John Wesley’s Theological Framework of Authority and the Enlightenment

Adam Urrutia

His life spanning the greater part of the Enlightenment, John Wesley (1703-1791) witnessed the ill effects of an unprecedented degree of faith in reason, that mental faculty whereby one acquires, through logical reflection, an understanding of reality. This “faith” in human understanding challenged Christian beliefs as it encouraged a newfound skepticism of doctrines such as the Tri-unity of God, the divinity of Christ, and the historical reality of miracles. These doctrines, as they are not necessarily logically self-evident from either inductive or deductive approaches, were dismissed by those who insisted on using reason alone. As a result, many Enlightenment intellectuals, or philosophes, turned to “rational religions” (Kraynak 125) such as Deism, physico-theology, and Unitarianism, through which they discarded the more mystical doctrines of Christianity “as irrational relics of a less enlightened age which modern people, especially educated people, had outgrown” (126). Moreover, religious services fell into “spiritual bankruptcy” as an unparalleled focus on reason left little room for emphasizing spiritual reality and building relationships with the Divine (Cell 3).

In an effort to preserve the integrity of orthodox Protestant beliefs and genuine spirituality during the Enlightenment, Wesley challenged the authority and efficacy of reason (as championed by philosophes) through a system of theology founded upon four interrelated, albeit unequal, sources of authority: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, which collectively comprise the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” This framework of authority countered Enlightenment thought by challenging reason’s ultimate authority. It also incorporated other characteristics of Enlightenment thought, demonstrating that Wesley was not so far removed from the dominant worldview that he escaped its influence. In order to illuminate the relation between the Enlightenment and Wesley’s framework of authority from which he engaged theology as both a speculative and practical activity, I will use one of his most theologically representative sermons, entitled “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” as a guide to examining his reliance upon three pillars of the Quadrilateral: Scripture, reason, and experience. In so doing, I will reveal how his theological framework of authority, with respect to these three informing pillars, signifies both a reaction against, and an assimilation of, Enlightenment influences.

The Nature of Scriptural Authority

With the exception of tradition, the pillars of the Quadrilateral upholding Wesley’s theology figure prominently in his sermon “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered.” In fact, the very first sentence of his sermon—his text from 1 Corinthians exhorting his audience to “be not children in understanding: Howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men”—reveals that Holy Writ served as Wesley’s most prominent source of authority (Wesley 126). Two of his letters, one to James Hervey and another to John Smith, confirm this initial impression, for in the former he writes, “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures” (qtd. in Thorsen 127), and in the latter he asserts, “I receive the written Word as the whole and sole rule of my faith” (qtd. in Jones 48). Wesley therefore establishes the unwavering role of the Bible’s place in his theology as that great standard of validity against which all propositions should be judged.

A self-described homo unius libri, or “man of one book,” Wesley unequivocally defended the Bible’s timeless authority, attributing to it ultimate authorship by God and consequent infallibility (Jones 41, 49-51). He expresses this abiding conviction best in his sermon with the assertion that “[t]he foundation of true religion stands upon the oracles of God. It is built upon the prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Wesley 128). Keeping with the Reformation motto of sola scriptura, it is not surprising that Wesley relies heavily upon Scripture to guide his discussion of reason and the Christian faith. For example, he takes Scripture as his guide to define faith as “‘an evidence,’ or conviction, ‘of things not seen’” (129), to express the love of God, and to emphasize the joy accompanying the experience of that love (131-32). Ultimately, Wesley appeals to Scripture as both a source and a norm: “[with] Scripture as source [meaning] the place from which the basic teachings of Christian doctrine are obtained… [and] Scripture as norm [meaning] it serves as the court of appeal in disputes about what teaching or behavior is specifically Christian or not” (Jones 47). By comparison, whereas Enlightenment researchers learned about the world and tested hypotheses with the instruments of science, John Wesley learned Christian truths and tested doctrines and experiences with the Word.

Enlightenment’s Perspective of Scripture Contrasted with Wesley’s

It is this utter reliance upon the authority of Scripture, as demonstrated throughout “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” that provides the first readily apparent point of departure between Wesley’s framework of theological authority and the prevailing secular philosophy of the philosophes. After all, many Enlightenment intellectuals such as Kant rejected traditional sources of authority, especially the Bible. Kant, that great collator of Enlightenment thought and champion of reason, epitomizes the attitude of many philosophes toward the Bible in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, where he writes, “Scriptural scholarship will [ever] be required to maintain in authority a church founded upon Holy Scripture, ([though] not a religion, which, to be universal, must always be founded upon reason alone)” (103, emphasis and brackets original). Kant’s assertion in “What is Enlightenment” that the clergy can in no way obligate themselves “by oath to a certain unalterable symbol…and make this eternal” also appears to level a direct criticism at the Biblical authority to which Wesley and others subscribed (61). Commentators Theodore Greene and Hoyt Hudson summarize Kant’s position well:

[He held] that man should recognize no authority in heaven or on earth superior to his own conscience…[R]evelation, were its authority beyond cavil, might hasten his discovery of the eternal verities: yet all these aids are no more than adventitious, and the strong man will avoid undue reliance upon them, trusting, so far as possible, in himself alone. (lxxiv)

Thus, for Kant and others of his school of thought, “the foundation of true religion” was not “the oracles of God” (Wesley 128). Instead, conclusions reached through logical analyses always trumped the claims of revelation, necessarily implying that all knowledge, including theological knowledge, should be dependent upon reason alone. Such a position explains why the “rational religions” abandoned traditional Christian doctrines such as “original sin, and divine redemption…divine wrath and the torments of hell…[and] the missionary duty of converted heathens and sinners” (Kraynak 125-26).

As a further departure from the norm of secular Enlightenment understanding, Wesley held that Biblical revelation, as a superior source of authority, must consequently provide the parameters for the proper exercise of reason. For Wesley, reason was not true reason unless it accorded with revealed truth: “It is a fundamental principal with us (the Methodists) that to renounce reason is to renounce revelation, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion” (qtd. in Williams 30). Reason, thus, cannot be allowed to determine theologically-related truth outside of the Bible, for no such truth exists. In this way, “Wesley takes his stand with the Classical Protestant view of authority in exalting the Scriptures as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice” (Williams 37). In arguing for the superiority of revelation over reason as the only source of true doctrine and in asserting its role in supplying the parameters for the proper exercise of reason, Wesley established Holy Writ as the principal pillar of authority from which to draw conclusions about transcendent reality. This position necessarily placed him in opposition with many of his Enlightenment contemporaries, such as the philosophes who found comfort in the “rational religions” (Kraynak 125).

The Authority and Parameters of Reason

However, reason for Wesley still retains some degree of merit for navigating theological inquiry. In “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” Wesley offers perhaps his most complete treatment of reason, providing his own definition of this vital framing pillar of the Quadrilateral: “a faculty of the human soul…which exerts itself in three ways; -- by simple apprehension, by judgment, and by discourse” (127). For Wesley, the apprehensive function signals the initial step of understanding via the immediate perception of an idea or object. The next step, judgment, entails differentiating one idea or object from another, noting the similarities and differences of each; while the third step, discourse, represents the culmination of understanding in the formation of connections between the separate judgments made. This definition makes reason not a source of knowledge, but rather a tool for collecting and organizing information gathered experientially: “the other three authorities [of the Quadrilateral]…are resources from which to draw data; reason alone, on the other hand, yields no data. It is only a tool that processes the data from other sources” (Miles 78).

As theologian Rebekah Miles comments, this “empirical,” or sensation-based, definition of reason aligns Wesley within the empiricist school of thought which held that man gleans most of his knowledge from his five senses and uses inductive reasoning to infer conclusions about those initial experiences (86). Empiricism, championed most notably by John Locke in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, gradually displaced the rationalist school of thought, especially in Wesley’s Enlightenment England (Miles 78). This rationalist school, as René Descartes discusses in Discourse on Method, held that knowledge begins not with experience, but with ideas innately impressed upon the human mind (Descartes 81). Thus, in defining reason as a tool for organizing ideas which originate from external realities, Wesley embraced the Enlightenment insofar as it supplied a new function for reason. However, as discussed earlier, reason must act in concert with Scripture and not, as Kant and others held, independently from it.

This divergence is best illustrated by comparing Wesley’s perspective on reason with Condorcet’s treatment of the same in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Whereas Wesley held that reason was not merely limited, but limited by God, Condorcet believed that reason could empower humanity not only to understand the natural world, as scientific advancements of the time confirmed, but could likewise perfect the morality of mankind and eliminate society’s ills. This demonstrates that, for many Enlightenment intellectuals such as Condorcet, reason was the avenue whereby man could attain “the absolute perfection of the human race” (108). For Wesley, on the contrary, the ends of reason—living in the imitation of Christ and in ascertaining and explicating Scriptural truths—were more limited in scale: particularly with respect to.

Although the idea of reason as a mere tool subordinate to revelation may at first appear to diminish its efficacy, Wesley argues to the contrary—he ranks reason among the indispensable gifts of God, which prompts him to examine more thoroughly the precise merits and demerits of reason for the Christian life in “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered.” Consistent with his view that “it is a fundamental principle…that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion,” Wesley places a high value on reason and ascribes to it three primary functions (Williams 30). First, he recognizes that reason extends to all who exercise it the prudence needed to execute their daily duties. Secondly, on a more academic plane, reason allows people to engage in the various modes of thought peculiar to the liberal arts, including “grammar, rhetoric, logic, natural and moral philosophy, mathematics, algebra, [and] metaphysics.” Finally, and most importantly, reason provides the medium through which Christians ascertain Scriptural truths and use them to live in the imitation of Christ. Yet he qualifies this application in stating that only when “assisted by the Holy Ghost” can reason properly appropriate these Scriptural truths, a decidedly anti-Enlightenment caveat (128).

As the inclusion of a spiritual element and of belief in the primacy of Scripture suggest, reason alone exercises a limited though important role for Wesley, and the majority of his sermon is devoted to illustrating the extent of this limitation—an appropriate focus given that he explicitly targets those who over-value reason near the beginning of his sermon (Wesley 126). To begin with, however, one must first understand his justifications for limiting the authority of reason. For one, Wesley believed that reason suffers, inherently, from a lack of ultimate clarity due to the perverse effects of original sin (Miles 98). Secondly, “Wesley believed that the limitation of human reason is established by God as a remedy or a curb to human pride” (99). Reason thus provides an imperfect guide for human thought and action as a consequence of sin while providing a loving check upon the mind of man to keep him humble and dependent upon the infinite wisdom of God. From this foundation, he explores in detail the implications of these limitations in his sermon on reason.

He begins this discussion with the assertion that “reason cannot produce faith.” Faith, “a divine evidence, bringing a full conviction, of an invisible world” can only be acquired by the grace of God. In support of this conclusion, he explains how he once reviewed the strongest arguments for the existence of God, but concluded after intense study that neither they, nor his own logical analyses, could give him substantial knowledge of God and the invisible world (129-30). Continuing, he claims that “reason alone cannot produce hope in any child of man…[that] scriptural hope…whereby we ‘rejoice in hope of the glory of God:’ that hope which St. Paul in one place terms, ‘tasting the powers of the world to come’” (qtd. in Wesley 130). This hope for Wesley can spring only from a deep abiding faith; thus, as reason cannot produce faith, it cannot produce this hope (130). He also confirms this conclusion in his sermon with reference to his own experience: “How often have I laboured, and that with my might, to beget this hope in myself! ...I could no more acquire this hope of heaven, than I could touch heaven with my hand” (130).

Reason alone, for Wesley, is further incapable of inculcating within those who exercise it the love of God, for such love is dependent upon both faith and hope which reason cannot produce. Wesley draws upon his own experiences for support: “I collected the finest hymns, prayers, and mediations, which I could find in any language; and I said, sung, or read them over and over, with all possible seriousness and attention. But still I was like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision: ‘the skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them’” (qtd. in Wesley 129-30). He therefore asks, “what can cold reason do in this matter [of God’s love for sinners]? It may present us with fair ideas; it can draw a fine picture of love; but this is only a painted fire. And farther than this, reason cannot go” (131). Since reason cannot produce the love of God, it cannot empower people to love their neighbors, which, as such love forms the foundation of virtue for Wesley, prevents reason by extension from producing virtue. Wesley concludes this discussion by stating that reason cannot produce happiness, for happiness is dependent upon faith, hope, love, and virtue (132).

Yet Wesley arrives at this conclusion regarding the limitations of reason by using reason. To explain, he begins by apprehending the idea of faith as one essential to Christianity and therefore identifies it as the most appropriate concept from which to begin an analysis of reason’s efficacy. From there, he judges the relationship between reason and faith, relying on the empirical evidence of historical example, personal experience, and relevant verses from Scripture. In the end, he judges that reason cannot produce faith and proceeds then to judge the causal relations between reason and the other theological virtues, relying on the same empirical sources throughout this process. During this time he continues from one relationship to the next in a sort of discourse that allows him in the end to conclude that reason’s inability to produce faith renders it incapable, in turn, of producing hope, love, virtue, and happiness. The very structure of Wesley’s sermon illustrates the necessity of reason in learning and explicating Scripturally-derived theological truths, just as he uses these truths to illumine the limitations of the reason he employs.

The Authority of Experience and Enlightenment Experience

Upon illustrating the futility of reason in producing the virtues, theological and moral, and final happiness, Wesley at the end of his sermon encourages his audience to turn their eyes toward God, who “‘giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not,’” exclaiming “Ask, therefore, and it shall be given you! Cry unto him, and you shall not cry in vain!” (Wesley 132). He exhorts his audience, moreover, to be “living witnesses, that wisdom, holiness, and happiness are one; are inseparably united; and are, indeed, the beginning of that eternal life which God hath given us in his Son” (133). These pronouncements indicate his fervent dependence upon the final pillar of the Quadrilateral: experience. Keeping with his empiricist sentiments, he acknowledges traditional sources, such as the Bible, from which people may glean knowledge through their senses, but he does not stop there.

As the exhortations of his sermon indicate, he also extends experience beyond the visible realm, projecting it uniquely into the immaterial, or theological, realm of life. Wesley’s conception of spiritual sensations supplies one of the more fascinating aspects of his framework of theological authority, for he believed that all people possessed a set of “spiritual senses,” distinct from the physical five senses, which could, when enlivened by the Holy Spirit, permit their possessors to experience directly the fruits of the Holy Spirit wrought within their souls. These fruits of the Spirit, which he also refers to as “fruits of faith…[or] the testimony of the believer’s faith,” manifest themselves as sensations of love, joy, peace and general piety (Dreyer 16). Such experiences provide the Christian with the assurance of his faith and thereby allow him to actualize the promises of Scripture. For Wesley, no certitude in faith could be found in the absence of these sensations; presumably, they are for him the only indications of a right relationship with God (19).

Moreover, one does not engage these spiritual senses as one does the physical ones—God alone can excite them. It is God who, through the Holy Spirit, sensitizes one to the presence of such spiritual fruits and brings them forth for direct experience unto empowerment for “Christ-like living” (Miles 91, Dreyer 20, Maddox 117). Furthermore, as the Holy Spirit works in one’s life, the Christian experiences what Wesley considered to be “true religion, [which] consists in the living relationship to God, made alive in us by the Holy Spirit” (Williams 37). Spiritual experience, then, allows one to confirm Scriptural truths, to use one’s actualization to live uprightly in the imitation of Christ, and to participate in a living relationship with God (Maddox 122, 117; Williams 37). Indeed, experience for Wesley was so important, he defined a Christian thus: “one who has the fruits of the Spirit of Christ, which (to mention no more) are love, peace, joy” (qtd. in Waller 49). Wesley perhaps provides the best opportunity to understand how he envisioned the work of God upon the soul in writing of his own conversion experience: while listening to a reading of Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans,” he writes, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death” (qtd. in Waller 49).

The emphasis Wesley placed upon such experiences during his ministry had a profound influence upon the people of Enlightenment England, for he initiated a great evangelical revival that sparked a renewed focus on religious experience. It is this focus on experience in the midst of the Age of Reason that has been termed “the second vital phase of the Protestant Movement, namely the Wesleyan Reformation” (Cell 4-5). This emphasis upon experiencing Divine reality contrasted sharply with the prevalent Enlightenment attitude toward such experiences; in fact, theological dogma emphasizing such experiences, as opposed to the rational analysis of theological speculation, became known as “enthusiasm” (Wilson 134). This was a pejorative term that encompassed Wesley’s framework of theological authority; for Wesley, experiencing God was not only central to the Christian life, but it also formed the backbone of the revival’s emphasis upon “religion of the heart” (Turner 2). Thus, in emphasizing experience’s authority, Wesley reveals yet another point of departure between his theological framework and the mainstream thought of Enlightenment intellectuals. To summarize, the role of experience within Wesley’s framework of authority for approaching theology shows the influence of Enlightenment empiricism, whereas his idea of the spiritual senses reveals how his framework of theological authority developed in reaction to the prevailing sentiments of his era.

Yet despite the importance of experience as an authority for Christian living, both Scripture and reason must, according to Wesley, keep that experience in check. Indeed, Wesley acknowledges in his sermon that those who wrongly undervalue reason generally hold experience to be their “infallible guide,” which would necessarily entail the subordination of Scripture and reason to sensation (Wesley 126). In direct opposition to those who esteemed experience so highly, and countering the argument that he was an enthusiast, Wesley believed that “‘the Scriptures are the touchstones whereby Christians examine all, real or supposed, revelations…For though the Spirit is our principal leader, yet He is not our rule at all; the Scriptures are the rule whereby He leads us into all truth’” (qtd. in Williams 35). Thus, the Word, whose contents can only be grasped through reason assisted by the Holy Spirit (Wesley 128), keeps experience from leading the enthusiastic Christian astray. An experience that does not accord with Scripture could not originate with the true Holy Spirit, who both illumines Scripture and generates within the Christian soul experiences to empower Christians to live uprightly.


John Wesley’s framework of authority for engaging theological realities rests upon four interrelated pillars constituting the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, three of which, in the context of his 1781 sermon “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,” have been examined here: Scripture, reason, and experience. The interplay among these authoritative pillars represents a fascinatingly complex relationship between this framework of authority and Enlightenment thought. For Wesley, as for the Reformers a couple of centuries earlier, the divinely-inspired Scripture constitutes inviolable authority infinitely superior to that of reason, insofar as Scripture establishes the parameters for the proper exercise of reason and supplies the litmus test for logic and experience. Subordinating reason to revelation in this fashion proves one of the more explicit contrasts between Wesley’s framework of theological authority and the Enlightenment belief in the superiority of reason.

This framework of authority is, in other areas, closely in harmony with Enlightenment thought in ascribing to reason an empirical definition and function as a tool useful in ordinary, academic, and spiritual affairs. Conversely, his belief that both sin and God limit the epistemological range of reason conflicts with secular Enlightenment thought, for many of his contemporaries saw reason as being an unlimited, infallible guide that would lead man to perfection. Moreover, in extending the efficacy of experience into tangible spiritual realities, Wesley’s theological framework departs from the strict empiricism of the Enlightenment which focused upon the material, rather than immaterial, faculties of perception. In the end, therefore, Wesley’s framework of authority in approaching the study of theology represents a mosaic of Enlightenment influences that shows Wesley to be at once a product and a critic of the Enlightenment.


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