“In reading those sermons,” Collins says, “I saw a whole new world, a world I hadn’t seen before. What I saw very clearly were the promises of the gospel in terms of deliverance and freedom—freedom not only from guilt but from the power and dominion of sin. It was something I wanted in my life. I certainly wasn’t anywhere near what the sermons were talking about, but that didn’t bother me because I felt comforted in knowing that this can happen—this can be realized in my life by God’s grace.”

the-theology-of-john-wesley-bookCollins continued to study Wesley, completing his doctoral work in Wesley studies at Drew University. He now serves as Professor of Wesley Studies and Historical Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He has written several books on John Wesley and his theology, most notably, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace.

Grace and Peace Magazine spoke recently with Collins about John Wesley and the Wesleyan theological tradition.


Grace & Peace Magazine: What prompted you to write The Theology of John Wesley? What is your next Wesley writing project in the works?


Kenneth Collins: I wrote an earlier book titled The Scriptural Way of Salvation, about Wesley’s basic theology. Scriptural Way was for the educated lay person or college student. I wanted to take the level up a notch with The Theology of John Wesley. This book is similar to Scriptural Way, although there are more challenging elements, which can perhaps lead people to a deeper realization of grace. Currently, I’m working on volume 13 of a critical edition of Wesley’s Works, to be published by Abingdon Press, which will focus on the Calvinist controversies. It should be out in a year or so.


G&P: Many in the Wesleyan tradition focus on selected bits and pieces of Wesley: Wesley the preacher, Wesley the evangelist, Wesley the social reformer, Wesley the Pietist, rather than the fullorbed Wesley. Why is it so difficult to see Wesley in his totality?


KC: Wesley is removed from us in terms of time and culture. Therefore, we have to make the transition to our own social location, for instance, 21st-century North American culture. We tend to so value our own social location that Wesley simply becomes a means to understanding it. We don’t really hear the whole Wesley, just the Wesley who is serviceable for us today in terms of our current problems, issues, and concerns. For instance, one researcher in Wesley Studies said he did not become interested in John Wesley and Wesleyan theology until he realized Wesley could support liberation theology. I’m always wary of those kinds of approaches. As a historian, I want to understand Wesley on his own terms, his own language, his own social location; only then can I make the theological transition to the 21st century.


G&P: How do we know when we’re being faithful heirs to Wesley?


KC: To be a faithful follower requires some knowledge of Wesley’s own literature. The Wesleyan corpus is quite large: journals, letters, theological treatises, diaries, and so on. That is typically too much for the average person, but one can get a very good sense of Wesley’s thinking through the sermons. Many of Wesley’s sermons were crafted as teaching tools. We can look at Wesley’s sermons, for example, to evaluate whether someone in the emerging church is being informed by Wesleyan theology. All Wesleyans are part of an interpretive tradition; we interpret Scripture in some of the same ways as did John Wesley. It’s exciting that the Wesleyan tradition continues to grow; yet, there is something common from age to age, and that is this interpretive tradition we all participate in. We understand that tradition by looking at his writings; what Wesley wrote is a standard, in some sense, of how faithful we are to the tradition.


G&P: Do you feel there are neglected aspects of Wesley that either haven’t been mined or have been forgotten or ignored?


KC: Yes, there is a part of Wesley that is currently neglected. To look at Wesley Studies over the last 50 years or so, one can pick out themes that change over time: one theme fades away, and another takes its place. Many in Wesley Studies today talk about cooperative grace or responsible grace. Yet, Wesley emphasized not simply cooperative grace; he was influenced by the Protestant Reformation as well. Therefore, he also talked about free grace, the work of God alone, the work that only God can do. Only God can make a soul holy. Only God can forgive sin. Only God can bring creation into being. Only God can restore the faculties of prevenient grace and do so in a way that renders someone “saveable.”


G&P: Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop made a careful distinction between Wesley as a mentor and Wesley as a guru. How do you see this distinction?


KC: I grew up in the sixties, so I know why Wynkoop used this language, and I like this distinction. Viewing Wesley as a mentor is a helpful way to appropriate his genius and his contribution to the broader Christian tradition. Just as a Roman Catholic might consider themselves in the interpretive tradition of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, I see myself in the interpretive tradition of Wesley. Wesley certainly isn’t a guru for me because there are key places where I differ from his theology and his theological formulations, largely due to my social location and the fact that I reside in the 21st and not the 18th century.


G&P: Wesley’s ministry in England took place during a time of great social upheaval and the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Our current day is fraught with strong social, cultural, economic, and technological forces. How can affinity with Wesley help us rethink current church structures, models, and practices to meet the demands of ministry?


KC: This is a question that I’ve taken seriously. I’ve been working on a book on American Evangelicalism; its tentative title is American Evangelicals in Power: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration. I grapple with the task of being the church in a decidedly different cultural location than Wesley’s. One thing that emerges clearly is that the church and its relationship to culture runs the risk of idolatry. We risk taking something that is lesser than God, whether that is economics, the material needs of people, or politics, and making it ultimate. We can mix Wesleyanism with North American culture to the point that it is hard to separate Jesus Christ from the Democratic or Republican Party. Those are challenges we face in the church. The danger is that we will get off the gospel story because we’ve mixed it with foreign elements from our culture or social setting.


G&P: How did Wesley look at the relationship between holiness and grace?


KC: This is a basic conjunction in Wesley’s theology—holiness and grace. What Wesley means by holiness is clear. He means two things by it principally: simplicity and purity. Purity and simplicity are at the heart of holiness. When we think of holiness—holy love—we often think of separation for the sake of purity. However, there’s a tension here. On one hand, holiness is a purifying and, in some sense, a separating movement. Yet, love seeks communion, love is outgoing, love is effulgent, love is embracing—it’s that tension between separation and communion that is very much what Wesley’s theology is all about. It is actually emblematic of the church itself. The Greek word “ecclesia,” which means church, literally means “to call out.” However, the church is not simply called out from the world. It’s also called back into the world for witness, for fellowship, for redemption. Holiness (holy love) represents a conjunction: separation and communion—the tension of separating and communing simultaneously.


Grace & Peace Magazine: What do you mean by saying holiness is simplicity?


Kenneth Collins: Simplicity in terms of goodness. Evil is not simple; it’s complicated. You’ve probably heard the joke that good liars have to have good memories. That’s a very complicated life. When someone is truthful and sincere, they are what they say. It’s that kind of simplicity that’s in accordance with goodness. Simplicity is also focused. Søren Kierkegaard wrote an important devotional work titled Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. Purity of heart is important in terms of sanctification. How does entire sanctification come about? By willing one thing. In the “manyness” of our doings, we are aiming at God as the highest end in all that we do. That’s what it is to be simple. It’s the willing of one thing, and that one thing is good. And that one thing is God.


G&P: Would you mind remarking on the idea of “conjunctions” in Wesley’s thought. Is that something particularly unique to you, or did you find this somewhere else?


KC: The language actually goes back to Methodist theologian Albert C. Outler, who raises this issue of conjunctions in Wesley’s theology. Wesley was always looking for balance in very complicated thought. My own view is that holiness and grace is the major conjunction in Wesley’s theology: holiness represents a conjunction as holy love—the personal and the social, and grace represents a conjunction in terms of free grace and cooperating grace. You don’t get Wesley right until you have the conjunctions in place, until you see the tension, the well-crafted balance.


G&P: Without this insight regarding conjunctions, I can see where we’d read Wesley one-dimensionally and miss the texture, complexity, and breadth of his thinking.


KC: I’ll give you a perfect example of how this played out one time. I was at a conference and a man stood up, a reputed Wesleyan scholar, and he waxed eloquently on John Wesley affirming infant baptismal regeneration. Then he sat down. It was all true; Wesley did indeed affirm baptismal regeneration, properly understood; however, was that the whole Wesley? Absolutely not! Wesley also had what we might call a very evangelical understanding of baptism that talked about the importance of regenerating grace now. He said in his writings, “How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers….To say…that there is no new birth but in baptism, is to seal you all under damnation.…” This scholar, thus, only brought forth a part of Wesley as if it were the whole. That’s what I mean by the importance of conjunction. It’s very important to avoid one-sided readings of Wesley, just bringing forward the parts of him that favor our own preferences. It is best to bring forth the whole Wesley.


G&P: As you read Wesley, what do you deem to be the church’s primary task?


KC: I think the church’s primary task is to worship and glorify God, first and foremost. We sometimes think church is about us. We think it is about our particular groups, our particular populations, how to serve them appropriately. That’s part of what the church is, but you don’t begin there. The church must begin with the worship and glorification of God; then, everything else will fall into place. The neighbor is served. The neighbor is loved. The neighbor is fed and housed and clothed, and all of these things take place. However, we begin first with the worship and glorification of God.


G&P: Wesley was a strong Pietist and a committed social reformer. How did Wesley understand the relationship between these two things?


KC: Personal salvation, social salvation, social action, social justice: Wesley has each of these in his overall theology, and each has its proper place, but Wesley also made some important value judgments that I think we need to hear today. For example, if you take a look at Wesley’s sermon, “On Visiting the Sick,” he talks about ministering to people in the love of God. He counseled that the first thing we should do for the poor is not simply send money; we must go where they are. We must fellowship with them, break bread with them. We should ask, “Do they have enough food? Do they have enough fuel? Do they have enough clothing?” The maintenance needs of the poor have to be met first. Then, Wesley says, we must minister to their souls: “Friend, come up higher. Having ministered to their bodies, now minister to their souls.” Wesley uses this language in several places, not simply in the sermon “On Visiting the Sick.” He talks about the maintenance needs of the poor as well as the spiritual needs. Wesley says both are important ministries, but he then reminds us that ministering to the soul is the most important.

This needs to be heard today. The most important thing about the poor is not their economic condition, however severe it is, but that they are beings created in the image and likeness of God and made for the love of God. And they can know this through one who ministers, not simply to their bodies, but also to their souls in a way that no social worker could ever do. Wesley was not afraid of making those kinds of value judgments. I’ve seen people take the penultimate and make it ultimate. The maintenance needs of the poor are chronologically prior; they are the very first things we should attend to. However, they aren’t of ultimate value in Wesley’s thinking because there are more important things than what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, and Wesley is very clear on that.


G&P: How did Wesley’s understanding of sanctification develop over the course of his life?


KC: This is another area in Wesley’s theology where there’s a balance, a tension, a conjunction. It’s helpful to think about sanctification as Wesley understood it—in three main ways. First, initial sanctification—the new birth or regeneration. In the Holiness Movement, regenerating grace makes a child of God, and it makes this new child holy; this is initial sanctification. Then, there is the process of sanctification, whereby we grow and change by degree; we become increasingly holy. Nevertheless, it’s not all process. There comes a point--and it is a point in time for Wesley—where there is a qualitative difference between before and after, a difference between impurity and purity, where one becomes entirely sanctified. For Wesley, the new birth or regeneration happens in a moment. There is a process leading up to physical birth—just as in spiritual birth--but finally there is a point when the child is born. Then there’s the process of growth, of maturation—the process of sanctification. Finally, there is entire sanctification, which, for Wesley, is also a moment; the image he uses here is not of birth but of death. This, too, is not all process because just as when one dies, there comes a point when we are entirely sanctified. It took Wesley a while to understand this tension between the process and the instantaneousness. At times, Wesley stressed the instantaneous; at others, he underscored the process aspect. As Wesley matured, he became more pastorally sensitive. Though he still affirmed that entire sanctification—since it is a gift of God—is available now by God’s grace, he realized that for many, entire sanctification would not come until just prior to death.


G&P: For Wesley, love is the primary aspect of God’s holiness. How would Wesley define and describe love?


KC: Love has to be defined in terms of God. Scripture says God is love. In a Christian sense, to love another person is to will for that person their proper end, which is to be in God, and for their life to glorify God, to find their fulfillment, their completion in God. That’s what love is. Love is the willing of this goodness for another person that they might find their completion in the God of holy love.


G&P: How does Wesley serve as a model of pastoral care for us today?


KC: Wesley was very big on groups and group participation. Wesley understood that the church is a body; it is corporate. Wesley believed that one could not be a Christian alone. Christianity is a social religion, and to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it. Therefore, Wesley was very focused on groups and the role of responsibility and accountability in Christian formation. Wesley recognized early on that we cannot realize the high end to which we have been called— the renewal of the image of God in us—without others. We need each other in terms of edification, instruction, support, affirmation, even correction. All of this is necessary for serious Christian discipleship to take place. George Whitfield, a contemporary of Wesley’s, certainly was a better preacher than Wesley; he could attract a much larger crowd. Yet, at the end of the day, Wesley had more people in his Methodist societies because after he preached, he assigned those people to groups (class meetings) where they met with other Christians, who loved and embraced and brought them into the kingdom, into the life of the church. This is something we could stand to relearn—the importance of small groups. In the 18th century, you couldn’t be a Methodist by simply showing up at church on Sunday mornings. You had to participate in a class meeting, and undergo the discipline of the general rules in your life, and have others hold you to account for your actions, for your daily living.


G&P: Wesleyan studies had a renaissance under Methodist theologian Albert Outler in the 1960s and 70s. Where do you see the state of Wesleyan studies now?


KC: I hear from time to time that everything has already been done in Wesley Studies, but I don’t believe that for a moment. There is much more work that needs to be done, and the future is bright. The upcoming publication of the critical edition of John Wesley’s works we’ve been working on is going to make an ongoing difference that will outlast us all. I hope that people outside our tradition will get a glimpse of the value of the broader Wesleyan tradition and see what the excitement is all about: the excitement is about a God of holy love, a God of grace, a God of mercy who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ with arms outstretched to a hurting world.


G&P: What books would you recommend to a pastor who wants to become acquainted with Wesley?


KC: I would recommend an edition of Wesley’s sermons. I realize there is a difference in terms of language between the 18th and 21st centuries, but I don’t think Wesley’s language is that difficult. I believe an educated lay person could read him with good understanding today. I would recommend reading Wesley’s own writings, starting out with the sermons, and then maybe a good basic biography. I know my own A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley continues to sell quite well. Lay persons and pastors alike have found it very helpful. If they were looking more in terms of theology, of course, I am going to suggest The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love in the Shape of Grace.


Editor’s Note: For a list of other Wesleyan specialists, besides Kenneth J. Collins, who have published significant volumes, consider the following: Ted A. Campbell, Paul W. Chilcote, Richard P. Heitzenrater, and Randy L. Maddox.