For my theological nerds…

Just thought I would put this out there for anyone who wants to read it. It was written for graduate school which is a different type of writing than sermon writing.  So if I start talking like this when I preach, someone slap me in the face…

If you happen to enjoy these kinds of papers, feel free to give your thoughts, insights, etc…

Thanks!

LIVING AS AN OPTIMIST IN A PESSIMISTIC WORLD

Reflections on John Wesley’s Theodicy

Throughout the course of history, human beings have wrestled with the idea of evil in the world. How could a good God allow the existence of evil in our world? The study of this question is called theodicy. In the Old Testament, the book of Job wrestles with this very question. Theologians in every age have given their thoughts on the nature of evil, both its origin in the fall and its persistence in the world. John Wesley addressed theodicy in his day as well. Since Wesley never postulated any kind of systematic theology, in order to understand Wesley’s thoughts on the nature of evil, we are left with the task of piecing together Wesley’s thoughts from sermons and writings left by the 18th century revivalist. It is the aim of this paper to examine John Wesley’s writings on theodicy, particularly the fall of mankind, and examine theological themes and discrepancies that arise along the way.

 

Wesley’s View of Humanity

In order to understand Wesley’s theodicy, it is imperative that one understands Wesley’s view of the created order before the infamous “fall of man.”

In Wesley’s sermon, “The General Deliverance”, he quotes Genesis in saying that “God saw everything that he had made: and behold it was very good!”[1] This distinction is an important aspect of Wesley’s understanding of man. Wesley distinctly rejects any dualistic understanding of the created order that would make any implication that human flesh is inherently evil and the human spirit inherently good. Instead, Wesley seems to fall in line with his contemporaries in understanding that creation existed in perfection before the fall. In the sermon, God’s Approbation of His Works, Wesley writes the following:

Such was the state of the creation, according to the scanty ideas which we can

now form concerning it, when its great Author, surveying the whole system at one

view, pronounced it “very good.” It was good in the highest degree whereof it was

capable, and without any mixture of evil. Every part was exactly suited to the

others, and conducive to the good of the whole. There was “a golden chain” (to use

the expression of Plato) “let down from the throne of God;” an exactly connected

series of beings, from the highest to the lowest; from dead earth, through fossils,

vegetables, animals, to man, created in the image of God, and designed to know, to

love, and enjoy his Creator to all eternity.[2]

Here Wesley argues that the created order was the highest good imaginable. Beginning with the lowest level of living species, and working up the “golden chain” let down from heaven, Wesley argues that creation could not be anything but perfect. Wesley’s pre-fall vision of creation is one in which the entire created order responds to the Divine in the most amenable manner. It is clear from the quote above that Wesley’s good creation is highly relational. As the Crutcher manuscript proposes, Wesley believed creation to be dynamically good.[3]

One of the tensions that arises in Wesley’s thinking concerns this understanding of the goodness of creation. One might wonder how such a perfect creation could fall into evil. Wesley realizes this conundrum and briefly mentions it in his sermon, The End of Christ’s Coming:

Yet his liberty (as was observed before) necessarily included a power of choosing or

refusing either good or evil. Indeed it has been doubted whether man could then

choose evil, knowing it to be such. But it cannot be doubted, he might mistake evil for

good. He was not infallible; therefore not impeccable.[4]

Here Wesley creates a bit of a loophole of sorts by admitting that although the created order was “perfect” in one sense, it was not infallible. We again see Wesley’s tendency towards a dynamic, relational understanding of perfection. How could something be perfect and yet able to mistake evil for good? It would seem that Wesley’s perfection has more to do with the creature’s relation to the created order. In other words, Wesley is speaking of creatures relating perfectly towards their creator rather than imagining a state of static perfection.[5] Although Wesley is using the language of his contemporaries who would view the original created order as a sort of static perfection, his relational intuition still seems ever-present.

Maddox offers an interesting explanation for Wesley’s tendency to label the original creation as “perfect” in what would seem to be a “static” way. He postulates that Wesley is drawing from both Eastern and Western influences in Christianity.[6] Although Western thought espoused a static vision of the original created order, Eastern streams of thought leaned towards a more dynamic understanding of humanity in its innocence. Maddox argues that Wesley was exposed to Greek systems of thought, but was simply ignorant of any such developmental view of humanity in its original created state. Maddox contends that, based on Wesley’s understanding of a dynamic spiritual development in believers on this side of the fall, Wesley would have welcomed such a dynamic view of creation if he would have encountered it in his lifetime.[7]

Whether or not Wesley had such intuitions, the question of how evil entered into the created order remains. In the same sermon mentioned above, The End of Christ’s Coming, Wesley provides an answer:

But it cannot be doubted, he might mistake evil for good. He was not infallible;

therefore not impeccable. And this unravels the whole difficulty of the grand

question, Unde malum “How came evil into the world” It came from “Lucifer, son

of the morning.”[8]

It seems that in this instance, Wesley’s best explanation for the fall of man and the introduction of evil is: “The devil made Eve do it.” The sermon goes on to speak about the fall of the devil. Although Wesley has just argued that it would be difficult to understand how humanity’s holy and righteous first parents would choose evil instead of good, he makes no similar argument concerning the angelic being Lucifer. It would seem that mankind, who has been created a little lower than the angels, would be more likely to rebel than Lucifer in such a scenario.

Collins believes that Wesley tries to address this tension by stating that the devil was self-tempted. Collins goes on to point out Wesley’s distinction between the fall of Satan, and the fall of mankind. According to Collins, for Wesley, Satan was tempted by pride, whereas humanity’s first sin was unbelief.[9] Satan deceived Eve and created doubt about the goodness of God in her mind. The resulting sin was unbelief. This distinction is helpful to a point, but the question concerning Lucifer’s fall remains.

In summary, Wesley is optimistic about human nature in the original created order. He imagines the Garden of Eden to be a masterpiece of perfection. Wesley doubts that mankind would knowingly choose evil over good, but postulates that humanity could possibly mistake evil for good. This possibility becomes reality when Satan coerces Eve into first “unbelief” in doubting the goodness of God, which leads to eating the fruit she was commanded not to eat. Wesley sees Lucifer’s sin as a sort of self-temptation driven by pride, but apparently is willing to live with the lack of continuity between his thoughts on the fall of man and the fall of Lucifer.

 

Free Will, Determinism, and the Felix Culpa

It has often been wondered if God was able to foresee the fall, and if so, is God somehow a causal agent in such a scenario. Wesley states plainly his understanding of the matter:

“Did not God foresee that Adam would abuse his liberty And did he not know

the baneful consequences which this must naturally have on all his posterity And

why, then, did he permit that disobedience Was it not easy for the Almighty to

have prevented it” — He certainly did foresee the whole. This cannot be denied:

For “known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world;” rather,

from all eternity, as the words “ap aivnos” properly signify.[10]

In this quote we can see Wesley’s inclination to believe that God somehow stands outside of time and is able to see everything in eternity. This was certainly a popular view in Wesley’s day. A person could easily ask the question, “How is free choice really free if the end is known- even by God?” It would seem that the future has been determined or predestined. Wesley spent much of his life in contention with the proponents of predestination. For Wesley, free will is a necessary component of the “dynamically good” created order.    The thing that separates man from the “brute creation” for Wesley is that man is “capable of God.” Man is able to love, obey, and relate to God.[11] It is this dynamic and relational quality that separates man from the rest of the created order. In other words, liberty is necessary for relationship to exist.

In the sermon, “The General Deliverance”, Wesley argues for the necessity of human liberty in order for God to truly relate to God’s creation:

He was, after the likeness of his Creator, endued with understanding; a capacity

of apprehending whatever objects were brought before it, and of judging

concerning them. He was endued with a will, exerting itself in various affections

and passions: And, lastly, with liberty, or freedom of choice; without which all the

rest would have been in vain, and he would have been no more capable of serving

his Creator than a piece of earth or marble; he would have been as incapable of

vice or virtue, as any part of the inanimate creation.[12]

In this sermon, Wesley is describing the three qualities that he includes in the natural image of God: understanding, the will, and liberty. The quality that Wesley uses to differentiate humanity from the inert world is freedom of choice. Wesley points out that mankind’s understanding and will would be of no use without liberty. In fact, the characteristic mark of a being with a “spirit” for Wesley was the right to choose. Wesley states as much in “The End of Christ’s Coming” when he says:

He was likewise endued with liberty; a power of choosing what was good, and

refusing what was not so. Without this, both the will and the understanding would

have been utterly useless. Indeed, without liberty, man had been so far from being

a free agent, that he could have been no agent at all. For every unfree being is

purely passive; not active in any degree. Have you a sword in your hand Does a

man, stronger than you, seize your hand, and force you to wound a third person In

this you are no agent, any more than the sword: The hand is as passive as the

steel. So in every possible case. He that is not free is not an agent, but a patient.[13]

Not only does Wesley once again emphasize the importance of free will in this sermon, but he also makes the point that a will that has been overridden is not truly free. He compares it to a sword in a man’s hand. Wesley uses the imagery of the man with a sword being overpowered by someone else. Is that man still responsible for the damage inflicted while being overpowered? Wesley would answer, “Certainly not!” One might wonder if a God who sees the end from the beginning has somehow overpowered humanity and struck a wound to the human race that we know as the fall. Wesley sees no contradiction in the idea of free agency and God’s foreknowledge, which seems to be in step with other theologians of his day.

In explaining the presence of evil in the world, Wesley is very careful to say that God permitted the fall. He does not state that God caused the fall. Once again, one could argue that God’s permission is similar to God’s being a causal agent, but for Wesley, this was not an issue. Wesley used the language of felix culpa or “happy fault” to describe the fall. The idea of a felix culpa, centers on the understanding that the fall of man, while wreaking havoc on the world at large, also brought forth the redemption of the human race through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   In the sermon “God’s Love to Fallen Man”, Wesley espouses this idea throughout his discourse. It is fairly well summed up by the quote below:

He made man in his own image; a spirit endued with understanding and liberty.

Man, abusing that liberty, produced evil; brought sin and pain into the world. This

God permitted, in order to a fuller manifestation of his wisdom, justice, and mercy,

by bestowing on all who would receive it an infinitely greater happiness than they

could possibly have attained if Adam had not fallen.[14]

It seems from the above quote and in the tenor of the entire sermon that Wesley is postulating that humankind is better off because of the fall than it would have been if the fall had never occurred.   Wesley goes on to state that the world would have never known anything like the faith in God who sent his Son to earth on our behalf. He also makes the argument that humanity “might have loved the Author of our being, the Father of angels and men as our Creator and Preserver: We might have said, “O Lord our Governor, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” Wesley furthermore states that the sufferings that have come as a result of the fall have served to develop the Christian graces in God’s people. Wesley seems to believe qualities like patience, meekness, gentleness, and perseverance are produced in us by living in a fallen world. He also mentions that good works of compassion would never have existed had there not been a first sin. In short, Wesley believes that the fall makes new levels of holiness possible for humanity.

It seems that the “happy fault” becomes a way for Wesley to address the tension of a good God permitting evil in the world without becoming a causal agent. As a parent allows suffering in the life of a child, provided that it teaches the child something valuable, so God allowed the “happy fault” for the good of humanity. However, Wesley’s view raises a question. Would not the original created order experienced holiness and happiness in receiving blessing from God’s hand and existing in a “naked and unashamed” relationship with their Creator and the created order? Wesley does not seem to address the issue. Collins states as much:

Wesley does not explore the philosophical implications of this thinking: is evil necessary in order for the greatest, most poignant expressions of the love of God to be displayed? Cannot God reveal the height and depth of the divine love in any way not, in some sense, dependent on the fall? [15]

It seems that Wesley does not have the necessary resources to explore such an option, but allows God’s glorious salvation to trump the damage done through the entrance of evil in the world.

 

Summary and Conclusions

In examining Wesley’s writings on the problem of evil, several themes emerge that, at times, exist in tension with one another. On the one hand, Wesley would argue for humanity’s goodness in the original creation. In Wesley’s mind, humans in their created state would certainly not choose evil over good, but could be tricked into choosing evil. However, Wesley never addresses the same question in examining Lucifer’s fall. Lucifer’s fall is described as a self-temptation. Wesley’s understanding of God’s foreknowledge also lives in tension with his understanding of liberty. Wesley believes that the possibility for mankind to choose evil had to exist in order for people to be more than just inanimate objects. In other words, Wesley’s relational intuition sees free will as a necessary component in relationships. And yet, Wesley is content with the understanding that God sees the beginning and the end, which some would argue negates free will. Wesley is willing to concede that God allowed (not caused) the first sin so that new levels of holiness and happiness would be available to humanity in Christ. However, Wesley does not imagine that there could have been greater levels of holiness possible to humans in the garden. As a practical theologian, Wesley seems to be willing to live in the tension created by these competing ideas.

It seems that one common thread runs through all of these tensions. In all these cases, Wesley is the consummate optimist. Wesley seems content to focus on the positive aspects of humanity, the nature of God, and salvation. This is apparent in the amount of attention he gives to the doctrines of salvation and sanctification as compared to the question of evil and its existence in the created order. Wesley’s optimism towards the goodness of the created order leads him to imagine the first parents as almost infallible, and therefore Wesley would rather place blame on Satan than Adam and Eve. Concerning God’s foreknowledge, Wesley’s optimism and regard for God convince him that the fall had to have been foreseen by God. Wesley could not imagine a scenario in which God could not foresee the future. Wesley’s adherence to the idea of a felix culpa helps Wesley make sense of God’s foreknowledge concerning the fall. God chose to allow the fall because of the levels of holiness and sanctification available to humanity after the fall through the death and resurrection of Christ. Again we see Wesley’s optimism at work. His view of God’s work in salvation and sanctification allow him to understand the world as better off after the fall than before.

It seems that, at times, Wesley’s optimism in one area of his theological understanding creates discrepancies in his systems of thought. Since Wesley is not a systematic theologian, he is content to live with those discrepancies. For a man who never wrote a systematic theological method, Wesley’s thoughts line up more often than not. Perhaps if Wesley would have been exposed to some more recent theological concepts such as the potential of the original creation for growth or an understanding of open theism, he may have been able to clear up some of these contradictions. It appears that task has been left to the rest of us.

            [1]. John Wesley, “The General Deliverance”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-60-the-general-deliverance/, accessed September 10, 2014; Section I.6.

            [2]. John Wesley, “God’s Approbation of His Works”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-56-gods-approbation-of-his-works/, accessed September 9, 2014; Section I.14.

  1. Timothy J Crutcher, John Wesley: His Life and Thought (Publication Pending), 125.

            [4]. John Wesley, “The End of Christ’s Coming”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-62-the-end-of-christs-coming/, accessed September 10, 2014; Section I.8.

            [5]. This understanding of perfection will play out again in Wesley’s dynamic understanding of Christian perfection.

            [6]. Maddox readily admits that Wesley is not consciously combining the Eastern and Western schools of thought.

            [7]. Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), loc. 1331-1343.

 

            [8]. Wesley, The End of Christ’s Coming, I.8.

            [9]. Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love in the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 59.

[10]. John Wesley, “God’s Love to Fallen Man”, Wesley Center Online, Internet, available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-59-gods-love-to-fallen-man/, accessed September 4, 2014; Section 3.

            [11]. Wesley, The General Deliverance, I.1.

            [12]. Ibid.

            [13]. Wesley, The End of Christ’s Coming, I.4.

            [14]. Wesley, God’s Love to Fallen Man, 15.

            [15]. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love in the Shape of Grace, 356.

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