Polarities Synthesized

by Scott Jameson Jones

One of the great attractions of John Wesley’s theology is his ability to hold in tension ideas and commitments that others separate. Far too often Christian leaders emphasize or live out only one side of a dichotomy. The choices are sometimes portrayed as stark and described as “either/or”.

Think of these:
You have to choose between evangelism or education.
Your ministry should emphasize preaching or the sacraments.
Your view of righteousness should focus on personal holiness or social justice.
Your people should prioritize corporate worship or small group meetings.
You must ground your understanding of salvation in either faith or good works.
Theologically you should emphasize justification or sanctification as the key aspect of salvation.

After a torturous spiritual journey in the 1730’s, John Wesley finally came to a balanced way of affirming both of these alternatives. Most importantly, he worked out a way to affirm the importance of both justification and sanctification in the way of salvation.

In section I.5 of his sermon “On God’s Vineyard” Wesley says that Martin Luther wrote ably on the doctrine of justification by faith alone but was “ignorant” and “confused” in his understanding of the doctrine of sanctification. On the other side, he suggested that certain Roman Catholic writers such as Francis de Sales have written “strongly and scripturally” on sanctification, while being “entirely unacquainted” with the nature of justification. He ends the section saying, “But it has pleased God to give the Methodists a full and clear knowledge of each, and the wide difference between them.” (Please note that the rest of the sermon focuses on accusing the Methodists of ignoring what God has taught them about sound doctrine and not living up to all of the good things God had given them!)

I basically agree that Wesley’s theology provides a biblically sound way of affirming both sides of these apparent dichotomies. He uses some careful distinctions which allow him to say things that superficially appear to be contradictory. Regarding the necessity of faith and good works for salvation, he makes this argument. Faith is necessary unconditionally and directly. Good works are necessary conditionally and indirectly since they are required only if there is
time and opportunity and as a way of continuing in faith. (See “Scripture Way of Salvation section III.2). This is a way of honoring the apparent contradictions between Paul and James and affirming the proper role for both.

Many years ago, I started preaching and teaching the Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. I ended up describing Wesley’s position as “the extreme center”. Recent developments in my former denomination have rendered any conversation about “center” problematic. So, I am considering going back to my first proposal: polarities synthesized. Each of the dichotomies listed above could be described as a polarity and one must choose one side or the other. Sometimes being in the middle of the polarity means one occupies the “dead center.” Instead, Wesley is always attempting to synthesize the alternatives to credibly say “both/and” with a properly nuanced affirmation of each one.

Wesley’s theological approach is useful in pastoral ministry today. Leadership of congregations means that different alternative approaches often need to be synthesized into a coherent whole. We should have churches that celebrate the sacraments while emphasizing good preaching. We should encourage our people to participate in corporate worship and small groups. We should describe the disciple-making process as a journey from repentance through
justification and on toward entire sanctification.

We live in an increasingly polarized society with many political and social divisions. A theological approach of synthesizing polarities might help us get through the rest of a tumultuous year.