Monthly Archives: May 2015

Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 4

Parts 2 and 3.

In my last post, I summarized the complex and contradictory ways that chief representatives of the protestant traditions worked within an assumed ontology that was neither pre-modern nor yet recognizably modern. Today’s post extends this summary to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and, indirectly of a number of evangelical and pentecostal groups across the United States and abroad.

IV. Inheritors of a Diminished Sacramentality

The Reformation resulted in unprecedented levels of social change and upheaval. In part, this followed naturally from the disenchantment that drove Reformation ideals. Once the social order is no longer understood as participation in divine order, and once religious vocations are de-sacramentalized, room is opened up for such change. By the time John Wesley is born at the beginning of the 18th century, decades after the publication of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, disenchantment is itself institutionalized in many ways.

Wesley, being a practical and pastoral theologian, seldom deals in abstract philosophical speculation. Still, his theology and practice clearly reflect his acceptance of and, at times, creative interaction with the diminished sacramental metaphysics characteristic of modernity. In a sermon, Wesley writes that “God acts everywhere, and therefore is everywhere; for it is an utter impossibility that any being, created or uncreated, should work there it is not. God acts in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, throughout the whole compass of his creation.”[1] In this same sermon, Wesley refers to Newton’s hypothesis that a gaseous quasi-material called ether filled the space in which all objects moved and interacted, saying “And it is now generally supposed that all space is full.”[2] Yet this theory was falling out of favor, prompting Wesley to argue on theological grounds, “Perhaps it cannot be proved that all space is filled with matter. But the heathen himself will bear witness… All things are full of God.’”[3] Earlier in his life Wesley wrote that “There is no place empty of God… every point of infinite space is full of God.”[4]

This conception stands in interesting tension with Wesley’s insistence that God was not knowable through nature. In his first sermon, preached at St. Mary’s in Oxford in November of 1730, he narrated the way the Creator formed Adam and Eve with the ability to know God directly, and the way that the fall destroyed this epistemological relationship.[5] In the post-lapsarian world, for Wesley, the only possible true epistemology was one of revelation, a prevenient grace that intrudes into a world that is otherwise intelligible yet insufficiently so. Yet even the secular was full of God and could be so sensed. Charles Wesley captures this in the phrase, “Author of every work divine,/ Who dost through both Creations shine:/ The God of nature and of grace.”[6] Though Wesley never explicates his metaphysical or ontological suppositions, his views may be characterized as a world of grace, being graced, known by grace. In contrast to the views of Scotus, Ockham, Hubmaier and Luther above, Wesley has a surprisingly high sacramental ontology.

This results in a soteriology less individualistic and anthropocentric than many contemporaries. In a tract, Wesley explained his conception of salvation

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.[7]

Wesley’s emphasis on “recovery of the divine nature,” frequently called “total sanctification” or “Christian perfection,” echoes the doctrine of theosis. Moreover, Wesley’s late sermon “The General Deliverance” begins moving from a view that centers on humans to an account of salvation that has the created world as its center focus. Perhaps this renewed emphasis on nature follows directly from Wesley’s ontology: The God of nature and of grace must not be concerned solely with humans.

[1] Sermon 118, “On the Omnipresence of God.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Sermon 69, “The Imperfection of Human Knowledge.”

[5] Thomas R. Albin, “Experience of God” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, ed. William J. Abraham and James E. Kirby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 382.

[6] Charles Wesley, Hymns of Petition and Thanksgiving for the Promise of the Father, #28, cited in Michael Lodahl, God of Nature and of Grace: Reading the World in a Wesleyan Way (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, 2003), 129.

[7] John Wesley, “A Further Appeal to Men of Religion and Reason,” 1786.