Wesley on religious experience

Theodore Runyon is a theologian, now retired, from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Among other things, he’s published a book on John Wesley’s theology (which I blogged about a bit a while back) as well as several articles on Wesley.

In his book Exploring the Range of Theology, which collects articles he’s written over several decades, Runyon uses Wesley to retrieve the idea of “religious experience.” For much 20th-century theology, particularly that which was influenced by Barth, religious experience was disdained. This was largely because of the fear that it would lead to spiritual flights of fancy and subjectivism. After all, since everyone’s experience is different, how do you evaluate its validity?

Runyon argues that, while Barth et al. may have been justified in their distrust of experience, particularly in light of the “German Christians” who supported the Nazi regime in Hitler’s Germany, they may have gone overboard in disparaging it. Following Wesley, he maintains that a religion without an experiential aspect will eventually dry up–neither right doctrine (orthodoxy) nor right practice (orthopraxy) are enough to sustain it. We also need “right feeling”–or what he calls “orthopathy.”

Wesley, he points out, strongly affirmed the importance of actually experiencing the assurance of God’s love and of being empowered by the Holy Spirit to do good works and grow in love for one’s neighbor. Neither a rote orthodoxy nor a determined adherence to the moral law, he believed, could generate a such a living faith. And it was the birthright of every Christian to tangibly experience the Holy Spirit in her life.

However, Wesley was no subjectivist and at many points had to defend the early Methodist movement against charges of “enthusiasm.” Religious truth isn’t produced by the feelings or experiences of the self. Rather, those feelings are the testimony of the Holy Spirit acting in response to the proclaimed Word, which, in good Lutheran fashion, Wesley insisted comes from outside the self. Wesley was an empiricist in the Lockean tradition, and he believed that everything we know comes from without. But he was also a bit of a Platonist in that he thought that human beings had “spiritual senses” that allowed them to perceive spiritual realities. But because of the Fall, these senses were dormant and had to be “activated” by God’s gracious activity. When we respond to the preaching of God’s love in Christ, the Spirit is that power within us that allows us to assent to it and which sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts. It is a personal, experiential response to a reality outside the self. “Genuine experience of God is therefore not my experience alone, it is the experience of the Other into whose life I am taken by grace” (Runyon, “Orthopathy: Wesleyan Criteria for Religious Experience”).

Runyon also discusses other criteria that Wesley used to test religious experience. These experiences should transform us–Wesley believed, with Luther, that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, but he also believed with the Catholic and Eastern traditions that it is to be imparted to us. They should have a social effect–the goal of Christianity is not to create holy solitaries; the Gospel should propel us to share the God’s love and minister to the needs of others. They should be reasonable, measured by the norms of the Bible and the experience of the believing community. They should be sacramental in that the feelings associated with religious experience convey, or point to, a reality beyond themselves rather than being made into ends-in-themselves.And finally, they should be teleological–that is, they put us on a path toward the goal of the Christian life, or what Wesley called “Christian perfection.”

These criteria, Runyon concludes, “assist in evaluating the legitimacy of claims to religious experience, while at the same time recognizing the importance of the experiential dimension for genuine faith and discipleship.” Borrowing from Kant, we might say that faith and discipleship without experience is empty, but experience without faith and discipleship is blind.


One thought on “Wesley on religious experience

  1. In a way, Wesley’s criteria for authentic religious experoemce is kind of like Ignatius Loyola’s rules for discernment used to figure out the same about an experience.

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