people” Wesley called his theology—theological thinking for practical, Christian living. What an adventure to think like a Wesleyan!
This article was published by Ministry Matters on August 12, 2020, by William H. Willimon, and is an excerpt from This We Believe: The Core of Wesleyan Faith and Practice. It previously appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.