Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wesley and the Nature of Faith

In beginning Kenneth Collins' book John Wesley: A Theological Journey, I've received new input to my recent exploration of the nature of faith. Apparently, Wesley was beginning to explore this same territory at the age of 22.

In a letter to his mother in July of 1725, Wesley wrote, "As I understand faith to be an assent to any truth upon rational grounds, I don't think it possible without perjury to swear I believe anything, unless I have rational grounds for my persuasion."

Collins notes that this represents an early stage of Wesley's thinking on the matter. At this stage, he was basically equating faith with belief that some proposition is true. As I've said in recent posts, I think this is a very common error -- an error committed by believers and opponents of religion alike.

John Wesley, however, had no ordinary mother, as is perhaps apparent already from the fact that he was writing about theology in a personal letter to her. In her response to this letter, Susanna Wesley wrote, "You are somewhat mistaken in your notion of faith....The true measure of faith is the authority of the revealer, the weight of which always holds proportion with our conviction of his ability and integrity. Divine faith is an assent to whatever God has revealed to us, because he has revealed it."

Paraphrasing to try to wrap my mind around what she's saying, I think this means that we don't believe the specifics of our religion, for instance, because we have been convinced of them by rational argument, but rather we believe them because we have previously accepted the authority of God and we take these things to be revealed to us by God. I like this, though it has some problems.

In the previous example I was working with of the Mormon missionary coming to believe the story about Joseph Smith and the golden plates while on mission, I would analyze it this way. He initially accepted the story without quite believing it. He granted it on credit as it were. Then later, seeing God at work in his life, he tapped into a new sort of faith in God's authority and accounted this as making good on the previous credit. And so his faith subsumed belief in the story of the golden plates.

The problem is, how do we make the connection between faith in God's authority, what God has revealed to us, and the foundational stories of our religion? Does God actually reveal to us that these stories are true? If not, why do we act as if this were so?

Mulling this over I was reminded of some remarks Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has made on mystical visions. He says that while Christians who have mystical visions will typically have a vision of Jesus or perhaps of Mary, when a Jew has a mystical vision, it frequently takes the form of Ezekiel's chariot. This is fascinating, but it makes sense. Our preconceptions, it would seem, influence the way God reveals Godself to us.

Back to Wesley, after sharing John Wesley's initial conception of faith and Susanna Wesley's correction (which miraculously her 22-year old son seems to have accepted), author Kenneth Collins points the way forward. Collins writes, "It would take several years before Wesley would comprehend all three elements of the nature of faith aright: as assent, as trust, and as a spiritual sense."

I take this to be a traiditional Methodist view of faith, though it was one with which I wasn't familiar. Assent and trust I recognize as two parts of the traditional Reformed definition of faith, along with knowledge (notitia, assensus and fiducia). In typical Lutheran fashion, I tend to throw all the weight on the fiducia. But this "spiritual sense" was something new to me. As Collins describe it, faith is itself taken to be "an organ of spiritual knowledge" -- a way of hearing God.

I'm not quite sure what I think of this. On first glance it seems to me that this is a foreign element being introduced, as if faith is being conflated with its effects. And yet, it's a powerful concept and would perhaps begin to answer some of the questions I've raised above. I'll have to dwell on it a bit more, I think.


*Christopher said...

Lutherans might be more likely to call this spiritual sense "affect" as in Melancthon's use in his rhetorical approach to theology, but I don't think you'll find an exact equivalent, there are real differences between Lutheran and Methodist theologies.

Andy said...

Yeah, in Lutheran circles Wesley is just some guy who had a breakthrough while hearing Luther's introduction to Romans being read. :-)

One of the reasons I'm reading this book is to try to get a sense for the kind of questions that led to Methodism because frankly it is foreign to me. But I like this idea of a spiritual sense.