August 01, 2017

By Hal Knight

Thomas Kidd recently published a biography of Benjamin Franklin focused on his religious life. Kidd sees Franklin as at the root of a uniquely American approach to religion, which sets aside as unimportant doctrinal and denominational differences and the conflicts they occasioned, emphasizing instead public benevolence. Franklin (like Jefferson) claimed to be a deist, who believes in a Creator who made the world but left to operate on its own, without divine interference. Yet (also like Jefferson) he was not a pure deist, for he did believe God providentially shaped events in human history, so prayer asking for divine assistance was appropriate. He was not orthodox, denying central Christian beliefs about the divinity of Christ and the Trinity (again, like Jefferson). He devoted his life to doing good for his city and country and believed those who were so devoted would receive a heavenly reward.

It is illuminating to think of John Wesley in comparison. Wesley also was impatient over disputes about doctrinal details and abstractions (what he called “speculative divinity”) but also insisted there were doctrinal beliefs that were necessary for Christian faith and life (“practical divinity”). Some, like the divinity and humanity of Jesus or the triune nature of God, were essentials because without them we could not rightly understand what God has done to redeem the world and the promise of salvation. Others were opinions that divided Christians, secondary to the essentials but not unimportant. Wesley insisted it really does matter whether or not we baptize infants or whether we believe in the predestination of some or prevenient grace to all. But these differences in opinion do not mean that those who disagree with you are not still your brothers and sisters in Christ. For Wesley, disagreement over opinions should never destroy our unity in love.

Wesley was no deist, not even of a modified kind. He believed God was Creator, Governor and Redeemer of this world. God was involved not only providentially but directly, including coming to live among us as Jesus Christ and being with us and in us through the Holy Spirit. God reaches out to us and acts in us through scripture, sacraments, prayer, community and persons; God also acts miraculously.

Unlike deists like Franklin and Jefferson, Wesley saw no conflict between the direct activity of God in the world and science: God could, for example, heal both through prayer and medicine.

Most importantly, Wesley believed in a gracious God, a God who doesn’t just demand obedience but who offers us the gift of a new life. While applauding benevolent activities (which he and his Methodists produced in great quantity), Wesley insisted God promises us new hearts, governed by the love revealed in Jesus Christ, which provides the motivation and desire to live it out in the world. Salvation for Wesley is not only about the life to come but this present life; it not only changes what we do but who we are. Through Christ we begin to take on the image of God in which we were created, and that image is love.